The Workplace, Veterans, PTSD, & The Mockingjay

Over the last week, I rewatched the Hunger Games movies. (CAUTION: Some spoilers ahead.) In the beginning of Mockingjay Part One, hero Katniss Everdeen, survivor of two battles to the death, hides in a narrow corridor, rocking and whispering the few facts she remembers, desperate to reorient herself. The scene reminded me of a question a friend asked me after I saw the film at the theater. She hadn’t seen it yet, but she’d heard other moviegoers say they did not like it as much as the previous two Hunger Games films because, in this installment, Katniss seemed weak.
Having just read an article on veterans and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, it occurred to me on rewatching Mockingjay Part One that Katniss suffers from PTSD. In her two times in the arena, Katniss sees people killed right in front of her, including a little girl she thought of as a younger sister, and she kills others to defend herself, Peeta, and her allies. She sets off an explosion that causes her to lose her hearing in one ear (though the hearing loss is omitted from the movies). These are all experiences that can cause PTSD, especially close proximity to explosions.

The symptoms of PTSD include many of those we see Katniss exhibit in Mockingjay Part One and, to a lesser extent, in Catching Fire. Flashbacks, disturbing dreams, severe emotional distress on being reminded of anything related to the trauma, negative feelings about self, overwhelming guilt (think of how angry and upset Katniss feels over being rescued from the arena while Peeta was not), trouble concentrating, angry outbursts, and feelings of hopelessness. Fellow survivor Finnick Odair, also shattered by the experience, tells Katniss with conviction that they’d be better off dead.
I admire Suzanne Collins for delving into the consequences of war. Both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, the first two films, depict the pageantry of war. Young people are sent to fight battles with everyone knowing how many of them will die. (Further, those in lower income brackets are the most likely to “volunteer,” as each time a family puts its child’s name in the reaping, it gets extra rations some need to survive.) Catching Fire and the third film, Mockingjay Part One, show the severe effects of combat on the survivors. These consequences are particularly striking seen against the propaganda both sides engage in during Mockingjay. While obviously Katniss Everdeen is a fictional character, that some audience members might see her as as weak when she exhibits those effects made me think about our culture’s views of strength, weakness, and emotional and mental challenges.
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People who live with PTSD, depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues also face the challenge of how others see them. Despite greater awareness, many people still see emotional or mental illnesses as a form of weakness. I am a fan of many self-help guides and methods, and I use techniques I’ve learned regarding meditation, goal setting, and being aware of what questions I ask myself to feel my best and achieve as much as possible. But versions of these techniques and their related messages often trickle into popular culture in an oversimplified form. We are told that your life circumstances are those that you’ve created, as if we had complete control; that you get what you focus on; that the world returns to you what you put out into it; and that if you are struggling with anything from low earnings to depression to difficult relationships, it’s all your own doing. Further, improving anything is solely a matter of the adopting the correct mindset, evoking the right emotional state, or taking a more spiritual path. These advice soundbites can leave those facing challenges that can’t be addressed through a change of individual mindset or habits alone feeling guilt and shame over not being able to “pull themselves together” or “get over it.”
Reactions to Katniss are also, I suspect, grounded in cultural stereotyping of certain emotions as feminine or masculine. When Katniss cries uncontrollably and is distracted and depressed, President Coin of the rebellion sees her as weak. When she expresses anger, even against the President, she’s seen as a strong symbol for the rebellion. This is not so far off from norms for girls and boys, and women and men. Boys are socialized not to cry but are allowed to express anger while girls are taught that crying is acceptable, but showing anger is inappropriate. Because of this socialization, many women report that they cry when they’re angry, making dealing with workplace disagreements particularly challenging. A man who raises his voice to a coworker in anger or slams a poorly written report by a subordinate down on the conference table never risks being seen as weak. A woman who cries in the same context will likely never be seen as a leader. She might not even be seen as competent.

I saw shades of this in my past life as a large law firm litigator. In a retreat for senior associates, a consultant advised that if a junior lawyer came to your office, started talking about a work problem, and began to cry, you should immediately leave to give her a chance to compose herself because the woman crying would be embarrassed and also needed to learn to manage her emotions better. Talking while calm is a good idea, but the idea of standing up and walking out on someone who starts to cry strikes me as awful in most circumstances. I did not hear any similar advice given about men who became angry, though women were cautioned against expressing anger too often or too strongly given the likelihood of being perceived as a bitch. Recently I read a woman blogger who said that her new plan is that every time a man shouts in the workplace, she’s going to say, “I can’t talk to you when you’re so emotional. Please come see me when you compose yourself.” If that starts happening, I will be more OK with the advice about walking away from a woman who cries. But the reality is still that expressing emotion through tears is seen as weak, while expressing anger, for men, is seen as empowering.

It’s a stretch to imagine that The Hunger Games books and movies can change that. But I love that in Katniss, we have an action hero who shows the real effects of what she’s been through. Rather than being stoic, she cries and shouts, falls apart when confronted with certain scenarios, and eventually finds her way through–not by toughing it out, but through finding a sense of purpose and with the aid of medical help and friends. Perhaps her story will open the way for more heroes, real and fictional, of any gender, to express all types of emotion.
Lisa M. Lilly is the author of the occult thrillers The Awakening and The Unbelievers, Books 1 and 2 in the Awakening series. A short film of the title story of her collection The Tower Formerly Known as Sears and Two Other Tales of Urban Horror was recently produced under the title Willis Tower. If you’d like to be notified of new releases and read reviews of M.O.S.T. (Mystery, Occult, Suspense, Thriller) books and movies, click here to join her email list and receive free a short horror story, Ninevah, published exclusively to M.O.S.T. subscribers.