The Disturbing Nature of “The Hunger Games” Katniss Everdeen Action Figure

During the last episode of the Overthinking It Podcast, we lamented the existence of The Hunger Games action figures. “Missing the point,” I decreed.

We didn’t get to explore this topic much during the show, so let’s take this opportunity to do so now.

What exactly is wrong with this? I know I had a negative gut reaction when I saw this, but I found it not so easy to put into words. So let’s start by examining our gut reactions to typical action figures. Here’s Luke Skywalker:

“Cool! A Luke Skywalker action figure! He’s ready to take off in his X-Wing, blow up the evil Death Star (maybe shoot some stormtroopers with his blaster if need be), and save the Rebellion from the Evil Empire. I’ll use this action figure to help me act out my fantasy of being in Star Wars, a fun action movie about good triumphing over evil.”

Next, here’s Captain America:

“Cool! A Captain America action figure! He’s ready to take on evil Hydra/Nazi soldiers with his vibranium(TM) shield and defend our country. I’ll use this action figure to help me act out my fantasy of being in Captain America, a fun action movie about good triumphing over evil.

Now, let’s return to Katniss Everdeen:

“Cool! A Katniss Everdeen action figure! She’s ready to draw her bow and send an arrow into those evil Career Tributes and become victor in the Hunger Games. I’ll use this action figure to help me act out my fantasy of being in The Hunger Games, a fun action movie about good triumphing over evil.”

One of these things is not like the other.

The traditional role of the action figure is to be the physical manifestation in the real world of an otherwise fictional character. From there, the action figure allows the owner (typically a child, and let’s not forget that, in spite of the “young adult” genre label, most of the target audience for The Hunger Games can still be called children) to act out fantasies of either being that character or having that character in the real world as a force for good, in a way that the character is a force for good within his/her fictional universe. Often that force for good takes the form of the action figure’s weapon.

In this case, that weapon is the bow and arrow that are made available to her to allow her to hunt down her competition like animals. That’s a horrifying premise for a child’s fantasy play. Even though the toy makers wisely chose not to make action figures for the “bad guy” tributes, that won’t stop children from imagining the Katniss action figure defending herself against her enemies in the arena. (Note that both her outfit and the style of bow and arrow are specific to the arena and are not what she had in District 12.)

But the worst part isn’t even the suggestion of lethal violence delivered by the bow and arrow; it’s the way that this sort of fantasy play effectively puts Katniss back into the Hunger Games with the child as the cruel Capitol Gamemaker.

Remember that one of the key themes of the Hunger Games books and movie is lack of agency. Katniss and the tributes are (for the most part) unwilling pawns in the Capitol’s twisted games. Katniss and Peeta’s survival becomes dependent on an audience who demands a good show from the star-crossed lovers. In other words, Katniss isn’t a hero in the way that Luke Skywalker or Captain America are heroes. Luke and Cap have a high degree of agency. They readily volunteer for battle; not as some sick bargain to save their child siblings from slaughter, but as eager participants in the good fight. Their actions directly influence the outcomes of the battles they fight. Their success means victory; their failure means defeat. That’s why they’re great action figures. They take action, and their actions have consequence. They allow the child who plays with them to fantasize about taking action and affecting change.

Katniss Everdeen as an action figure suggests to a child that she possesses the same agency that Luke and Cap do, when in fact she does not. The child, however, still has the agency of putting the character in arbitrary scenarios, and that’s what unwittingly puts the child in the role of Gamemaker and obscures the source text’s powerful commentary on control and lack of agency.

Missing. The. Point.

I’ll admit that I may be overreacting to this action figure; after all, it’s but one of many aspects of The Hunger Games as mass media that doesn’t sit well with the overall message of The Hunger Games But I can’t deny the immediate negative reaction I had to the idea of a Katniss action figure and to the revelation that it’s a real thing. If you can think of a positive take, I’d love to see your thoughts in the comments.

