Radiant as the Sun: Beauty in The Hunger Games

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Look at me blogging two times in one week…

This semester is pretty much going to kill me–in a fun, I’m actually-doing-what-I-want-with-my-life kind of way, but still–so I’m finally starting this thing where I adapt old college papers into blog posts.  This analysis of beauty culture in The Hunger Games is about half of a paper I wrote for Dr. Ehrhardt’s Beauty in American Literature and Culture class my junior year of college.  I’ve mucked about with quite a bit of the phrasing and tossed the MLA citations to make it sound less stilted and formal, as well as adding a few observations I really wish I’d thought of back when I was writing the paper.  I’ll post the second part, on Divergent‘s surprisingly cool body positivity arc, next week.

So:  The Hunger Games.  Is it a super rad critique of reality TV and what could be called schadenfreude culture?  Definitely.  I’m sure other people have written beautifully about those subjects.  The scope of this half-paper, though, is pretty narrow, so today I’ll just be talking about how beauty and body image are presented and treated in THG.  The basic idea is that ultimately, THG doesn’t present a particularly healthy view of beauty, casting beautification as solely the domain of the shallow upper-class.  A few more social factors play into the beauty culture of THG, though, most prominently class/wealth but also race.  I’ll analyze all of that in depth here.

First off, I’ll tackle the link between beauty and class.  Beauty as defined by the Capitol is the clearest marker of social class.  Suzanne Collins makes this clear within the first few pages of the book, when Katniss encounters the mayor’s daughter, Madge Undersee.  Madge wears a pin that Katniss describes as “real gold. Beautifully crafted. It could keep a family in bread for months.”  Unlike Madge, Katniss comes from a poor working-class family, so she naturally thinks of anything luxurious in terms of utility.  It’s extra telling that she compares Madge’s riches to food, given that she also mentioned three pages ago that her family still goes to bed hungry.

On the other extreme of Panem’s class spectrum, you’ve got the people of the Capitol.  When they aren’t watching teenagers murder each other, these people chase beauty in all its Technicolor glory.  Effie Trinket is perhaps the most memorable Capitol citizen, thanks to the movies*:

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But let’s not forget Katniss’s team of stylists, either.  A quick rundown:

  • Venia, who has “aqua hair and gold tattoos above her eyebrows”
  • Octavia, “a plump woman whose entire body has been dyed a pale shade of pea green”
  • Flavius, who has “orange corkscrew locks” and wears purple lipstick

These are the people in whose hands Katniss moves from simply ogling wealth to embodying it.  They “[turn] my skin to glowing satin” and “[paint] flame designs on my twenty perfect nails,” for starters.  An obvious connotation of both “glowing” and fire is light, and electricity by association.  Katniss mentions earlier that in her home district, the citizens get very little electricity, if any.  Light of any sort is a luxury for her–as is satin, for that matter. Even her fingernails and toenails become art, something for which someone as poor as Katniss normally has no time.  By far her most literal embodiment of wealth and luxury, though, comes when her stylists “cover my entire body in a powder that makes me shimmer in gold dust.”

It’s also worth mentioning at this juncture that Peeta Mellark serves as a sort of social stepping-stone between Katniss and the people of the Capitol.  He’s a member of District 12’s merchant class, as opposed to the mining class.  He admits to Katniss at one point that he frosts the cakes for his family’s bakery–“fancy cakes with flowers and pretty things painted in frosting.”  **He’s the middle of the seesaw, in a sense; he works, but his work is art.  Furthermore, his art is not just impermanent but also somewhat necessary for others’ sustenance, unlike Octavia’s skin dye or Venia’s tattoos.  The fact that his art can disappear spurs the creation of more art on his part, and necessitates that he continue working.  He may be a rung above Katniss on the social ladder, but he’s still kind of stuck where he is.  He’s still forced to fight for his life in the book’s eponymous Hunger Games.**

In response to all the Capitol’s excesses, Katniss embraces simplicity wherever she can find it.  At the beginning of the novel, Katniss admires the dress her mother gives her for Reaping Day, “a soft blue thing with matching shoes.”  This dress can be nothing fancy, given her family’s socioeconomic status, but she calls it “lovely” anyway. Later, when she meets her primary stylist Cinna in the Capitol, Katniss is “taken aback by how normal he looks,” because the other stylists she remembers from previous Hunger Games are “so dyed, stenciled, and surgically altered they’re grotesque.”  Cinna does wear “metallic gold eyeliner,” in an intriguing connection to Katniss’s later gold-powder-bath.  It’s scant at best, though, and Katniss subsequently singles that look out for praise.  Cinna takes a similarly minimalist approach with Katniss when he prettifies her for the Games’ opening ceremonies, and she acknowledges that she looks “more attractive but utterly recognizable.”  Peeta is the one who says outright that he doesn’t want the Games to “turn me into some kind of monster that I’m not,” but Katniss demonstrates a similar desire through her rejection of the Capitol’s beauty norms.

