Male Prostitution and [The Hunger Games] – The Case of Finnick Odair

Mockingjay Book Cover

Perhaps one of the most shocking moments of Suzanne Collins’s Mockingjay is when the reader finds out that Finnick Odair–a past victor of the Hunger Games tournament who is attractive and always surrounded by suitors–reveals that he was sold and used as a sex slave for wealthy patrons residing in the Capitol. This confession is broadcasted across the dystopic nation of Panem in order to further fan the flames of hatred towards President Snow, the trilogy’s ruthless dictator. Although the novel makes no explicit mention of the terms “prostitution” or “sexual slavery,” the fact that Finnick was “pimped” is made quite obvious. As Finnick himself declares while broadcasting his confession:

“President Snow used to… sell me… my body, that is,” Finnick begins in a flat removed tone. “I wasn’t the only one. If a victor is considered desirable, the president gives them as a reward or allows people to buy them for an exorbitant amount of money. If you refuse, he kills someone you love. So you do it.” (Collins, emphasis mine)

What we observe in this instance is that Finnick becomes a commodity used to satisfy the sexual appetite of the Capitol’s residents. His position can  be seen as a form of prostitution within this context  because there is an implied exchange of goods triggered through the sexual act.

Through this act of prostitution, there is no doubt that in due course, Finnick’s placement as a being coerced to sell his body to others dehumanizes him, turning him into an object designed for sexual satisfaction rather than a subject capable of making his own sexual choices.  This notion complies with Catherine A. Mackinnon’s views of sexual objectification in Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, in which she posits that “To be sexually objectified means having a social meaning imposed on your being that defines you as to be sexually used, according to your desired uses, and then using you that way” (422). Seeing as Finnick has no agency in terms of his sexual choices, objectification becomes a very apt term to describe his situation.

Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin in the 2013 movie adaptation of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Finnick Odair, played by Sam Claflin in the 2013 movie adaptation of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Suzanne Collins’s novel presents a situation that is not commonly discussed in society, much less in young adult fiction: men as sexual commodities, and the existence of male prostitution. This, in part, has to do much with the sexual division of labor that is many times imposed in society. Most of the theoretical and critical treatments of sexual objectification, including pornography and prostitution, are usually focused on the degradation of females as a way of reinforcing a patriarchal and chauvinistic status quo. But what happens in the case of a man who is sexually objectified and approached as a hedonistic commodity? I’m not sure I have the answer to this question, but Collins’s Mockingjay presents a unique treatment of this case.

Finnick Odair points out that sometimes he was sold to patrons for an extravagant price, but other times, he was literally offered as a gift. Gayle Rubin, in The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex, focuses on how women many times are approached as a material good exchanged in a transaction. Although women are most certainly part of this transaction, they are not an active agent within this exchange, but rather, a conduit to this exchange: they become a gift, while the man in charge of facilitating the transaction becomes the giver. This exchange, as Rubin argues, solely the benefit of social organization to “men who are the beneficiaries of the product of such exchanges” (Rubin 243-244).

Mockingjay offers a paradigm in which the gender roles are reversed, primarily since the gift, in this case, is a man rather than a woman. Nonetheless, this notion of gifting still promotes the prominence of patriarchy and chauvinism seeing as it helps to cement President Snow’s authority over Panem and the Capitol, and it still allows him to have absolute control over social organization: through this process of gifting Finnick to patrons, Snow upholds his absolute authority (and hierarchy) over the “weaker” Finnick.

Interestingly, though, in Mockingjay, we observe how Finnick takes advantage of his lower position in order to regain some of the power that Snow tried to take away from him. In other words, he uses the very power that the Capitol and Snow possess in order to counterattack the system. As Finnick points out during his confession:

“I wasn’t the only one, but I was the most popular,” he says. “And perhaps the most defenseless, because the people I loved were so defenseless. To make themselves feel better, my patrons would make presents of money or jewelry, but I found a much more valuable form of payment.” (Collins)

Finnick soon reveals that “secrets” became his preferred form of currency. Seeing as his patrons viewed him in as weak, delicate, and vulnerable, they shared no hesitation whatsoever to open up to Finnick and share their deepest and darkest secrets with him, touching upon every subject from the sexual to the economic. Secrets  were the currency that Finnick “saved” as a reservoir of personal power. Unfortunately, this power did not benefit him personally, but rather, it was usurped by District 13  as a way of intensifying hostility towards the Capitol. However, it is interesting to see how this power, despite coming from a morally corrupt source, was still able to be channeled for emancipatory means: secrets exposed the hypocrisy and decay of President Snow and the residents of the Capitol, which in due course helped to foster a thirst for rebellion against the very powers that converted Finnick into a sexual object.

