We can all admit that no YA book series — particularly of the dystopian genre — comes even close to The Hunger Games. Suzanne Collins really said “let’s absolutely destroy capitalism and its institutions in this book for children” and I for one am grateful.
But what I’m also grateful for? Why, the character Peeta Mellark. He’s a romantic male lead character so good that literally no other YA romantic lead has ever lived up to him.
Edward Cullen? Jump away, spider monkey. Four in Divergent? Boring. The Salvatore brothers? Ugh. Gale Hawthorne? I’m vomiting into my lap at the very thought. Finish him.
In my opinion, much of noughties pop-culture was obsessed with the “bad boy with a heart of gold” trope. But Peeta Mellark was something much better. He was a good boy with a heart of gold.
At this point I must confess: I am in fact a lesbian. I feel as though this is essential context for any opinion piece about a romantic leading man. But let’s be honest — not many of the popular YA novels of the noughties had non-heterosexual central relationships. Plus thanks to the patriarchy and heteronormativity and what not, I absolutely consider myself an expert on the many leading men YA authors and movie producers have rammed down the world’s throats.
So, what makes Peeta Mellark different? What makes him the God-tier YA boy? The boy that leaves the other dystopian hunks quivering in their artfully scuffed combat boots?
1) He wasn’t a massive wanker
The problem with so many leading men of this era is that they were absolute dickheads. Modern media really tried to sell us on the idea of tortured men who could be “fixed” (read: develop emotional intelligence) just by meeting the right person.
Not only is this trope boring, it’s also problematic. It basically told an entire generation of people that they should keep giving chances to men that pushed them away or treated them badly because underneath that wanky exterior was a soft boy.
Peeta Mellark was different. He was funny and smart, but he didn’t have any pretences about coming off as tough or mean. He was the perfect foil to Katniss because of that.
While it’s now an absolute cliche to label a female character as complex, Katniss was one of the OGs for YA fiction. And her relationship with Peeta subverted the standard narrative conventions of “sunshine-y, loving girl pines after gruff and moody boy”.
Basically the opposite of his rival love-interest Gale.
2) He had hobbies
Peeta Mellark had interests! Obviously the bread thing, but also painting! He loved to paint! My heart is warm!
Peeta is one of the few YA leading men whose interests aren’t reduced to scowling, staring dramatically into the distance, and saying things like “there’s no point telling you, you just wouldn’t understand” .
As a society, we’ve moved on from the word “nice” as a descriptor — no one wants a Nice Guy. But Peeta is presented as a fundamentally good person. And he’s a fundamentally good person while also remaining nuanced and complex.
if suzanne collins had made peeta the brunette one…none of us would’ve survived the 2010s
— Ashlee Latimer is Taking a Break (@ALNL) August 15, 2022
In the series he goes through an excellent character arc. If you didn’t cry virtually every time Peeta appeared in Mockingjay, you’re lying. Part of the reason his arc is so devastating is we see Peeta losing his sense of self. And of all the characters in The Hunger Games, Peeta is the one who most vividly represents the idea of hope for a better world.
3) Lying, as a treat
Peeta Mellark was absolutely slaying with his strategic lies.
“If it wasn’t for the baby”? Put it on my gravestone!!!
Peeta did what needed to be done to survive not just the Hunger Games, but also the Capitol.
Peeta: if it weren’t for the baby…
The Capitol: https://t.co/7V09IGEroF
— The Hunger Games (tbosas in 176 days) (@hg_fanboy) August 9, 2022
Can you see Edward Cullen pulling out a line like this? Absolutely not a chance.
Again, he’s the ideal foil to Katniss. While her strength came from her physical skills and blunt, no-nonsense approach to the Games, Peeta was a game player. He finessed his social clout by aligning with the Career tributes in the first Hunger Games and then betraying them for Katniss.
This isn’t your classic YA couple obsessively pining for one another amid poorly written sexual tension.
Peeta was an emotionally complex, well-rounded, interesting character. And he did it all without being an angry dickhead who makes the female love-interest’s life hellish.
He remains unbeaten as the ultimate YA leading man. No one is doing it like Peeta Mellark — absolutely no one.