Speaking of monsters, the connections between notions of beauty and notions of humanity run deep in the novel.  The denizens of the Capitol view beautification as an integral part of being human. Before Katniss gets to see Cinna, her stylists have to fix what they call “obvious problems,” i.e. “ridding my body of hair.”  The process of being “stripped of the stuff” makes Katniss feel “like a plucked bird, ready for roasting.”  The way she phrases all of this indicates she is acted upon rather than acting of her own accord. She is powerless in this situation, a fact further reinforced when she compares herself to a bird, a nonhuman entity treated as prey.  Flavius unwittingly feeds into this when he tries to give Katniss a compliment, telling her that she “almost look[s] like a human being now!” and thereby implying that she was less than human before they stripped her of her body hair, before they forced their ideals of beauty on her.  (Also, side note, this scene is highly worth considering alongside American ideals of hairless women.  It’s no accident that Collins is lumping this in with the dystopian aspects of Panem.)

However, Katniss sees beautification as a dehumanizing and undignified act, one that suppresses her individuality and replaces her with someone she can’t recognize as herself.  In preparation for her TV interview, “they erase my face” and erase her by extension. When Katniss finally sees the results of her extensive makeover in the mirror, she calls herself a “creature”–not even a person, but a creature, a beast–and says the bedazzled humanoid she sees must be from “another world.”  Upon rewatching her interview, she denounces the girl she sees on television, “a silly girl spinning in a sparkling dress,” as “frilly and shallow, twirling and giggling.” The prep team has transformed her outwardly into a walking display case for all manner of gems and sparkles and other indulgences.  At the novel’s end, when Katniss takes off one last coating of makeup, she sees it as “transforming back into myself.”  She views cosmetics, and in a larger sense everything else she had to don in the Capitol, as ultimately disingenuous.

No analysis of beauty in The Hunger Games, though, would be complete without addressing the racial issues brought up in the book.  Katniss idealizes her sister and mother, saying that “Prim’s face is fresh as a raindrop” and “my mother was very beautiful once, too.”  She reveals later that her mother and Prim have “light hair and blue eyes” and “always look out of place” in their part of District 12. Katniss, in contrast, has “straight black hair, olive skin,” and gray eyes, much like the majority of families in this part of the district. Her mother, she explains, was a member of the same merchant class as Peeta and his family before she got married, as opposed to the coal-miner class.  The unmistakable implication is that Katniss’s mother is white and Prim is white-passing, and that Katniss is a woman of color, or at the very least racialized as nonwhite.  Katniss consistently denies that she is beautiful, even when Cinna is through with her.  She characterizes herself as “radiant as the sun,” but she prefaces that statement with a disclaimer that “I am not pretty. I am not beautiful.”  Furthermore, the astronomical implications of the sun tie into her comment about her reflection seeming to come from “another world.”  Though Katniss disavows the cosmetics culture she encounters in the Capitol, she seems unable to find beauty in herself even in her most natural state, which points to a strong, ingrained link in Katniss’s mind between light skin and beauty.

With all that said, there is one really cool thing about the beauty culture of Panem:  in the Capitol, makeup isn’t gendered.  Flavius wears purple lipstick, Cinna wears the aforementioned gold eyeliner, and Caesar Flickerman matches his eyeshadow and lipstick to his hair color, whatever wild hue that may be.  Peeta has his own stylist as well, as do all the other tributes.  That’s not something you see every day, in our Western society or in other books.  It’s a shame, then, that Katniss dismisses all makeup and beautification wholesale, because that’s one aspect of a dystopian society that our world would actually do well to emulate.

That about covers it!  I’ll be back next week with another update from Canada and the second part of this series, on Divergent.  Stay tuned!

~~~

*And in today’s example of Boy Howdy Did People Ever Miss the Point of These Books, here’s a screenshot of the Google image result that gave me this particular picture:

screen-shot-2016-09-13-at-5-28-37-pm

Of course we’ve turned Effie into Pinterest fodder.  Of course.

**Man, I wish I’d thought of this back when I wrote the paper, because that is a cool thought and now I want to explore it further.  Maybe after I take this class on neoliberal capitalism?

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