24 Comments on “The Disturbing Nature of “The Hunger Games” Katniss Everdeen Action Figure”

  1. UsernameTed #

    You made some good points, and while Katniss Everdeen: The Action Figure may not sit well with the Hunger Games’ story, the toy makers may have inadvertently found the point of a Katniss toy. See, when I was a kid, one of my favorite toys was a Lady, from Lady and the Tramp. I would make her team up with another generic dog toy I called Marie, and gave them the powers of flight and speed respectively, and they fought all the other toys in my room. And that’s what I feel the true nature of Action figures are. In commercials, we see kids ham-handedly spoil the ending of the movies the toys come from by acting it out in 30 seconds, but who actually does that? Who saw the movie cars, and made lightning win against everyone? You like made Mater win a race against Lighting.

    Speaking on behalf of all kids based on my exepriences with toys, kids with an iota of imagination will respond harshly to having a story spelled out for them. That’s why they will cross Star Wars, The Hunger Games, and Transformers, and make some kind of mega-story they don’t even know the ending of. Action Figures are an outlet for independence and imagination. Even alot of Video Games are following suit, like LittleBig Planet on PS3, which presents you with a story to play through, and then challenges you to make your own.

    That puts an extra load on filmmakers. They have to compete with you for your attention. You could play with Star Wars toys for hours, when you were younger, but could you give one and a half to the next big movie to come out with a toy line behind it? Last generation’s movie watching experiences were defined by Star Wars, and Back to the Future, and Ghostbusters. Those films dominated the 80’s and at least one produced a hell of a lot of toys. 80’s kids probably staged Star Wars fights with their toys and may have made Darth Vader force choke Han, or some such thing, and messed with the canon of the movies. Then, when Harry Potter rolls around, would the last generation go in with the pre-concieved notion that their stories are going to be much better than what they’re paying to see on the screen?

    Wow, how have I not gotten to the Hunger Games yet? Katniss is essentially being thrown into the LEGO arena for the 83rd Hunger Games. She looks around and sees her competition. Some guy in an orange jumpsuit and flight helmet, some stupid looking america guy, a large hulking robot, and various other mismatched figures. Katniss puts an arrow in the whiny jumpsuit/helmet guy. Another is blocked by America Man’s shield. The robot is kind of a crapshoot whether arrows are effective. Katniss decides against it as the robot transforms into a car, no wait, he’s stuck, turn there, there, here. This could take a while, and he’s a car! Katniss runs away, ducking between LEGO structures as the car hits a ramp that wasn’t there before and leaps over a city block and is back on the chase until it crashes into a building. It turns into a robot again and pushes the building down over Katniss. She ducks out of the way just in time.

    So you see, the kids becoming a game maker isn’t really that bad, even if it defeats the purpose of the film. I think it’s a great way to think about playing with Hunger Games toys, and I encourage kids to think about picking up toys and playing nonchalantly with them for a half an hour. It’ll be good for you.

    And if you read this far, congrats! You have as much free time as I do! Too much.

     
    • Genevieve #

      When I was a kid, I used to dress my Spock action figure in my Uhura action figures dress. (I’m not sure what Uhura wore. I don’t think I bothered playing with her, only her dress. I think Fancy Spock was a stand-in for myself…)

      Call it what you will.

      Anyway, I largely agree with you. I think Katniss-in-kids-minds will have a hell of a lot more agency than Katniss-in-the-story had, and that’s kind of awesome. I see Lee’s point, too, that in a sense, it’s casting the kids in the Capitol’s role, but maybe that will help them get the point better than the movie could. After all, we’re ALL in that role, aren’t we? WE are the ones sitting there watching the movie, reading the book. A big part of the message, to me, when I read it, was that we have to accept our OWN culpability and agency, and make things better. This gives kids a chance to do that.

       
    • Joe #

      UsernameTed nails it. Lee swings and misses, hard. Toys’ original tales of agency or whatever have only incidental impact to their owners’ valuation of them. If it were otherwise, no child would climb into a refrigerator’s cardboard box and rocket to the moon or transmogrify their teddy into a tiger.

      Her bow is just another weapon. Superman has the strength to rip people in half, or burn down entire villages with his vision. It’s up to the kid to imagine how it will be used — and it won’t be limited by the original story’s set up of “it’s used to attack other children”, not unless the child suffers from a horrific lack of creativity that would make me more concerned than if she had the Hulk rampage murderously through an entire apartment complex of Barbie dolls.

