Girl, You'll Be a Woman Soon: The Gender Politics of the Mother Daughter Bond

Curator's Note

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.



Thanks for this really thoughtful piece.  Reading across the films makes for some fascinating symmetries.  I wonder if Katniss' emotional paralyzation at all echoes her mother's?  Is she, also, presented as mentally damaged?  Is there a larger statement about how war devastates family ties?  And to what extent is Katniss' relative coldness framed within a gendered binary that assumes her detachment is abnormal?

If we are talking about motherhood, then I can't help but think about the final book's epilogue.  What can we make of Katniss' own evolving feelings about creating new life in a world without the necessary stability to create a traditional (heteronormative) family?   

I love how you started off this week with this really lovely piece, Virginia. In a weird way, her mother is a big reason that Katniss is so successful throughout the series because of the skill sets she developed during her mother's catatonia. The absent mother makes a "Career" out of her.

I think this does draw on Karen's suggestion of how war and poverty devastates families - there is an implicit critique of an economic system which does not properly regulate the safety of its workers, and the coal mining industry has historically oppressed its workers.  I thought the opening montage of 12 did a particularly intriguing job of depicting the district's poverty in fragments.

 Lovely piece! Your thoughts made me think of the progression of Prim in the series. How does her role of mothering during wartime intersect with Katniss's legacy? Is there any symbolism to Prim's fate? (trying to avoid spoilers here--so tough!) 

Thanks for all of your thoughtful comments, Melody, Anna and Karen. Great points about the gendered expectations that frame Katniss as somehow aberrant, the trajectory of both she and Prim (I chose to ignore the final lines of Mocking Jay in which Katniss fulfills the heteronormative expectations). The idea that her mother makes Katniss a “career” is so interesting as well, though, in some ways, the family lines seem to have already been drawn; Katniss hunts with her father (the son he never had?), while Prim stays closer to the nurturing mother.  Perhaps these lines are inevitable given the impact of trauma on families as Anna so well articulates.


My quickly edited video was also meant to gesture toward a few similar roles: namely Babydoll in Sucker Punch (which I read as a very feminist text) and the lead in Hanna, which I just saw again last night. Both of these young women must similarly fight for their lives, but in both cases, the mother is absent while the father figures are represented to varying extents (interestingly though, in both cases the father winds up to NOT be biological). Karen’s comment about Katniss disrupting gender norms by being ‘cold’ came to mind as I viewed Hanna, who has been raised in the forest and who displays none of the typical feminine behaviors, which make her so compelling, particularly as she befriends a very conventional girl. But Hanna is (of course) pathologized as we discover her DNA has been tampered with.  I’d forgotten this aspect and am bummed at having linked it this way.


Virginia--as well, Hanna's father figure/mentor might be problematic here.  I was thinking of mentioning Natalie Portman's Mathilda from The Professional, when I realized that, unlike Babydoll, Katniss, and Ree, Mathilda is being inducted into a kind of manhood by Leon and his pursuers.

I'm also curious what everyone thinks about the coming-of-age into womanhood that we saw in 70s revenge flicks, or retroactively through Kill Bill's "The Bride."  How is it different from examples we've mentioned so far?  Does the exploitation aesthetic cancel out the maturing trajectory?

Great points, Al. As you say, Hanna does not actually fit, nor does Mathilda really, at least in my original concetpion because while both are being inculcated into a type of manhood (as you note), I think I was getting at the type of hybrid enculturation, whereby young girls are depcited as taking on both nurturing as well as protective duties. Katniss, Ree, Babydoll (though far less directly since she inadverdently kills her sister trying to protect her) are all concerned with siblings; they are actually filling both parental roles and so take on aspects associated with each becoming a sort of hybrid.  

I think the revenge as maturation roles are more problematic since that mode often seems to ultimately become the angry woman trope which fuels stereotypes associated with feminists and dykes (man eaters!). Hmmm...

Virginia - this post about gender roles is thought-provoking and I want to continue thinking about gender roles in terms of Katniss. Katniss’ steadfast loyalty to those she cares about takes the form of perpetual sacrifice. When her father died and her mother checked out, Katniss had to give up her childhood and become both mother and father to Prim - she had be both the stereotypical mother/nurturer and father/provider. Then, when Prim is chosen to be the tribute from District 12, Katniss makes the ultimate sacrifice of offering one’s life for the sake of another’s. Even more than that, Katniss fulfills the role of the sacrificing mother who will do anything for her child.

Once in the games, Katniss sacrifices her life and well-being for Peeta – once to save his life by finding the medicine to heal his leg; and second when she offers to eat the poisonous berries with him instead of killing him and staying alive. Katniss’ sacrifices ultimately result in her surviving The Hunger Games. Her offering of herself in place of those that she loves gets her exactly what she wanted – to save Prim and Peeta.

            However, to contextualize this story of sacrifice within social history wherein women must always sacrifice themselves for the sake of their children or husbands or fathers, this concept of sacrifice in The Hunger Games becomes uninventive. What does it mean for Katniss to be celebrated as empowered when her choices are always a choice to sacrifice her own well-being? What message does this send to girls about their roles? Yes, Katniss does have a choice in her decisions – she didn’t have to save Prim or Peeta. And, yes, Katniss is political and passionate, not absorbed in a hollow love triangle like Bella Swan. Despite her agency in the decisions she makes, however, Katniss chooses to sacrifice. Due to the historically ascribed gender role of female sacrifice, I find that Katniss may not be as progressive of a female character as it may seem.         

