At this point, many have praised The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins, and Katniss for contributing a strong, well-rounded, and realistic female character to geek culture. While this response from my fellow fanboys and fangirls is both positive and appropriate, much less has been stated regarding how you, Peeta Mellark, are also an exceptional and refreshing addition to the genre character pool. It’s not a hard and fast rule, but you may have noticed that the majority of male characters in Geekdom, at least the ones considered the heroes of their tales, tend to kick a--, take names, and break hearts. While I will never lose my fan loyalty to classic male geek hero figures like Han Solo, James Bond, and Conan the Barbarian, I do strongly appreciate the additions of characters like yourself to the ranks, Peeta. Sure, there is a primal thrill to the adventures that stroke the male ego by featuring heroes overcoming obstacles with their rippling muscles or big f#$%ing guns and then being rewarded with the affections of (usually multiple) beautiful females, but I could never relate to these heroes as deeply as I related to you while reading The Hunger Games trilogy. This is partly because, despite my admiration for them, I don’t have much in common with these classic, testosterone-filled, man’s man-type heroes in my real life. I don’t solve my problems with a powerful punch to the jaw. Instead, I am fond of working out disagreements with my words, and I generally seek harmony with others. (Maybe it’s the Libra in me.) I’m not a smooth, confident, and snarky rogue, but I do tend to be a polite, genuine, and sometimes goofy individual and most seem to find that plenty charming. And, I don’t end up bedding the majority of women I encounter. (Shocking, I know.) Instead, I am intensely in love with one woman and, honestly, wouldn’t want it any other way. While I’ve been out of high school for some time now, I’ve really always been a friendly and romantic person with a strong loyalty to my friends and family. Given my lack of stereotypical “cool,” it may be easy to see why I never ended up relating too deeply to heroes like Han Solo and James Bond. And, while you may not be an intergalactic smuggler or secret agent, Peeta, you are a relatable and noble hero for our times. I am very grateful that today’s youth has a character like you so highly present in their pop culture spectrum. You are fairly different than the majority of male characters in Geekdom, Peeta, and this uniqueness is my very reason for writing this letter of thanks and appreciation.
As author V. Arrow mentions in Smart Pop Books’ The Panem Companion, you and Katniss are “essentially, each playing the gender role that would usually be assumed by the other in Western culture” throughout The Hunger Games novels. While Katniss is good with a weapon, hunts and supports her family, and is some what closed off emotionally, you have a talent for baking, have a gentle, nurturing, and forgiving nature, and are the love sick member of the couple. Despite the fact that typically these traits are portrayed in our pop culture as feminine in nature and often would result in a foppish, weak, or cartoony male character, you’ve found the inherent strength in them. While there could be a lengthy discussion as to why society in general still deems things like baking, having a kind or gentle nature, or expressing one’s love for another as mainly feminine in nature, the real point to be made is that in our current, multifaceted, and progressive culture, there are many young males who can relate to a male character who embraces both the feminine and masculine traits, placing value on both sides of the spectrum.
When it comes to male hero figures in American culture, there can not be enough importance placed on the presence of those who respect their female counterparts. It is even more important these days given the challenges that face women’s equality in not only our nation, but in Geekdom itself! Whether it be the ridiculous concept of “fake geek girls,” the outrageous statements that have been made recently regarding issues like “legitimate rape,” equality in pay between the sexes, or the end of the ban on female U.S. soldiers in combat, respect and equality for women continues to be a prominent and important issue of the times. It’s an issue that deserves the backing of the men who believe in it, and it reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from Joss Whedon’s now famous “Equality Now” speech regarding why he “writes strong women characters:”
“Because of my father—My father and my stepfather had a lot do with it, because they prized wit and resolve in the women they were with—above all things, and they were among the rare men who understood that recognizing somebody else's power does not diminish your own. When I created Buffy, I wanted to create a female icon, but I also wanted to be very careful to surround her with men who not only had no problem with the idea of a female leader, but were in fact, engaged and even attracted to the idea.”
You are very much one of these men, Peeta. You have demonstrated time and again that you realize that “recognizing somebody else's power does not diminish your own,” and I think, given your love and loyalty for Ms. Everdeen, it’s pretty clear that you have “no problem with the idea of a female leader” and are “in fact, engaged and even attracted to the idea.” Having grown up considering characters like Ellen Ripley of the Alien series, Sarah Conner of the Terminator franchise, and Buffy herself, my heroes, this is another area where I relate to you. While I know there are those out there who believe that a male having a female hero is somehow emasculating or improper, it is an idea that is slowly dying off. Female heroes are becoming quite common, and although many have suffered through shallow depictions, exaggerated sex appeal, and skimpy outfits, a number of female heroes are emerging in the form of characters like Ripley, Sarah Conner, and Katniss – female characters that are, for the most part, ordinary people thrust into extraordinary events. The male characters surrounding these female heroes play an important role in pop culture by dispelling the idea that male characters who posses secondary or submissive roles to female characters are in some way weakened or enfeebled. These male characters are proud to follow their female leaders, seeing them as capable and skilled individuals first, and females second. Male characters like yourself also provide positive examples and role models for fanboys like me who’ve been on board with this concept for some time now and are waiting for the rest of Geekdom to catch up.
