The Hunger Games & Extraordinary Girl Romance Narratives
The Hunger Games may have featured a prominent love triangle, but are those the relationships teen girl audiences care most about? Dr. Tina Benigno shares her research about how the teen romance narrative for the extra-ordinary girl in some ways reinforces neoliberal feminist or popular feminist messages around empowerment discourses, on the heels of postfeminism.
scifi and fantasy romance, young adult, film discussion, scholarly
The Hunger Games may have featured a prominent love triangle, but are those the relationships teen girl audiences care most about? Dr. Tina Benigno shares her research about how the teen romance narrative for the extra-ordinary girl in some ways reinforces neoliberal feminist or popular feminist messages around empowerment discourses, on the heels of postfeminism.
Discussed: The Hunger Games, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Guest: Dr. Tina Benigno
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Andrea Martucci: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome to Shelf Love, a podcast and community that explores romantic love stories in fiction across media, time and cultures. Shelf Love is for the curious and open-minded who joyfully question as they consume pop culture. I'm your host, Andrea Martucci and on this episode, I'm joined by Dr. Tina Benigno, assistant professor and faculty advisor, who will share her research on teen romance as a narrative for the extraordinary girl. Neoliberal feminism, empowerment discourses, and The Hunger Games, oh my.
Tina, thank you for being here today. Can you share a bit more about yourself, your academic work and how and why you have come to study extraordinary girlhood?
Dr. Tina Benigno: Hi, thanks, Andrea. I'm Tina. I'll start with my academic backgrounds. My PhD is in Humanities where I specialized in young people's media and cultures. I focused on girlhood in cinema and also care. And before that, I did a Master's in film and media studies and a Bachelor's in cinema studies. And then I minored in English and Italian as well with that.
So in my previous degrees, the work was very theoretical but there was no qualitative research, no work with actual people, which is fine.
When I knew I wanted to do a PhD, I knew that I wanted to actually also talk to people and find out their responses to certain films. In my Master's I spent a lot of time looking at spectatorship and also textual analysis, but I thought at that point it would be really interesting to hear what audiences interpreted from texts, and that included their reactions to certain formal qualities of texts, but also the content of them.
And I grew up during like girl power.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Dr. Tina Benigno: And I knew that there was something very interesting happening culturally at the time and socially with respect to girl media and the effects that that was having.
Andrea Martucci: The Spice Girls phenomenon has come up a lot. I feel like, me also, Tina, I think we're probably very similar in age and I feel like the Spice Girls and the sort of like girl power thing was really big in the nineties and the early two thousands. And then it's been interesting becoming an adult and looking at that through adult eyes.
So what is girlhood studies?
Dr. Tina Benigno: Girlhood studies emerges more out of women and gender studies.
So my work is pretty interdisciplinary and it does draw upon topics that would be studied in each of these disciplines. So with respect to the girlhood studies category, I really fit into there not only because I look at texts that feature young women, but also very much so in speaking with actual girls, like girl audiences or teen girls in schools, which I'll talk about in a minute.
And that's actually a similar approach that's advocated within childhood and youth studies, this idea of let's talk to the actual young people and find out their thoughts on this, or how do these issues actually affect them as opposed to how adults think that certain policies and certain texts should be formed for them.
So it starts with the person and then [00:03:00] works around it that way. So you're foregrounding the person in that case.
Andrea Martucci: So it sounds like you did exactly what you were talking about. So you actually spoke with teen girls about their experience and then asked them to give their take on the media that you shared with them.
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yes. So the dissertation has a lot of different components to it and as an interdisciplinary project it was a little complicated at times, but also quite enjoyable and rewarding for me as somebody who's very much interested in different things, in different approaches.
There were three main approaches or techniques I used with this project. The first included qualitative research with teen girls from two different schools in Toronto, Ontario.
The other component was actually doing a formal textual close analysis of two particular scenes from two particular texts, one being a popular show, one being a popular movie, YA speculative fiction texts.
And then the other aspect was a socio-cultural historical analysis as well. So in that, I step back a bit and I explore the themes that I was discussing in the other two areas with some more social political, cultural theory and analysis interwoven into it.
So with respect to the study, there were group interviews or focus groups, and they had a video elicitation component to them.
So originally I knew there would be interviews involved, but I was interested in two things specifically. I was interested in teen girls making media as a way to challenge some issues that they felt weren't being addressed properly in society, specifically related to romance.
And so I was very much interested in the romance texts. Throughout my academic career, in waves I've been drawn to relationship narratives whether they were like love in the Renaissance or like contemporary short fiction that looked at love, sex and death, but also in my Master's, I looked at imagination and romantic longing in some international films and how those can shape how we think about our own experiences of imagination and romantic longing.
