In a place once called “America,” there is no culture — there’s only marketing. Every several months, post-Americans obediently shuffle to the specified location to consume the latest mass product. Pressured by a media campaign as autocratically directed as any celebration of Juche, consumers of all classes will spend their dwindling savings on the officially and unofficially licensed products of the latest corporate constructed entertainment.
As any sense of a real culture or shared tradition breaks down, there’s no longer a community, but only a mass anti-culture sustained by centrally directed publicity campaigns.
The hypocrisy and exploitation of the system becomes ever more apparent, the threat of naked force is ever more obvious, and what is worse, the people are required to rejoice at their own destruction through panem et circenses. They might even do it voluntarily.
Welcome to the Hunger Games. Welcome to what was once our country, anno Domini 2012.
Having been stripped of their history, culture, identity, faith, or even linguistic unity, perhaps the only thing the denizens of what was once a real country called America have in common are the mass media campaigns that push the latest franchise. While there is still the centrally produced prolefeed of the Rihanna variety, dissenters in music can find the niche market that caters to their own idiosyncrasy. Politics is increasingly irrelevant, the responsibilities of citizenship a sick joke, and even news reporting has become so fragmented that journalism serves to confirm bias or defend taboos rather than expose new facts. Even war has no effect on the vast majority of the country.
What the consumers inhabiting North America have in common, and perhaps the only thing they have in common, are the major franchise campaigns that sweep through the youth market. Creations like Harry Potter, Batman, or even the Twilight series require hundreds of millions of dollars in production and marketing investment, and so overwhelm even the supposed democratization of the culture that the online era was supposed to create.
The characters, stories, and dialogue of popular films, especially multi-film and multi-book franchises that spawn an entire fictional world, serve as the common cultural touchstones of young people, the source by which they define values such as beauty, masculinity, courage, or coolness. Also, while centrally produced and disseminated by a culturally destructive elite, a truly popular story can’t help but reflect deeply embedded archetypes or widely shared sentiments, even those that are suppressed or forbidden by the people themselves.
Therefore, what does it tell us that what could be the most popular movie of all time is about the government forcing children to murder each other for entertainment?
The Hunger Games tells the story of Katniss Everdeen, a sixteen-year-old girl living in post-apocalyptic North America destroyed by unspecified natural disasters. She is a resident of District 12, a depressed coal-mining region of a nation known as Panem. The 12 regions of Panem each produce a single staple commodity for the benefit of the Capitol, a spectacularly wealthy and decadent city ruled by the dictatorial President Snow. The Capitol uses advanced technology and an army of “Peacekeepers” to keep down the districts. Many years ago, the districts rose against the Capitol in rebellion. The Capitol retaliated (supposedly) by completely annihilating the now unpopulated District 13.
In remembrance and eternal punishment for their rebellion, the Capitol decreed that every year, one boy and one girl between 12 to 18 from each district would be sent to compete in the “Hunger Games,” a nationally televised fight to the death that only one could survive. The Games are part media spectacle and part reminder to everyone in the districts that the Capitol not only rules them but can even take away their children for their own entertainment. After a random drawing at the yearly “reaping,” the heroine’s 12-year-old little sister Primrose is drawn. To save her life, Katniss sacrificially volunteers as tribute, and is sent to compete in the Games.
Author Suzanne Collins is a children’s writer, and the sparse, plot-driven prose is targeted at young adults, especially young women. The de rigueur love triangle is introduced, with Katniss torn between her best friend (and inevitable love interest) Gale, and her fellow tribute from District 12, the well-built but gentle baker’s boy Peetra, who has secretly been pining for her for years.
However, Katniss is no Bella Swann, and considers all personal relationships, romantic or otherwise, in terms of her own interests. While she lionizes her deceased father, Katniss cannot rely on her own mother, who jeopardized the survival of her family with her emotional collapse. For years, she has provided for her family by (illegally) taking to the woods with bow and arrow to slaughter game. Self-reliant, unsentimental, and coolly capable of taking life, it’s easy to see why Katniss has been celebrated as the latest manifestation of media friendly grrrl power.
While the usual Buffy style pop feminism is part of the popularity of Games, the depth of its cultural impact suggests there is far more at work. There have been predictable explanations that fit into the official narrative that governs the society that Hunger Games is about environmentalism (it must have been global warming that destroyed society) or class prejudice (there’s a ruling elite, therefore oppression). Conservatives have also chirped about what you would expect them to say (the government is oppressive, therefore, libertarian fable about low taxes). There’s also the interpretation that the entire thing is just one large metaphor for high school.
It’s perhaps a general rule of White Nationalism that the farther some cultural phenomenon or figure is from our position, the more inclined we are to read something we want into it. That said, the portrait of Panem that seems so relatable to tens of millions of young Americans suggests a deep seated disgust at the heart of the American psyche, particularly that of whites.
There is a conflict of the “99% versus the 1%” at the center of Panem, but it is a story that defies the approved media narrative of our own time. The Capitol that is the center of evil in Panem is driven by purposeless exploitation. Rather than grim faced blonde Herrenvolk oppressing the colored masses of the Districts, Collins presents an exaggerated portrait of our own progressive elites. They are effeminate and hysterical physical weaklings with pointless lives. The complicated edifice of power reaches its zenith not in a black-garbed order of Übermenschen fanatically dedicated to an occult quest, but in a contemptible menagerie of spoiled sexual deviants that give themselves cat whiskers and brightly colored wigs to look “attractive.”
