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“As Usual, Ladies First”: Manners, Manuals, and The Hunger Games

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By Richmond B. Adams.

During “The Reaping” sequence from Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) “volunteer[s] as tribute” to save her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) from almost inevitable “death in the upcoming arena” (22). While exceptional for District 12 of Panem, Katniss’ interposition is quite familiar to Collins’ readers and viewers in the Western world. Sacrificing oneself falls well within the ideal of Western heroes who offer themselves for the cause of civilization. Akin to the gunfighter Shane (Alan Ladd) within the film (1953) that bears his name to Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) who saves Ransom Stoddard (James Stewart) so Hallie (Vera Miles) will be “happy” and help “Ranse” bring progress to Shinbone in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), Katniss’ offering of herself continues the various portrayals that have long been noted by literary and film critics (McBride 284-287; Eyman 492; Silver 21).

The instigating episode of Katniss’ heroism, however, contains a cultural expression that reveals something greater than what appears to be the case. “The Reaping” itself, as part of the yearly ritual enforced by Panem’s Capitol as a reminder of the crushed rebellion and subsequent Treaty of the Treason, is conducted by representatives who select two tributes, female and male, from each of twelve districts before a nationally televised audience (The Hunger Games). District 12’s liaison happens to be one Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks), described by Katniss as “the manically upbeat woman” who reminds Panem why two children between the ages of 12 and 18 will presently be selected for the all but certain end to their lives (The Hunger Games 13; The Hunger Games). Beyond Effie’s obliviousness is still more the way in which she presents herself. Katniss describes that just prior to Effie’s selection of the tributes, she “goes on a bit about what an honor it is to be here, although everyone knows she’s just aching to get bumped up to a better district” (The Hunger Games 20). In short, the entire sequence conveys the impression that Effie is only one more tool of the Capitol and its oppressive brutality.

the-hunger-games-effie-trinketUpon the cinematic recounting of Panem’s “Dark Days” which led to the creation of the Games, Effie at last begins to choose the names of the tributes. In doing so, Effie does something rather unexpected, particularly within a Panem whose setting would seem, at best, to underplay its value. As she begins her task, Effie employs a phrase which, given its immediate context, can be heard with a sense of revulsion. While choosing the first tribute, Effie expresses herself in saying “[l]adies first,” and by doing so, connects herself to a time and place centuries before even the earliest years of Panem (The Hunger Games). Despite a lack of historical background coupled to her statement, the lack of District 12’s reaction, with all of its citizens standing before her, and, by inference, the same from the whole of Panem watching on television, suggests the accepted propriety of Effie’s drawing the name of a female prior to a male tribute. At the same time in adherence to proper etiquette, to select a lady’s name first does not appear as another anesthetized consequence following the Treaty of the Treason. Rather, Effie’s insistence, which continues throughout all of the four films in The Hunger Games series, on etiquette expresses a matrix that held a central position of cultural power throughout the American nineteenth century (The Hunger Games; Catching Fire). More specifically, those expectations served as means by which a unique type of evangelical Protestantism became the principal way that the emerging American nation understood itself (Duffey 4; Noll 17-18; Marsden 11). Such a notable cultural link was present that historian Martin Marty has argued how nineteenth-century American life became no less than the embodiment of a self-professed “Protestant Empire” (297). Marty’s fellow historian George Marsden expressed that as late as 1870, Americans still assumed themselves to be a “Christian nation” (11). Given, at the same time, that most of these same Americans feared the encroachment of Roman Catholicism, Marsden’s phrase describes an exclusively Protestant set of ideas (Noll 17-18).Though varying in their approaches, Marty, Marsden, and other historians such as Mark Noll, Betty DeBerg, and Donald Mathews all argued that the Protestantism of the nineteenth century shaped how these cultural descendants of Washington and Jefferson came to believe that being Christian and American were one and the same (DeBerg 13-24; Noll 17-18; Mathews xvi). This shaping, as it happened, soon took the form of etiquette manuals whose sheer numbers grew in response to rising national anxieties following the Civil War (Kasson 44; Wecter 159). Even as the extant scholarship concerning The Hunger Games novels and films indeed covers a broad range of topics, there remains something unique to ponder in the connection between the Mockingjay revolution through the evangelical Protestantism as articulated within American notions of etiquette and the manuals that outlined them (Despain 69-78; Eskin 179-189; Foy 206-221; Montz 139; 139-147; Keller 22; 22-41; Clemente 20-29).