So I was interested in romance for the teen girl. How would they thought about it? But I also knew that had been done a bunch in various disciplines. So I'm not a psychologist, but I'd like to read about social psychology a lot. So I had been reading a lot of studies that had been done with young people with respect to love narratives from a different perspective, but nevertheless, there is plenty of research on that.
Andrea Martucci: What's kind of the, literature review summary of the work done from social psychology in that area? What's the gist?
Dr. Tina Benigno: So a lot of times there's a moral panic around young people and them being very impressionable towards depictions of love and sexuality.
So if you go back to, there's a text from 1920 by Herbert Blumer, I think he's actually a sociologist. He identifies that there actually doesn't need to be this moral panic around young people and sex from movies. They're not, the movies are not going to make them have sex.
Andrea Martucci: It sounds like these studies [00:06:00] that you're alluding to are really focused on like cultivation theory type stuff.
Dr. Tina Benigno: Cause, effect. Yeah.
So a lot of the studies are, what effect does this have on this? And that's not really how I was approaching my work. And there is an interesting study that was done in Belgium that looked at teen girl audiences interpretations of romance for action heroines and in dystopian texts, I believe.
Andrea Martucci: Ooh.
Dr. Tina Benigno: And they found that there wasn't much association. They found that the participants who had a higher parasocial relationship with the characters, who like felt they identified very much so with the characters, also had greater romantic longing, or like they felt more affected by that narrative.
So that was an interesting study that. But so with respect to my project, I thought, I'm not sure where I'm going with this here, but then March For Our Lives happened, there were the, there was the Stoneman Douglas school shootings. And so 2018, I was noticing a lot of media attention to young people, taking action with respect to activism in a public sense.
And this was right when I was trying to pin down my schools where I was going to be doing my research. And I thought this is really interesting. I'm interested in how maybe these girls are thinking about other things like social activism. And that was also something I cared a lot about growing up as well.
So those things were coming together. And so then I still framed my study as being about creating media. And I still used the romance storyline from some texts, but I also threw in a session for each school where we explored their thoughts on what an activist was. And I'm so glad I did because I ended up noticing some commonalities in their responses to the love storylines and their views on being an activist or what that would require of them.
Andrea Martucci: So the first study that you published on this, one part I thought was really interesting was and you tied this to the ideologies around neoliberal feminism, but the idea that instead of being, you become an activist.
So you have to do all of this personal work and you have to put the work in yourself before you can be an activist out in the public sphere. So it's a very like binary state of being you are, or you aren't and you are recognized as such versus like you say, I am. Can you talk more about what the teen girls that you spoke with, where did you see the echoes of neoliberal feminism in what they were saying? And how are you thinking about neoliberal feminism in this context?
Dr. Tina Benigno: Okay. So yeah, it comes back to the empowerment discourse of the girl power that we're talking about, that's within this post-feminism that was prevailing at the time. It was very much the dominant feminist discourse in the late eighties, nineties.
And it's that there was no, no longer a need for feminism, like girl power. We're empowered. We can do this. There's no need for feminism anymore. That's a really simplified version of it.
Andrea Martucci: We did it. We have equality. Girls can do anything.
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yeah.[00:09:00] Not everybody's subscribed to that.
And so neoliberal feminism, it still shared some of those qualities, but it's also acknowledging that there is a need for feminism. Lean In, like, Sharon Sandberg and these texts are very much positioned as supporting feminism. And this is good. They're encouraging empowerment. They're encouraging climbing up the corporate ladder and a problem with this is that it can fail to recognize that there are certain opportunities that are not actually available.
There are certain barriers for people, usually people of working class marginalized people in society who may end up not actually having the means or the access to get there.
Andrea Martucci: The reason you're not getting promoted at work is because you, as a woman, are not being assertive enough and asking for raises or negotiating your salary, as opposed to there are these larger systemic forces at work that disenfranchise certain people based on their identity, like women, but also even more markedly people who have marginalized identities such as like racial background or social class or all these things. Right? So it's saying no, it's true that we're not equal, but you solely are responsible for fixing this for yourself as opposed to like.
Maybe there's like a bigger problem. There's a root cause for this, that until you address that all together, we're playing whackamole.
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yes. Yeah, exactly. There's this mentality of ask for your raise, get that promotion. Meanwhile your nanny at home is watching your children. So there's also that element of acknowledging social reproduction at play. There is this larger social structure that perpetuates the inequality or the inequity as well.
Going back to the empowerment aspect here, so there's this sense of needing to be better and needing to get better, just be empowered, like to quote Sarah Banet-We iser in her Popular Feminism book as well. But it doesn't acknowledge that you can't just be empowered necessarily, there are certain social impediments to that, and they relate to capitalism and neoliberalism.
So with neoliberalism, there's the onus of being put on the individual to improve their circumstances without acknowledging that there's not a whole lot that can necessarily be done without acknowledging the disparity and the inequality and the oppression that exists.