References

Collins, Suzanne. Mockingjay. New York: Scholastic Press, 2010. (E-book version)

Mackinnon, Catherine A. “Toward a Feminist Theory of the State.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print.

Rubin,  Gayle. “The Traffic in Women: Notes on the ‘Political Economy’ of Sex.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print.

Gender Bender: Commercials with a Gay Twist

So a commercial for the Kindle Paperwhite just caught my attention. At first, it seems like your average attempt to sell a product to “mindless” television viewers: an attractive man and woman are lounging on some chairs at the beach resort. Vibrant colors and hues drown the screen. The beach looks amazing. (Jealousy is invoked as I sit here in the cold South Bend weather, wishing I were at that beach sipping on coconut water and soaking up the sun).

Amazon Kindle Commercial

We observe the man fumbling with his tablet computer as he tries to read the device under the intense tropical sunlight, a feat that is impossible because of the ever-dreaded glare reflected by electronic displays. In comes the woman with her Kindle Paperwhite to the rescue, and she spares no effort to give the man a quick and simple pitch that highlights the glorious features of the digital reading device, a device that will make the man’s beach-reading experience way more pleasant.

The man wastes no time and instantly purchases a Kindle Paperwhite from his tablet, and we are shown what is an ostensibly flirtatious exchange between the two people: after completing his purchase, the man looks at the woman and says “we should celebrate!” At this point, I thought that this was commercial was embracing every possible cliche in the book: wealthy white people reading books from their expensive e-readers while lounging at a tropical resort. My eyes began to roll at what I thought was another desperate attempt to sell a product by linking it to the celebratory victory (and fantasy) of a man seducing a woman at the beach. But then, I noticed that the commercial had an unexpected twist. If you haven’t checked the commercial, take a few seconds to give it a view. Warning: spoilers ahead!

Yes, it so happens that the man and woman depicted in the video both have something in common: they both have husbands. This twist was very unexpected, not only because of the flirtatious nature of the man and woman’s exchange, but also because of the romantic tropes that were invoked to set-up the commercial in the first place. This Amazon Paperwhite commercial is progressive and innovative, despite its cliches, for various reasons. It is by no means the first commercial to have an ostensibly heterosexual setup, only to lead to a “big gay reveal” or a surprise outing as part of its twist. Pepsi Max, for instance, aired a commercial in which this trope was incorporated.

When comparing and contrasting both of these commercials, there are noticeable differences in terms of their approaches to gender and their use of gayness as a rhetorical mechanism. First and foremost, although both commercials use the gay trope in order to achieve a surprising and humorous effect, the reactions that the “outings” provoke to other characters in the commercials are radically different. The friends in the Pepsi Max commercial react with shock, confusion, and yes, I think it can be argued that there’s a hint of disgust in their expressions as well. The outing in the Kindle Paperwhite commercial, on the other hand, is presented as a non-issue. When the woman finds out that the new Kindle purchaser also has a husband, she doesn’t react starkly and she doesn’t flinch. She’s not angry or disturbed. Rather, she smiles as both she and her new friend look back and see their husbands purchasing drinks at the bar.

The commercial also does other things that are quite innovative. For instance, as the protagonists of the commercial look back at the bar, you can’t really tell which husband is gay and which one is straight. Instead of relying on markers of effeminacy or gayness to differentiate one husband from the other, the viewer is ultimately left guessing. I know that this was probably not Amazon’s intention, but it’s interesting to see how the gay/straight binary is disrupted within this commercial.

