Even though it’s fun to analyze the movie casting news, the most controversial aspect of The Hunger Games will always be the Great Peeta vs. Gale Debate. Let’s welcome Smarty Pants Sue W. as she steps onto our soapbox and applies some highly scientific methods to reveal Peeta’s true character. Sue’s favorite adult beverage is port, and she happens to be a bewigged Oxford professor on the inside, so HEED HER WISDOM, Y’ALL.

What, you think you know something about Peeta? You think he’s sweet and kind and eternally devoted to Katniss by pure magic?

He is sweet and kind, but his feelings for Katniss come from a very real place. As it happens, Peeta wasn’t even in love. Not at first. He doesn’t drop his bread for just anyone, though.

Katniss never quite figures out the secrets I am about to share. She’d be the last person to know. In the same way that Katniss has to sift through Octavia’s party woes to figure out which districts are in rebellion, we have to sift through what Katniss tells us and dig out Peeta’s real story. Like, why doesn’t Smooth-Talking Charming Boy ever talk to her at school?

1. Peeta grew up watching Katniss’s parents.

You would think that a boy like Peeta — popular, well-to-do, good-looking — would have no problem asking Katniss to be his prom date. Even Katniss thinks something doesn’t add up. Yet year after year, Peeta watches from afar.

This crush is driven by a lot more than Peeta ever admits out loud. In his story about the first day of school, Peeta misdirects the attention to Katniss’s song but HOLD UP at his father’s unexpected honesty. “See that little girl? I wanted to marry her mother, but she ran off with a coal miner.” Who says that to their 5-year-old kid?

Raise your hand if your parents ever fought in front of you, multiply that feeling by a million, then stretch it out for 16 years. On a thousand afternoons, young Peeta watched Mrs. Everdeen pick up two happy little girls…and then he walked home to his own vicious mother and defeated father.

Many years later, in a cave: I reach out to touch his cheek and he catches my hand and presses it against his lips. I remember my father doing this very thing to my mother and I wonder where Peeta picked it up. Surely not from his father and the witch.

Surely not. In the second book, Peeta immediately recognizes Katniss’s mother in old reaping footage from 25 years ago. In the third book, brainwashed Peeta still remembers Katniss’s father singing “The Hanging Tree.” In every book, we get a hint.

Maybe the whole town knows the story of the beautiful girl who married a poor miner for the sake of a song; it certainly made an impression in the Mellark household. To an abused, sensitive little boy, the Everdeen home — happy children, joyful father, loving mother — must have looked like heaven. Heaven with extra hugs and cinnamon on top.

Y’all, Peeta has had years to build the Everdeen romance into his personal fairy tale. To put himself in a story of true love and happily-ever-after, to complete the quest his father failed, young Peeta needs to marry the penniless girl with the silver voice. In the flummoxed logic of the heart, Katniss is the key to Peeta’s holy grail.

Never mind that the real Katniss is unfriendly and never sings anymore. He doesn’t have to talk to the real Katniss in order to enjoy the fantasy.

2. Peeta fell in love inside the arena, not before.

So Peeta stands on stage and tells the truth: that he’s had a crush on Katniss for years. Peeta doesn’t confuse a crush for the four-letter word, and neither should we. Peeta is many things, but he’s never stupid. People don’t die for crushes.

Let’s review the events from Peeta’s perspective. Prim’s name is drawn and Katniss volunteers. Regret and admiration hit him like a freight train. Along with the rest of the crowd, Peeta touches his three middle fingers to his lips.

One minute later, his own name is drawn. It’s a death sentence. He’s thinking about himself now, not Katniss.

During farewell hour, his mother makes a nasty remark that at least Katniss has a shot at the crown.

In his heart, Peeta agrees with his heinous mother. We make the choices in front of us, and Peeta thinks the only choice now is the manner of his death. Will he die as a victim, a murderer, or a hero?