      And if you think it’s horrible for kids to play with toys that encourage them to think violently, then I recommend you get started picking up every… single… stick… and rock you can find in the entire world, because violence is a part of conflict is a part of storytelling is a part of kid’s creativity since time immemorial.

      Please please please don’t freak out about this. Conservatives make enough hay over silly things that some liberals go half-cocked about. This would be one of those things. I understand the initial response of ZOMG thatsnotthepoint!#%!! Deep breath. It’s a toy. Kids take over — they’ll provide the agency. And if in their stories they *occasionally* torture Katniss to her last breath, and she dies alone and unloved, that’s not a bad story, either. Tragedy & death are a part of life, and the sooner kids of an “appropriate age” grapple with that — via the agency of play — the better.

       
      • Lee #

        I hope I didn’t come off as being hyper-outraged over this, or that I’m hyper-sensitive to children’s play that’s connected to violence. And I am also definitely aware of the tendency for kids to use their imagination to take toys way outside of their original context when playing with them. The opening scene of Toy Story 3 comes to mind as a perfect example of this.

        But at the end of the day, I am still bothered by how the character of Katniss and the story of The Hunger Games are going through the reductive machinery of mass media, marketing, and merchandising, and that the results–not just Katniss action figures but also the pajamas, the Mockingjay pin, the inevitable craze of kids to take up archery at summer camp this year–are to varying degrees antithetical to the themes and lessons of The Hunger Games. And I’m still bothered by this idea of Katniss existing in battle arenas constructed by kids’ minds, even when I have no such problems with an arena populated by Legos, Luke Skywalker, He-Man, GI-Joes, and Transformers battling each other. Katniss is unique. She’s not Just Another Hero. There should be some attempt to preserve that uniqueness and not have it swept away by crass commercialism.

        I will concede that, at the end of the day, the mass marketing and accompanying cheapening of The Hunger Games may be an acceptable price to pay for bringing such a compelling story to a large audience. But I still feel obligated to point out that cheapening effect.

        All THAT said, thanks to everyone who’s commented so far for the well thought-out comments, the constructive criticism, and participation in the conversation!

        Let the Games continue!

         
        • Lee #

          I also realize that the marketing/commercialization angle is a different take than what I was focusing on in the article–agency–so I concede that honing in on agency when it comes to children playing with action figures probably wasn’t the strongest argument to make. But I do still worry that the irony of being a gamemaker to Katniss will still be lost on too many people who own a Katniss action figure.

           
          • Joe #

            I hear ya. We’re cool.

             
  2. Kate Gonzo #

    You’re totally right, BUT…the only other action figures they have are of Peeta and Gale, and she’s obviously not meant to kill either of them. With no big arena expansion pack, and no other tribute action figures to fight/kill, her weapon is essentially just a symbol of the agency she does have. After all, it was her weapon of choice well before she became a pawn in the Games. Perhaps a conscientious kid will use it as she did then, to shoot only (stuffed) animals, and only for food and other tradeable goods.

    OR I also agree with the bit in the podcast about it making for great mashups with other random action figures. Can we get some District 9 alien action figures?

    Also, is the Katniss Barbie doll [http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/hunger-games-katniss-barbie-doll-303815] missing the point _more_ or _less_ than the action figure? After all, I’m sure Capitol citizens would love it!

     
  3. Genevieve #

    The only thing about it that bothers me that you *didn’t* mention is this: as a “young adult” movie (I’ve been debating whether to buy my rather advanced 10-yr-old the book; I don’t think younger kids should – or even would want to! – watch the film) the intended age range is utterly inappropriate for action figures. How many 12-17-yr-olds are likely to either (1)be youthful enough to PLAY with action figures, or (2)by discerning enough to COLLECT action figures? I’m not sure who they are hoping will purchase these… parents who don’t understand that their kids are too old? Losers like me who would probably hang it on the wall without taking it out of the package? It’s a pretty niche market, and I don’t see it doing well.

    On the other hand, so far as I am yet aware, they are missing out on all kinds of awesome, age-appropriate marketing. Are there practice bows and archery kits for sale yet? THAT would be a fabulous gift for a teenage fan.

    I mean, if they’re going to make action figures, why not go all the way and market a Peeta-branded EZBake Oven??

