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For Immediate Release
April 8, 2015

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Valerie Dimino
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Katniss Everdeen's Complex Identity

Graduate student explores transcendence of gender norms in The Hunger Games

In an exploration of gender representations in young-adult literature, Barbi Clifton presented her paper, “‘The Creature Standing Before Me’: Identity Formation and Gender Performance in The Hunger Games,” at Scholars Day on April 8. Clifton’s research is founded largely on the identity-formation studies of Jacques Lacan, which Clifton analyzes in relation to the character of Katniss Everdeen in Suzanne Collins’s novel.

Lacan’s concept of the mirror stage — in which an infant recognizes his own reflection and connects that image to his concept of self — is seen in Katniss’s recognition and acceptance of her role as head of household after her father’s death. In the next stage of development, Lacan says, one’s concept of self is further developed (and complicated) by its relation to others. “For Katniss,” Clifton writes, “this dynamic is at play in the arena as she becomes acutely aware of how the presence of others, and the way they judge how she looks and acts, provides a critical lens for viewing an alternate version of self.” What Katniss learns through these phases is that, in order to survive in the Games, she must rely on a combination of her tomboyish nature and the more feminine qualities being asked of and pressed upon her.

Effie Trinket serves as an important mentor to Katniss in representing what the Capitol (a symbol for the patriarchy) considers the proper performance of female gender. It is from Effie’s influence that Katniss comes to appreciate the impact of a woman’s presentation and expression on others’ reactions. This is a thoroughly new sense of identity for Katniss; Clifton points out that when wearing a dress for the Reaping, Katniss declares that she hardly recognizes herself. The title of Clifton’s paper comes from Katniss’s later reaction to her appearance in an extravagant dress and makeup: “The creature standing before me in the full-length mirror has come from another world.”

And yet, Clifton writes, while “Katniss’s performance before the Games, spinning in dresses and giggling for the cameras, strives to define a softer side of her character, the physical demands of the Games require her to revert back to her more male traits. For the most part, what she allows the camera to capture in the arena is her strength, a characteristic that pushes against the social norms for women, and she remains careful to hide any sign of weakness that will mark her as feminine.”

Katniss performs femininity when advantageous, without allowing those gender expectations to take away her control of her personal image entirely. By consciously manipulating her appearance and strategizing her behavior, she creates a complex identity that augments traditional displays of femininity by tapping into the unconventional, masculine-coded characteristics that intrinsically define her. This hybrid identity — seen in her ability to both hunt for food and nurse Peeta back to health — allows her to transcend the social norms imposed on the people of Panem. By continually challenging gender constraints, Clifton argues, Katniss becomes a symbol of hope for overcoming oppression.

The paper was written last year for Assistant Professor of English Kristen Proehl’s Young Adult Literature class. Clifton will graduate this May with her Master of Arts in English Literature.

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