American “Hunger Games”

Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger

Hunger_games“The Hunger Games” represents a wildly popular trilogy of science fictions books aimed at first toward the Teen and young adult market, but then becoming popular with the “adult” market as well. It has become a very popular movie trilogy; the second installment was released in November, with the final film next year.  A synopsis is a dystopian North America of the future and a country named “Panem”.  The narrator is a 16 year old girl named Katniss Everdeen, living in District 12. Panem consists of twelve districts, rigidly controlled by a central government located “The Capital”, a city of wealth and great technological advancement. Each of the other districts are dedicated to particular industry’s and the people of each are kept at a subsistence level of life. There is little hope for the future and brutal retribution for disobeying the “The Capital’s” edicts. We are told that there had been a revolution some 70 years before that was brutally repressed and ultimately failed. As a reminder of the futility of revolution, each year there is a lavish production made for TV of a gladiatorial conflict and called “The Hunger Games.” From each of the 12 districts two young people are chosen randomly to fight to the death. Each district sends a male and a female. The ultimate winner (survivor) is gives a life of wealth, luxury and status. The “Game” is set up in such a way that each of the contestants tries to compete for the affections of those privileged to be citizens of “The Capital”. These elite citizens can spend exorbitant sums of money to send aid to the contestants of their choice to try to ensure their survival. The “Game” is further rigged by the “Gamekeeper” in ways that tend to favor some contestants, so ultimately the contests are deadly shams. Their purpose is to show the 12 districts the punishment that will be meted out should they ever again disobey “The Capital”, the futility of resistance and also to supply hope that one could survive the games to attain the benefits of a privileged citizen.

I’ve read the entire trilogy and last month saw the second of the three films “Catching Fire”. While the books have a few logical flaws, their use of the viewpoint of Katniss as narrator makes it a brilliantly emotional read. The movies translation of the books is superb and I must admit that I’ve shed many tears while experiencing both. The book’s author “Suzanne Collins” has said:

“ that the inspiration for The Hunger Games came from channel surfing on television. On one channel she observed people competing on a reality show and on another she saw footage of the invasion of Iraq. The two “began to blur in this very unsettling way” and the idea for the book was formed.[2] The Greek myth of Theseus served as a major basis for the story, with Collins describing Katniss as a futuristic Theseus, and Roman gladiatorial games provided the framework. The sense of loss that Collins developed through her father’s service in the Vietnam War was also an influence on the story, with Katniss having lost her father at age 11, five years before the story begins.[3] Collins stated that the deaths of young characters and other “dark passages” were the most difficult parts of the book to write, but that she had accepted that passages such as these were necessary to the story.[4] She considered the moments where Katniss reflects on happier moments in her past to be more enjoyable.”

At the end of this guest blog I’ll provide links for those interested in further exploring the phenomenon of “The Hunger Games”, but now I want to delve into the metaphor that this series presents about our life today in America, because I see parallels to our current American crisis. Last night I watched the season conclusion of the popular TV contest/reality/singing show “The X Factor” and as I drifted off to sleep the idea for this piece began to form in my mind. While we are nowhere yet near the widespread poverty and misery of “Panem”, our America has been lately displaying the signs of a possible “Panem-like” future and I can see the signs in much of the “reality” programming that now pervade our televisions. Please let me explain.

The “X Factor” is your rather standard model of what has become the rage in television in the last decade. It is ostensibly a talent contest, before a panel of judges to determine which one of the tens of thousands of contestant will be judged to have the “X Factor” and win the prize of a musical career, fueled by a million dollar recording contract. With slight differences, it is of a similar nature to “American Idol”, “The Voice” and a variety of others that have sprung up trying to copy the initial success of “American Idol” the first of these shows to garner great national attention here and which are being produced in various countries worldwide. I’ll provide links for the history of this genre at the end of this piece as well. First though let me explain why an aged, intellectually pretentious “hipster” like me watches and loves these shows, while loathing much of their format and content.

