I'll admit it: I'm somewhat of a latecomer to Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games series. Having missed the first wave of buzz when the books came out, I waited until now to read them so they're fresh in my mind when I see the movie on March 23rd. Which is to say, I've spent the past few days in a Katniss-induced haze, strung out from doing little else but inhale this story (there must be a term for this—Hunger Games Hangover? Hungover Games?), and I'm left with a few thoughts. Yes, obviously Katniss is badass and I'm psyched to see a strong heroine get some much-deserved attention, but what really struck me about the Hunger Games trilogy was its complex portrayals of masculinity, embodied by the characters of Gale Hawthorne and Peeta Mellark.
Just as Gale and Peeta give Katniss two very different boyfriend options, they give us as readers two very different ideas of what it means to be a man in Panem.
See what I mean about the two totally different masculinities happening here?
Spoilers abound from here on out. You've been warned.
Gale "Born a Rebel" Hawthorne
Gale is undoubtedly the most conventionally masculine character in the Hunger Games. Physically strong, emotionally hotheaded, known for his rebellious spirit and sense of obligation to protect the women and children around him, he's basically the Marlboro Man of Panem. (Note that the promo photo above depicts him as being too manly even for his shirt.) When the trilogy begins, we learn from Katniss that Gale is her best friend because they're hunting partners—even this, though it foreshadows love and romance, follows the "masculine" logic that men form bonds through shared activity as opposed to shared feelings (the woman's way of bonding™).
At the start, Gale is a rugged individualist (a masculine stereotype if there ever was one), making traps and shooting animals and living off the land—a Survivorman for the District 12 set, with the added bonus of extreme handsomeness (strong hands, strong arms, strong jaw—we're constantly reminded how much ladies love this strong dude). As the series progresses and Gale joins the rebel forces, his outdoorsiness turns to anti-Capitolist radicalism and he begins setting his snares for humans instead of animals. Not only is this transition from lone wolf in the woods to military revenge specialist believable for his character, it's also very much in keeping with the idea of Gale as a Man's Man. The deal is sealed with his choice not to listen to Katniss when she questions the ethics of his "compassion bomb," which proved his dedication to the cause at all costs—he's not one to let emotions get in the way.
Speaking of Katniss—when it comes to their relationship, Gale is ever the strong silent type. He only barely alluded to his feelings for Katniss before the games, and when they ended he kissed her once—without conversation—and didn't bring up his undying love again for hundreds of pages. We as readers can tell he wants to be with Katniss through her descriptions, but Gale—not one for talking about feelings—hardly ever mentions it. When he does, he often uses metaphors of competition, talking about who will "win" in the end between he and Peeta. As his conventional masculinity dictates, Gale is a hard-to-get, emotionally distant bad boy.
Peeta "Boy with the Bread" Mellark
When Peeta Mellark loses his memory and is brainwashed by the Capitol, Katniss tries to remind him who he really is by saying, "You're a painter. You're a baker. You like to sleep with the windows open. You never take sugar in your tea. And you always double-knot your shoelaces." Where Gale is conventionally masculine, Peeta is decidedly unconventionally so. Yes, he is strong, but he got that way lifting bags of flour at a bakery, where he also honed his skills as the best cake decorator in District 12. With beautiful blond curls and blue eyes, Peeta possesses many traits we associate with femininity—he's artistic, he's intuitive, he cries in front of people, he wears his heart on his sleeve—he's emotionally vulnerable in a way we don't think of heroes as being emotionally vulnerable. Pretty and sensitive—like a post-apocalyptic version of Leonardo DiCaprio's Romeo from Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.
Peeta is also known for his way with words and his ability to make connections with people. He's funny but not at others' expense, he cares about his peers, and he's a good listener. When a tribute who's addicted to morphling (morphine, as far as I can tell) is dying, he sits with her and describes the colors of the paints he uses in his art, confessing that he "hasn't figured out a rainbow yet. They come so quickly and leave so soon." These qualities, this sensitivity and regard for the pain of others, are not typically masculine characteristics, yet Peeta is indeed portrayed as masculine. Like Bruce Springsteen and Johnny Cash before him, he is manly but not necessarily in a traditional sense (see: description of rainbows).
