Kelly Oliver’s Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape certainly has an interesting premise. Written by an eminent feminist philosopher (currently Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt University) it looks at popular culture’s fixation on representing young women as predators and prey and the implication that violence (especially sexual violence) is an inevitable, part of feminine coming of age. I came to this book with high hopes for its content.
“Why do we find violent pubescent girls killing animals, humans, and the occasional vampire, so appealing? Is this equal opportunity killing?… Killing, instead of loving, animals has become the emblem of girl power. Just as girls are hunted and attacked with relish in these films, our heroines displace that patriarchal violence onto their animal prey”.
The first sections of the book examines several popular movies/franchises in light of violence perpetrated by the heroines and upon them, particularly by their romantic partners. The discussion of the symbolism of hunting provide the most interesting sections of the book. However, despite going over the plot of The Hunger Games (trilogy), the movie Hanna, and a few fairly random name checks and one liners (Merida from Brave has a bow!), it all feels a bit hollow. The best of the points she makes were made by Carol J Adams in The Sexual Politics of Meat over twenty years ago.
In the final section of the book, Oliver refocuses on the real world, particularly through the growing prevalence of campus rape in the United States. As an educator, Oliver obviously has strong views about sexual violence on campuses and who is responsible for this culture – to the point she loses objectivity. She ‘name drops’ the Hunting Ground documentary in a way that I was not comfortable with – reducing these real women to more archetypes for analysis. I am not a fan of trigger warnings, but Oliver is extremely dismissive of the need to provide safe spaces for survivors of assault. While I agree with her that there needs to be discussion and debate around the causes of rape culture, I disagree that victims of sexual assault cannot be simultaneously protected and respected.
I found this book disappointing on a number of levels. Close to the end of the book Oliver states “we should focus on the ways in which girl power in these films is also the result of girls and women bonding together to nurture and protect each other”. I’m going to set aside my utter loathing for the phrase ‘girl power’ for a moment and agree with this. So, if Oliver believes this why didn’t she do that, rather than tearing apart these characters, encouraging the reader to look at them through a violent male gaze instead? That there is a significant issue with the packaging of female suffering as entertainment there is no doubt – but this book is an unrelentingly negative attack on the majority of strong female characters in the past ten years. Which is helpful how? The recasting of these YA heroines as new Disney princesses is gimmicky and doesn’t work (Bella Swan and Edward as Beauty and the Beast anyone? Anyone? No, me neither). It’s also disappointing that she focuses on the flattened film versions of more complex book series, not least because this insures she is speaking about white women and girls when she talks about women and girls.
Oliver’s point seems to be that a lack of consent is something prevalent and reinforced by popular culture – which is a bit of a ‘no shit Sherlock’ conclusion to come to. I expected Hunting Girls to be an analysis of, and perhaps a suggested response to, rape culture. Instead this book concludes that yes, there is indeed a rape culture, and lack of consent as a virtue has been around for as long as the Sleeping Beauty myth has. In essence, Hunting Girls is a journal article stretched into a (short) book, shorter again if we take out the plot summaries of several movie franchises that bulk out the first two-thirds of the book. This pop culture analysis, while sometimes entertaining, doesn’t mesh with the campus rape discussion in the latter third of the book at all. While some of the points raised are interesting, I felt this book left a lot to be desired.
Hunting Girls: Sexual Violence from The Hunger Games to Campus Rape by Kelly Oliver is published by Columbia University Press and is available in bookstores now. I received a copy of this book in exchange for an impartial review.