The ways that such a link expresses itself within The Hunger Games provide the main impetus of the present work. I seek to explore that relationship through an analysis of sequences that discern how Effie’s insistence on “manners,” or at least keeping a timely schedule, is more than an echo limited to the geographical area of what once was North America (The Hunger Games; Catching Fire; Mockingjay I; Mockingjay II; Mockingjay 364-365). More so as well, and in a specific reference from the first two films, a connection exists even to the burgeoning colonial nationalism that preceded the American Revolution (Anderson 12-13; 54; 58; 62). For Katniss’ world of Panem, I wish to argue that Effie’s insistence on manners and etiquette, and even as she does not realize the fullness of its implications, provided one of the principal elements for the Mockingjay rebellion against the Capitol. That the historical roots for the uprising were rooted in how nineteenth-century Americans understood themselves makes Effie’s propriety and Katniss’ passion necessary compliments to one another.

Composed in the aftermath of September 11, 2001, The Hunger Games offers a twenty-first-century post-traumatic take on how Americans continue to experience the relationship between manners and power. It is that connection which opens a way to understand Effie’s desire for propriety, especially in the midst of a society so horrific that it has televised the murder of 23 or more children each year for the past three-quarters of a century (The Hunger Games; Catching Fire). Even as it is beyond her immediate reference point, Effie’s oft-repeated demand for etiquette and punctuality expresses a worldview that contains a power rooted in the dignity of each individual (The Hunger Games; Catching Fire; Mockingjay I; Mockingjay II; Mockingjay 364-365). Such a background makes clear that the nineteenth-century American manuals of manners expressed the same presumptions that Effie vocalized through “as usual, ladies first” (The Hunger Games; Butler vii-ix; Egan 9-10; Duffey 9-12).

Hunger 02Discussed by historians Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., Dixon Wecter, and John Kasson, these manuals discussed virtually all aspects of behavior among Americans during the Victorian era (Schlesinger. 19; Wecter 159; Kasson 44). Even as they specified a long list of proprieties rooted in a firm gender and class structure, the manuals also proclaimed how such mannered graces affirmed a mutual concern for one’s neighbors regardless of their given social status (Butler 15-16; Egan 33-35; Duffey 8-13; Cogswell 161-162). As William Cogswell put it in his Letters to Young Men Preparing for the Christian Ministry (1837)

He who embraces the sentiments of Christ’s Sermon on the Mount and … will be a truly polite man, amiable in his spirit, attractive in his manners, and agreeably affectionate in all his intercourse. To be a perfect gentleman is not, therefore, inconsistent with being a true Christian; but to be a Christian, in heart and life, is, in the most important senses, to be a true gentleman. (161-162)

These notions of generosity were not limited, of course, to Cogswell’s young men preparing for a life in pastoral ministry. From Charles Butler’s 1839 The American Lady through the representative works of Cecil Hartley in 1873, Eliza Duffey in 1877, and Agnes Morton’s 1919 Etiquette, these directives professed their notion of American culture as an incarnate manifestation of evangelically Protestant Christianity (200-201; 34; 102-104; 11-12). Such an understanding grounded itself, as notably indicated within the manuals themselves, upon the love of one’s neighbor (Butler 15-16; Egan 15-16; Duffey 12; Morton 11-12). Morton’s work, in point of fact, specifies the expectation that Effie Trinket, several centuries on, pronounced at Panem’s 74th Annual Reaping. While discussing the distribution of food at a social dinner, Morton indicates how “[i]t may be remarked at the outset, that everything at table is handed at the left, except wine, which is offered at the right. Ladies are served first” (81 – Morton’s italics). Along with her fellow manual writers, Morton believed such “social amenities” indicated “a … hopeful sign of progress in civilization [and] a softening of [previously] …hard natures” based upon “the ’golden rule’ from which all rules of etiquette, however ‘worldly,’ are based” (11; Duffey 3; 9; Hartley 3-5).

