Our society struggles with gender identity. Some people have concrete ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman while others question if there are any traits essential to gender. Everyone seems to be attempting to bend society to their preferences, whether for stricter gender conformity or for a move towards androgyny or multiplicity. For Christians, questions of gender are taking place not only horizontally in society, but also vertically: is God masculine or feminine? Is it acceptable to use both feminine and masculine pronouns when referring to God? Is it preferable to do so? In the first novel of her Hunger Games trilogy, Suzanne Collins presents an image of a post-gender society that helps us imagine the Kingdom of God as a reality, a society in which individuals live out of true identity without societal pressure to conform to a predetermined gendered concept of identity.
The main characters of The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta, give a glimpse of gender within the Kingdom of God. They do not conform the gender norms of our current society, and thus question the existence of such societal norms. Peeta, an emotional and artistic baker, values connection over hierarchy and bonds through shared feelings at least as much as shared experiences. Because of his traditionally feminine qualities, many have been interested in Peeta’s portrayal of feminized masculinity, some even criticizing Collins for having unfavorably over-feminized a lead character. Katniss herself is a stoic and emotionally distant hunter. It is easy to view the relationship between Katniss and Peeta as a gender-role reversal even through the limited lens of their primary daily occupation: she a hunter, he a baker.
However, such statements assume that the culturally constructed norms of gender we hold today are in some way intrinsic to human males and females. Reviewers attempting to place our current understanding of gender onto Peeta and Katniss have a hard time of it. Kelsey Wallace concludes her character evaluation of Peeta by writing, “If Gale is the bad boy, Peeta is, well, something else. Not the good boy exactly, but maybe the nice boy.” In some way, Peeta resists categorization. Indeed, the entire society of Panem seems to resist categorization to the extent that it could be described as post-gender. In District Twelve, survival matters more than conformity so much so that no one seems surprised by a young girl who ventures outside the protection of the fence to hunt and gather. The other spectrum of society in the Capitol also defies our current gender norms. Both men and women are concerned with fashion and appearance; even the simplest style of Cinna, Katniss’s male stylist, calls for gold eyeliner.
Rather than imposing our society onto Panem and its inhabitants, we would be wise to allow the text to question our internalized understanding of gender roles. Why are we, the readers, surprised by a female archer, or a man in makeup? Why are some of us angered by Peeta’s vulnerability, or by Katniss’s inability to intuit Peeta’s emotions? We have been so indoctrinated by the gender norms of our culture that we can’t even see past them when another society, another way of being, is presented.
A new way of looking at gender is exactly what Collins offers her readers. While Katniss is preparing for the pre-Games interview, she is trying to figure out how best to present herself: “charming? Aloof? Fierce? … I’m too ‘vulnerable’ for ferocity. I’m not witty. Funny. Sexy. Or mysterious.” Unable to categorize herself in either (from today’s standpoint) feminine or masculine roles, she vents to her stylist: “I just can’t be one of those people [my coach] wants me to be.” Like many individuals in today’s world, Katniss just can’t force herself to fit into a culturally-dictated cookie-cutter role, regardless of its femininity or masculinity. Cinna offers a solution to both Katniss and the reader that is at once obvious and beautiful:
“Why don’t you just be yourself?”
Amidst the questions of Katniss’s combination of masculinity and femininity, and Peeta’s (over-)feminized depiction, critics have missed Cinna’s prophecy. Is Katniss a masculine woman? Is Peeta a feminine man? Within the world of the novel, the questions don’t apply: Katniss is Katniss; Peeta is Peeta.
The God of the Bible can be understood to include both feminine and masculine traits. In the beginning, God creates “male and female” in Her/His image. Throughout Scripture, God is described with masculine images such as father (e.g., Hosea 11:1) and king (e.g., Psalm 29:10), as well as feminine depictions such as mother (e.g., Isaiah 66:13). Surely, this is a God whose identity is carried and reflected by both men and women. With this understanding, in the Kingdom of God both masculine and feminine genders will be not only tolerated, but accepted and celebrated.
However, such a view, as hopeful as it sounds, is too limited, too unimaginative. The God of scripture includes and transcends gender. From the anthropomorphic images of God as father, king, and mother, we could easily picture God as a male or female figure. However, to do so would be to misconstrue the characteristic being invoked. As Hebrew scholar David Stein notes, “Personification was employed as a vehicle to convey a statement about deity—and especially about one’s relationship with deity.” What is being invoked in the image of father or mother is an aspect of relationship, a situational similarity, rather than the full, embodied, engendered being. Such an understanding of the text gives a clearer understanding of what the scriptural author wants to invoke in the audience. It also clarifies seemingly paradoxical images, such as “suck at the breast of kings”, in which a female biological function of nursing is ascribed to male rulers. To understand the personifications of God too literally means to deny the grand all-ness of a Divinity that transcends all human boundaries and definition, including gender.
Genesis 1 not only sets the stage for the entire story, it introduces the character and event of God with a powerful first impression of a being who is beyond every human category. This God creates and orders the universe with a word; it is part of this deity’s identity to surpass all traits of humans, meaning that this being is almost nothing like a human. Such a God is so other that “the audience not only receives no warrant to ascribe social gender, but would be hard pressed to do so.” Just as Collins’s created society of Panem does not ask questions of Katniss’s nor Peeta’s gender, the audience receives no warrant to ascribe social gender either. Those who do have an equally hard time, as demonstrated above. Stein, emphasizing the importance of first impressions, summarizes the rule for understanding the transcendent inclusiveness of God with regards to gender: “What is inappropriate to the opening, do not do what’s joined to it—that is, the whole Torah. The rest is commentary—and translation.” How, then, should gender be understood in a Kingdom that lives under a God who is introduced to be beyond human understanding?
Christian theologians have been easily sidetracked by our own understandings of gender and identity in the debate over God’s masculine and feminine descriptions. Some attempt to equally disperse masculine and feminine pronouns, others try to discern which parts of the Trinity are which gender. As a solution, to paraphrase Cinna, why don’t we just let God be God? If Christians are to read Scripture to understand the character of God, as Stein claims the people of ancient Israel did, we must not allow vision to be clouded by the predominant culture’s misunderstandings and false truths. Doing so would be to superimpose our paradigm onto God, effectively killing the living God and creating an idol in humanity’s image. Just as readers of The Hunger Games can fully appreciate the narrative by allowing Katniss and Peeta to live out of their truest selves, so should even the most critical reader of scripture allow God to be the true God, without attempts to superimpose a gendered box onto Her/Him.
A Kingdom of God understanding of gender, then, must reflect a God who acts uniquely and creates humanity in Her/His image. Although a dystopia, Panem presents a society that appears to be largely beyond concerns of gender roles, whether such nonchalance is the result of desperate survival, as it is in District Twelve, or boredom and body decoration, as it is in the Capitol. In Panem, people are intrigued and impressed by the full identity of Katniss, not only that she’s a strong woman. Even more so, the audience of the Games is captivated by Peeta’s emotional vulnerability and intuitive ability to connect, and not only because he is a man doing so. Rather than praising individuals for breaking gender boundaries, Panem is a society that allows individuals to live out of their truest identity and understanding of self. May we anticipate a Kingdom in which we are accepted and celebrated for living out of our true self rather than a societal expectation, in which gender is secondary to identity.