Milena Popova discusses The Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen as an aromantic and asexual character.
First things first. I don’t identify as aromantic or asexual, and I definitely welcome comments on this from the aro and ace communities. I do hope that an aro-ace reading of Katniss can spark discussion about better representation in fiction and media for aromantic and asexual people. Also, my analysis is based entirely on the books and not films. It assumes familiarity with the books (though if you’ve only seen the films you can probably follow along) and contains spoilers.
There were two things I absolutely loved about the Hunger Games books. The way they just kept getting bleaker with no light at the end of the tunnel was the first. The second was that Katniss Everdeen was a kickass female character who didn’t have a romantic bone in her body. Or… that’s how I read her. Imagine my surprise when Anita Sarkeesian of the Feminist Frequency (for whom I have all the respect in the world) complained about the romance content and love triangle, especially in the second and third books. Of course different people see different things in works of art and popular culture, so let’s look at how an aro-ace reading of Katniss can be constructed from the text.
When we first meet Katniss, she is sixteen years old. She has a network of acquaintances in the District that she occasionally does business with to ensure the survival of her family, but she only has a handful of truly close relationships: her sister, her friend Gale, her mother, and Madge (the mayor’s daughter) are the important people in her life, probably in that order. We see very little of her friendship with Madge, though it’s worth noting that there have been some readings of a more sexual or romantic relationship there. Personally, I feel there isn’t quite enough there in the text, especially compared to the evidence for aro-ace Katniss.
Because the books are narrated by Katniss in the first person, we get a very in-depth view of how she sees the world, though not necessarily a fair reflection of how the other characters may see it. From Katniss’s point of view, her relationship with Gale at the start of the trilogy looks like a very solid and very much platonic friendship. There are some clues in Gale’s actions and words that he harbours more romantic feelings towards Katniss, but it’s pretty clear in the first book that they have no sexual or romantic history together.
I think it’s fair to say that many 16-year-olds would consider the exploration of their sexuality a fairly central part of their life. And yes, you could argue that ensuring the survival of her family is Katniss’s main priority to the exclusion of all else, but most of the characters around her are shown or at least implied to be sexual or have romantic feelings in some way. Gale with his crush on Katniss, especially in the later books; Peeta who falls for her hopelessly even in the middle of the horrors of the arena; Finnick using his sexuality to keep himself and Annie safe; Johanna Mason’s provocative strip in the elevator. Additionally, Katniss is extremely frank about many things, including graphic violence and her own mental state – there is no reason to believe she wouldn’t be just as frank about sexuality if that was something that was important to her.
Let’s have a closer look at how Katniss thinks about three key elements of romantic feelings and sexuality: kissing, desire, and romance itself.
This is Katniss and Peeta’s first kiss:
“No Peeta, I don’t even want to discuss it,” I say, placing my fingers on his lips to quiet him.
“But I – ” he insists.
Impulsively, I lean forward and kiss him, stopping his words.
For context, Katniss has just treated his wounds in the cave and he is trying to talk about what happens if he doesn’t make it. They’re at this point playing up the love story for the audience in order to get more food and medicine from sponsors.
She kisses him to shut him up.
For the rest of their time in the cave, Katniss uses kissing as a tool to get Peeta to do things and to get the audience on their side.
“Getting the broth into Peeta takes about an hour of coaxing, begging, and yes, kissing…”
These do not sound like kisses that Katniss is particularly into. We get very little description of what they feel like for her. In fact, in Katniss’s mind they are simply tools. What we have to remember is that Katniss’s main strength as a character is using any and all available tools to ensure her own survival and that of the people she cares about.
Sister has been called up to be ritually sacrificed? Pretty much the only tool Katniss has is herself – so she volunteers. She has to kill Peeta or be killed? Have some poison berries to blackmail the system with. Need to convince the pampered audience in the Capitol to send her food and medicine? Play up the love story. Yes, Haymitch had to talk her into that one but only because she didn’t understand how the Capitol worked at first. Once she saw the tools, she used them. So if she needs Peeta to drink his broth she will kiss him if that’s what it takes.
