On the Scowl of Katniss Everdeen

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Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Everdeen (Mockingjay Part 2)

Katniss Everdeen. She’s emotionally daft, which might be my favorite detail in the narrative. The kid – and she is so young – honestly doesn’t know what to do with her feelings or the feelings of others. She can track tiny animals through the woods while hunting, but she gets thoroughly befuddled by people feeling stuff. She has basically no clue when she’s feeling a feeling, which leaves her annoyed with all these other people and their messy feelings. Many a young character has brooded Hamlet-like in the middle of beautiful landscapes. Katniss would push Hamlet out of the way to try and kill a bunny with an arrow.

Why is Katniss a terrible student of emotions? There’s simply no time for it in her world. No time at all. Katniss is painfully aware that she walks the knife-edge of survival. Who has time to pause and feel, to read the softness in others’ eyes? All is hard edges underneath.

When pressed to decide which boy she loves or whatever, Katniss’s response is to scowl and feel embarrassed. Hell, when Peeta announces to the nation that he loves her, she reacts by shoving him into a plant. She doesn’t even articulate herself. Can’t say why she’s irritated. Can’t search the source of her own bafflement. If she had the self-awareness to apprehend and describe her feelings, an awareness that she absolutely does not have, she’d say, “I’m sorry, I was so busy fighting starvation for most of my life that I haven’t really thought about all that.”

As it is, she scowls at people and gets kinda rude and assumes they want to manipulate her. Which they do.

Katniss is accustomed to a world that does not bow to her wishes or even her basic needs. That’s the thing in dystopian worlds: the world has nothing left to give. It is neither lush nor welcoming. Katniss is habituated to a universe in which she has to fight to survive, fight to help her sister survive. She does not effortlessly dominate her surroundings or even expect that she will. In this world, tiny success is arrived at with great cost. She doesn’t have the spare energy for smiles. She wants her sister to have them. Her sister, who gets blown up. (Sorry about all that sacrifice, kid.)

The heroics of Katniss Everdeen, in other words, are startling in their realism. It is quite clear, after all, that we are not in control of most of our own lives. We aren’t. It can seem that way, yes, absolutely. I am fully able to make a whole lot of fun little decisions about the various details of the day. But that has a way of concealing just how elusive most of my freedom is, and it conflates deciding something with freely willing something. “Not every act is free,” says Bernard Lonergan. It may seem obvious, what he says, but the phrase closes a long reflection over whether we’re free at all. Because, mostly, we are not.

I’d scowl at that. I’d scowl the hell out of that. I do scowl at that.

It is notable that Katniss is a young woman. In a strange way – whether or not the author intended this – Katniss Everdeen struggles under the weight of grim vulnerability rather than overcoming obstacles with some titanic inner strength. Whether this kind of shuddering danger – also supremely real in all of us in this world – would be acceptable in a man is an open question. What would we think as an audience? Could we tolerate a young man shivering in a dark closet, terrified of the ghosts in his head? Maybe. In a woman, we consent to the image all too easily. I cannot help but think of that.

Katniss is made a national celebrity and the symbol of an entire rebellion. (No pressure, you emotionally stunted, already-traumatized teenager, you.) She accepts the role of “Mockingjay” to encourage the rebels, to try to do something good, and, mostly, to rescue the boy she’s survived horrible things with. She’s dragged this way and that at the behest of higher powers with unspoken plans. The boy is left to suffer, and when he returns he is not himself. Very, very not.

Sometimes good intentions don’t matter.

Katniss, as a symbol, is negotiated like a symbol. Those with power seek to exert their wills through her. Or they straight-up try to execute her. Either way, becoming a symbol diminishes Katniss’s self-possession in part because it externalizes her identity, which makes her negotiable. An object on a chessboard to be assessed and moved.

This is what being made into a symbol does to a human being. At least in the sense of the word as I use it now. Sometimes we say “stereotype” to mean something like it: the person serves a principle or presumption rather than as a self. It is more than mere stereotyping, this negotiating of someone else’s identity through symbols. It is a willing over someone else, a willing in someone else, despite and without that someone else. But first they can’t be someone else. Not if this is going to work. They’ve got to be emptied out into some image or symbol first. Then they are robbed of themselves.