On another note, I think that Amazon is making a radical statement when depicting the gay couple not as boyfriends, but rather, as husbands. The nonchalance in which the gay married couple is presented may seem subtle, but it is actually quite a strong political statement from the company’s behalf. Gayness in this video is not something that is incorporated as a shocking or discomforting element, but as something completely orthodox. Sure, the video does cause “shock,” to some extent, but this is because of the unexpectedness of the twist rather than the “gay factor.”

Are we now reaching a point in time in which gayness has become normalized in American media? The commercial is fairly new (it aired 2 days ago), and as of now, it doesn’t seem to have stirred much controversy. Is this due to the commercial’s subtle and nonchalant approach towards gayness? Is it due to the lighthearted and relaxed sense of pathos projected by the video? Or is this due to the audience that this commercial is targeting in the first place? Regardless, it is tantalizing to think that we are possibly witnessing the normalization of gender bending within everyday popular and commercial culture. Lets see what other gay twists await us in the near future!

Do You Hate Your Body? Western Culture, Gender, and Body Issues

Working Out

“Perfection” has its price… and when it comes to bodily perfection, this price can never be fully paid.

Some of the most awkward and disturbing conversations that I’ve had about the body have taken place during a meal. There is something about sharing food with company that ignites interesting topics of conversation as pertained to our body, nature, and food. I recall one particular instance in which I went over a friend’s house for dinner. She had a couple of guests over who were preparing a make-your-own-taco buffet. We sat down on the table and began circulating the bowls full of shredded chicken, cheese, sour cream, salsa, flour tortillas, and yellow rice. I placed two tortillas on my plate and began to scoop some shredded chicken on the tortillas when I noticed one of my friend’s guests staring at me with a look of horror on her face.

“Oh my god!” she said. “Are you going to eat ALL OF THAT?!” A confused look spread over my face. I didn’t think I was eating much, but according to my guest, two tacos was beyond extravagant. A feeling of awkwardness spread across the table. I lost my appetite. The two tacos remained on the plate, virtually untouched.

It was no secret that my friend’s guest was known for having body-image issues. Between her unstable diet and her insane workout regimen, it was a miracle that she seemed so lively and healthy. This was not the first time she made a weird or rude comment regarding food. Who could forget the time she called out my friend for eating an entire bowl of cocoa pebbles? Or the time she offered to serve us dessert, and served each one of us a 1×1″ square of brownie with a tablespoon of vanilla ice-cream on top, insisting that we must not exaggerate? But it this taco incident that truly affected me negatively, and it awoke feelings in me that were dormant for a long time.

I’ve always had issues with my body. I’ve  always been overweight (not obese, but I certainly have extra meat on my bones), I have crooked teeth, one of my eyes is slightly bigger than the other, and yes, I have a huge nose. But over the years, I had learned to grow comfortable with my body, and I had learned to accept the fact that I deviate from normal and beautiful expectations of the body. But that taco moment really scarred me in an unprecedented way. I took the comment to be a remark on my weight and my appearance. That night, when I returned home, I stared at myself in front of the mirror. I felt disgust. I felt worthless. The head of my friend’s guest circulated around my mind, mockingly asking me if I was “going to eat ALL OF THAT!”

I don’t even think we can begin to understand just how much culture affects our interpretation and perception of the human body. We live with such an immense pressure to be perfect and desirable. This desire is so intense that it completely overshadows even the most basic of biological needs: food, sex, and even rest. It comes as no surprise that because of these unrealistic cultural expectations, we have pathological phenomena such as bulimia, anorexia, among others.

These pathological phenomena are usually seen as purely negative and evil cultural manifestations. However, some reading that I have been doing during the past weeks is pushing me to question the extent to which diseases such as anorexia and bulimia are purely evil. I think we rarely seek liberation and emancipation in cultural expressions that seem subversive, violent, and even dangerous. Furthermore, I think that a dichotomous view of the word always limits our capacity to deal with notions such as morality: we either view things as entirely good or entirely bad, refusing to see the gray area that exists in between. However, I think that we’re all very well aware of the fact that the gray area tends to possess the most powerful explanatory power when it comes to grappling with difficult or controversial topics.