In all honesty, the character trait of yours that I think I value the most is one that I mentioned earlier. Despite the fact that some of your traits would be typically portrayed in our pop culture as feminine in nature and often would result in a foppish, weak, or cartoony male character, you’ve found the inherent strength in them. While it may be simple for certain readers to label you a “weak” character due to your resistance to killing, the torch you carry for Katniss, and your emotional sensitivity, this is a completely flawed and narrow-minded analysis of who you are. You are, in fact, one of strongest and most resilient male heroes out there (and I don’t mean just when it comes to tossing bags of flour).
Like you, Peeta, I may fear some things in this world, but emotional vulnerability isn’t one of them. Of course love can hurt, but it has always made sense to me that there’s no human connection worth forming that comes without openness, trust, and the risk that one might be hurt in the end. I guess I always figured that, no matter how bad I suffered, I would survive the emotional pain, so if there was a chance that the person I was with could be the one, how could I not take the chance? No pain, no gain, right? Given your actions throughout The Hunger Games novels, I have a feeling we share this mindset regarding love. We know it requires vulnerability. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work and is known for, among other things, her extremely popular TED talk regarding the power of vulnerability. (Here’s a link to the video of that talk. It is very much worth your while!) One of the more commonly quoted lines from Brown’s speech is this one:
“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”
While I believe Brown’s statement is absolutely, positively true, much of society still views vulnerability, especially emotional vulnerability, as a sign of weakness. I remember this flawed logic being even more present among my male peers in high school and college, so perhaps it is something you’ve dealt with as well, Peeta. I remember a significant amount of male friends who refused to let themselves be emotionally vulnerable to another, especially a female, and viewed my own willingness to take the emotional plunge as a sign of femininity that they equated to a soft spot in my male identity. In their minds, I didn’t have the stones to keep my heart in check and not get emotionally involved. I quickly came to realize that despite their beliefs that they were strong men refusing to get attached emotionally (or “stupid,” as they often put it), this act of cutting off the potential for intimacy is actually a definitive sign of weakness and cowardness masquerading as a display of male strength. Frankly, there’s no “male strength” in cutting yourself off emotionally so that you can’t be hurt. Instead, what we find hiding behind the curtain of machismo are simply scared, little boys who are too afraid of suffering an emotional boo-boo to pursue a real and honest human connection. It takes enormous strength to be emotionally vulnerable to another without holding back. It takes a great amount of courage to put yourself out there and risk the pain that may come. It takes extraordinary fortitude and guts to suffer rejection or heartbreak at a truly intimate level and continue on without anger, hate, or the need for revenge. Loving someone truly and honestly as you do is an act of enormous strength, great courage, and extraordinary guts, Peeta. Along with your ability and willingness to be vulnerable, you also show an affinity for forgiveness and a desire to use your words rather than your fists to settle your problems and enact change - two additional qualities that seem to be associated with weakness in American culture. Just as with vulnerability, this assertion is a completely bogus one.
It is not a sign of weakness to forgive others—especially when they may not deserve it. It is a sign of weakness to abandon control and give one’s self over to revenge. While there may have been a distance between you and Katniss following her reveal that the romantic scenes in the arena’s cave were played up for the audience, you were willing to forgive her, even attempting to sacrifice yourself for her in the Quarter Quell, so that she could have a post-Games life with Gale. Most wouldn’t have the strength to do so and would fall prey to bitterness and resentment over a situation like that. It takes strength to have restraint to not seek vengeance, especially when it’s in one’s grasp. During Mockingjay, despite the Games, the loss of close friends, and the torture you endured, you voted not to continue the brutal cycle of the Games with the children of the Gamemakers. I guarantee that some in this world think you are weak for these acts of forgiveness. They believe that you didn’t have the guts to “pull the trigger” and get your payback. But, in a world where pop culture heroes prove their worthiness, masculinity, and frankly, heroism, by delivering cold-hearted justice to those who have done them wrong, I thank you for having the integrity to find the strength in your capacity to forgive.
