This past Friday, I gave a talk at our university titled ” ‘Poisonous Fruit’: The Cannibalistic Threat to the Female Body in The Hunger Games and Cinder.” I’m eventually going to work this up into an actual publishable paper, but I thought it would be fun to share here for some of my readers (feedback solicited btw).
Still thinking this through, but here’s some of it…
Today’s young adult novels depend heavily on the narrative architecture and symbolic energy of much older fantasy stories, myths, legends, and fairy tales to design the worlds in which their characters move, not to mention the characters themselves. YA authors regularly cannibalize stories that have been told to generation after generation of children and young adults, absorbing and transforming the older stories’ narrative and symbolic power into the bodies of their new tales. Recent young adult novels are, in essence, fine young cannibals. They rely, for example, on the age-old portrayal of a young female protagonist under constant assault by external forces that threaten her bodily integrity and her identity. Such portrayals of young girls and women in children’s and young adult literature are nothing new. Today, I’ll compare and contrast three popular YA series, Twilight, The Hunger Games, and The Lunar Chronicles ( in which Cinder appears), and connect the cannibalistic threats facing the protagonists to long-standing threads in the genres of the fairy tale and children’s and young adult literature. The main questions I want to investigate: Why are girls’ bodies often depicted as edible/devourable substances in children’s and YA literature? And perhaps most crucially, how are young readers encouraged to process the connection between the girl’s body as an edible/devourable substance and YA novels’ arguments about love, gender, sexuality, politics, and power?
As an example of the threat of consumption in children’s literature, let’s start with fairy tales. In many of these stories, the horrific treatment of young girls is crucial to the tales’ development. They are abandoned, beaten, imprisoned, turned into statues, maimed, blinded, married against their will, and are threatened with rape, decapitation, and defilement. Moreover, it is striking how many of these stories place the girls at their center under constant peril of being consumed. Let’s consider a few of the more popular examples: Little Red Riding Hood is swallowed up by the Wolf; the Evil Queen wants to eat Snow White’s heart for dinner (or her lungs and liver, depending on the version you read); a young girl watches another girl be chopped to pieces and seasoned as she is prepared as the nightly meal for a band of salivating robbers in “The Robber Bridegroom”; Beauty is afraid the Beast will gobble her up the moment she sets foot in his castle; and Gretel almost becomes the tasty side-dish to her brother’s main course.
Even in today’s modern fairy tales, there’s a lot of threatened cannibalism going on. The protagonist in Neil Gaiman’s contemporary fairy-tale novel Coraline, for example, is nearly devoured by her Other Mother and Other Father, frightening beings masquerading as beloved humans because they need her life-force in order to survive.
The Twilight saga also pivots on the appeal of Bella’s young female body. I’d like to linger on Twilight for a moment, because it’s such a great example of what I’m talking about. From its cover art to its final pages, Twilight relies heavily on motifs of consumption, not surprisingly, since this is, after all, a story about vampires. The cover image of the first book, for example, establishes an immediate relationship between food and the female body that continues throughout the remainder of the series. The image features a pair of slender alabaster hands (the longer, manicured fingers suggesting that the hands are female in the codes of Western femininity) offering up a red apple that contrasts deeply with the holder’s pale skin. This apple could be Eve’s apple, suggesting themes of curiosity, temptation, desire, and carnal knowledge; it could also be Snow White’s, a symbol of vanity and temptation that puts the girl into a death-like state upon its consumption.
The epigraph for the first novel, and arguably for the entire series, is drawn from Genesis (2:17), extending the connection between food, temptation, and choice and foregrounding a link between tasting and death: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” As the series progresses, Bella herself comes to be viewed as the forbidden fruit; throughout the books, Edward salivates over her, knowing that just one taste of her blood could cause him to lose control and bring about her demise. Eating also comes to be equated with giving in to sexual desire, which does indeed bring about Bella’s death to her human life in the last book of the series. The main perils that Edward presents to Bella, then, are situated in the threat of devouring, his love a carnal and carnivorous destruction that Bella actually courts. Edward’s desire to consume Bella as food is deeply connected to his sexual desire for her, as well as his notion of love.
This demise is realized in Breaking Dawn when Bella dies to her human life and gives birth to her daughter, a “monster,” in Jacob’s eyes at least, whose type have been rumored to “chew their way out of their mothers” (Meyer Breaking Dawn 307). Meyer lingers over Renesmee’s gestation and its devastation to Bella’s body; as the baby grows, Bella is destroyed from the inside out, her ribs and pelvis cracked, blood drained, spine snapped. Bella is finally undone in the gruesome scene in which Renesmee emerges into the world at the teeth of Edward; as the baby presumably chews its way out of Bella’s stomach, Edward gnaws through the baby’s placenta from the exterior, the teeth of the baby meeting the teeth of its father through the medium of the young mother’s flesh.