These authors believed such “softening” to be part of a continual effort in reminding post bellum Americans that proper etiquette served a first defense against, as Duffey put it, “the natural state … in which [human beings are] savage[s]” (9). Without such a defense, she sees a Hobbesian world of “selfishness” where “[m]ight makes right,” and that “the weaker submit […]” to the “suffering [of] indignities and cruelties, and even death at the hands of the party in power” (10). While ladies receive first service at American dinner tables and the names of girls are drawn as the beginning of Panem’s death ritual, it is not so important to discover how these traditions survived both the collapse of the United States and the “Dark Days” of Panem (The Hunger Games). Rather, Effie’s notion of “ladies first” affirms the worth of each human self and by doing so, becomes one of the central pillars in the rebellion against the Capitol (Egan 15-16; Morton 11-12; The Hunger Games).

It is reasonable, of course, to argue that Effie’s participation in a pageant which kills children for high television ratings reflects only another of the monstrosities that almost always overwhelms the most well-meaning expressions of socially active etiquette. Quite notably for example, once Prim is chosen and Katniss volunteers in her stead, District 12’s response to Effie’s call for a “round of applause” is one of a contemptuous silence (The Hunger Games). Within the American traditions that Effie unknowingly continues, however, her desire for mannered procedure does much more than control the “dramatic events from District 12” (The Hunger Games). Despite what may appear as formulaic emptiness to postmodern audiences, Effie’s sense of manners, in fact, expresses the worth of each Everdeen “lady” along with her growing insistence that they receive their due beyond the political needs of the Capitol (The Hunger Games 22; Butler 15-16; Duffey 16). At its core, Katniss’ willingness to die for her sister creates the cultural space within which Effie starts to link proper etiquette, the notion of individual selfhood, and the present political environment which presently degrades them (Catching Fire 49-50; Mockingjay I; Mockingjay II; Mockingjay 364-365).

Such transformation continues to express itself during Katniss and Peeta’s rail journey to the Capitol for the games. During their first morning aboard the train, Katniss enters the dining car to see Peeta sharing a breakfast table with Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), the only other living victor from District 12 and a mentor for its tributes (The Hunger Games). Having already confirmed his reputation as a drunken embarrassment to their home district and, perhaps, the Capitol, Haymitch’s haggard appearance does not come as a surprise (The Hunger Games). Taken aback by his dismissive “advice” to “[s]tay alive” as well as infuriated by the earlier physical assault against Peeta for questioning his indifference on just how they might do so, Katniss responds to Haymitch’s actions by slamming a knife into the table that separated them (The Hunger Games). Unlike the film, Collins’ novel does not specify the type of table that Katniss defaces (The Hunger Games 56). The cinematic sequence, however, not only portrays differences, but also visualizes more cultural artifacts that help to stir the revolutionary embers which Katniss has already, if unwittingly, ignited (The Hunger Games).

The first distinction between film and novel in the current sequence is simply Effie’s presence during the confrontation. Seated on a couch somewhat behind, but clearly within sight of her three companions, Effie reads as the others converse about the Games. As ever, she seems separated from the intensity of the conversation taking place, and reacts to Katniss’ knife-wielding with the misplaced reaction of “[t]hat is mahogany!” (The Hunger Games). By placing apparently greater value on a piece of furniture than two lives already drafted for the Capitol’s amusement, Effie once again seems to express a wildly inappropriate sense of priorities.

