The Sword And The Distaff

In my last post, I was talking about The Hunger Games, which got me thinking about the role of Peeta within the action, and the strange feminisation that afflicts male love interests in female-led action movies.

Of course, male love interests in anything other than a rom-com are a rarity, simply because female leads are so rare, so our scientific sample will be rather small. I’d love to be able to throw in some male-on-male relationships in action movies as a control group, but since gay lead characters are only ”allowed” in movies about how traumatic it is to be gay (and there’s a whole other blog post in that!), I guess we’ll have to do without…

So, let’s start by defining the trope, with Peeta in The Hunger Games. In what ways does he falls into traditional ”feminine” behaviour patterns?

First off, he’s largely powerless.  He’s forced to compete in the Games, whereas Katniss volunteers – to save her sister, yes, but that makes her sacrifice more heroic, not less. He’s an underdog, jeered at by other competitors in training. Unlike Katniss, he has no special skills or training, just his brute strength (which, strangely, is rarely utilised during the action). Katniss has to push him to show his strength and stop the others viewing him as a victim.  We could make a good case for him having longterm low self-esteem (flashbacks suggest he’s bullied and dominated by his mother).

He’s emotionally vulnerable.  He makes a public declaration of love for Katniss which she doesn’t explicitly return, traditionally the role of the female character – think ”I love you,”   ”I know,”  in  The Empire Strikes Back…

Once they’re in the game arena, Peeta accepts protection from a group of stronger, better trained (and mostly male) competitors, under the leadership of the Nemesis, Cato, a traditional alpha male.  The price for this seems to be agreeing to betray Katniss, though he makes efforts to steer them away from her, and gets them to wait her out rather than attacking at once, which ultimately enables her to escape.

Finally Katniss finds him, wounded and using his artistic skills to hide (a passive strategy, and the fact that he learned his skills decorating cakes only reinforces the feminine role he’s being pushed into). It’s down to her to nurse him, risk her life for the the medicine he needs, and ultimately save him from the (ultimately rather tragic) alpha male Cato.

Underworld, another female-led action movie, follows similar strategies, making its werewolf love interest entirely dependent on its female vampire protagonist for protection, exposition, and moral direction.  The Terminator begins with Sarah Connor dependant upon Kyle Reese for survival and emotional support, but as Sarah grows into her role as mother-protector, and particularly once Reese is wounded, he effectively loses his power to highlight the fact that she is gaining hers.  Perfectly acceptable dramatic strategy, particularly if you look at them as Hero and Mentor as well as Hero and Attractor, but still interesting in the context of male love interests.

So what’s going on here?  Why is what Peeta is doing reading as ‘female’ behaviour?

Isn’t it actually unintended social conditioning?  We’ve all watched so many films over the years where women have needed nurturing, rescue, moral guidance and affirmation from a strong male hero that we’ve come to associate that social role entirely with women. So when we see a male character expressing vulnerability and need to a protective, dominant female character, we find ourselves surprised at their ”feminine” behaviour.

What can we do about this?  Should we feel compelled do anything about this? After all, the action movie is all about risk, gains and losses. Someone needs to be in danger, someone needs to rescue. Someone has to express weakness so that someone else can express strength, right?

Fine. But can’t we share the burden more equally between the genders?  In the end, isn’t it a question of making both your hero and your attractor well-rounded characters who both contribute in different but equal ways?

There are films that do rather better at depicting a female hero and a male love interest as equals. Haywire, for example. The first time we see the love interest, before we’re even aware of their relationship, Gina Caruso is kicking seven bells out of him, but he fights back competently, and once we’re into the flashbacks, it becomes clear that he’s a valuable operative with the capacity to make his own decisions (even if he is a little easily led).  So it’s perfectly possible to create a male love interest who’s the equal of a female action hero –  and indeed, a female love interest who’s the equal of your male action hero!

Go ye and do likewise!

Things I Learned From… The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games just had the best ever opening weekend for a non-sequel, and the third best opening weekend of all time. I know, I know, the figures aren’t adjusted for inflation (one of my pet hates about ”best ever” box office claims), but we can still usefully compare them to films released in the last few years, including the first Twilight movie. Without doubt, it’s one hell of an achievement.

What we should be asking ourselves is – why? And I don’t mean that in a snarky sense.  Even a bad movie that makes money is a cause for celebration, because it’s putting money into the industry – and The Hunger Games isn’t a bad movie. The performances are good, the differing social worlds are clearly delineated, there’s enough social satire to give the simple story of personal survival some bite, and the battle scenes manage to be disturbing without betraying the 12A rating.

But when you stop and think about it, there’s nothing enormously original and striking about it, either. It’s The Running Man with teenagers – or to quote the much-Tweeted joke, ”You know what they call The Hunger Games in Paris?  Battle Royale with cheese.” The plotting is solid but unremarkable, the love triangle is weakened by the fact that one of the lads is hundreds of miles away throughout most of the story, and Peeta the primary love interest is a little under-characterised.

(Actually, the film *is* an interesting example of how an action movie Attractor (love interest) is forced into stereotypical ”female” behaviour, like needing rescue and nurture, by the conventions of the plot – something that shows up most strongly when the Attractor is male. Notice even the spelling of his name: ending in an ”a”, which in English usually denotes a girl’s name. A blog post for another day, perhaps…)

So why is The Hunger Games such a huge hit? Brand recognition, marketing, and a strong fan base, yes – but something about the original story drew all those fans to read the book in the first place, right?

I think it’s actually a wonderful example of finding exactly the right premise for your target audience, or indeed, target audience for your premise.

Look it at it like this. A science fiction dystopia is all about the suppression of the individual, the stripping away of basic rights like social mobility and freedom of expression, and absorption into a homogenous society who are bound together by a figurehead or a ritual – the supposed chance to win extra life years in Logan’s Run, loyalty to Big Brother in 1984.

Now, assuming we’re lucky enough to live in a relatively free society, we don’t identify much with those characters, do we? We don’t know what it feels like to be them. But I’ll tell you who does – teenagers. Because, whether it’s justified or not, they feel oppressed the whole damn time. People are always telling them they shouldn’t dress like that, they shouldn’t hold that opinion, they have to obey the rules, they have to be part of society, whatever that means… If there’s anyone who should identify with a character living in a dystopia, it’s teenagers.

So put a teenage heroine in a dystopia – fighting not even for her family or her village (her mom’s pretty useless and her community seems indifferent to them), but for her helpless little sister, a loyalty that teenagers will appreciate… Add a love triangle, an solid Nemesis character, and a cute kid who needs protecting, and you have yourself a $200 million hit!

So, how can you tailor the theme of your story to your target audience?  Or, if you’re looking for a saleable concept, can you start with the concerns and feelings of  a target audience and turn that into a compelling story?