Friday, 15 November 2013

What the Greeks Foresaw about The Hunger Games

Katniss: what took her so long?

I wish I was as brave as Katniss Everdeen, the reluctant protagonist of Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy. As a mother of adolescent girls, I welcome this bow-wielding young adult female role model.  Next Friday is our long-awaited family date for the premiere of the second movie. I have already ordered the popcorn.

The significance of the Stoical Katniss, played with conviction by Jennifer Lawrence, cannot be over-estimated. Quest she-heroes just did not happen in the western imagination until Alice fell down the rabbit-hole to Wonderland in Lewis Carroll’s 1865 novel, followed by the more radical Dorothy in L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz (1900). 

Dorothy: Quest Hero
Dorothy explicitly left Kansas to search for something other than a man to marry--her totemic pet dog. Baum supported Women’s Suffrage and his mother-in-law Matilda Joslyn Gage, a prominent feminist.   Yet both Alice and Dorothy were portrayed as pre-adolescent. A biological woman with a mission that had nothing to do with catching a man-for-babies took many more decades to appear.

None of this is my idea. It was in an incendiary 1985 lecture, entitled "What was Penelope unweaving?"  that American scholar Carolyn Heilbrun identified the absence of female quest heroes as preventing women from escaping the single narrative line in which they have been configured. Heilbrun showed how few narratives prepared women for entry into public life rather than the marriage market, kitchen or nursery. She identified Homer’s Penelope—static on Ithaca, bored and unfulfilled—as the figure who defines, by what she was not allowed to do, the dreadful plotline plight of womankind.

Iphigenia saves Two Big Strong Men
The ancient candidates for the status of female action- / quest-hero are few, but two exist and are both associated with the archer-goddess Artemis. One is the never-to-be-wed, intelligent and altruistic Iphigenia who in Euripides’ Iphigenia in Tauris rescues her brother Orestes, his male chum, and the “holy grail” of the cult image of Artemis. The other is Saint Thecla, who (in by far the most exciting of the apocryphal apostolic Christian Acts) tames animals in the amphitheatre, heals the sick, and dies a virgin in her nineties, successfully evading gang-rape. 

Thecla Laughs off the Lions
Sadly, who now reads that obscure tragedy by Euripides, or Acts which never made the New Testament? Perhaps the patriarchal Byzantine monks who put the finishing touches to the selection of our Classical Curriculum strategically marginalized the Artemisian Iphigenia and Thecla.    

But it is in the company of the spirits of these ancient she-heroes that I will certainly be getting inspired by Katniss at Cheltenham Cineworld next Friday.

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