From the moment this choice crystallizes, Peeta wants his death to mean something. Meanwhile, he sits at the breakfast table with a virtuous volunteer who just needs a smidge of help to get home. A girl he happens to adore. She’s clearly not going to say yes to an alliance (she’d kill him now, if it’d only count!), so Peeta focuses on getting behind enemy lines in the Career pack. In a stroke of brilliance, he finds a way to haul sponsors for both of them (seriously, in all of Games history, has any player managed to get sponsors for someone else?). Peeta really really wants Katniss to like him, but on the rooftop before the Games, he is thinking about dying well, not seizing his last chance to cadge a kiss.

All this changes in the arena. For a fevered boy on death’s door, the boundary between pretend-undying-love and real-undying-love collapses when the girl of his dreams comes back for him. That’s the moment when love begins in earnest. Anyone can see that this dying boy is pure deadweight. We know it, Katniss knows it, Peeta knows it. Instead of shimmying up a tree, Katniss sticks around. Peeta has been fantasizing about Katniss’s perfections for years, and she promptly shows up all brave and loyal and wonderful. He falls HARD, people. His lifelong crush has just been validated.

3. Until Mockingjay, Peeta loved an image of Katniss.

This perplexing, good-natured boy who can spin out lies so convincingly…Peeta lies so well he can even convince himself. In the arena, Peeta loves Katniss for the same reasons we love Katniss, multiplied by a lifetime of silent longing. Yet he’s really only known her for a month.

He’s 16 years old and very much caught up in his crush. He loves an image of Katniss, and he’s imagined this role for himself as epic lover. Epic lovers play by a certain rulebook, including:

Rule 1. Keep loving your girl come hell or high water.

Rule 2. If she doesn’t love you back, that’s totally okay! Love is pain!

Rule 3. Die for love.

Team Gale complains that Peeta’s love doesn’t feel real compared with the deep friendship of Katniss and Gale, and they have a good point.

Speaking of which, how does Peeta feel about Gale? Well, Peeta’s father could never hope to compete with a handsome hunter either. After Gale’s whipping, Peeta thinks (cue tragic cellos) that he’s a clumsy jerk who stepped right in the middle of Katniss and Gale’s storybook romance. Sweet, sensitive Peeta, always on the outside looking in. Again he has to choose amongst crap options, and he decides to friendzone himself graciously (see Rule 2).

It’s not until the hijacking that Peeta’s fantasy narratives are forcibly destroyed. Rule 2 blows away in the wind, and reality ain’t pretty. In his hour of need, Katniss deliberately avoids him. From Peeta’s newfound perspective, the simple explanation for Katniss and Gale being together all the damn time is Katniss just likes Gale better. Peeta is rejected, betrayed, never valued at all no matter what heroic sacrifices he makes. No wonder he hates her.

It’s not until the batshit craziness of the final mission that Katniss earns his love for real. The cameras are gone, but Katniss still stands by Peeta. He goes mutt and tries to kill her, and she’s not even surprised. He’s a time bomb and wants to die, but Katniss sticks to him like glue. Katniss speaks with actions, and in the Capitol her actions all point in one direction.

Peeta, really seeing her now, loves her back. Real or not real?

4. Peeta brings the sexy.

Peeta. So sweet and wounded, so brave and kind. So totally capable of killing a girl in cold blood. Remember how Katniss first discovers he’s with the Careers? Hardly a doughboy.

Henri, with all due respect, I’m guessing you’re straight because you don’t know shite about men as lovers. Not only is Peeta marvelously unselfish, he also demonstrates some serious range. He’s sweet and tender when you want him to be, dangerously powerful when you don’t. Just look at the way he cleaned up Haymitch and then smashed the liquor the next morning. Physically, Peeta never makes a single misstep with Katniss. He can read every mood, every unconscious desire, and reflect it back a hundredfold. In the certainty of requited love, he’ll have Katniss yowling.

As a sweet bonus, have you considered the link between breadmaking and a killer massage technique? Peeta = whole-body rubdowns + hott in bed + cuddles + croissants.

Of course, I agree that Gale is an absolute tiger. In this regard, the clear answer to Peeta vs. Gale is YES.

Agree? Disagree? What makes you love Peeta (in bed)? And should we add (in bed) to every question from now on?


This post was written by a guest writer or former contributor for Forever Young Adult.