Alexa Dicken is an ABD English PhD student living in Brooklyn, NY. She works as an Adjunct Professor at St. John’s University, where she teaches Literature in a Global Context, and LIM College, where she teaches English Composition and Global Themes for Writing. Alexa is a graduate of Binghamton University, where she received her Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in English. Her research interests focus primarily on young adult dystopian literature, particularly in relation to issues regarding gender, race, sexuality, and disability. She is currently writing a dissertation entitled: “Anatomic Dystopia: The Use and Abuse of the Female Body.”
The Invisibility of Disability in The Hunger Games
Dystopian literature aims to call attention to social inequalities and issues in its focus on the most horrible potentialities for the world. However, it maintains a notable exception in its replication of the marginalization of disability. From contemporary society’s marking of the disabled community as disabled, the community is marked as other based on their differences from an assumed norm. Alison Kafer’s Feminist, Queer, Crip questions the definitions of bodily “deviance” and “normalcy” as they are commonly understood to mean with or without disability (Kafer 15). The exclusion of disabled individuals from “normalcy” creates erasure of the disabled community from society at large, as well as the literature that reflects societal norms.
In this essay, I call attention to the absence of disability in the dystopian genre through The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, and include theoretical criticism using Feminist, Queer, Crip, by Alison Kafer. In The Hunger Games, the wealthy Capitol forces young people from the impoverished districts of the country to murder one another in a fight to the death in the annual televised Hunger Games. Despite the narrative’s critique of the consumption of violence for entertainment, protagonist Katniss’s physical prowess and ultimate victory in the games is celebrated throughout the narrative. This glorification of physical dominance situates The Hunger Games in ableist values, and its additional marginalization of textual examples of disability further reinforces harmful views of disability. The Hunger Games highlights physical strength as a favorable quality in Katniss’s character and therefore provides an interesting contrast to the lack of disability in the genre. The novelpresents many opportunities for criticism through disability theory; not only does it prioritize physical strength, it additionally marginalizes other moments that could highlight disability, including the punitive removal of the tongues of political dissidents and a main character’s leg amputation.
The Hunger Games contains a few small momentsthat introduce disability, but these moments fail to centralize and legitimize its disabled characters. In one of these moments, Katniss meets an Avox, a rebel who has been punished by the government with the removal of their tongue. Katniss interacts with one notable Avox, a girl whose government capture she had witnessed long ago. Katniss’s first response to the girl is one of shock and horror, reminding her of the terrible power of the government (Collins 80). Katniss’s initial reaction to her is a reflection of the girl’s role in the text as a cautionary tale, a representation of the government’s cruelty. Katniss reflects back on her own participation in the girl’s current suffering when she remembers witnessing her struggle and doing nothing to help; she recalls this incident with immense guilt, and feels responsible for the girl’s fate (Collins 82-83). After a scene in which Katniss rages against her own entrapment in the government, the Avox girl appears again to clean up after Katniss. In this moment, the two have a semblance of a conversation, during which Katniss apologizes for her past inaction and the girl responds in the only way she can, “She shakes her head. … She taps her lips with her fingers then points to my chest. I think she means that I would have just ended up an Avox, too” (Collins 119). After this moment, the Avox girl comforts and serves as a caretaker to Katniss, tucking her into bed like a child. As exemplified in these scenes, each time the Avox girl arises in the text, her struggles are simultaneously magnified and marginalized. The only thing that readers know about her is her suffering through the horror of her inflicted disability in the loss of her tongue. Because readers are given no distinguishing information about the girl, including her name, she is identified only by her disability in the text’s references to her as “the Avox girl.” When her struggles do arise, she directs attention away from herself in her indication that Katniss was right not to help her. The Avox girl serves no narrative purpose other than to be the embodiment of the government’s cruelty and a caretaker to Katniss. Textually, she is her disability alone, a role of suffering and anonymity, a narrative choice that places disabled individuals as both forever suffering and invisible.
