Mascots, justice, and the role of Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen
Alyssa Rosenberg has a really terrific post on Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen (the heroine of The Hunger Games trilogy) and how they both function as mascots rather than movement leaders in their respective violent worlds.
In Harry’s case this is fairly benevolent for the most part. Katniss, on the other hand, is a child gladiator first, and then quite literally a mascot – as the Mockingjay – and child soldier later. Harry faces the deaths of loved ones, but he is never really asked to kill.
Indeed, while Harry has more agency than Katniss, he is never faced with the hard choices Katniss faces. He is never placed in an arena and asked to kill or be killed; he is never in the midst of a confusing love-triangle filled with deception and distrust; he is never asked to fight for a rebellion that is only dubiously on the right side of the fight. Throughout it all he is surrounded by friends and mentors, whereas Katniss is distrustful of everyone and with good reason.
If we understand Harry as a mascot whose function is ultimately to surrender, it’s interesting to consider The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen in the same terms. Katniss, who is a totally badass hunter, is probably more talented by the standards of her society than Harry Potter is in his. But the elevation of her as a mascot for rebellion against the leadership of Panem actually illustrates the weaknesses of the movement that elevates her. Despite her talents, Katniss is unsociable, and basically an unstable person. The leadership of District 13 never does a particularly good job of getting her on board with their specific program: they mostly just aim her and hope things come out okay. She’s good at being a general motivator, but at the end of the day, Katniss doesn’t fall in line when the movement really needs her to, and she ends up being cut out of future conversations about reform.
In the end, both of these stories are about what happens when political movements choose pretty vulnerable figureheads. It turns out that surrounding that figurehead with a strong educational system like Hogwarts and a mentor like Albus Dumbledore is a safer bet than forcing kids to work for a living and giving them a drunken veteran of a kill-or-be-killed contest. The anti-Voldemort movement has a more limited task — it’s easier to keep someone from rising to power than to topple and entrenched government — but they also do a much better job of organizing for it over the long term than the District 13 folks, who are isolated from most of Panem, hindering long-term insurrection planning, and who end up choosing Katniss kind of on the fly. Movement-building’s hard work. And in both of these franchises, but especially with the Hunger Games books, I’m actually more interested in the people who plan the grand architecture of insurrections rather than those who are the public faces of them.
But this leaves out a serious piece of the puzzle. Katniss may not be up to the job, and may not fall in line with the movement, but a big part of that is the fact that the rebels in The Hunger Games, unlike the Order of the Phoenix, are deceptive, ruthless, and ultimately unjust. Like the enemy they seek to overthrow, they use the lives of children to further their cause, both as mascots and soldiers, but also during the final battle in the city, when they slaughter innocent children as a propaganda move to help hasten the government’s overthrow.
While Katniss is made much more explicitly into a mascot than Harry, she is also a pawn, first for the government as champion and then later for the rebels as Mockingjay.
Harry is always given a choice, but Katniss is thrust from one bad situation to the next. Both choose at times to go against the movements that propel them, but those movements are fundamentally different. And while Harry’s adventures are filled with tragedy they are also filled with love and hope. Katniss faces only death. By the end she is a broken thing, a little girl suffering from PTSD, shattered by her circumstances. Harry Potter turns out okay.
As Alyssa notes, part of Harry’s heroism is his acceptance of the role he needs to play in order for justice to be served. But in a sense, when Katniss finally throws off the role of pawn and assassinates the rebel leader, she is also surrendering to the role she realizes she has to play. Both are accepting that a higher cause is at stake. When Katniss recognizes that one tyrant is stepping into the shoes of another, she can no longer accept her role as a pawn or a mascot. She fully expects to die, just as Harry does when he conversely realizes that his death will serve the movement he has been a mascot for. In both cases, this sacrifice transcends their roles as merely mascots or pawns. Both are heroes, in a way – even if Katniss is a harder pill to swallow than Harry.