It is also not a sign of weakness to use your words or intellect instead of a gun or your fists. The concept of strength is most heavily tied to physical ability and combat in our society, but to only view strength as tied to physical combat is to ignore the lessons and examples present in our own nation's history. For any patriotic American, and many who are not citizens of my native country, it should be clear that, despite what politicians may insist regarding military budgets and nuclear deterrents, it’s not our arms or combat strength that makes us a strong country. America’s founders, in establishing our nation, used their words as their most powerful tool and as the core of our country’s strength. Yes, when unable to bear the tyranny and oppression by European royalty any longer, my countrymen used the necessary violence of a revolutionary war to emancipate themselves, but in the end, what’s made America a nation of freedom and hope are the words that form the foundation of our liberty: our Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. As I read through The Hunger Games trilogy and your path through the events in the book, it was hard to not think of my country’s beginnings and compare Panem’s path to freedom with our own. Part of this has to do with the revolutionary nature of the plot, but another significant part has to do with your use of words and inspiration, Peeta. Despite what our own pop culture may reinforce, the real heroes in America’s history didn’t change our nation or the world with karate kicks, a grenade launcher, or by defeating their ultimate nemesis in a one-on-one battle. Whether it be during the birth of our nation, the civil rights movement, or even the present day, our real-life heroes used their words to inspire, to improve, and to advance our nation. Your talent for words and ability to inspire is a genuine superpower and is not to be dismissed as the skill of a “weak” character.
Let me wrap up these statements of your strength by pointing out that even with these “alternate” heroic traits, upon examining your actions in The Hunger Games trilogy, you still fill the role of a “bada--” pop culture figure. You may have emotional vulnerability, a strong capacity to forgive, and use your words more than your weapons, but you also manipulate your enemies by going undercover, kill other tributes when necessary (including the warrior-like Brutus from District 2), suffer extreme bouts of torture under the Capitol, and help in the final assault to free Panem. How do you like them apples, Jack Bauer? Once again, it is apparent that your strength as a character has no reason to be in question and that just because you don’t savor “glorious battle” with the enemy doesn’t mean you can’t “get the job done” when it’s a necessity. This clear demonstration of the standard definition of strength and guts only further highlights the many times you make the choice not to pursue a violent solution.
I started this letter off saying that the purpose was of great worth and that I wanted to thank you for what you stand for as a character in Geekdom. While in no way do I want to cut down the many marvelous male role models present in Geekdom (especially since Joss Whedon showed up on the scene), I am grateful for your presence in geek culture, Peeta. You show a rare, yet realistic, kind of strength that I hope is recognized by fanboys and fangirls everywhere, especially in the younger generations captivated by the global sensation that is The Hunger Games. I hope that the fangirls can take away an appreciation for the honesty and integrity in your type of hero and come to expect the same sense of value and respect from their real-life male companions as you extend to Katniss. I hope that the fanboys out there realize that there’s more to being a hero than the ability to pull a trigger and say a smooth punchline. I hope they recognize the power in the ability to be emotionally vulnerable, the ability to forgive, and the ability to show restraint. I hope they realize there’s nothing wrong with having a female hero or a woman in a position of power. And, I hope they realize it's all right to fall head over heels for a girl, no matter what your friends say, even if she does certain things better than you (say archery). This is the kind of hero I wish I had when I was a teen, and I’m positive that there are teens out their that are grateful to have you to look up to.
Well, this has gone on far too long already. Sorry, but I get long winded when I get personal. Let me wrap this thing up. I’m sure you’ve got some bread that’s burning in the oven by now.
Before I say farewell, let me just throw out some acknowledgements that would seem remiss not to mention. First off, a thank you to author Suzanne Collins for her creation of The Hunger Games, and the characters of Katniss Everdeen and, of course, you, Peeta. I’m sure she’s heard it over and over by now, but we fans will always feel grateful for the characters and stories she has bestowed upon us. Also, while I am not as big a fan of the film adaptation as I am of the original novels, I still feel it necessary to thank both Gary Ross and Josh Hutcherson for bringing your character to the silver screen and to an almost unfathomably large audience. Finally, I must give an enormous amount of thanks to the cast and crew of The Katniss Chronicles. They’ve given me an amazing opportunity to walk in the shoes of one of my all-time favorite characters in Geekdom and to bring a new version of this wonderful story to the masses.
Alright, Peeta. It’s about time to go check on that bread. Give Katniss my best, hold your children tight, and don’t ever change a thing about yourself.
Your friend and ally,
P.S. Your bread f#$%ing rocks.
*Fanboy Comics wishes to acknowledge Sharon Samples for her fan art of Peeta Mellark, as depicted above. More of Sharon's work may be found at artgyrl.com/wordpress.