Andrea Martucci: Just work harder, working 80 hours a week at minimum wage jobs, as opposed to, Hey, why can you not make a living wage on minimum wage working 40 hours?
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yeah. And so then going back to the actual narratives, the love stories that I was talking about. So first of all, in the clips that I showed them, their responses to the texts were pretty typical that you would expect from like a teen girl in North American study to respond to a love story.
There was some giggling, there was some like a cringing, you know, like little things like that. They also had some very cerebral responses to what was going on inter relationally between the characters. And part of that is because the scenes were like seen out of [00:12:00] context. But then the really interesting part is that the girls that I interviewed were really compelled by the girl character's power and strength and their extraordinariness.
And so it's there, there's that neoliberal component there of the, powerful girl. And don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that being empowered and being a powerful girl are bad by any means, that's not what I'm saying, but what I am saying ,is that when that image becomes the standard to which people compare themselves, and then interestingly may actually feel inferior and discouraged to move forward in the way that they would like in their lives. That's where there's a problem.
And that's where I see this neoliberal rationality here of needing to be better, needing to be more confident. There's really good article by Gill and Orgad called the Cult of Confidence. And so that feeling of needing to be better, be empowered, and it's great to want to be an empowered girl, but that feeling of not being good enough or not powerful enough or not, brave enough, like Katniss, like next level, brave is the way one of them referred to her. It really paralleled how the girls described what they needed to be in order to be more active for the issues that they cared about and they cared about issues.
So this is also the thing, the romance narratives of these texts ended up being a proxy or a way to talk about relationships and the things and the people they cared about. It wasn't just about the love story. And it was only through using them that I started to understand that they actually cared a lot about sacrificing things if they needed to, for the sake of their loved ones and their loved ones included their family.
There was a lot of reference to their families and concern for what consequences would come from them participating in public activism, but also in the discussions around the relationship scenes. They shared a vulnerability about how, when Katniss is trying to help Peeta heal when he's injured in the games.
One, they acknowledge that there are relationship and gender dynamics at play, which was really interesting. One of them pointed out that she was curious to see if their genders had been reversed, if their roles would have stayed the same.
Andrea Martucci: So this is in the first Hunger Games book movie where Katniss and Peeta are in The Hunger Games. And they are both wounded at various points, but I believe that the scene you're talking about, Peeta has been very gravely injured and Katniss stumbles upon him.
What's really interesting about Peeta is his skill is he's, he's like strong, but he's like a baker and an artist, right? So that's the kind of subverting, the gender norms there. And Katniss is the bad-ass hunter who's awesome with a bow and arrow. So he has actually disguised himself by blending into the mud.
And that's how he's used as artistry to survive. But then Katniss has to take care of him and has to perform a relationship for the spectators to get the medicine, to save him. Is that a [00:15:00] good summary of that scene?
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yes. Yeah. And then she goes up to get the stuff as well. I think that's another scene, but yeah.
Andrea Martucci: Oh! Right, right. Cause what they do is they entice her into conflict by saying the medicine you need is going to be over here and ooh, maybe we'll get a blood bath while you try to take care of somebody by getting some medicine.
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yeah. Perfect. That was a great description of it.
Andrea Martucci: Cool.
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: So you showed this scene to the teen girls, and I assume they're watching this together with the other teen girls or are they by themselves?
Dr. Tina Benigno: So they're in another group. So each school was in their own respective group, and these are small groups. So I want to point out that I'm aware that their responses might not be the same everywhere. I also want to point out that these responses are very geographically and temporally and, contextually located.
So that being said, they were in small groups and that's another thing. So they were with their peers and I had encouraged them as like a film trained scholar, to like pay attention to the lighting, the music, the angles. And they're like, oh my God, I would be like, feeling so bad about with Gale watching this?
Andrea Martucci: Actually, so I forgot to mention, yes, because this is all being filmed.
Katniss, she likes Peeta, but she's like a little ambivalent on a romantic angle with Peeta. The performance is, she has come to understand that if she puts on a show of romance, that is what The Capitol people are really looking for.
So she's performing, but there's like something going on with Gale, her hunting pal from District 12. And we get a shot of him in the coal mine or whatever he's watching. And he kind of is like, oh no, Katniss is lost to me or something. So there's that, there's a lot of like romantic entanglement, like this whole love triangle that we're set up to care about in the scene.
But it's also very interesting. I'm really curious about the reactions from the girls, because there's also, then this social dynamic of they're not watching this by themselves. They're watching this with their peers. And so like a certain amount of reaction you can also assume is like, how will other people interpret the scene, and what is the reaction I should have to this?
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yeah, that could be it for sure. I wondered about that as well. And they were in conversation with one another as well, with respect to what was going on when I said, okay, let's talk about this. But going back to that dynamic and how Katniss is reluctant here, she's a reluctant participant here.