At the start of the trilogy, Peeta is the sheltered son of a baker with a crush on a girl from the Seam (District 12's wrong side of the tracks). Through circumstances and strategy, he ends up a victor in the Hunger Games and then a prisoner of the Capitol, used as a mouthpiece and a pawn to manipulate Katniss. Once rescued, he needs help rehabilitating and dealing with the trauma he experienced. Unlike Gale, the rebel warrior, Peeta often needs help from those around him to get by—especially Katniss. She comes to his rescue many times, and he never would have survived the Games without her (though to be fair, she needed his help plenty of times too).
When it comes to his relationship with Katniss, Peeta has nothing to hide. He confesses his feelings for her freely and often (once they enter the Games, at least), and is openly upset—"wounded," to use his word—when he thinks she doesn't feel the same. He even brings her her favorite cheese buns every morning! Where Gale is emotionally distant and hard-to-get, Peeta is honest and willing to share his feelings—sometimes to a fault. If Gale is the bad boy, Peeta is, well, something else. Not the good boy exactly, but maybe the nice boy at least.
None of this is to say that Gale is evil and Peeta is virtuous, or that Gale is strong and Peeta is weak—far from it. (As Peeta would say, "Having an eye for beauty isn't the same thing as weakness.") Only that I find it interesting that the two male heroes of The Hunger Games are so different from one another, and that they embody such different ways of being men. While Gale is the character we might typically think of in a story like this one—a story with plenty of violence, high stakes, and sacrifice—Peeta is not. Which makes Katniss choosing him as her partner all the more significant.
Mr. Katniss Everdeen
I've read feminist discussions of the Hunger Games that question why Katniss ends up with anyone at all at the end of the story: After all, Katniss is strong where others are weak, and since she said she never wanted to get married to anyone, the books should've ended with her alone. While I understand this argument, I can't say I agree. Maybe it's because I love the complexities of Peeta, my favorite character in the series (please, like you couldn't tell whose team I was on already), but I think the fact that Katniss ends up with him in the end not only made sense within the context of the trilogy, it strengthens the notion of Katniss as a feminist heroine.
Says Jessica Miller in her essay "'She Has No Idea. The Effect She Can Have.': Katniss and the Politics of Gender" which appears in The Hunger Games and Philosophy:
Gale fits the stereotype of rugged masculinity but Katniss chooses Peeta, the baker, along with the dandelion, the sunlight and warmth—and she not only chooses him but protects and rescues him time and again.
Bucking the popular culture trend of the helpless girlfriend who needs to be saved by her man, Collins presents Katniss as the strong one. Yet Katniss still needs Peeta's warmth and decency. Even their postwar domestic life bucks gender expectations: Peeta begs for children and Katniss relents; Peeta bakes and Katniss hunts. The romance between Katniss and Peeta offers a welcome foil to the many romances in popular culture that hew closely to the expectations of stereotypical femininity and masculinity.
By choosing an unconventionally masculine partner who will support her in her unconventionally feminine ways, Katniss also chooses a feminist marriage. One where she can hunt and Peeta can bake, and they can share parenting responsibilities. It's a feminist YA fan's dream! (Well, within the confines of this heteronormative narrative, anyway—maybe feminist fanfic can give us an alternative ending where Katniss and Johanna run away together and start their own radical zine library, though.)
Outside of Panem, in the real world, Katniss' choosing of Peeta also sends an important message to millions of Hunger Games fans: that being the boy with the bread is OK, and that you don't always have to be strong and aggressive to be a man. Peeta cries and he loves frosting cakes and he tells his crush how he feels and he needs help sometimes and he supports others and he paints beautiful pictures of flowers—and he and Katniss get to ride off into the sunset together. Which is perfect, because we all know sunset orange is Peeta's favorite color.