I want to talk about Peeta Mellark
This may take some time. Bear with me.
In the 4 years since I read the Hunger Games, I’ve read so much on the fandom about how Peeta is the
embodiment of goodness, the counter to Gale’s “rage and hatred” (ugh – but here
is not the place). There are many, many problems with this interpretation which
others have covered far better than I ever could, but let the record reflect,
again, that this is both simplistic and inaccurate.
Now, I’m not going to dispute that Peeta is kind. He is kind. He is thoughtful, considerate, generous, brave, self-assured and possessed with a gentle, self-deprecating humour that is impossible to dislike. There are countless times in the text when I am there with pom-poms and placards, cheering him on. Like when he hits back at Haymitch over the resumption of the Hunger Games at the end of MJ. Like whenever he puts the uncomfortable at ease (see Pollux in the Capitol’s sewers - “you’ve just become our most valuable asset”). Like how gifts his winnings to the District 11 families.
Much is made of how Peeta is some kind of feminist “ideal boyfriend material” - how he is supportive, in touch with his emotions and particularly how he subverts traditional gender roles. The boy actually cries because he’s going to die! I sincerely love this! But I want to counter this perception too. Peeta is no feminist wet dream. In fact, he can be kind of entitled, particularly when it comes to Katniss (and especially THG), and – far more dangerously – is set up by Collins as the aggressor in a really troubling domestic violence situation (I have another post in mind here - another time perhaps). These two big problems can be filed under Fundamental Character Flaws Which Are Fine By the Way I’m OK With Character Flaws, and Ways in Which Suzanne Collins Fails Her Characters Pt48923, respectively.
“The Confession” and other problems
There has been a lot written by far more articulate people than I about the impossible pedestal on which Peeta puts Katniss at first, about the idealisation of his creepy stalker tendencies (unfathomably gross) and how his infatuation with her before he even knew her is often interpreted as some kind of pure, unconditional love. I could literally be here forever talking about how an actual healthy romantic relationship based on equality and mutual respect, trust and understanding (*cough* Gale/Katniss) is disregarded and demonised by many and how that weirds me out. I could also talk about the reeking sense of entitlement as Peeta relates the conversation he had with his father aged 5 (a conversation for which there are not enough WTFs in the world to cover) which gives the impression that his crush on Katniss is basically righting some generational class wrong.
But my chief problem with Peeta is that he is instrumemtal in stripping Katniss of her identity and her agency right from the outset. And in a book where Katniss’ agency is systematically dismantled at every goddamned turn, this is a Very Big Problem. Nowhere is this exemplified better than Peeta’s first act as a tribute in THG– the confession, where he first tells the world of his crush on Katniss in his initial TV interview with Caesar Flickermann. Yes, he did this because he wanted to save her life, and yes that is a very noble intention. Peeta is nothing if not noble. But in that instant, in that moment, he wrested Katniss’ ownership of her story away from her so that her personal narrative became something that she never regained control of.
And Katniss, who is a badass motherfucker who is only really at home in the woods, who admits that she is spectacularly inept at navigating these romantic waters (see: in love with best friend, lacks the self-awareness to understand what it is she feels despite talking about his body, like, all the goddamn time), already has a story and an identity. Back in 12, she’s a hunter and a trader. People respect her. To the Capitol, she’s the girl who was brave enough to volunteer for her sister. They’re moved. But with one fell swoop, all of that is consumed by the weight of being the object of Peeta’s affection. Note the use of the world object.
(I’m going to give Collins the benefit of the doubt here and say that this is some kind of commentary on how women are presented in the media, how women can’t be hard, they’ve got to be softened or sexualised by something, whether it’s romance or motherhood or whatever. See Haymitch’s comment about how Peeta made Katniss “desirable”. Glimmer got to be sexy. Cato didn’t have to be anything. But I digress)
The thing is, although Katniss comes round to the idea of this as a strategy (more on this later), at NO POINT was she consulted about this. A decision was made for her by two men supposedly on her side because surprise! And she is pissed. Boy, is she pissed. She slams Peeta into a vase. And what does he attribute this too? Not her loss of identity or control, but how it might relate to another man. “She’s worried about her boyfriend.” And Katniss starts to blush because until that moment she hadn’t even thought about Gale, she was too wrapped up in the presumptuousness and the arrogance and the WTF of it all.
And unlike Katniss, Peeta is not confused by a lack of emotional self-awareness and he knows all about the importance of identity and agency. Peeta, whose dying wish is to go out on his terms, removes that option for Katniss. Yes, he thought he was giving her a better chance to live. But she still has a high chance of dying – just now she gets to go out dancing to someone else’s tune. Again.
And again, although Katniss ultimately takes on the strategy with both hands, it is because – and I can’t stress this enough – Peeta has created a “star-crossed lovers” framework in which she has no choice but to embrace him or reject him as a lover. That is the narrative now. It is because of this framework that the Gamemakers change the rules to allow two victors. And it is because of this framework that the sponsors/Haymitch need to see her play the role of a star-crossed lover. Yes, she makes an active decision – but her choices are already limited by Peeta’s unilateral decision to define her.
Which is why, by the way, I have zero sympathy for him when he falls for his own bullshit and ends up getting hurt. Should have thought about that, lover boy.
What is also interesting is that Peeta’s well-intentioned actions, which strip Katniss of her agency right at the start of the star-cross lovers arc, are arguably doing the same at the end. In the epilogue, Katniss is broken, still living in fear, still living in the arena, having had children that she said did not want. Repeatedly. (A personal note here – As a parent myself I can confirm that the fear of awful things happening to your children is part of daily life. How that must be for someone with PTSD I cannot imagine). And why is this? Because “Peeta wanted them so badly”. Of course, Katniss would love her children, and maybe in this instance Peeta calculated that they would help her heal and maybe he’s right. But he shouldn’t get to make that choice for her, and it is strongly implied that he did. And clearly, even if they are a source of joy, they are also a source of deep, deep anxiety for her. It’s so sad it makes my heart ache.
To reiterate: I like character flaws. Character flaws are fine. I just wish they were acknowledged. Or even better, addressed in the text so that I don’t have to endure the endless canonisation of St Peeta, Patron Saint of the Pure-hearted. And because I imagine I’ll have to clarify this: I don’t hate Peeta. Not at all.