I’m a sucker for the “underdog” and always have been. My favorite literature, sports teams and movies are those that portray the ultimate “triumph” of an “underdog.” Rooting for the underdog brings up powerful emotions within me that pervade my body with tears, warmth, excitement and triumphal satisfaction when my protagonist of choice succeeds and also allows me the surcease of tearful moments when they fail, as so often underdogs will fail. For those sports fans reading this all I have to say is that my favorite teams are the Mets, Jets, Knicks and Rangers and they will understand how my brief moments of exultation, have been outstripped by the frustration and tears of failure. Secondly, I love popular music and these shows are entertaining in that they are all about performances of popular music which allows me the fan to either enjoy, or trash based on my hearing. Finally though, I fancy myself as an observer of culture and the mythology that drives it and these shows are well crafted to fit into the mythology perpetrated in America, for indeed their winners are real life examples of the “American Dream.” Let’s look at the common themes and conventions that drive these shows and as we do so feel free to see how they compare to those presented in the “Hunger Games”, although without the violence……… far.

Were shows like “The X Factor” mere singing contests, one would think that they would be won by those with the best voices and greatest performing talent. This is not always the case. Sharing equal importance with each performer’s talent is their “back-story”. The three finalists on Thursday night’s “X Factor” final were Francisco Oliviero who represented the “Boys” category; Jeff Gutt, who represented the “Over 25” category; and finally Alex and Sierra, two Florida college students who were boyfriend and girlfriend, represented the “Groups” category.  Francisco, purportedly from the worst slums of Chicago, is now working as a Barista in L.A. pursuing an entertainment career. He is portrayed as a lad rising up from poverty to achieve his dream of singing stardom and to be motivated by wanting his success to provide financial comfort for his parents and family. The Narrator and Judges characterize him as “coming from nothing” and he himself said on one occasion that “I came from dirt”. I don’t know about other viewers, but since for many weeks his parents were constantly shown in the audience, I felt uncomfortable that their parenthood was talked about in that way. While it is true they may be poor people economically and their living conditions may at times have been sketchy, were they really “nothing” and “dirt”?

Jeff Gutt, is from Chicago and at age 37 he is a single father with a cute 6 year old boy, prominently displayed throughout the show. His back-story hints at “dark times”, possibly addiction, and earning a scant living trying to become a singing star. It emphasizes that he wants to win it all so he can support his child and last night he even went as far to say that his 6 year old son wants to go to Medical School to become a Doctor, so he needs to win the prize to make his boy’s dreams come true. As he has said and the MC parrots, at age 37 this is “his last chance” at fulfilling his dream to become a singing star, presumably the only way he can provide for all of his son’s needs.

Finally there is Alex and Sierra, an absolutely beautiful young couple, who by all appearances are completely in love with each-other. Their back-story is this love story and the fact that Alex, who has performed all of his life, talked Sierra into coming on stage with him and singing with him as he performed. Supposedly, as presented from their introduction onto the show, she lacked confidence in her talent and it was only Alex’s loving support that allowed her to bring out her own considerable talent and sing on TV before millions. The MC and Judges throughout the shows encouraged the duo to show their love for each-other in order to America to capture the public’s heart and their call-in votes. They are very good singers and musicians who stare lovingly at each other as they perform.

In the conceit of the of “The Hunger Games” a similar method was used to distinguish the competitors from each region, with each competitor having a team of stylists to present hairstyles and costuming as high fashion representatives of each of the 12 districts of “Panem”. Indeed, as the weeks of “X Factor” and all other such contests pass, the contestants are clad and styled into ever more perfect packages as a way to better sell their wares. Thus we see the progression of a transformation of contestants from ordinary mortals dressed in an ordinary fashion, into representations of superstars in anticipation of one’s soon to be elevated status.