Kafer’s work sheds light on this example in her critique of disability’s continual presentation as a status of suffering. In Feminist, Queer, Crip, Kafer emphasizes the value of disabled life; she argues that the disabled community has unique experiences and perspectives that contribute to the diversity of the world at large (Kafer 83). In contrast with Kafer’s view, the able-bodied world commonly displays disabled lives in struggle and suffering. In one example of this, Kafer examines the responses of able-bodied individuals to motivational posters of successful disabled individuals. Many suggested that the posters taught them to “be grateful for what they have because things could be much worse, a ‘much worse’ best illustrated by the disabled body” (Kafer 93). In other words, the presentation of the disabled body is often used to suggest that able-bodied individuals should be “grateful,” an ideology that attributes a lower quality of life to disabled bodies. This assessment is applicable to the presence of the “Avox girl” in The Hunger Games, as her sole purpose in the text is a warning of the terrible capabilities of the government.
Another prominent example of The Hunger Games’s failure to adequately represent disability occurs in the amputation of Peeta’s leg at the close of the first novel of the series. Near the end of Katniss and Peeta’s struggles throughout the novel to survive, Peeta is injured and Katniss ties a tourniquet around his leg (Collins 338). However, it is not revealed to Katniss until later that Peeta loses his leg as a result, and instead has an artificial leg, a circumstance that, like the Avox girl’s loss of tongue, Katniss feels immense guilt and responsibility for (Collins 369). Again, the framing of the situation around Katniss’s horror and regret over Peeta’s disability both marginalizes Peeta and centers his disability around suffering. Further, in sequels to The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta continue to face physically demanding life-threatening scenarios, yet Peeta’s disability is rarely mentioned, as though his changed body never impedes him. In the beginning of Catching Fire, the second of the series, Peeta’s disability is mentioned in his adjustment to it. However, Katniss notes only that he looks healthy and well, “and you can barely even notice his limp now” (Collins, Catching Fire 17). Her attention to Peeta’s disability in this moment marginalizes its permanent alteration of his body in her marking of his progress towards the unattainable normalcy of how he walked before he lost his leg. While Catching Fire contains some subtle references to Peeta’s artificial leg (Collins, Catching Fire 51, 360), throughout most of the novel, Peeta’s disability is all but invisible. Although Peeta is present for less of the final book, Mockingjay, his disability is not mentioned even once. Throughout the series, Peeta engages in all manner of physical activity in dangerous situations. Despite the amputation of his leg, Peeta’s physical capability appears mostly unaltered in the text, a narrative choice that marginalizes the presence of his disability, rendering it a minor obstacle that he successfully “overcomes.”
In Feminist, Queer, Crip, Kafer critiques the ableist viewpoint that it is possible to “overcome” one’s disability. Kafer explains that able-bodied people often project a “cure” upon the futures of disabled people, an idea that contains the implication that disabled individuals must hope for and work towards overcoming their impairment, which in many cases is an impossibility (28). For disability, a “narrative of progress” creates an exclusive world in which disabled people are deemed unacceptable if they are not cured of their disability or working towards a cure. This perspective devalues the life of the disabled person as they exist in the present in its assumption that they must seek a life without their current disability.
While The Hunger Games works to portray societal oppressions, it reinforces ableism in its marginalization of disability. However, the novel serves as just one example of the ableism prevalent in the dystopian genre, as well as the lived experience of the disabled community. The narrative’s prioritization of physical strength, as well as its problematic portrayal of disability through the Avox girl and Peeta, sustains existing ableism that contributes to the able-bodied world’s “refusal to see” disability (Kafer 15).
Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York, Scholastic, 2008.
— Catching Fire. New York, Scholastic, 2009.
— Mockingjay. New York, Scholastic, 2010.
Kafer, Alison. Feminist, Queer, Crip. Indiana University Press, 2013.
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