Katniss Everdeen Is More Than Just Your Everyday Warrior

"Mockingjay," which portrays its heroine as desperately learning to live with her pain, may not be a reader favorite, but it's the book this writer most needed growing up in an abusive home.

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Mockingjay confounds even the most ardent fans of the Hunger Games trilogy—especially the readers who champion Katniss Everdeen as one of the most powerful, pivotal heroines of the past several decades. The book has been lambasted on Goodreads  and on young-adult blogs, one of which dismissed the novel as “a festival of suck,” and the release of each movie adaptation ushers in think pieces with titles like “9 Moments from Mockingjay That Could Be Very Depressing on Film” and, more pointedly, “The Mockingjay Problem.” This book is where author Suzanne Collins’s themes of love and war, violence and redemption are supposed to come to a bold, uncompromising climax. And Katniss—who has been twice conscripted into the arena, bloodied and ruined; who has seen her home bombed to ash and her loved ones whipped, tortured, and murdered—is supposed to have her great, unequivocal triumph: the Capitol leveled to the rubble; one final arrow shot straight into the heart of President Snow, the architect of her suffering. But the real “Mockingjay problem” is that the book doesn’t traffic in the “supposed to” and it doesn’t spare its heroine from the consequences of the violence she has endured—and doled out. 

Katniss isn’t a swaggering badass who accessorizes in scars. She is a terrified, guilt-wrecked girl whose broken heart keeps on ticking: “A terrible nightmare follows, where I’m lying at the bottom of a deep grave, and every dead person I know by name comes by and throws a shovel full of ashes on me … the deeper I’m buried, the harder it is to breathe.” Mockingjay is a slow, mournful book, even though the stakes at hand are nothing less than a nation’s freedom. From the first pages, Katniss is under the care of a psychiatrist who gives her drugs “to control my pain and mood” and leads her through cognitive therapies that help her determine what is “real and not real.”

As the Mockingjay, the emblem of the rebellion, she is mostly a passive figurehead, with Machiavellian schemers like District 13’s president Alma Coin and PR guru Plutarch Heavensbee leading the real fight. So I suspect that, for the sake of a good show, the filmmakers tasked with adapting the book will make Katniss more directly integral in the rebel forces’ ultimate victory over the Capitol. The final wave of commercials feature Jennifer Lawrence–as–Katniss shooting down hovercraft with a single arrow, or standing in front of the flames and threatening her enemies: “Fire is catching, and if we burn, you burn with us!” The clips give me chills; and like any fan-girl, I’ll be there on opening night, front row, with my heart in my throat.

But I hope that the filmmakers remember that Katniss’s story is, ultimately, not about taking territories or leading a people; it’s about the desperate work of learning to live with her pain and knowing that, though it will always be with her, it doesn’t have to destroy her. Mockingjay may not be the book that many readers wanted, but it is the book that I needed as a girl who endured her father’s fists and her mother’s indifference, who’d come to know a good night from a bad night by the way he closed the front door; as a teenager who had nightmares of being buried alive beneath her family’s house, banging her fists against the foundation and screaming. It’s the book I need as a grown woman who still wakes with the taste of dirt in her mouth.

I grew up in a home where crying always made it worse. So I learned to take punches with soundless gasps, to arch my body so his belt could land on my shoulders and not that tender intersection between back and buttocks. My father, like his father and his father’s father brought a kind of savage logic to “discipline” (a discipline that, like his father and his father’s father, he applied with equal vigor to all levels of offenses, both real and imagined): breaking the skin stiffened the spirit, left it impenetrable. And, like my father, and all the fathers before him, I came to believe that scarred meant strong. I wanted to be stoic like the Knights of the Round Table in those bedtime tales of King Arthur my father would read to me whenever he felt loving enough to tuck me in.

