The release of The Hunger Games finds Jennifer Lawrence in her second coming-of-age role, playing an eldest daughter who must become the “man of the house,” protecting the family when the parents cannot. Like Winter’s Bone's Ree Dolly, Katniss Everdeen must keep the family fed and care for a younger sibling since her father is dead and her mother is debilitated. On the one hand, these characters signal an important shift in gender dynamics as girls are assigned the type of pivotal role heretofore reserved for male children. On the other hand, both films reinforce more traditional gender politics regarding female weakness: While the fathers are physically absent (they are dead), the women are psychological deserters (they are mad). In some ways, then, the mother is far more culpable in her desertion and more contemptible in her helplessness than the father who is quite literally out of the picture.
Mother-blaming is rampant in western culture, as is well documented in the 1993 book, Mother Daughter Revolution. Patriarchy gorges itself upon the broken bonds between women in general, and mother/daughter pairs in particular. But maintaining and repairing these bonds can become a transformative space of resistance. As Alice Walker’s heroine from Posessing the Secret of Joy is told by a psychiatrist: “Negro women […] can never be analyzed effectively because they can never bring themselves to blame their mothers.”
While the mother in Winter’s Bone remains dead weight, Katniss’s mother recovers, and even returns to her role as village healer. Katniss, however, is slow to forgive her mother for having succumbed to a profound depression upon the death of her husband, leaving her daughters vulnerable and exposed. Indeed, it is only through the hunting and bartering efforts of Katniss, then only 11 years old, that the family is brought back from the brink of starvation. The gradual mending of the relationship makes it all the more powerful. It will be quite interesting to see the film treatment of this relationship; one hopes that Hollywood will get it right.