Does anorexia have a “positive side”? Can anorexia, despite its danger, be viewed as emancipatory? Can issues of the body be viewed as a type of protest? Feminist scholars such Susie Orbach, and Susan Bordo in her discussion of the body and the reproduction of femininity in her book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body discuss the plausibility of  this notion. As pointed out by Bordo in her discussion:

A number of feminist writers, […] have interpreted anorexia as a species of unconscious feminist protest. The anorectic is engaged in a “hunger strike,” as Orbach calls it, stressing that this is a political discourse, in which the action of food refusal and dramatic transformation of body size “expresses with [the] body what [the anorectic] is unable to tell us with words”–her indictment of a culture that disdains and suppresses female hunger, makes women ashamed of their appetites and needs, and demands that women constantly work on the transformation of their body. (463)

Keep in mind that Bordo and Orbach are in no way justifying anorexia , and they are certainly not pushing people to view this pathological manifestation as a solution. Anorexia is unfortunate and very dangerous. However, they do suggest that people who do suffer from this pathology certainly convey an interesting bodily rhetoric, in which their condition is not only symptomatic of cultural pressures and expectations, but it is also illustrates everything that is downright wrong within contemporary culture. Sure, people suffering from anorexia and bulimia are not conscious of this protest, but their body serves as a walking indication that something is very wrong when it comes to the aspirations that culture pushes us to strive for.

The expectations of perfection when it comes to the body are so pervasive that they have transcended beyond the realm of the feminine. It is well known that anorexia, and body issues, are not exclusive when it comes to gender. Men, myself included, are also expected to achieve a degree of physical and bodily perfection, else we suffer from feeling worthless and ugly under the guise of contemporary culture. You are expected to have well-defined muscles, but you can’t have too much muscle because that’s too excessive. You can’t be too thin. You can’t be fat. You have to have short hair, a six-pack, a slender waist, a stoic stance. Yes, men these days have just as many expectations as women do when it comes to their bodies.

Jackson Whittemore, a character from MTV's Teen Wolf, in a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Jackson Whittemore (played by Colton Haynes), a character from MTV’s Teen Wolf. This is a screenshot taken a shower scene that glorifies and commodifies his physical beauty. Notice that this show is aimed primarily at a young adult audience (Image property of MTV. No copyright infringement intended).

Popular shows watched by young audiences, such as MTV’s smash show Teen Wolf, definitely perpetuate this notion of physical perfection, especially when it comes to their depiction and glorification of the male body. Now, I’m not saying this is a purely terrible thing. After all, “eye-candy,” a well-sculpted body, is indeed awe-inspiring and impressive (and it sure makes us feel wonderful in many ways), but what message is being sent when all of the men and women present within the show are beautiful, physically fit, and well-groomed? It sets unrealistic expectations. I, for one, will never look like Colton Haynes when I step out of the shower. I’ve accepted that fact.

When we are surrounded by frail bodies that are wasting away, walking skeletons that seem to be only a few steps away from death itself… there is definitely a scream for help being shouted at the face of culture itself. Sure, anorexia can be approached as a form of protest, but it’s a protest that shouldn’t be necessary. It’s disturbing, as Bordo points out, that “The pathologies of female protest function, paradoxically, as if in collusion with the cultural conditions that produce them, reproducing rather than transforming precisely that which is being protested” (464). The “protest” doesn’t fight against the pathology, but rather, it perpetuates it. The so-called solution that culture has rendered, the so-called protest, only feeds the cultural monster of the body in Western culture. And this sense of pathology, as I pointed out above, now goes beyond the production of femininity. It is a problem that is now blind to gender.

But now that we are aware of the problems and paradoxes of body and its relationship to Western culture, how do we even begin to solve them? We need to reconsider not only our theories and approaches towards gender and the body, but also the practices that we engage in as a response to these issues.

References:

Bordo, Susan. “The Body and the Reproduction of Femininity.” Feminist Theory: A Reader. New York: McGraw Hill, 2013. Print. 460 – 466.

Image courtesy of Ambro / FreeDigitalPhotos.net