It has been brought to my attention (through a discussion which has been recreated here) that some men consider the The Hunger Games trilogy to be a franchise marketed to women and are reluctant, therefore, to read the books or watch the films for fear of emasculation. This would be understandable if The Hunger Games fit cleanly into the romance or romantic comedy genre that’s typically marketed to female audiences. As it is, however, The Hunger Games is an action movie whose premise bears a strong resemblance to Battle Royale, a book and film franchise with a large (and arguably predominantly) male audience. While these two franchises differ thematically and tonally, what is the fundamental difference between these two that would skew male favor towards Battle Royale and away from The Hunger Games? Battle Royale features a male protagonist with a female love interest while The Hunger Games features a female protagonist with a male love interest.
This might not be worth mentioning if this were an isolated incident of gender bias amongst film audiences. However, the notion that Katniss Everdeen’s role as primary protagonist is emasculating is merely one more example of this gender-based double standard: for the most part, women are willing to accept and connect with male protagonists in film while men have difficulty doing the same with female protagonists.
The origins of this dilemma stem from the simple fact that the majority of films have been made by straight men and, therefore, feature straight, male protagonists. This is not sexism so much as human nature. People are inclined to write characters with whom they can most closely relate and so it is only natural that straight men would gravitate to writing heroes who share their gender and sexual orientation. The problem is that straight, male leads are now considered the standard so any deviation from this is considered, well, just that: a deviation from the norm. While male characters in film are typically perceived simply as characters, female characters tend to be viewed as women first and characters second.
This is also largely because most movies are filmed through the male gaze. Even when women do star in movies with wide audiences, such as horror films and some action films, they are often dressed and shot in a manner intended to appeal to straight men. Women first. Characters second.
Marketing films to male audiences is so commonplace, in fact, that movies marketed to women have been given their own genre: chick flick. The defining characteristics of a chick flick are highly subjective but suffice to say that chick flicks are films intended for chicks that typically feature female protagonists. The difficulty with calling a film a “chick flick,” however, is that the term carries connotations of being light, brainless and, above all else, feminine. On these grounds, alone, most men avoid chick flicks as do many women. However, because most films marketed for women, aka chick flicks, feature female protagonists and most films marketed to “wider audiences” feature male protagonists, films with female protagonists are often automatically categorized as chick flicks, regardless of the film’s content and are, therefore, avoided by most men.
It is by this logic that many men won’t watch movies like Chocolat, the tale of a woman who confronts Catholic traditionalism in a small, French village, Sunshine Cleaning, a dramedy about two sisters who start a business cleaning the sites of murders and suicides, and, finally The Hunger Games, the story of a girl who is forced to fight 23 other teenagers to the death on live television.
To be fair, The Hunger Games was the third top grossing film of 2012 and did appeal to a wide audience, despite a few insecure men. Alien and Girl With The Dragon Tattoo are two more examples of films with female leads that were very well-received by male and female audience members alike and, furthermore, there is enormous hype surrounding the upcoming Veronica Mars film.
That said, there are still disproportionately few female protagonists in movies and this is not going to change so long as men, for whom most mainstream films are made, continue to avoid movies with unobjectified women in the lead.