     
    • fenzel #

      They could sell Cinna-branded Capitol Shampoo.

      “Make bathtime DECADENT.”

       
      • Lindsay A. #

        To go along with the shampoo and the jackets in that cross-promotional gift basket, how about nail polish? China Glaze’s “Capitol Colors” line of nail polish, to be exact.

        http://chinaglaze.com/products/index.php?coll=57

        The ad campaigns actually suggest you should wear the color of the district from where your favorite tribute hails. I literally stopped in my tracks when I passed a storefront advertising the line.

        China Glaze couldn’t have missed the mark more if they had been blindfolded and turned away from the target.

         
    • Leigh #

      I have noticed that there is a market for action figures among certain adult nerds. I actually had a few back in my early 20s, when I collected comics. It’s just a little bit of personality to sit on your mantle or desk.

       
  4. fenzel #

    The main thing I take away from the Katniss action figure is one thing Suzanne said about Katniss, especially in the third book:

    “Like the Mockinjay, Katniss is something that should not exist.”

    People like Luke Skywalker, Captain America, etc. – These are people who do not exist, but we wish existed.

    Katniss is a proxy for somebody who does exist – she’s the wartorn child soldier, the tragedy of innocence lost too soon, the damage done by a cruel and self-destroying society – and the story is about our wishing she could be something other than what she is.

    So, if action figures are a medium for imaginative play, then the congruent imaginative play with Katniss would be for her to have a job as a computer programmer and a nice car that ran on conflict-free solar power. That would be what I would want to do with a Katniss action figure – pretend that she is happy.

    Playing with Katniss digging herself deeper and deeper into Panem’s perversity and social problems – as well as her dysfunctional and nearly pleasureless romantic relationships – does not sound like very much fun.

    Imagination, especially childhood imagination, is aspirational – and is a major mechanism for hoping for the future. We should not, nor I think do we, imagine and hope for a future that includes Katniss.

    Which is also why I suspect the play that children will do with this sort of action figure will not resemble the plot of the hunger games in any recognizeable way except her shooting arrows at people and things (and robots, and ninja turtles, and legos and jenga blocks) that the child chooses not to like.

     
  5. Kate Gonzo #

    Wait, so do you think Katniss would be more suited to a Barbie doll than an action figure? After reading the rest of the comments, I’m actually starting to think that the Barbie version does fit into the narrative that Lee describes, even better than the action figure. The type of gender-normativity that the Barbie line represents, and the type of play that is usually associated with it, is well in line with the way they Capitol (both government and citizens) treated Katniss — forcing her into a more stereotypically feminine presentation of her self and her desires, simply so people would like her more (thus increasing her chance of survival). And as the story in the books progresses, and [spoiler] she becomes the Mockingjay, she becomes less and less of an active figure, and more just a face, something to preserve, perhaps, in an unopened box on a shelf like one would with an expensive Barbie doll whose look and reputation took a lot of work to make and you don’t want to ruin. With her resistance to the Capitol making her into a Barbie doll, she becomes one for the Rebels. Then when she resists that, she still ends up with a fairly nice life. But at least she doesn’t have to force a perfect Barbie smile and live her life for the cameras anymore, right?

    “That would be what I would want to do with a Katniss action figure – pretend that she is happy.”
    Even if you do take the Barbie out of the box, isn’t that essentially how you’re meant to play with her? Instead of a beach house and a pink car, let’s give Katniss Barbie a forest playset on which she can use her bow and arrow and be happy on her own terms.

     
  6. CrazyLikeAFox #

    While I’m not sure I think this is reason enough that the action figures shouldn’t be made or marketed, I think Lee has touched on something true by pointing out the incongruety of pairing THG’s anti-mass-marketing and anti-violence-as-spectacle message with the sale of action figures complete with weapons.

    At the very least, the Katniss action figure is in some meaningful way different from say Transfomers or GI Joe where the action figures are pretty much exactly in line with the message of the movie (the thesis statment that message is, of course, “Hey Kids! Buy more action figures!”)