The girls pointed that out. One of them said, she's trying to survive here. Like she's not really interested. We think she loves him. But also they were very aware that she's in The Hunger Games. It's a matter of life and death. Her family's, very important to her sisters. So they recognized that there was more than just the romantic love story there. They were very eager to risk anything they needed to save their loved ones.
And they didn't mean their boyfriend necessarily, so that, and some other things they said really foregrounded care for, not necessarily a romantic relationship, although they responded like you might expect, and they enjoyed that storyline, but it's the care and then the connection, and I see connection as being connected to [00:18:00] community as well, loved ones.
And I see it as in contrast or opposition to the individualism of neoliberalism. I see it as relationships, basically, care and connection I see as just like relations, relationships, and they really cared about that and they cared about social issues and they cared about the world and people being okay outside of the love story.
And unfortunately, a lot of the barriers or the things holding them back from maybe participating in, or being in the world in ways that would facilitate those things for them, whether it be socially as an activist or even maybe in their relationships, did come back to that sense of needing to improve themselves.
And it's okay to want to improve yourself, it's great to want to improve yourself, but why or where is that coming from is, I think, the question? Is it coming from a place of, I'm not confident enough, I'm not brave enough? I need a thicker skin is actually a quotation from one of them, like to be doing these things, because this is the standard and this is what it looks like it's supposed to be and I don't fit that. Or is it improvement because you want to facilitate these relationships in a way that is beneficial for everyone, including yourself and the world. Yeah.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. So I watched Hunger Games one and two, cause I knew we were going to be talking about this. And I read the books like on a binge, maybe 10 ish, years ago. I was an adult, in my early twenties. And I am a romance reader, so of course I was really compelled and perhaps frustrated by the romantic arc within The Hunger Games.
And so watching the movies like many years after reading and originally watching them, I thought it was really interesting, again um, like the perspective of a married adult woman, how much different the romance played to me this time around because I remember being very invested in the romantic relationship the first time around, and then this time I was like, Yeah, this there's like really nothing romantic here.
I originally always thought Gale was like the one for her and I was very frustrated. And then I started being like, oh my God, like Peeta really loves her and Katniss doesn't care romantically about him and that's fine. Katniss really only cares about her sister and her mother to a certain extent, so I'm curious, in your description here, you said the discussion of romantic narratives is actually a proxy for speaking about love, care and connection more broadly.
So how did you see the girls' reactions? It sounds like when they were encountering, specifically in The Hunger Games, the romantic relationship there, they weren't necessarily focused on How much does Peeta and or Gale love Katniss, how much does Katniss love either of these people?
And they were thinking about love and care more like between people like friendship or family love as opposed to that romantic love. Is that what was going on there?
Dr. Tina Benigno: That's part of it. Yeah, no, for sure. I think there was definitely that part of it about it not being about how much loves, but it was [00:21:00] also that they were really interested in the behaviors between them and the motivations or the reasons. And so they were wondering, they were confused about why Peeta was being like, he wasn't wanting to Katniss to go get him the balm that he needed but then another person said, actually, he's protecting her, but that's being stupid because he needs it. There was a lot of, they didn't say stupid, like I'm putting words in their mouths here, but so there was a lot of like really analyzing the dynamics and almost putting value on what behavior was more important with respect to the care versus what was needed. There was a really real interest in what was right and what was wrong behavior, but they also recognized that there are nuances and complexity within the situation and they attributed some of it to gender as well.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. What was, and You mentioned this earlier that there were some questions around, oh, I wonder how this would have been different the situation was switched with Katniss and Peeta in that scene. What were they speculating on?
Dr. Tina Benigno: Just like a passing comment. I think it was with respect to if maybe Katniss was the injured one, they didn't actually say, but I think they were saying, if Katniss was the injured one and Peeta was going to go get it, other people might not really think anything of it because you know, the man's going to protect the woman. They didn't say it like that, but that was the suggestion if I remember correctly. That being said, Katniss is pretty headstrong and doesn't really like that sort of thing. So they were also commenting on that quality.
That being said, so even though she possesses some of these maybe non traditionally feminine traits, she is still like a attractive white heteronormative character. I have to acknowledge that in this as well. So that's just worth mentioning.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. You know what's weird also upon rewatching it, and this is totally appropriate given the story set up, Katniss is almost like without desire in the romantic sense and I think contextually that makes sense, given the dire circumstances. She's in a position of survival, right?
She is not in this moment, most concerned with who she's going to date or marry or kiss. I think maybe that also goes against the stereotypes of a teen girl, because the stereotype in the media is that teen girls are most concerned about silly frivolous things, and Katniss is literally just like, um, hi, I would like enough food to eat and I would like to survive the next five minutes.
And it's almost like everybody around her is much more wrapped up in romance, even her suitors in the story, but then also like The Capitol and the narratives being shaped about her are very much about like turning her into this object of desire and giving her a romantic story that people can use to relate to her because she's so unrelatable and cold as a person.
