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Learning, literacy and feminism: empowering reluctant readers using The Hunger Games

Popular fiction can have a dramatic impact on young people’s willingness to read, as the Harry Potter franchise has demonstrated, but three researchers from Brock University, Ontario, suggest that other lessons may also be learned. To test their theory, they set up a girls-only book club to study the popular series, The Hunger Games. Their findings are now available, free to view, in a detailed case study published in the current issue of Journal of Youth Studies.

The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins is an international publishing phenomenon. The dramatic story of a dystopian future has been transformed into a major film, movie companion books and various accessories. The book series has also become an educational resource, with several education departments in Canada actively promoting the series as a way to engage reluctant readers. However, having analysed the content of the trilogy, researchers Nancy Taber, Vera Woloshyn and Laura Lane found that the books provide mixed messages with respect to gendered stereotypes. They therefore set out to explore issues of power, violence and gender in the books and to investigate whether the series might empower young adolescent girls who struggle with reading, as they explain:

“We … use the term ‘girl empowerment’ (not to be confused with ‘girl power’) for our book club to denote creating a supportive environment where girls are encouraged to explore the ways in which gender affects their lives in order to critique societal gender roles, expectations, and representations. Our aim is to help girls empower themselves to move beyond individualistic and essentialized notions of gender that may marginalize them and unduly restrict the ways in which they interact with the world.”

The detailed case study published in the Journal of Youth Studies (free to download) also explores the academic literature covering the use of popular texts in education and the discourse of girl power, and demonstrates the value of structured discussion for initiating engagement in critical thinking and encouraging young people to begin to recognise and discuss sociocultural gendered issues.

Why The Hunger Games? There were two distinct advantages of using this book. First of all, the participants specifically requested using that series because many of their peers were reading it:

“They were adamant about fitting in by demonstrating that they could read and participate in discussions with their friends about the text. … As the girls were extremely motivated to read this text, we were able to read for comprehension and enjoyment as well as criticality.”

Although the readability level of the books was beyond the girls’ independent reading levels (all four girls were demonstrated reading scores two to three years below grade level and listening comprehension scores at or slightly below grade level), the researchers provided an audio recording to help them.

But second, and perhaps more significant, is the nature of the plot, which is driven by a nontraditional female protagonist, Katniss, and her relationship with a weaker male character Peeta. The book club aimed to examine these gender representations in ways that connected to the participants’ lives, helping them to become aware of gendered norms in order to critique them.

The research team held four, two-hour book club sessions over eight weeks, all outside school hours. The sessions included critical question prompts and activities intended to encourage the girls to engage in a sociological critique of issues related to gender within the text and their own lives. These activities, and the resulting discussion are discussed in detail in the case study.

The team report that, although the girls recognised some complexities within the book’s characters, they did not accept the ways in which they disrupted gendered norms. The girls continued to privilege representations in fiction and within daily life that reflect traditional notions of masculinity and femininity:

“Male characters (Peeta) who acted outside of these norms were marginalized by the girls, while female characters (Katniss) who showed hegemonically masculine characteristics were only accepted if they also demonstrated emphasized feminine characteristics. … While they admired Katniss’ strength, they struggled with critiquing the feminine beauty ideal … that Katniss was expected to uphold in her image as an attractive character with girl power.”

This confirms the researchers’ stated position against the popular postfeminist notion that feminism is no longer required.

Acknowledging that their study was based on a very small number of participants, the authors nevertheless conclude that book clubs, whether in or outside of school, can be an ideal platform from which to engage in critical literacy.

They conclude that the girls’ responses highlight the complexities associated with helping young people to critique deeply embedded societal assumptions that link to their own lives. However, they also warn that such efforts must be ongoing and that awareness is a critical first step to transforming beliefs, saying:

“Educators and those who work with youth should not be discouraged in initiating these types of discussions but be aware of the difficulties in challenging societal norms, leading to the need for prolonged engagement with youth in critical discussions.”

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