Yes, Bella does go on to survive; she becomes a glorious vampire who uses her power as shield to protect the family she loves, but this is an emo re-entrenchment of the role of woman as angel of the house. It is fitting that the series is set in a place called Forks: at the surface level, the town’s name seems to suggest the theme of choice, Bella standing at the fork in the road between life as she knows it and the life of a vampire queen. But Forks also suggests the series’ penetrative, consumptive force – the masculine vampiric teeth on which her former human life, typical teenage aspirations, and human body must be impaled in order for the “new Bella” to emerge. By the end of Twilight, Bella’s life as she knew it has been devoured by Edward’s lifestyle and the traditional marriage plot – she becomes a vampire and a mother, gives up all of her previous aspirations (what happened to the girl who liked to read?), renegotiates her relationships with her immediate family, and fights to the death, literally, to protect her child. It may seem like she has transitioned from prey to predator in her assumption of the vampire role, but her vampirism tames her character into a mold, one which situates her power in the ultra-feminine. Her ability to consume will never be a threat. In the end, Meyer’s emphasis on themes of devourment amplify Bella’s consumption, as a character and a girl, by very old narrative patterns that reinscribe very old codes of femininity. In these stories, generally, the threat and/or action of cannibalism functions either to suggest themes of parental control and rivalry between different generations (in these instances, it’s almost always the women doing the devouring) or to serve as a cautionary tale warning young girls not to trust the wrong people or fall victim to sexual defilement (in this instance, its generally men with evil intentions or older women in positions of authority who have the power to consume).
As Tanya Jones aptly notes in her essay “‘Baby and I were baked in a pie’: Cannibalism and the Consumption of Children in Young Adult Literature,” “Eating is […] an issue regarding transference of power from the consumed to the consumer since, [and here she quotes Bruno Bettelheim] ‘[i]n primitive thought and custom, one acquires the powers or characteristics of what one eats’ (Bettelheim 207). [… T]he act of consuming confers strength to an individual, making the process an issue of power gain and not necessarily one of food equating survival” (31). If cannibalism and the threat of consumption pivot on power, what does their evocation in post-apocalyptic contemporary novels designed largely for consumption by young female readers suggest about the power dynamics in the books?
Let’s start with Katniss. Her story, set in a post-apocalyptic America, focuses heavily on how her identity is consumed and reshaped by external forces beyond her control, her body and psyche transformed, in her eyes at least, into a monstrous “fire-mutt” by the end of the tale. She becomes something of a Humpty Dumpty, her body repeatedly broken and put back together again by the evil President’s men, a man who dies, presumably, by ingesting too much of his own poison. As in Twilight, The Hunger Games series likewise emphasizes consumption as a major motif. The series title itself capitalizes on hunger as a form of social control, and the first novel’s opening pages concentrate on the “reaping,” a word that brings to mind the harvesting of wheat and other crops, but in this case is applied to the harvesting of young people from the various districts of the nation of Panem by the Capitol as a means of keeping its citizens in line. The Capitol cannibalizes its country’s children to display its power. Again, as in Twilight, the setting itself calls attention to food. The word Panem refers to the saying “Panem et circenses,” “bread and circuses,” which refers to the passing out of cheap food and entertainment as a method of appeasing the masses and distracting them from the real political issues at hand. In Collins’s world, the cheap food to be offered up are the tributes themselves, who are forced to fight to the death in a battle royale broadcast over live TV as the ultimate reality TV show. The tributes’ starvation and sacrifice is contrasted by the sheer gluttony of the Capitol, whose citizens gorge themselves upon the resources provided by the other districts. Collins brilliantly captures this theme in the scene in which, as Katniss looks on, members of the Capitol binge and purge in bulimic frenzy at a party meant to honor the tributes, using vomit inducers that will allow them to consume as much of the food provided as they possibly can.
At the center of all of this stands Katniss, a reimagination of the classic hunter figure who is constantly navigating the border between self-sacrifice and self-preservation. She goes into the reaping to protect her sister, but she is determined to emerge from the battle ahead alive. She enters an arena, however, especially when it comes time for the Quarter Quell, filled with others who are just as determined to survive, as exemplified by characters like Enobaria, who “killed one tribute by ripping open his throat with her teeth” and “became so famous for this act that, after she was victor, she had her teeth cosmetically altered so each one ends in a sharp point like a fang” (Collins Catching Fire 224-225). Collins’s characterization of Enobaria relies on the taboo and grotesque nature of cannibalistic acts to amplify the horror of what the tributes are being asked to do and the horrific lengths many of the tributes will go to survive. Collins likewise amplifies the cannibalistic threat of the arena and the Games in the imagery she uses to describe the tribute muttations at the end of book one (a motif that is echoed in the final book, Mockingjay, as the human-lizard mutts hunt Katniss as their programmed prey). In this scene, Katniss and Peeta find themselves at the pinnacle of the Cornucopia, after being chased by human-wolf muttations crafted by the Capitol out of the discarded bodies of the vanquished tributes and feeding their competitor, Cato, to their predators. Katniss and Peeta are forced to endure, for hours, the mutts slow devouring of Cato’s body and “the agonized sounds of the boy dying in the horn,” a horn that is traditionally supposed to symbolize abundance and nourishment, but here, contrasted with this cannibalistic act, symbolizes complete lack of power and devastation. Forcing the former tributes to eat the body of one of their own, while Katniss listens, is the ultimate show of power for the Capitol. Collins uses this cannibalistic act, one not driven by conscious thought but by programming, to amplify the powerlessness Katniss feels and the horror of what the Capitol is doing.
