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

62 thoughts on “American “Hunger Games””

  1. An earlier example of the genre is Richard Bachman’s (Stephen King’s) novella The Running Man. Now there’s a dystopia that looks increasingly like the world around us.

    1. “An earlier example of the genre is Richard Bachman’s (Stephen King’s) novella The Running Man.”

      New Iconoclast,

      I fear “The Running Man” may be the shape of things yet to come to our televisions.

  2. Well, I thought it over.

    If that boy is going to keep insisting on lifting to much weight the only logical solution I can come up is to have his 105 lbs Mom spot him.

    I’ll be damned if I’m going to risk my wore out ole back spotting him. 🙂

  3. MikeS,

    Some people have to get into it with their children over booze/girlfriends, etc.

    Last night I had to get onto that boy of mine 2 about 3am here.

    He’s been doing real well exercising, but I’m concerned he’s going to far.

    I find out he’s literally lifting what a small block chevy engine weighs.

    The reason I noticed was every time he puts the weights down in the garage the whole cement of the house shakes.

    I’m concerned as I know more then I’d like to about back/nerve damage & the lack of medical options for pain control.

    **How Much does a 350 Chevy Engine Weigh? – › Q&A › Automotive › Vehicle Brands‎
    A 350 chevy engine weighs from anywhere around three hundred and fifty pounds to four … Chevys website lists the Chevy smallblock (305, 350, etc) at 575 lb. **

  4. MikeS,

    Just had a big talk with my son a bit ago.

    I’m a would be tough guy, but I shed a tear when called for.

    I won’t leave this life & not have said my piece when I should have.

    You are an inspiring person to me along with many others on Professor Turley’s Blog.

    I pick up the good Karma & spread it Johnny Apple Seed style. 🙂

  5. lottakatz 1, December 21, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    Dredd. When times get bad people get mean, you’re right. I’ve read some studies about stress reactions as they apply to society and you name the meanness and it goes up. I think the first study I ever read about it dealt with Indigenous Alaskans and sled dogs and that was a loooooong time ago. I have suspected that the last 10 years of blood/gore/WIJ films is a way to voyeuristically cater to the trend.
    Yeah … we’re radioactive … 😉

  6. Dredd. When times get bad people get mean, you’re right. I’ve read some studies about stress reactions as they apply to society and you name the meanness and it goes up. I think the first study I ever read about it dealt with Indigenous Alaskans and sled dogs and that was a loooooong time ago. I have suspected that the last 10 years of blood/gore/WIJ films is a way to voyeuristically cater to the trend.

  7. Blouise, Wrestling, oh my. My mothers side of the family was into wrestling, it was one of the few stations/programs they could receive (hills of Tennessee and an antenna that reached nearly to the clouds that you had to turn by hand to get your stations.) so it was a steady diet of wrestling and westerns. They took it seriously. This was back in the ‘Gorgeous George’ days when there was less theatrics and more actual wrestling. Not as many drugs either, being small and fleet of foot counted athletically. I enjoyed it too but I think sitting around as a kid with the entire family watching our hour or two of available TV a night was the big draw. Good times. 🙂

  8. Thanks Mike S for the comment on the comments.

    Good folk here, like a jewel with many facets, come at any subject matter like light from different sources, illuminating the subject in an expanded and helpful manner.

    Let me add one thing I have pondered of late, and which this post also somewhat surreptitiously alludes to.

    Cultural sadism (that is, a sadism sinking deeper and deeper into our culture).

    I may have captured somewhat of a handle for us to grasp it with, and it may explain some of our trolling events too:

    Most of the time, we try to avoid inflicting pain on others — when we do hurt someone, we typically experience guilt, remorse, or other feelings of distress. But for some, cruelty can be pleasurable, even exciting. New research suggests that this kind of everyday sadism is real and more common than we might think.

    Together, these results suggest that sadists possess an intrinsic motivation to inflict suffering on innocent others, even at a personal cost — a motivation that is absent from the other dark personality traits.

    The researchers hope that these new findings will help to broaden people’s view of sadism as an aspect of personality that manifests in everyday life, helping to dispel the notion that sadism is limited to sexual deviants and criminals.

    Buckels and colleagues are continuing to investigate everyday sadism, including its role in online trolling behavior.