Katniss is robbed of herself in more than one way. Each is a haunting thematic gesture toward the ways we might be killed with symbols: violence (you are not a person but a thing), expectations (you are what I want you to be), love (your desire is mine and not your own). Expectations and love – I will leave violence aside – can be wonderful and good. But they can be flattened into a knife that threatens another into acquiescence. Pressed down into a flat image, a narrowed understanding, a stiff notion.

To do something like that is profoundly different than, say, seeing the significance of a person who shares our humanity or seeing a human being as a sacramental image of God. Those latter kinds of symbols do not view another human being as a vessel for someone else’s power, and they do not understand symbols as separated from the thing symbolized. In other words: if someone is dignified because they are an image of God, that dignity is theirs and it is nonnegotiable. Katniss is important because she’s Katniss.

But these are things that her world, and ours, struggle to grasp. Refuse to grasp.

It does not end well for Katniss Everdeen. At the age of eighteen, she’s been exiled to her home district and declared insane. She’s got burn scars all over her body, severe PTSD, and the sister she gave everything for is dead. Most of her friends are dead, and almost everyone from her hometown is dead. Katniss Everdeen is a broken wreck. And that’s exactly why we should pay attention to her.

No giant success offers her back to herself. No triumph. No inner enlightenment, or outward praise, or miraculous event. Somewhere in the quiet of her exile with that boy who is not himself, she grows. With him. The most interesting part of the story is left a mystery. Somehow that small space of existence lets her find the someone that she is. Someone who can feel and choose and rest. Someone who can be with someone else.

In a dystopian world rather unreal, Katniss Everdeen is strangely – powerfully – realistic.

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The Belchers: Best Family Currently on TV?

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A TV family with a smart dad? Children who get along? A mom with more than one idea? Oh, and it’s freaking hilarious? It must not be real. No, it is: it’s Bob’s Burgers.

Most sitcoms of one sort or another seem to believe that intelligence, weirdness, insecurity, and virtue all come in very small doses that must be handed out to exactly one character a piece. The weird one can’t also be intelligent unless the former explains the latter; insecurity can never be accompanied by courage; the smartass can’t possibly be weak unless we have a very special episode about it. You get the picture: everyone has basically one talent or foible that defines them and no one else. What I love about Bob’s Burgers is that this is absolutely not the case with almost all of its characters, especially its central family. They are essentially human, though incredibly odd. And, you know, it’s a cartoon. They’re cartoons. I’m a grownup and I love this cartoon.

The Belcher family struggles together to keep their tiny burger restaurant afloat. It is clear from the outset that, even when distracted, they are in it together through every struggle and success. For this family, that mostly means hilarious struggle. “I paid the rent a few days ago,” Bob says at one point to their landlord, “I know there were a lot of pennies.”

This is not a normal family, and this is not a normal cast. Of the five family members, only one is actually voiced by a woman (Kirsten Schaal as the youngest daughter, Louise); the rest of the voices are from men, including the women. I love that odd underlying ambiguity. If I were more ambitious, I’d write an essay about how the voicing choices help us experience families as complex negotiations of gender. As it is, I’ll just say it’s hilarious. Tina in particular, voiced in soft monotones by Dan Mintz, is sweet and awkward and never at any point derided by the show’s narration. If anything, Tina is the show’s narrative darling. She is just burgeoning on adolescence, with crushes on every boy she knows…and also bearer of a zombie fixation. Mr. Mintz emphasizes Tina’s goofy sincerity rather than making a constant mockery of the fact that he is a man voicing the character of a young woman. Presented with a man who believes he was once a mannequin, Tina empathically confides, “I get it. One day all of a sudden you’re anatomically correct. I just went through that.”

Speaking of a man who was once a mannequin (but who probably wasn’t): nobody in town is normal. Absolutely nobody. From the self-certified school counselor who adores knitting to the twins who try to carry one another across the street. The Belcher family is filled with oddness, but so is everyone else. It helps to contextualize how insane anyone can feel at any moment, whether in real life or in a cartoon. Like dear Teddy, we all sometimes get stuck under a fridge in a trap the children laid for Santa. Or we feel like it, anyway.

Have I mentioned the songs? The show is filled with various songs to narrate some of its sequences, and almost all of them are perfectly hilarious. While Bob learns to play a video game, we get a man in the background singing about how you’ll lose “if you put in the towel/that’s how rules work.” Or there is Linda’s brilliant self-composed Thanksgiving song, which somehow ends with the line, “Kill the turkey.”

