November 12, 2013

Peeta Mellark and “Feminine” Characters

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 6:18 am by chavalah

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark in "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire"

Josh Hutcherson as Peeta Mellark in “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire”

After a year and a half of waiting the Catching Fire movie premiere is now under ten days away. What better time to write my ode to Peeta Mellark?

Peeta Mellark from The Hunger Games franchise and Sansa Stark from A Song of Ice and Fire franchise are among my favorite characters in literature. Both of eschew the stereotypes of being a macho, tough guy (or tomboy) badass archetype to be of interest. One can just as easily be interested in songs, mythology and dancing, or baking, painting and pacifism, and still be a hero.

Granted, there are a lot of differences between Peeta and Sansa, to say nothing of the worlds they inhabit. In the case of Peeta, there’s a lot about him already that’s “masculine”—he’s very strong from working in the bakery storeroom, and he kills and wounds people in both of his Games. But when push comes to shove, that’s not what defines him. He turns to baking for solace, painting for healing, and his love for Katniss as a lifeline.

Peeta detractors, turned off by these attributes, sneer at the fact that Katniss is the more angry and aggressive of the pair; Saturday Night Live even capitalized on a skit when titular Jennifer Lawrence was hosting, about how wimpy and useless Peeta was in the first Games for getting stabbed in the leg and needing Katniss to save him. Even Josh Hutcherson, who plays Peeta in the movie adaptations and is generally known for his progressive views (see Straight But Not Narrow,) has mocked his character in some interviews for not being “manly” enough.

For me, however, one of the questions of the books is—how “manly” is too much? If we take the character of Gale, who is far closer to the “badass” stereotype than Peeta is, he grows increasingly more militaristic and exhibits aggressive tunnel vision as tensions against his enemies wage on. But by the end of the books, this dogma comes with a huge price.

What’s so wrong with Peeta’s way—advocating for peace and manipulating the political situation through verbal propaganda? More to the point, when do the “feminine” pursuits of baking and painting lead to mass, national harm? Short of hurting others, why can’t we let people be who they want to be?

I suppose that part of the reason I’m so offended by this sexist refusal to allow men to be seen as “feminine,” aka “weak” is that stereotypically, Jewish men have been painted in this light. Likely influenced by our religious adherence to lifelong study, Jewish fellas are often portrayed as whiny, bookish and unathletic (I’m thinking back to the scene in Airplane! where the stewardess offers a passenger a thin pamphlet on famous Jewish sports stars for some “light reading.”) I suppose one defensive response to all of this would be to point out that there are, in fact, plenty of Jewish athletes out there. But the question I want to raise is—what does it matter if they’re not? What if they’d rather study to become a doctor or study Talmud all day? What if they’d rather paint, bake and fall in love with a girl?

Many people involved with or critiquing the Hunger Games franchise seem to understand that the predominately female fanbase is often (though not exclusively) drawn to “the sensitive artist type” that Peeta represents. But like Catching Fire is to The Hunger Games, I want to expand our world building a bit. I want to live in a place where it’s ok, and even encouraged, for everyone to be sensitive and creative, no matter his or her gender, religion or any other considerations. Guess I gotta hope that this fire is catching. 😛

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire will be in U.S. theatres starting Thursday, November 21 at 8 pm. You’ll probably catch me in line a fair few times! :D:D:D

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