I could not be impenetrable or stoic. I was a revving engine, primed and ready for the insult that would finally let me turn over and release all of my anger and shame: the woman who cut me off in traffic, the co-worker who talked over me in a meeting, the teenagers who snickered at me for walking while fat. I excused these eruptions as typical tough girl pugnacity, standing up for myself now because I couldn’t back then. But this constant vigilance turned me into a marionette with live wires for strings. The electricity could not singe away my grief and my fear, could not keep me from doubting my worth, from closing the door on any man I may have loved, from jumping at sudden noises. 

Books and film have always been my ballast, and I turned to them to make a study of strong women: the Starbucks and the Ripleys, the Mother of Dragons and the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad. Even women warriors like Beatrix Kiddo, whose motivations are more complex than “save (or conquer) the world,” had a pride and purpose that I lacked. I played the confident, competent woman well enough—I knew how to throw a punch; I earned good grades and racked up publications; I could change my own oil. But I couldn’t keep from crying when a man I’d invited into my bed took off his belt a little too quickly. And in that moment, and during all the panic attacks and flashbacks, I feared that I wasn’t strong in my broken places—I was just broken.

The Mockingjay persona functions, in some ways, as a critique of the “strong female character” as a collection of tropes, not a human being. Katniss herself is aware of this, of what she becomes when she shoots the lightning-kissed arrow that destroys the final arena in Catching Fire: “The bird, the pin, the song, the berries … the dress that burst into flames. I am the mockingjay. The one that survived despite the Capitol’s plans.” Being the one who survived means putting on the armor—and there is no room for a human heart under a breastplate. The girl on fire is not the girl who grieves or cries; she burns with rage, not ache. “It isn’t enough, what I’ve done in the past,” she reflects. “I must now become the actual leader, the face, the voice …The person who the Districts … can count on to blaze the path to victory … What am I going to do?

What she wants to do—flee into the woods—may mark her as a coward to some readers; but her impulse to shrug off the world on her shoulders is familiar to anyone who has ever needed to drink or smoke or eat or fuck or flounder their pain away. In The Chronology of Water, her memoir of walking through fresh Hells of violence and abuse, Lidia Yuknavitch writes, “It’s hard to know what to think about a life when you find yourself knee-deep. You want to climb out. You want to explain how there must be some mistake.” The other characters’ open frustrations with Katniss’s reluctance to take on the mantle of Mockingjay—succinctly articulated in a line of dialogue crafted for Coin in the forthcoming film: “She won’t be able to handle it. The games destroyed her”—function as a meta-commentary on readers who expect a teenage girl who has endured compounded trauma to be a stoic warrior queen, to be anything less than human.

The Katniss who pukes on her comrade’s armor and wears a medical bracelet labeled “mentally disordered” bears out the truth in Natalie Portman’s observation about the flatness of the “strong female character”: “The fallacy … is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.” Living with PTSD is like living through the Hunger Games: There are no winners, only survivors.

The Capitol’s defeat is not what gives Katniss any semblance of hope or peace; by the time the debris from the final bombing has been swept away, she’s a shut-in, dreaming of the dead. Like anyone who has spent hours unspooling the strange, sad story of her life to a good therapist, Katniss “slowly, and with many lost days, [comes] back to life. I try to follow Dr. Aurelius’s advice, just going through the motions, amazed when one finds meaning again.” A heroine who must go through the motions, waiting for the gears inside her to start their slow grind and propel her, one foot in front of the other, back into the world, may not be the icon we want on movie posters and tie-in toys; she may not be the icon who inspires young girls (and thirtysomething women) to take up archery. She is far more meaningful.

Katniss’s valor isn’t about what she conquers or who she becomes, it is in what she overcomes. For her, and for me, and for anyone who has ever feared that she’ll always be trapped inside the arena; inside the kitchen, hands thrown up over her face to block the blows; inside the accident or attack she swore would kill her and yet didn’t, survival is not a matter of donning a cape or unsheathing a sword, or aiming your arrow at the throat of your oppressor—it is the blunt scrape of getting by. What Mockingjay offers isn’t a pageant of badassery, but something more quiet and revolutionary: The truth that it’s okay to be broken, because breaking apart is the first step in knitting yourself whole.

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