    “Trolling culture is unique in that it explicitly celebrates sadistic pleasure, or ‘lulz,'” says Buckels. “It is, perhaps, not surprising then that sadists gravitate toward those activities.”

    And they’re also exploring vicarious forms of sadism, such as enjoying cruelty in movies, video games, and sports.

    The researchers believe their findings have the potential to inform research and policy on domestic abuse, bullying, animal abuse, and cases of military and police brutality.

    (How The Official Pleasure In Torture is Analyzed). The “education” we are receiving is that official sadism is a patriotic thing which “our betters” do to us for our own good.

    In other words, we are not headed in a good direction, thus, we must change the course of the ship of state.

    Playing the sadist’s game will not do.

  9. lotta,

    I do love your rants … wish there were more but probably wouldn’t be as affective if more numerous.

    I. Hated. Queen-for-a-Day. also. My great aunt got hooked on the show when it was on radio and then on television … late afternoon on NBC I think … I was helping to prepare dinner. My mother used to whisper to me, “Pathetic women on that program.” She’d never say it out loud out of respect for my aunt. My great aunt also loved those fake wrestling matches. I loved her very much but she had some strange taste in television viewing. I suspect she would have been a fan of every reality show.

  10. Wow….such a lot of great comments that I hardly know where to begin, but I think I’ll start with Blouise, because she nails where I’m coming from.

    “However, I was intrigued by the metaphor Mike drew and the parallels to which he directed our attention and thus, after careful consideration, came to realize that those very parallels were the reasons I’m not a fan of either the Hunger Games or Reality Shows.”

    My piece was done as a metaphor because frankly where I’m trying to go would take a very long book and I for one don’t have enough left in the tank anymore to attempt it. My concern isn’t about politics but it is with where we are going as a nation and where humanity is going as a species. My contention has long been that humanity has always been governed by an elite, in one society or another. The methods are constantly changing through the ages and our rulers shift between benign models and malignant models of governance.

    As Dredd alluded to it is all about education of the masses and another explanatory word for that is propaganda. In our country there has been the unifying concept of the “American Dream”, but the reality of that “Dream” has always been that its achievement is rare in the sense in which it is presented. The quintessential example of that is the series of novels by the author Horatio Alger. Alger was lionized in his time as being the author who most captured the public’s understanding of the “American Dream” and indeed in my youth he was still referred to in that way. Let me use the typical Alger plot to extend my metaphor. This plot is a paraphrase of one of his books.

    “A poor orphan shoeshine boy works diligently from dawn to dusk outside of a large bank. The rich bankers who patronize him hardly notice him except to remark on how industrious he is. He lives in a threadbare furnished room and barely earns enough from his hard work to keep himself fed and clothed. One day, as he is shining shoes, he spies the bank president walking and at the same time sees a safe falling that would kill the banker. He lunges and saves the banker’s life. In gratitude the banker gives him a job and buys him a suit.
    The industry that the lad applies to the job is such that he rises swiftly at the bank. After a while the banker’s daughter who has returned from school abroad comes to visit her father at the bank and notices the handsome young man. He sees her beauty and sparks fly. They fall in love and with the Banker’s approval because of the young man’s pluck and industry they marry.”

    In Alger’s world success wasn’t about becoming one of the elite per se, because that “elite” represented a class way beyond the aspirations of the common man. Alger presented the dream of attaining middle-class “respectability”, thus being deemed by the “Elite” as worthy. See further:

    In “The Hunger Games” the message is that the way of life in Panem is ordained and that those in the enslaved 12 Districts have no right to aspire to more than their lot in life. However, each year one person by fighting their way through the other contestants can rise to an elevated status. Not really as part of Panem’s ruling elite, that is made clear, but as a kind of pampered pet of those who run things.

    Now in truth while some in this society have attained great wealth and fame as entertainers, the reality is that no entertainer is ever accepted as part of the “upper classes”. In my youth Frank Sinatra was probably considered to be at the acme of the entertainment world and it is true that due to Peter Lawford he became part of the Kennedy Entourage, only to be unceremoniously dropped after the election because of his mob ties. The irony is that the “Kennedy’s” themselves had mob ties but were unimpeachable as part of the elite class and so suffered no consequence.
    some might say but what about Reagan and I would reply that Reagan was never of the elite, but he was certainly working for them. I threw in the part about pro sports because that formula is also true. Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning are very wealthy and very celebrated, but in the public’s mind they are not in the class of their team’s ownership.