Another conceit of these “reality contests” is that the contestants at each stage are constantly asked what winning the show would mean to them. The most repeated answer is that it would “mean everything to me” since “Stardom” is the only thing that would fulfill them in their lives. The repetition of this theme of the quest for stardom being all encompassing to the effect that anything less would be failure runs through ever contest reality show. It is ironic that many of those being asked this question are as young as fourteen years old. It seems they believe even at those tender ages that if they don’t become stars their lives won’t have meaning. This is the underlying message of these shows and it dovetails so well into the mythology of the American Dream. The idea is that no matter how humble one’s birth, any of us through “pluck” and talent can be rich, famous and gain entrée into the upper classes. “The Hunger Games” though certainly sends a far more dystopian message with the stakes of losing being death a far more disturbing exemplar of failure, than obscurity. As I see it America may well be in an era of transition towards what is portrayed as a dystopian future in “The Hunger Games” and these “singing contests” display the same conventions of propaganda that are used to distract, amuse and chasten the populace as those with power seek to increase it. If you strip away the surface patina, the methodology used is quite similar to that used by the Roman Caesars in their provision of “bread and circuses” via the gladiatorial contests. They provided distracting amusements for the masses, rewards for the small percentage of victors and the underlying message that the “State” is all powerful, so you best not run afoul of it.

In our “more enlightened times” the consequences of failure are not fatal, but the connotation may well be just as dismal. Victory, in the way our culture defines it, means leading a life of meaning and pleasure. Defeat is merely the common condition for most that lack the “talent” to succeed against the odds. The message to most of us is that “you’re simply not good enough and so you must accept your status, but a very few of you who try hard enough can be welcomed into the inner circle”. The reality of course in today’s America is that the “American Dream” is dying as a mythology to keep the populace in line. As the separation between the “haves” and the “have nots” becomes ever greater, it becomes more apparent to the people that the “game is rigged’ against them. The discontent is growing, though it is nowhere near its’ tipping point. Our government is preparing though for that day by building up massive records of each of us, our lives and those we are connected to. We have seen evidence on this blog that there is government planning for dealing with the possibility of massive rebellion and the treatment of “Occupy Wall Street” provides a case in point of the difficulty of dissent on even a rather minor and peaceful scale.

These reality shows meanwhile have become enormously popular and are in effect massive vehicles of corporatist propaganda. However, to add to the “Hunger Games” motif the ratings of NFL football are the highest on TV, surpassing by far even these contest/reality shows. Pro football gets us closer to the violence of the “Hunger Games”, by building up its heroes and its losers with similar motifs to that of reality contests and with rewards lifting our heroes into the wealthy classes. Despite the fact that almost every pro football player has been to college they are nevertheless all commonly portrayed and extolled as “blue collar”. As rich and as famous as any of them get, the NFL publicity machine is careful to make them the inferior to the Billionaire team owners. They owners have in fact pretty much destroyed the Player’s Union in recent labor “lockouts” and have dictated restrictive salary caps, with the general approval of the Football loving public. Though the players are well paid by any standard, their careers are short and we are discovering many suffer early humiliating deaths due to the injuries sustained playing the game.  It is a class system writ large and in the end no football player, no matter how heroic, is ever seen as the equal of the Billionaire who owns the team.

Perhaps I am of too dystopian a mindset as I ponder the future of my country and as I amuse and distract myself with fantasies of the underdog prevailing in sports, literature and the performing arts. So here am I waiting with bated breath for the return of “American Idol” in January, so I can immerse myself again in the fantasy, listen to the pretty music and yet have a sense of foreboding over what I’m watching.

Oh yes, Alex and Sierra won the “X Factor” and its’ million dollar recording contract. Thus, once again proving love conquers all in the hearts of the American Public. While Carlito and Jeff gamely promised that this loss won’t be the last we see of them, who knows whether or not they will fade into the obscurity of regular living. I hope not, but then again it is only hoping for a better future for all that keeps me going.

Submitted By: Mike Spindell, Guest Blogger

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