If she's doing what she's doing to save Peeta, that's romantic. If she's doing what she's doing so that she can survive and go back to her sister and mother, because they need her so that they can survive, that, nobody gives a crap about.
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yeah. So [00:24:00] two things are really coming to mind right now with that. So with respect to her character being like that, Commonality this trend, even if you will, like in contemporary teen YA media films, television, where we have this extraordinary, this powerful woman, girl character.
And I also look at Sabrina Spellman from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, but there are these strong, powerful, super powerful, supernatural, powerful girl characters. One of the things I say in the dissertation, that is, I think, aligned with this neoliberal feminism and it's complex because on the one hand, these characters are challenging antiquated ideas of femininity, but at the same time, they're not. And at the same time they are within these mass media texts that are products of the various system in which they're presenting the illusion that they're challenging. So it seems like Katniss is challenging a bad government. But is it really that progressive?
Is it actually, and this goes back to the genre as well. So to go back to what you were talking about, the dystopian genre itself has a, like a varying history. So in the fifties, the works of dystopian genre during that time were actually indeed challenging.
And I'm talking about books, like literature. They were indeed meant to challenge social structures and systems through like a fictional, science fictional context. Today, YA dystopian cinema is not really working the same way. It just can't or isn't necessarily as effective or functional the way the literature of the fifties was.
So there's that genre element as well. But yes, with respect to Katniss and her survival and trying to be positioned in this desire narrative, that is appealing and that's also a very clever device or a tool I think of the structure that's creating these narratives as well. Because, we're getting that storyline, which Is great. I love a good love story. Who am I kidding? I'm not saying love is bad at all. And I had similar reactions to the narrative book. Like I was all teen Gale when I read it like 10 years ago and then I watched this.
Andrea Martucci: It feels like what you're alluding to with the teen narratives of today or the past, it's all noise and no signal. Like, yeah, she's, bad-ass, like she's changing the world. And then you're like she doesn't really give a crap about changing the world, she wants to save her sister.
If anything, Gale is much more engaged in sort of like the revolution and Katniss is, and this is really, if I remember correctly what the last installment really focuses on, she is essentially just a pawn. She's a figurehead, but she has no real power and nobody listens to her.
And in the second book movie, they literally, there's a whole plan that nobody clues her into because they know that she is so focused on the individuals that she cares about, that if push came to shove, will sacrifice the [00:27:00] larger cause for the individual she cares about. Which I'm not saying that's right or wrong, but her eye is never on the larger project.
I don't even know if at the end she ever really gets there.
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yeah. I don't know. I think, yeah. I can't remember. I've only seen the first of the bunch. The last ones, I haven't seen in a while, but.
Andrea Martucci: I think they get a little bit boring from a movie perspective.
Dr. Tina Benigno: So with respect to her character and that figure, the extraordinary girl, in these speculative fiction adaptations.
I think she is an inspiring character. These powerful girls, they're eliciting a desire to be extraordinary. They are created within these narratives as a device to, in a way, satsify the audience members desire to challenge what is becoming increasingly acknowledged as a very complicated and oppressive ideological system that the text is actually created in.
I think that media culture is very aware that right now, young people are not having it. They are demonstrating, they are aware of what they care about and that they want to take action. And I think that these teen girl characters reflect this cultural trend or phenomenon or whatever. Not to say that youth activism is new, because it's not, it's been going on for a long time in the Americas especially, it's just getting a lot of popular media attention right now.
But I think that because of that, there's an awareness that there's an interest in this in young people, and so there's these texts that are acknowledging and satisfying that desire for a powerful girl lead character. But also, at the same time, who's creating these texts? That system.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah.
Dr. Tina Benigno: I'm talking about the popular ones right now.
And so these texts are almost like, there's the guise of them being revolutionary because of their figures, these girl characters in them. So I don't know if Katniss herself within the narrative is actually not a good figure. With respect to the love story and her power, I think it's really interesting that care for her family and care for the world or dystopian world.
That's the other thing we have to keep in mind, the context from which she emerges, or like it comes out of his District 12, it's a poor district. This is a dystopian society as well. What is it like to be living in that?
Andrea Martucci: I know. So I was watching The Hunger Games and I I put this poll up on Twitter. I was essentially saying I remember watching this the first time and being a hundred percent team Gale, but now ambivalent.
And I asked people who they shipped. And so the options were Peeta, Gale, none - old maid Katniss, and then other, and then you could comment.
Okay, so here are the results of this. So by a slim margin, most people shipped Peeta and Katniss, 44%. Only 9% Gale, but 43%, this was surprising, none, like, so no romantic lead, and then 4% said other.
But I feel like most of the people who said other were like none, like she should have just been by herself at the end.