Hunger 03The film’s creative inclusion nonetheless offers something beyond Effie’s stated foolishness. Rather, her reference to mahogany creates another connection between the former United States and Panem. In an examination of Mahogany: The Costs of Luxury in Early America (2012), historian Jennifer L. Anderson writes of its impact on early European explorers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (12-13). Anderson writes how mahogany soon became a much-desired item for “status symbols among the social elite” on both sides of the Atlantic (12-13). For both Europeans and those colonists who settled in the New World, mahogany’s popularity “coincided with eighteenth-century Anglo concepts of beauty, gentility, refinement, and modernity” (12). Anderson also cites the work by her fellow historian Richard Bushman that noted mahogany’s association with growing colonial nationalism through its manifestation of “’a polished environment [which] was as much the essence of gentility as polished manners’” (qtd. 54). While early and pre-Revolutionary War colonists, as Anderson argued, “[sought] to improve themselves by cultivating … their manners and speech,” mahogany’s notion as a “prestige object” came to “represent a symbolic assault on the status quo” with its inequities of power and wealth (54; 58; 63). Even available in “superabundant” quantity as late as the middle eighteenth century, it continued to be well beyond the price range of most colonists (63). Such noted divisions, Anderson continues, became “just one of the more highly visible manifestations of hardening social and economic distinctions” throughout the colonies (63). These links between literature, history, and culture, ones that covered many centuries from colonial America to dystopian Panem, reveal several multi-layered discourses that are worthy of continued exploration.

As The Hunger Games portrays the scene, and even while she chastises Katniss for damaging the furniture, Effie still manages, and again without comprehending the cultural implications of her actions, to reflect the human connection building within her (The Hunger Games). As she reacts to Katniss’ knife wielding, Effie does so by turning directly into the sight of her angry tribute. Such purposeful movement, joined with a type of maternal correction, portrays a recognition of Katniss’ contempt and, with it, her individual personhood. In that sense, it becomes arguable that Effie’s reaction to Katniss, whose intercession for her sister manifests a love that lies at the heart of proper manners and etiquette, had started to become an individual with a life beyond just another performer on “a television show” (The Hunger Games; Duffey 16; Hartley 34). Within such a context, Effie’s expressions of joy through the festival sequences of Catching Fire concerning the victory of Katniss and Peeta in the previous year’s Games fit easily with the narrative.

Once Katniss and Peeta emerge alive from their initial Games, Effie’s process of transformation, despite her celebration of televised murder, begins to take a more pronounced expression. As she and her young victors enter President Coriolanus Snow’s (Donald Sutherland) mansion on their way to the traditional banquet feast, Effie, always courteous, points to several of its interior features. The film portrays these sequences by having Effie describe the composition of President’s Snow’s library walls and bookcases. In walking past, Effie notes their composition as “all mahogany” (Catching Fire). By such verbalization, and even as she still has no idea of its cultural and historical implications, Effie manages yet again to intensify the desire for revolution throughout Panem. Of course, her reference does not at first extend beyond its immediate setting. At the same time and as the scene opens onto another historical reference point, now between mahogany and the Capitol’s opulence over and use of food, Katniss, Peeta, and, soon enough, Effie herself move closer to open resistance against those who oppress them.

While Catching Fire as a novel gives significant detail to the Capitol’s abundance of food, its film counterpart visualizes that excess so as to overwhelm the audience’s eye. Surrounded by well-connected Capitol residents, Katniss and Peeta are first stunned by that which is spread so bountifully around them (76). Referring to it as “the star of the evening,” Katniss describes a room with “[e]verything you can think of, and things you never have dreamed of  ”just a plate away” (Catching Fire 77). Despite their recent triumph in the Games, however, neither Katniss nor Peeta have forgotten how food is often not available at basic nutritional levels for many of Panem’s citizens (80; The Hunger Games). After satisfying their need for sustenance, Katniss, along with Peeta, is approached by her prep team of Flavius (Nelson Ascensio), Octavia (Kimiko Gelman), and Venia (Bruce Bundy), who indicate that by drinking what is being offered to them, a person will be able to regurgitate and continue to eat (Catching Fire). Suggesting a dance to escape the moment, Peeta and Katniss mourn the contrast between the hunger they remember from District 12 and the Capitol residents who eat with such abundance and indifference (Catching Fire). Following such a conversation, the District 12 victors simply try to make the remainder of their evening as endurable as possible (81-84). Through her endurance, and particularly in meeting the new gamekeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Katniss begins to realize that the rebellion she first thought almost impossible has, in fact, already begun (Catching Fire). Understanding that despite her immediate circumstances, Katniss now believes even more that neither Peeta nor she stand alone in what was unfolding before them.