The show is fun, and like all fun things it is a release from reality and yet somehow stays true to it. This is a family that loves each other, and that even loves its weird neighbors (school counselors excepted). The parents love their kids and want good things for them, and the children feel very much the same…even if they can’t focus enough to hand out flyers for the restaurant. (“There was a bug on the ground,” explains Louise.)

So let me review some of my other favorite moments in a random list, and leave the actual show-watching and analysis to you:

  • Tina says to her father, “It’s like when you got that flu shot for me to show me it was okay.” Bob’s response: “That was brave of me.”
  • Somehow I always laugh at how Linda’s instant response to a man trying to have an affair with her is to slap him. A lot.
  • Gene’s suggestion for what he’s inherited from his mother: “My birthing hips.”
  • Louise fails to properly distract people from tackling Bob. When he points out the problem – on the floor during a cruise, pinned down while holding oysters – his response to her cheerful lapse is a very fatherly, “Okay, next time.” (As if there will be another?)
  • Linda is furious at Bob, and tells the children to go to bed. Bob desperately tries to get the kids to stay with him, and when they’ve finally gone, the children keep listening as their parents argue. “Do the stompy dance, mom!” says Gene from afar.
  • Teddy, noticing that the restaurant is dark and empty: “This kinda makes me want to loot you.” “What?” “Nothing.”
  • Bob’s response to his misery at losing his family for Thanksgiving is to talk to his turkey, which he’s named Lance. “You don’t get to eat Lance! Ow, Lance, you’re burning my arm.”
  • Ollie and Andy are the best twins ever. Just watch them pretend to be umpires and shout, “You’re outta here!” at each other with endless repetitive gusto. Try not to love them.
  • One of the other teenagers, Jimmy Jr., seems to be living in a constant state of Foot Loose against his dad. I don’t mind that. Especially when he runs around a taffy factory, dancing his rebellion.
  • Gene is either a musical prodigy or accidentally brilliant. He has a great composition for a Thomas Edison project, a song that only has so much to do with Edison but everything to do with Edison’s “electric love” for the elephant he electrocuted to death.

 

 

Hollywood has obviously been to grad school.

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Gradu-spy-du-cation. (A screenshot from “Alias.”)

So, here I am, real-life professor having endured real-life grad school, and I decide to watch “Alias” on Netflix. Because 2001 seems like it must have been awesome. And so I learn that the main character is attending grad school.

“Grad school” is a cavernous, wondrous library with an old guy chattering up at the front.

Sydney attends “grad school” with a little notebook and two other students who listen as the old guy rambles about… I’m not even sure what she’s studying. Books. I’ll make a guess. She’s studying books at grad school.

And she is a spy. She has time to be a spy, by the way.

While studying books.

Yes.

That is how I remember it: whilst I was an international spy, I learned about books and subsequently became a professor. A spy-professor. Obviously.

Graduate school was not a high-pressure, neurotic universe of overachieving in arcane knowledge that would see me enter a precarious job market. No: graduate school was sprinting through underground laboratories with sarcastic quips firing from my lips as I shot at enemies with my semi-automatic watch-machette-shotgun.

And, if I may add other movies and TV shows to my resources for understanding, I believe that what grad school has done is arm me to make wild symbolic connections to uncover nefarious plots, unveil treasures forgotten by history, and  also time-travel. Yes. I time-traveled.

I read a few French articles, too.

And I acquired the most amazing fashion sense while accomplishing said amazements.

Because all spies are beautiful. And all graduate students are…

Smart.

I studied books, friend. That takes some serious brains and well-chosen clothing that accentuates my natural joie de vivre.

That was French again. Just so you know. And I know Latin. They’re, like, the same. Almost. Except not. But similar.

My detailed knowledge of living and long-dead Western languages helped me considerably when I dismantled various Asiatic-Russian secret alliances. (The Cold War lives forever! So does Byzantium! Why not?!)

It’s not that grad school crippled my ability to make any conclusion without vociferous fact-checking and reflection. It’s that I punched the facts in the face. After reading my books. Because I studied books in a gorgeous library. At college. Where I learned advanced books.

And face-punching.

Or was it fact-punching?

I am not sure there is a difference. I stopped listening to the old guy yammering in front of the large stone fireplace in the amazing library with the rare books (which I studied, advanced-studied). I am too busy successfully saving the world with my learning.

That I got at grad school.

Yes.