And this is not a poll of the target audience of of young girls at the time this came out, [00:30:00] but, I think it's interesting that Peeta is more in the lead than Gale, because I think for a young person, countering at Gale was like much more in the foreground as like the romantic lead.
But so many people said none. Like, Katniss did not want to be with anybody by the end of this and just wanted to be alone, but then had to conform by the end into like satisfying, I don't know, the greater good by marrying Peeta and having children, even though she was like super traumatized and just needed therapy.
Oh, I think that's what the, I think that's what the other was like. Katniss probably should have just had a very good, strong relationship with a very competent therapist by the end. But it's like we, we got caught in this story, into this idea that she has to end up with somebody.
It's Peeta or Gale, right? These are our options. And there wasn't even a consideration that she didn't have to end up with anybody or one of those two, like there are other options here, but the narrative ends, and maybe it's just supposed to be bleak, but the narrative ends with pigeonholing her into the role of wife and mother.
Dr. Tina Benigno: It really does. And I. So, I think you really hit the nail on the head when you said it doesn't even present alternative options. And I, so, within the options presented to us, I have to confess, I wanted her to end up with Peeta. I'm not going to lie, I wanted her to have that life. Which is interesting because there are these scripts that circulate in our North American Western society and contemporary society as well. So these love scripts, these love discourses, they depend on so many factors, but within the context from which I was watching this or reading this, that, I was like, okay, finally, I was like, okay, I can breathe now. And I'm, I say that as somebody who really strongly doesn't think that those are the only options, and I don't think it's wrong if those are the options that you pick, but I think you're right in that was how it was presented.
And I know that actually just last year there was a study that was published that looked at specifically teen girls responses to the love stories in The Hunger Games by Shara Crookston.
It's anybody who's curious. And so there's a lot more discussion there about if the girls were happy with that, if the audiences were okay with that, what they thought about that. And that wasn't quite the focus of my work. Like the discussion was with respect to those scenes and then I really thought it was so neat that the care and that feeling of wanting to improve oneself was what I recognized as being some themes for the texts and the powerful figure that they were admiring.
Andrea Martucci: Right. I've never seen the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. I definitely am familiar with Sabrina, the Teenage Witch, but I understand the reboot is quite different. What is the romantic relationship in the Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and how are you seeing the care and connection come up in that?
Dr. Tina Benigno: So there's a lot of different love storylines throughout that series. We looked at the very beginning. So the beginning of the first episode, or part as they call it. So Sabrina's half human, half witch, and this is a dark [00:33:00] horror supernatural show.
Okay. So she is half witch, well almost witch, and half human. And she's on the cusp of her 16th birthday, which is when she has to decide if she wants to embrace this, witch aspect of her identity. And so she takes, she has to go to a different academy for that. So she is taking her boyfriend Harvey, who's a human, into the woods and this is the scene they're in the woods.
And it's a really, like stylistically interesting scene. And she's trying to tell him like, okay, I have to go to another school now, and this is what's going to happen. And he's Like why are you leaving, I don't understand? And then, so she tells him that she's a half witch and he has a horrible reaction.
So this is the thing, before she tells him he, he says, you can tell me anything. I mean, I'm your boyfriend, you can trust me. And so she tells him and he flips out, he gets really upset. And then she erases his memory. That's the gist of it.
Andrea Martucci: Like you do when I, that's the superpower I could really get behind. Uh, you know, That didn't go well, let's try this again.
Dr. Tina Benigno: That would be fantastic. Oh my goodness. Let me tell you. So in our discussions around that scene, a few of the girls didn't like that, well, they thought that was quite realistic, actually, that you would say you would reassure somebody that you're not going to react a certain way.
And then when you find out the information, you're not reacting the way you promised you would. So they found that a bit upsetting, but also realistic. So there was, there were these very cerebral responses, these very logical responses to both shows. So that is what kind of prompted our discussion with respect to relationships.
And it was kind of a less exciting conversation around the simple stuff. Understandably. A lot of them hadn't actually seen that before either. And so they didn't have a lot of the other context. Most people had seen The Hunger Games, whereas Sabrina ones, they hadn't. So I think they were still having trouble with suspending their disbelief, or their understanding that this is like within the narratives, within the diagnosis of the show.
So within the world of that storyline, that was more normal than it might be interest. One girl said I would call 9 1 1. If my boyfriend said he was a witch, I'd be like, what the hell? So they were joking around like that, but It really was that dynamic that can play out in a relationship with respect to trust and with respect to how emotions play with respect to identity and behavior and and what you do to try to be with somebody.
Yeah, but they recognized that there was care in her decision to, you know, erase the memory as well.
Andrea Martucci: Okay. So were they thinking through that similar to Peeta saying, I know that I may be dooming myself to death, but Katniss, I do not want you to go get this medicine because you're going to put yourself in danger, that Sabrina, even though it hurt her to erase Harvey's memory or to not have the reaction that she wanted there, that really, she was making a choice that was the best for him because she cared about him.