Throughout the second film, Effie unsurprisingly continues to stress manners beyond any reasonable proportion to the events around her (Catching Fire). Once she grasps, however, that President Snow has turned the 75th Games, known as the Third Quarter Quell, into a war of all living victors against themselves in an effort to subdue the unrest across Panem, Effie becomes more than a bit angry, one might suggest, at the ungentlemanly way that Katniss and Peeta, along with the previous Victors, have become insignificant chess pieces in a contest for power (Catching Fire). Effie’s disdain for President Snow’s, at the very least, bad manners did not, one can infer, originate with an understanding of nineteenth-century American cultural history. Effie’s heightening disgust nevertheless expresses the same warning that Eliza Duffey wrote within her 1877 manual. President Snow’s manipulation of the victors was a transgression that had returned Panem, in Duffey’s words, “to the natural and savage state” which Effie believed it had eradicated some 75 years earlier (9). Through Duffey’s terms that defined the conduct of a “gentleman” – something which Effie clearly understood – President Snow’s etiquette shows him nowhere close to exhibiting “[a desire to be] helpful and protecti[ve of] the weak” (13). Such a lack of mannered concern for one’s fellows led Effie toward a greater understanding of the vulnerability of even those previous Victors from earlier editions of the Games (13; Catching Fire). By a deepening grasp of just what has been occurring throughout Panem over the past three-quarters of a century, Effie, with more and more frustration, begins to separate herself from President Snow and the Capitol. As she puts it during the second film through tear-filled apologies to Katniss and Peeta, their return to the Games “was not supposed to happen” (Catching Fire). In James Keller’s contention, the novels and films of The Hunger Games may indeed exemplify an exercise in “self-reflective meta-marketing” (30). Still, as he continues, it is more “Gary Ross’ film of The Hunger Games that erase[s] the ontological boundaries between fantasy and reality and draw[s] attention to the film’s critique of contemporary America” (30). What Keller leaves unstated, however, is the way in which manners, food, and power in the first two films signify both his critique and the revolution which Effie soon chooses to join.

SS_D142-42501.dngCollins’ portrayal of the rebellion in Mockingjay, coupled cinematically with the two final films that split the third novel, Mockingjay I and II, soon comes to resemble the ending to a traditional American Western. Tropes such as several aides to the hero being killed so that she might live, Prim’s death during the climactic battle sequence, or how Katniss’ long-time hunting partner Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hensworth), reveals his less than noble character, the novel and films lead inexorably to President Snow’s overthrow and Katniss’ upcoming role as his executioner (Mockingjay 278-279; 331; 312-313; 352; 34-41; Mockingjay I; Mockingjay II). While the last two films repeat standard Western formula, a close examination suggests that the cultural etiquette which Effie somehow inherited from nineteenth-century American evangelical Protestantism remains consistent throughout the overall, and her own personal, revolt against the Capitol (Mockingjay I; Mockingjay II; Mockingjay 354-365).

It is, of course, a central premise of American tradition that (relative) justice will triumph against oppressive power. It also has been an American belief that such a victory will, as the epilogue from Mockingjay II suggests, somehow help to create a more just social order (Mockingjay II). Despite the physical and mental pain that a married Peeta and Katniss continue to endure long after the revolution, the events begun through her initial sacrifice did result in the deaths of both oppressive Presidents, Snow and his District 13 counterpart Alma Coin (Julianne Moore), the destruction of the arenas, and the end of the Games (Mockingjay II). More hopefully still, the Games’ history is taught at the school where Katniss and Peeta’s daughter presently attends, and at which their son will soon enroll (Mockingjay 389). Even given the Machiavellian insinuations of Plutarch Heavensbee that following the deaths of Presidents Snow and Coin, the “sweet period [of a new Panem in which] everyone agrees that our recent horrors should never be repeated,” the last film still concludes with the basic American expectation that a successful revolution will usher forth a humane form of government (Mockingjay II).

