“The Hunger Games” is Hollywood’s wake-up call that female action hero movies can be successful if the protagonist is portrayed as a complex subject instead of a hyper-sexualized fighting fuck toy (FFT).
In its first weekend, “The Hunger Games” grossed $155 million, making it the third highest opener of all time (behind the last Harry Potter film and “The Dark Knight”), despite a marketing budget half the size of the major studios. “Hunger” holds the record for top opener outside of July, and the top non-sequel opener. “Hunger” also holds the distinction of being the highest grossing opener with a female protagonist.
By the second weekend, “Hunger” made $251 million in the U.S. — the fastest non-sequel to break the quarter billion dollar mark. While the movie plays up the romance angle more than the books, “Hunger” is squarely an action thriller, set in a dystopic future world where teens fight to the death in a reality show designed to bolster the dominance of the ruling order.
“Hunger’s” success is partially based on the wide appeal of its teenage hero, Katniss Everdeen, who makes it through the movie without a single scene of sexual objectification (despite opportunities to work this into the story). Katniss is a believable, reluctant hero. She succeeds where other female heroes have failed because she isn’t a FFT.
Fighting fuck toys are hyper-sexualized female protagonists who are able to “kick ass” (and kill) with the best of them. The FFT appears empowered, but her very existence serves the pleasure of the heterosexual male viewer. In short, the FFT takes female agency, weds it to normalized male violence, and appropriates it for the male gaze.
From an ethical standpoint, Hollywood executives should be concerned about the damage girls and women sustain growing up in a society with ubiquitous images of sex objects, but they’re not. From a business standpoint, Hollywood executives should be concerned about the money they could be making with better female action heroes, but so far, they seem pretty clueless.
Hollywood rolls out FFTs every few years that generally don’t perform well at the box office (think Lara Croft, Elektra, Cat Woman, Sucker Punch), leading executives to wrongly conclude that female action leads aren’t bankable. The problem isn’t their sex. The problem is their portrayal as sex objects, and objects aren’t convincing protagonists. Subjects “act” while objects are “acted upon,” so reducing a female action hero to an object, even sporadically, diminishes her ability to believably carry a storyline. The FFT might have an enviable swagger and do cool stunts, but she’s ultimately a bit of a joke.
The comical nature of objectified female protagonists is exposed in the Escher Girls tumbler that critiques the physical contortions of FFTs in video games and comic books.
Likewise, the film “Wonder Woman: The Untold Story of Female Superheroines” documents their evolution in U.S. popular culture with special emphasis on recent hyper-sexualization and subsequent disempowerment.
With the phenomenal success of “The Hunger Games,” Hollywood can no longer deny the bankability of female action leads. Forty percent of the audience for “The Hunger Games” is male, so a great story led by a kick ass female lead who isn’t reduced to a sex object can have wide appeal. As Mark Hughes from Forbes.com points out, movie studios artificially limit their profits when they target male audiences at the expense of other demographics.
Hollywood is now on a quest to find the next Katniss Everdeen franchise. The question is, do executives know better than to turn her into a fighting fuck toy?
“The Hunger Games” Trailer