     
  7. An Inside Joke #

    I wonder if Panem made Katniss action figures after she and Peeta won in the first book. Maybe, if it makes you feel better, you could look at the Katniss action figure not as a toy of Katniss, but as a toy of a toy from the book/movie (that happens not to appear in the book or movie)

     
  8. Alan #

    I think you might be making too much of this. Conceding your point that “Hunger Games” is not a book about the glories of violence, but rather the opposite, it isn’t up to the makers of action figures – a commercial enterprise – to make such judgements. people will pay money for a Katniss action figure – therefore, a Katniss action figure they will make. This is he very freedom that Captain America and the rest fight to defend!

    Now, the position of Suzanne Collins in the books might be that violence is bad, but you’d have to admit that her heroes fight fire with fire (pun intended, I guess)! Katniss and Peter’s lack of “agency” in the story doesn’t prevent them from going along with what they are forced to do. If she’d written that they simply lied down and let the Careers (or the other contestants, or even the Gamemakers) kill them on page one, they’d be no story. Our little Mockingjay might be doing the violent things she does because she’s been forced to – but she’s damn good at it!

    And that’s why so many people love her. She’s a confused, frightened, manipulated girl, fighting to hold on to her life and integrity – but she kicks ass! And that’s what makes her so fascinating. To paraphrase a line from “Mockingjay” – you either want to kill her, kiss her or be her.

    Naturally, the figure will be dressed in her arena outfit. That’s how she appears for the important part of the movie, and that’s what makes her instantly recognizable. Did you want the figure to be supplied with her chariot dress, complete with fuel and a box of matches. I can imagine many parents drawing the line at that!

    I admit to being of an age well above the supposed demographic of the usual HG fans, but I’ll be getting my Katniss action figure as soon as it’s available in Australia. I doubt I’ll play with her, but she’ll stand in my study as an inspiration to draw on when things get tough! I can’t emulate super heroes, but I can aspire to Katniss’ strength of character, toughness, and refusal to give in to the people or forces manipulating her.

    And I doubt very much ownership of the figure will make me want to get a bow and arrow and start shooting children.

     
  9. TreyBienvenue #

    I feel like the link to The Hunger Games Game should be followed by a link to the actual Hunger Games Facebook Game.

     
  10. Ryan Thompson #

    I think you’re STILL overreacting, even with reading all of the additional responses.

    The largest issue that you address is the fact that Katniss is holding her bow and arrow she uses during her scenes in the Arena.

    Did you stop to think how many times she actually USES the bow?

    1. To destroy the bag holding the apples.
    2. The defend/kill the tribute who was attacking Rue.
    3. To defend Peeta against the Mutts.
    4. To shoot Cato in the arm, to have him release Peeta.
    5. To put Cato out of his misery after he was attacked by Mutts.

    Not a SINGLE time in the book/movie did she ever intentionally use the bow and arrow to attack a tribute. To you the bow is a weapon, and while you may argue that most people see it that way, it’s actually a TOOL. Katniss uses one to catch her food. She uses it to set off traps. Katniss uses it to DEFEND, but never ATTACK, and thus I don’t see it as this dangerous toy.

    Furthermore, with the range of other toys available that use more realistic weapons designed to kill people (G.I. JOE) I doubt that anyone would consider Katniss’s evil.

     
  11. Gab #

    http://www.barbiecollector.com/shop/doll/hunger-games-katniss-doll-w3320

    Her face looks much happier as a Barbie than it does as an action figure. And they even gave her a few light freckles.

    I agree with some of the above comments about how the connotations of Barbie as a brand sit well with the actual character herself. Barbie-as-brand is an object for manipulation, a plaything for girls to live out their fantasies. Katniss is the object of manipulation for the aims of the Capitol, a plaything for them to use in their pursuit of power retention.

    A Katniss Barbie, though, can push that manipulation to new bounds with girls (or I guess boys) that have one. Presumably, she’d fit into any Barbie clothing, so she could end up dressed as Belle or a doctor and playing that role at the same time, turned into both Belle and Katniss simultaneously. Or a Katniss-princess or Katniss-bride. Who knows, maybe the groom (Ken? Ken-as-Peeta?) will piss her off and she’ll shoot the top of the wedding cake off.

     
  12. Alan #

    And it’s also ironic that Coin and her minions try to turn Katniss into a sort of Barbie doll during the course of Barbie”Mockingjay “