In itself, such an ending seems suitable for readers who matured in the anxieties following the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Mary Pharr and Leisa Clark discuss such a link as part of their introductory essay to Of Bread and The Hunger Games (2012) (7-8). Beyond the expectations of younger people, however, Collins extends her cultural bridge between the manners of American evangelical Protestantism and the revolution that transformed Panem. During the chaos in the Capitol following the rebel invasion and the overthrow of President Snow’s regime, Katniss continues to face political difficulties with her role as the Mockingjay (Mockingjay II). During preparations for her soon to be nationally broadcast public duty of executing President Snow, Katniss yearns that someone might aid her in the task that she had earlier demanded for being the living symbol of the rebellion (Mockingjay II; The Hunger Games). As her anxiety builds in the concluding novel, Katniss is soon startled to see Effie somehow standing before her and continuing to insist on the maintenance of a proper schedule (Mockingjay 364-365). In the novel’s telling, Katniss has neither seen nor heard from Effie since the evening before the Third Quarter Quell (365). Understanding that Effie had just managed to avoid execution for ostensibly helping her evade capture, and still not quite believing who and what gazed over her, Katniss thought to herself, “[i]t’s quite a stretch. Effie Trinket, rebel” (365).

Hunger 05Even as Effie’s role expands in Mockingjay I and II, little is done to reinforce the historical and cultural roots that she embodies in the two opening films. Much like the films themselves, Effie seems to have already made her point and now anticipates the inevitable victory over the Capitol. Mockingjay II especially misses how Effie’s disappearance for most of the final novel enhances her return at the moment when Katniss needs her the most. As she stands before Katniss and continues to insist on proprieties that are, at best, misplaced within the immediate set of circumstances, it seems almost impossible for Effie to provide Katniss the emotional ballast she needs before executing President Snow. At the same time, to recognize Effie’s capture and probable torture by the Capitol as somehow rooted in the relationship she articulated between etiquette, manners, and the revolution, such a “stretch” does appear plausible (365). Such a recognition that however it happened, the transmission of a nineteenth-century American Protestant code of mannered etiquette to the world of Panem brings Effie’s defiance into greater light. By honoring her insistence that Katniss maintain an orderly schedule, as Mockingjay the novel put it, for her latest “big, big day,” it further becomes appropriate to conclude that appearing on time serves as a means to demonstrate respect for those awaiting one’s arrival (365). As Duffey wrote in relationship to attending worship, “[n]ever be late to church. It is a decided mark of ill-breeding” (104). Collins expresses much the same attitude through Effie’s revolutionary desire to have Katniss be punctual for nothing less than shooting an arrow into the heart of Panem’s former Chief Executive on national television.

The Hunger Games is not, of course, an examination of the connections between a central aspect of life in late Victorian America and the feared dystopian world of Panem. Originating from a combination of Greek myth, the Roman Gladiatorial Games, the Iraq War, and the escapist American post 9-11 desire for reality television that does little or no harm, Collins asks her fellow adults to examine the world which we have created from that given to us by our parents (Keller 30). In so doing, Collins desires that we gaze upon ourselves with an unsparing cultural eye. Portrayed through both her fictional trilogy and a quartet of films, part of our gazing is to renew what once was clearly understood: the notion of individual worth, here embodied by the etiquette of Effie Trinkett, as the basis for a just and moral social order. Anything that degrades another unique self, even something as simple as bad manners, is neither a tribute nor a victory. Rather, as Katniss reflects, it is a game that needs not to be played (Mockingjay II; Mockingjay 390).

Richmond B. Adams is Assistant Professor of English at Northwestern Oklahoma State University.

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2 Comments for ““As Usual, Ladies First”: Manners, Manuals, and The Hunger Games

  1. A very impressive article. In University of Warwick days, Andrew Britton and Robin Wood both affirmed that Hollywood cinema did echo American culture in several ways. This may not be in terms of quality today but you’ve drawn some very interesting associations between your area of study, doctoral interest in etiquette, along with some really interesting insights. Well done.

  2. Richmond Adams

    Thank you for your kind words and thoughts, Dr.Williams.

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