Not surprisingly, the act that gets Katniss into deep trouble at the end of the first novel is one of ingestion; she can control very little, but she can control what she puts into her mouth. Unlike in “Snow White,” in which the young girl is murdered by the Evil Queen with a poisonous apple, Katniss’s poisoned berries represent her rebelliousness, her fighting spirit, her desire to control her own death and life. However, her decision to ingest is an act of suicide. The only power she wields, at least at this point in the series, is over her own existence. And even then, when she wields it, she is still under the thumb of the Capitol’s elite, who remove her body from the ring and “revise” it, perfecting it. Her fear of the Capitol’s consumption of her physicality and her identity is demonstrated when she looks upon the outfit the Capitol lays out for her to wear at the end of book one and flinches, “star[ing] at it as if it had teeth” (351). In a sense, it does. Throughout much of the first two books, Katniss struggles in the Capitol’s maw, and she is only able to break free of its control once she enters its belly and defeats it from the inside out. Only to face another political power sitting on its haunches, ready to devour her from another angle.
Cinder, a book I taught in my feminist fairy tales class this term, trades in much of the same, albeit the cannibalistic threat to the protagonist’s form is less literal. The main character, a teenaged cyborg girl living in a post-apocalyptic New Beijing, discovers (Spoiler Alert; well, not really, if you’ve ever read “Cinderella”) that she is of royal blood. Her body is an amalgam of human and composite parts – she has a metal foot, a “plug-in” designed to keep her central nervous system in check, a scanner in her eye that can tell her when people are telling the truth or lying. Nonetheless, the novel pivots on threats posed to Cinder’s bodily integrity. I don’t want to ruin the novel for you, because I would like you to read it (although, to be honest, I don’t think it’s all that good), but I have to give away a few things for my reading here to make sense. The short list? She is a sort of phoenix, who has risen from the ashes of a fire that was designed to kill her and turned her into a cyborg. Her condition as cyborg marks her as a second-class citizen in New Beijing, and she is forced to be a slavish servant to her fully human “evil stepmother.” This stepmother offers her as a sacrifice to the state, as cyborgs are being tested by the government in the hopes of finding a cure for a plague that is wreaking havoc on the citizenry. This sacrifice would mean certain death for Cinder, if she wasn’t miraculously immune. In any event, just as in The Hunger Games, the threat of the state is represented by its power to destroy the young girl’s body – the girl is no longer going to be literally eaten by an evil queen who wants to take her power, but she does stand to be gobbled up by a political machine that sees her as a threat. Interestingly, this points to the fact that underneath of all of this is the fear that the female body is indeed powerful – that it must be contained, controlled, even destroyed if necessary.
In each of the texts I’ve discussed, the symbolism of food and flesh is twisted into a new form; the contemporary tales cannibalize the old, ingesting the energy of their provocative symbols and forming a new body, a new tale. In the end, I believe each speak differently to young female readers’ perceptions of self-worth, female identity, love, gender roles, sexual politics, and social power. When it comes to Twilight, the threat of consumption is portrayed as a desirable thing, because the end result, after all is said and done, is not the gruesome destruction of the girl’s human body. All of her injuries, the death wounds caused by the mouths of her daughter and her husband, are cured by the gift of vampirism and the love of a man. While in a story like “Little Red Riding Hood,” the devouring of the girl by the wolf is cautionary, a lesson that must be learned by young female readers so that they can avoid being gobbled up themselves by men with evil intentions, in Twilight, the devouring of the girl is seductive, a fantasy to be pursued. In traditional fairy tales, the destruction of the girl’s body, especially cannibalistic destruction, is viewed as immoral and reprehensible. The Hunger Games and Cinder, on the other hand, use cannibalistic threat more in the vein of the traditional tales told by the Grimms, in which the cannibals were the criminals, people or monsters who wielded their physical, parental, magical, or socially mandated power in the wrong way. Collins, in my opinion, best employs the imagery of cannibalism, especially in the maws of the mutated tributes, to amplify all that is wrong in the world of Panem, a country that nourishes itself on the blood of its own youth in order to maintain order. The young women and girls reading The Hunger Games learn hard lessons: that self-sacrifice is not always rewarded, that we often don’t have complete control over our own lives and our destinies, that the political and social institutions that often govern women’s and girls’ lives often do not have their best interests at heart. And that they are afraid of female power.