Here are a couple more notable kisses. This is the kiss, in front of a live TV audience, that Katniss and Peeta share the first time they see each other after leaving the arena:
He’s kissing me and all the time I’m thinking, Do you know? Do you know how much danger we’re in? After about ten minutes of this, Caesar Flickerman taps on his shoulder to continue the show, and Peeta just pushes him aside without even glancing at him. The audience goes berserk. Whether he knows or not, Peeta is, as usual, playing the crowd exactly right.
Katniss is not focused on the actual kiss in the slightest. Unlike Peeta, who seems immersed in the kiss, Katniss is fully aware of her surroundings and the political situation they are in.
And here is Katniss being kissed by Gale in the second book. As descriptions of kisses go, it is neither full of romance nor desire.
Despite the fact that the sun was setting and my family would be worried, I sat by a tree next to the fence. I tried to decide how I felt about the kiss, if I had liked it or resented it, but all I really remembered was the pressure of Gale’s lips and the scent of the oranges that still lingered on his skin.
Katniss’s thoughts on desire are few and far between. This is maybe the only passage in the trilogy that deals with the subject in any sort of detail:
“I do,” I say. “I need you.” He looks upset, takes a deep breath as if to begin a long argument, and that’s no good, no good at all, because he’ll start going on about Prim and my mother and everything and I’ll just get confused. So before he can talk, I stop his lips with a kiss.
I feel that thing again. The thing I only felt once before. In the cave last year, when I was trying to get Haymitch to send us food. I kissed Peeta about a thousand times during those Games and after. But there was only one kiss that made me feel something stir deep inside. Only one that made me want more. But my head wound started bleeding and he made me lie down.
This time, there is nothing but us to interrupt us. And after a few attempts, Peeta gives up on talking. The sensation inside me grows warmer and spreads out from my chest, down through my body, out along my arms and legs, to the tips of my being. Instead of satisfying me, the kisses have the opposite effect, of making my need greater. I thought I was something of an expert on hunger, but this is an entirely new kind.
Note how Katniss is telling us that this is the second time ever that she’s experienced desire. Based on this, it is possible to construct a demisexual reading of Katniss – maybe it has simply taken her this long to develop romantic feelings for Peeta, and that now leads to desire and sexual attraction. Yet, this is also pretty much the last time Katniss talks about desire. As for romance, Katniss never uses the language of love in reference to either Gale or Peeta. Both in the passage above, and when she talks about making a choice between the two of then, the word she uses is “need”:
Peeta and I grow back together. There are still moments when he clutches the back of a chair and hangs on until the flashbacks are over. I wake screaming from nightmares of mutts and lost children. But his arms are there to comfort me. And eventually his lips. On the night I feel that thing again, the hunger that overtook me on the beach, I know this would have happened anyway. That what I need to survive is not Gale’s fire, kindled with rage and hatred. I have plenty of fire myself. What I need is the dandelion in the spring. The bright yellow that means rebirth instead of destruction. The promise that life can go on, no matter how bad our losses. That it can be good again. And only Peeta can give me that. So after, when he whispers, “You love me. Real or not real?” I tell him, “Real.”
Katniss is a survivor, and she will use all tools at her disposal. What she needs to survive is Peeta. She never even tells Peeta she loves him – she simply lets him put words in her mouth.
So what about that love triangle then? I genuinely believe Katniss cares deeply about certain people in her life. Prim and Gale are probably at the top of that list, Peeta makes it quite close to the top. Her mother (to an extent), Cinna, Haymitch. Rue, obviously. And the way Katniss cares is that she’s fiercely protective – you don’t volunteer as tribute if you don’t care or are not protective of someone. I think at some point she realises that both Gale and Peeta are smitten with her. And she knows she can’t really return those feelings in the same way, and that that will hurt them. So I think a lot of the “love triangle” is her coming to terms with hurting them in this way when all she wants to do is protect them, as well as figuring out what she needs for survival and how to get that.
I think given the themes of violence and PTSD that run through the trilogy, one of the best features of Katniss’s portrayal as aro-ace is that it is consistent throughout the books, and set against a backdrop of clearly sexual and romantic characters. It is impossible to argue that sexuality and romance are not important in the world the author has created, as we have seen clear examples of both. At the same time, Katniss doesn’t lose her capacity for romance or her sexuality through the trauma of the Hunger Games – this is simply who she is, both before and after the trauma she suffers.