Dr. Tina Benigno: That was a little bit of it. It wasn't as explicit. I think the care with respect to that conversation around that show was more about caring about the things you do in [00:36:00] general, to keep a relationship going. So I see it as an act of care for him. I think they did too, but it wasn't like that was the focus of our discussion.
But it was more also in Sabrina's actions, in the show, in other aspects of the show, a lot of her behavior comes out of care. And so that became something that I look at when I do my analysis as well. But for the girls looking at the relationship dynamics and that's really what they were focusing on, I think in the care was tied to other effective emotional experiences as well. And they ended up feeling of betrayal even.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Yeah. that makes a lot of sense to me, the betrayal, right? What you were talking about, he, he's like, no, I really care about you. You can tell me anything.
I think the sense of betrayal there is, I mean, that is, That is a lot because even if, I'm trying to imagine I'm Harvey and my girlfriend is like, by the way, I'm a witch, like the freak out to me actually is inappropriate, because it's kind of like, if you truly know and care about this person, do you believe that you knew them so little that this revelation changes everything about them?
Or is there maybe more to understand? Should there be more curiosity there?
Dr. Tina Benigno: That's what their reactions were. That was pretty much how responded. Yeah. Yeah, no that's exactly what they were thinking. So they understood that's they're like, this is realistic, but also what you just said, they have a very, similar response.
Oh, another thing in that discussion, the idea of a traditional heteronormative romance storyline came up from one of the girls, even though both shows have that, in this particular scene, for some reason, that discussion came up with respect to, I think maybe because of the scenario or just in general, it was worth talking about as these mainstream texts where. Sabrina actually really does acknowledge later on, I think it really tries to address some heteronormative narratives, and I think it does so pretty well actually later on, but in that beginning scene, that was something that one of the girls flagged as important to her.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah, and in your interviews I know you've talked about this, essentially, the girls were very aware of how their actions would impact their families. And this definitely feels connected to the storyline in The Hunger Games, but then also, you know, liberalism, where it's the sort of like the focus on the individual.
And I suppose we can expand to say the individual and their immediate loved ones. Okay, I need to protect these people. Even though I understand that if everybody bands together and pushes back against the harmful forces, like potentially everybody could be better off. And this is not an indictment of that belief because we understand that this is kind of part of the power of these systems of oppression, is that a lot of the choices in The Hunger Games are everybody knows this is wrong, but if you're the first person or one of the first people to step out of line, you will be quashed quickly and your family will be hurt.
Nobody really wants to be the first, because, well, maybe this will inspire greater action and eventually we can bring down the Capitol, in the meantime, me and my loved [00:39:00] ones will be harmed or dead or whatever in this scenario. So totally valid, but also, really that is the problem that, If people, if we, as a society could come together and a collective force pushback, we would be successful instead of having these sort of like martyrs who are flogged publicly, which is what the girls were speaking about, being afraid?
Like If they were very visible, that they'd become a target or that they have the validity of their activism questioned, right? Not only would I, and potentially my family be a target, but then also people might say you're too young, or haven't proven yourself enough have these opinions.
And yeah, it's super complicated because this is getting so far afield of your research,
Like how do we as a society okay, we can intellectually understand these things and we can even read and watch stories that explore these things.
There's no answer, really. And even if you are an extraordinary girl with magical powers, or amazing ability to shoot anything with your bow and arrow or whatever, what is the solution? What is the path? What, how do we actually come together to do this?
And I know you said in, the research that you did, a lot of the activities and behaviors that the girls were talking about, where like, I care about environmental issues. So like I'm going to stop using plastic and make sure I don't use water. And it's kind of like, well, that's good. But like also, everybody could do that and it still wouldn't really solve the problems.
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yeah. So the short answer is we need a different system, but that takes some time and a lot of collectivity. I think coming back to this topic of care and connection, I think the girls who don't have what I refer to as social power and public personas, like maybe Emma Gonzalez in the news or Katniss on screen, that sort of thing. So those girls are the ones I see with public personas, real or fictional, and I see them as having social power. But the girls in my interviews, they're not in the public, they weren't, and so I think they, at least I can only speak from our interviews, they recognize that their connections in the relationship are significant and that they do matter.
They know that's how we've got to do it, that they have to come together, but I don't think it is actually that clear. I think that's one of the things I was saying early on when I started putting this dissertation together, is that the very fact that there are these standards, these figures of extraordinary girls that exists in this neoliberal media culture, complicates the ability for girls with less social power to actually, to actually make the change, but I think it's happening.
I do think young people are taking steps that they need to, with respect to what they care about in the world more and more. Whether or not that fits into definitions of what they would call activism or not, things that aren't necessarily individual like the, turning the lights off, those are the things that I see as these individual measures that they feel obligated to perform.