 The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the main character, Katniss is a strong and intriguing heroine, no doubt. She is an agile hunter, provides for her family, has strong opinions, and in the end triumphs. The question remains, however, is she a feminist heroine? Katniss possesses mainly masculine characteristics both in her strengths and her weaknesses, suggesting that she is not a true feminist. I argue that the Hunger Games overall, is a feminist work, even if there are shortcomings in the character of Katniss because of the equal evaluation of feminine and masculine traits, the assignment of masculine/feminine traits not base on actual gender, and the evolution of Katniss’ character.

Collins plays with the assignment of characteristics for Gale, Peeta, Katniss, and Prim. We see Peeta and Prim possessing more feminine qualities while Gale and Katniss have more masculine ones. Peeta is a baker, a typically female occupation, is kind and the hopeless romantic ( Collins, 30, 130). Gale is more masculine and aloof, occupied with the same tasks as Katniss (10). She goes beyond the simple switching of stereotypical masculine/feminine characteristics, which in some ways only serves to reinforce stereotypes, or create hierarchies. Instead, she assigns characteristics regardless of gender. This way our common cultural assumptions about how men should act and how women should act are destroyed. It allows for a new conversation about how our characteristics are shaped from our circumstances and our need for survival. 

The hallmark of feminist literature is the main character finds empowerment, male or female. Katniss, if not empowered definitely becomes more self-aware and self-actualization. Before she goes into the arena Peeta remarks, “she has no idea. The effect she can have (91).” Soon after she begins using the romance story that Haymitch has created for her advantage she becomes a skilled actress (260-261), therefore she is aware of her affect. We see the evolution of emotional expression, which can be seen as a feminine attribute, in Katniss as well. She goes from not allowing herself to cry when her name is called and her sister is screaming (23), to weaving flowers in Rue’s hair and singing a lullaby for all of Panem to see (234-237). The recognition of her own powers and abilities and embracing her “softer side” equates to an empowered heroine.  



Paige and Emily, you both make great points about the extent to which the character of Katniss is progressive and/or feminist. Thanks for posting!

Paige, I think you are onto something really important with regard to the sacrificing mother, and Katniss’s “choices” being little more than a string of such sacrifices. While sacrifice is absolutely omnipresent, there are different types of sacrifices, and some carry more prestige than others. The very “man of the house” trope occurs when fathers go off to war (or to hunt a predator), sacrificing their lives for the women and children. This is a noble sacrifice.

By contrast, the typical trope of maternal sacrifice is far less monumental: it takes the form of the daily unrelenting duties performed for the family; it’s the drudgery of the million small choices made in its service. If the fathers are cavalier, the mothers must persevere (and never call attention to their own sacrifice).  From this angle, it becomes a selfish act for a mother to put her physcial being in harm’s way; her body, and the labor it performs—whether giving birth or sustaining the lives of her progeny—is not her own. Her suffering is far less tangible and far less heroic.  

I would argue then, that Katniss’s sacrifice whether in hunting game or in hunting tributes, is progressive (regardless of its relative inventiveness ;-). 

Emily, to your query about whether or not Katniss represents a feminist heroine, I'd add that it really depends on the type of feminism under consideration. Certainly from a materialist feminist perspective, the very choice to die becomes empowering and, to reiterate my original claim, it can disrupt gender politics (and your analysis confirms this nicely), but can we simply say that a female role endowed with characteristics that are usually coded as male cannot be feminist? Isn’t that rather confining? (Personally, I subscribe to the type of feminism borne of righteous indignation, rather than that characterized by self-righteousness, since I think the former stance can actually destabilize hegemony by being tolerant of choice.)


My favorite quality about Katniss is her stoicism. While this might be described as a lack of emotion, or Katniss “just not getting it” as my thirteen year-old sister would say, Katniss’ ability to shut off her emotional attachment to situations and people is her greatest source of strength; it is what has allowed her to survive after her father’s passing and provide food for her and her family. Katniss’ mother stands as a comparison, weakened by emotional stress and heartbreak. Even Primrose’s demeanor is attributed to her fragile emotional state. There are many times in the book where Katniss explains how much practice she has had “wiping her face clean of emotion” (40). This expunging of emotions is Katniss’ way of staying strong for the greater good of her family or, later in her life the audience watching the Hunger Games. Interestingly, this detachment from feeling and lack of emoting on the part of Katniss wasn’t as understood by my younger sister. Especially in regards to Peeta Mallark, Katniss’ lack of emotion makes for a frustrating love story. “A kind Peeta Mallark is far more dangerous to me than an unkind one,” says Katniss (49). To me, this makes perfect sense— don’t get close to your competition if you are eventually going to have to kill them for your own safety. But to my sister, this read as stubbornness and complete ignorance. “How could she not know!” my sister cried to me on the phone, “Peeta is so nice to her. He has loved her for so long, she has to love him back!” My sister’s frustration with Katniss is one I’ve heard from a lot of people, even those my own age. This frustration frustrates me! Katniss shouldn’t be expected to fall in love in the middle of a fight to the death. With a background like Katniss’ trusting anyone else with my life in a time where my life is actually in jeopardy would be a difficult thing to do. In my opinion, more power to Katniss! Finally, a female lead who can have action in her life, be smart and cunning, and not have to fall in love with a man to be validated or empowered.

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