Mad Men vs. The Hunger Games

Ok, so I know what you’re probably thinking: How on earth are these two things related?

Well, part of my point is that they aren’t. Mad Men is about boozing ad men in the 1950s and 60s. And The Hunger Games is about a group of teenagers forced to fight to the death.

What I’m interested in (prepare to roll your eyes) is how each of these pieces represents the female. I know, I know. It probably sounds boring. But the characters I’ll be comparing aren’t. Elisabeth Moss’s character Peggy Olson is probably the most interesting female character on the show, by virtue of being neither a secretary nor a housewife. And let’s face it, Katniss Everdeen is a total badass.

But while both Peggy and Katniss are cast as female protagonists, only Katniss manages to pull off being both beautiful and a hard-core warrior. Poor Peggy is forever doomed to be just a little bit frumpy, just a little less than desirable.

Now that I’ve taken (ahem) one course in the Gender Studies/film department here at Northwestern, I’m obviously highly qualified to make such an assessment. But hey, at least I read Laura Mulvey’s famous piece, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” According to my professor, this is the most popular piece of film criticism ever written.

Mulvey basically argues that women in film are  just there to be pretty, and it’s the men who end up doing all the work.  (If I wanted to be more academic, I could say that women are subject to the scopophilic gaze, while men embody heroic desire). This is a very simplistic summary of Mulvey’s argument, so if you’re curious, please see the “For Further Reading” section below.

Well, in my opinion, Mulvey’s argument doesn’t work when it comes to The Hunger Games. Katniss is stunningly beautiful (played by the striking Jennifer Lawrence) but also kicks major butt. She’s desirable, a hero, and–most importantly–a girl. In fact, the men in The Hunger Games seem pretty lame compared to Katniss. You’ve got Gale (played by Liam Hemsworth), who really doesn’t do much on screen other than look pretty. He provides Katniss with emotional support, sure, but isn’t that usually the woman’s job? The gender binary in this case is reversed, as Katniss, a female, assumes the role of a warrior, while Liam stays “home” in District 12. Peeta  (played by Josh Hutcherson) is also rather disappointing. He’s sweet and blonde and pretty useless. If not for Katniss, Peeta would have died during the tournament.

But while Katniss breaks through all sorts of gender stereotypes, Peggy Olson helps to enforce them. Now you’re probably thinking, “Wait a minute. On Mad Men Peggy is the ambitious character. She’s the only female copywriter and sticks up for herself.” Yeah, sure. Peggy has ambition. But she is still objectified by the men in the show–and by the show itself. Peggy is the least attractive female character on the show. She’s got tough competition in Christina Hendricks and January Jones, not to mention the new leading lady Jessica Pare. While she’s arguably become more “fashionable” over the show’s five seasons, she’s still presented as a profoundly unhappy character–and as quite undesirable.

Think about it. Mad Men sets up a strict dichotomy for its female characters. Either you’re a beautiful Betty or a sultry Joan, or you’re a plain-Jane Peggy. And the beautiful women aren’t capable of doing much. Betty is a typical housewife, while Joan has to use her good looks to keep her job. Peggy, meanwhile, is certainly an admirable character, but she’s not beautiful. Mad Men seems to think that it’s impossible for a woman to be both beautiful/desirable AND a high-achieving, career-orientated woman. The two traits are simply incompatible.

But like I said, Katniss manages to be both. So in case you needed yet another excuse to see The Hunger Games, remember this: the film manages to subvert the idea that pretty women are fragile and that only men are capable of carrying out decisions. In other words: Katniss, you go girl.

For Further Reading:

Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Originally Published in Screen 16.3 Autumn (1975): 6-18.

Williams, Linda. Screening Sex. Durham: Duke University Press, 2008.

Taylor, Mark. “The past isn’t what it used to be: The troubled homes of Mad Men.” Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, No. 51, Spring 2009.


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