I know that can be described as activism, but I think basically the quick answer, the [00:42:00] simple answer is, I hope by offering insights and by other very well established academics and scholars and regular working class people recognizing and acknowledging the problems with how some of these neoliberal rationalities are and coming together and acknowledging that there can be some work towards change and maybe changing what the dominant is, but by goodness, there's only so much I can say.
Andrea Martucci: Yeah. Like if there was an answer out there that people who really sat down and thought about this and are, do this professionally, I don't think there is an answer. There's certainly no easy answer and the onus should not be on any one group of people to solve these problems.
I think it's definitely interesting though. When thinking about it through the lens of these extraordinary girl narratives, it sounds like, especially in contrast to earlier dystopian fictional narratives, that it in one sense, the teen girl saves the world, but also in the other sense, it creates distance between how teen girls identify themselves and the activist figure. And it makes it a little bit harder to imagine that they themselves could ever do that or impact change and, certainly not in, the way that it's presented in these YA fictional narratives.
And so fiction is obviously awesome, cause it can help you imagine possibilities. And so if the way that the possibilities are being presented over and over again is you have to be born half witch and also, you have to have developed this very particular skill set that, that enables you to, succeed in this world or whatever, then it creates that like sense of helplessness or that sense of I, myself can do nothing to actually change this. And hope is the most dangerous thing as President Snow says, right?
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yeah. And yet I have hope I really do. I think young people are very informed and very active in various ways and what you just said is exactly one of the things that I say that there can be that discordance there that there can be that like separation and distance ,between those, you have to be extraordinary and then you compare yourself to that and you think, no, I can't, but there is something to be said about representation of strong characters as well.
So I think there are a whole lot of interrelationship things that happen between media texts and reception. It's just important to pay attention to who's creating, what the system is, to be literate of the actual context and larger issues that might be functioning with respect to their creation.
But that's not to say that we can't take, nuggets of inspiration. And I also think we need to talk to the actual people, young people and find out what matters to them. Like with respect to the romance narrative, instead of imposing, what we're going to talk about with respect to love, I was able to induce that they also really wanted to talk about their care for their families.
Andrea Martucci: Right. And that, there's no right answer in terms of who should Katniss end up with, there's no, right answer there. And, it's interesting to hear their perception of who does Katniss love and who do we want her to prioritize in these situations?
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yeah. And why are we even asking that question? Because it's presented as a narrative, but also that is very [00:45:00] valid to exist in itself as a question. And also we want to talk about her family. We want to talk about, like one of their own experiences with wanting to make sure that they're able to give their family enough attention, which they felt like they might not be able to do if they had an activist agenda, for example, like a public activist agenda.
Andrea Martucci: Oh, what's interesting about that is it feels very all or nothing, right? Everything feels like a choice. And you have to commit fully to a relationship, to your family, to activism, to having a career, to, having children one day or whatever, it, everything feels like this monumental choice that must be made.
And there's no sense of listen, you will never be perfect at any of these things. Just accept that, like everybody's figuring it out, and nobody reaches this like state of perfect relationship, perfect activist, perfect mother or whatever. And, but it feels like the responses that you got from the teen girls was like, was that feeling of like never being able to just be.
Dr. Tina Benigno: And the topic of choice is really interesting because that really does align with a neoliberal mentality. Not everyone has choices about things. Sometimes the immigrant moves here and, B, has to become a nanny at the expense of maybe not even taking care of her own children. So that somebody else can make the choice between, taking a pay raise or climbing the ladder, working extra hours.
I'm not saying that those things are bad, but I'm just saying that topic of choice is really interesting because we think everybody has a choice, that's the status quo, that's what we think, but choices is not actually an option for everyone either.
Or what are the choices? What are the options?
Andrea Martucci: The more we think we have control of our choices, the more it obfuscates how little we truly have choices in, or how much we're being guided to make particular choices that are to benefit the state, the structure, whatever the status quo.
Dr. Tina Benigno: Yeah.
And also being aware that to be able to have a choice is associated with some extent of privilege as well. And that's not bad, but be aware of it that, somebody might not even be able to say that they have to choose between this and that. It's just the circumstances lend themselves to decisions or behaviors or actions or what have you.
Andrea Martucci: So Dr. Tina Benigno, thank you so much here with me today. This was such an interesting discussion. Where can people find more information about your work or keep up with what you're doing?
Dr. Tina Benigno: Twitter would probably be the fastest way to get me. @TinaBelinda is my handle. And then on there I have a link to my homepage and also my work faculty bio.
Andrea Martucci: Awesome. Thanks so much for being here today.
Dr. Tina Benigno: Thank you so much. It was such a pleasure to chat with you.
Andrea Martucci: Thank you so much for spending time with me today. If you enjoyed today's episode, please subscribe, rate, or review on your favorite podcast app or tell a friend. Check out ShelfLovePodcast.Com for transcripts and other resources. [00:48:00]
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