    One of the conventions on the “X Factor” is that the contestants are constantly characterized as “fighting” for their victory. Carlito Oliviero was called a “fighter” and the fact that he was a boxer was discussed as showing his “fighting spirit”. The truth is that it is a singing competition, not a martial display, but the underlying mythology is presented that way and conveyed to the public subconsciously. My post is less about the movies, books and TV shows, than it is about how we are sold myths that help to continue an unequal power structure.

    Nick’s point about how children’s sports has morphed from our childhood to today’s adult organized competition is part and parcel of the commercialization of everything within our society. I remember with fondness the games of my youth with no adult around to “organize” it. For most children there is no dream of athletic glory on a big scale no mater how much they practice. I spent hours practicing by myself to become a good ballplayer, but I was no athlete and the only glory I ever obtained playing ball was on the unorganized ball-field’s of my youth where the competition was such that once in a while I could even be a hero.

    Carol’s comment was both a bulls-eye in the context of the “Hunger Games” and in the context of “Reality Competitions”. People in both instances are made-over to separate them from the masses and elevate their status. One of the things I find most ironic about the success of the “Hunger Games” movies is that various cosmetic companies have come out with makeup that plays off the fashion sense of “The Capitol”. Clearly the bizarre fashions of makeup shown in those “Capitol” denizens in the movies are to illustrate the decadence of this concentrated wealth. These companies are selling the decadence.

    Finally Bron, I wouldn’t call the books great literature, nor would I call the movies great films. All I will say is that they were able to move me emotionally in a positive way and that personally is all I ever seek from art.
    This is true at times in my viewing shows like the “X Factor” in that I have some emotional contact with the participants, even though intellectually I know that much of what I’m watching is propagandist manipulation. I’m just the kind of guy who likes a good cry and I take things that move me there as they come.

  11. Elaine, When the trolling goes into overdrive and it becomes a race to scrape the bottom of the ‘bring on the pain’ barrel I consider a thread dead and move on. I don’t even want to be in the same room with a circle-jerk of mean spirited delusion. I’m sure I miss a lot of good comments in rebuttal but there isn’t enough brain sanitizer at Walgreens Drug store to keep my head clean after some of the comments and I’m trying to keep my personal attacks to a minimum.

  12. Nick, you’re right, it was a writer’s strike that gave us this generation of reality shows. Damn union! 🙂

    I’m with Blouise, I don’t watch them in general, I do watch Project Runway and Top Chef. Drama queens, mostly bad fashion and food are my weakness’. A couple of the designers have been artists of high merit but they are exceptions. I’m in it for the laughs.

    Anybody else here old enough to remember “Queen For A Day”. As a child I would watch it with my mom. Women with terrible stories of ongoing hardship would present their stories and compete for prizes. The audience would choose the winner. I hated that show. These were people burdened almost beyond belief by the vagaries that life throws at one (no safety net of any kind then) and they were hoping to win a washing machine because doing the laundry by hand with a bedridden father and a new baby that had polio or something was a full time job. Or hoped to win food and some new cloths for the kids because since the man of the house was injured and lost his job food was in short supply and the kids have all grown and they need cloths to go back to school.

    I. Hated. That. Show. All that pain, why couldn’t they all win? That just wasn’t right. I was like, four and knew there was something wrong with that format.

    Reality programing just doesn’t work for me. If I wanted to get involved with false, transitory alliances and plots to knock someone in the group out of a position I wanted for some temporary gain I could just go to work. Srsly. I just never got in step and considering that it was apparent in kindergarten I see now that much of the problem was watching those game shows with mom. I was a bleeding heart liberal (and couldn’t keep my mouth shut about it) by the time I was five. Curse you “Queen For A Day”!

  13. lotta,

    Thanks for your rant. Over at Mike’s “virtuous” rich post–we’ve had folks defending–and even extolling–the Kochs. You know the charming brothers who use their big bucks in hopes of doing away with social programs like Social Security and Medicare. Such charming siblings!

  14. lotta, A great rant. I don’t agree w/ all of it, but judging it on style, an A.

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