Rather than fear, they inspire contempt. Katniss, upon encountering their way of life, if it can be so called, says, “What must it be like, I wonder, to live in a world where food appears at the press of a button? How would I spend the hours I now commit to combing the woods for sustenance if it were so easy to come by? What do they do all day, these people in the Capitol, besides decorating their bodies and waiting around for a new shipment of tributes to roll in and die for their entertainment . . . the whole rotten lot of them is despicable” (p. 65).
Rather than Nazis or even old school Communists, the oppressive Capitol society seems composed of liberal arts graduate students, part time workers at feminist bookstores in Portland, and a sprinkling of the wealthier members of Occupy Wall Street. Panem has somehow reversed Hegel’s master-slave relationship — the one who is unwilling to risk his life for honor has become the master.
Selectively controlled technology makes it possible. The Capitol’s media manipulation, genetically engineered creatures, warplanes, and hovercraft remind the reader of the current Hollywood Imperium’s unmanned drones. In contrast, Katniss is a poor and uneducated white huntress, precisely the kind of person sneered at nightly by the likes of Bill Maher or Jon Stewart Leibowitz. Hailing from the Appalachian coal country, she is from the one group that our own society despises beyond all others.
The districts are contrasted with the Capitol because they produce actually useful products and necessities for life. Workers here are willing to risk their own lives in dangerous jobs to secure food for deeply loved families and friends. Meanwhile, those connected to the system can wallow in pointless luxury. Even the ostensible Führer, Coriolanus Snow, surrounds himself with roses to conceal the smell of blood from his mouth sores and secured his position through poison and intrigue, rather than charisma, strength, or ideological fanaticism.
The name of the country itself says it all: the point of Panem is consumption — the pursuit of happiness, in its most degraded form. Rather than some departure from America, the Capitol is contemporary America taken to its logical conclusion. Neither market worshipping conservatives nor trendy lifestyle liberals should be comfortable with the results.
It’s been said that if I tell you our society is ruled by an oppressive elite, you will call me a liberal, a reformist, and an idealist. If I tell you who that oppressive elite is, you will call me a Nazi, a racist, and an anti-Semite.
The Capitol of the present United States continues to grow in wealth and power, systematically sucking wealth and productivity from the “districts” in flyover country. Federal government employees enjoy higher salaries and benefits than the productive classes and the patronage system is governed almost entirely with the objective of providing free educations and cushy jobs.
Meanwhile, Eric Holder’s own “peacekeepers” at the Department of Justice periodically sortie out into the districts to suppress local resistance to the central regime, whether its voter ID in Texas, an immigration law in Mississippi, or a troublesome sheriff in Arizona, even as entire cities become ungovernable.
All of this is meant to suppress white workers, the white middle class, and what’s left of an actually existing folk community, as the existence of a real country would interfere with an economy seemingly based on debt driven finance capitol, media manipulation, and services for a degenerate and sociopathic upper class. As in Panem, the lower classes are given reality television and the promise that — if they play by the rules — they may be given a taste of the good life, like the victors in the Games.
Media manipulation is also central to the story. Katniss’s encounters with the tributes trying to kill her or the obstacles the “gamemakers” throw her way are relatively simple compared to the necessity of creating the media image needed to survive. Participants in the Hunger Games are watched by citizens of Panem who have the ability to send “gifts” such as food, armor, or medicine to the players they choose. Of course, in order for “sponsors” to want to spend their hard-earned money to send gifts, the fighters have to create a relationship with the very people who are watching them die on television. Makeup, witty remarks, even completely fictional relationships are created in order to develop artificial human interest to invest the people of Panem in a particular fighter. Her assigned mentor Heymitch, a past winner of the games, trains Katniss more in media relations than in actual fighting. Katniss’s relationship to Peetra is partially one of sentiment, partially one of circumstance, but mostly, at least from her perspective, a deliberate ploy to win audience sympathy and their twisted form of love.
To win the Hunger Games, you have to become a celebrity. Behind the primitivism of spears, bows, and fighting to the death, the book is a product of the internet age, where a viral video or sex tape can make or break fortunes in an instant. Everyone is available and accountable to everyone else. This is the first generation that takes for granted that social networking, the internet, and media allow each person to present a completely artificial image to the rest of the world, one that eventually has the power to replace the “real” person behind it. In the age of Facebook, even supposedly passionate teenage relationships are about appearances as much as reality. Katniss is manipulated into a “relationship” with Peetra for her own survival and by the end of the book, even she doesn’t know what she feels anymore. She’s also dependent on the mass society that gives her the supplies she needs to face another day, but is also deriving entertainment from her suffering. “Why am I hopping around like some trained dog trying to please people I hate?” she says (p. 117). Of course, if she openly dissents from the Capitol, even with the slightest remark, Katniss, her family, and her friends will all be destroyed. The white advocate of today can sympathize.
What is truly horrifying is that the Capitol residents are in some ways even more degraded then their slaves. As with our own society, all experiences are mediated. Life in the Capitol seems to be about watching the games and imagining some kind of a real connection with the contestants, to be discarded when they conclude. This is hardly different from Oprah watching housewives cooing over Madonna’s latest African baby, obsessing over Jennifer Aniston’s new boyfriend, or watching Dancing With the Stars. Like residents of the Capitol, many Americans can only be termed alive in the purely technical sense, as they have no purpose to their existence beyond living vicariously through the people on an electronic screen. At least in Panem, the contestants are actually fighting for their lives, as opposed to a record deal.
Race is not directly addressed in the Games, and yet, as always, it is. In the book and certainly in the casting of the film, Katniss, Gale, Heymitch, and Peetra are all white, the last with blonde hair and blue eyes. The black characters serve in the traditional role of numinous Negroes who help the white protagonist come to a greater understanding of his or her place in the world and the responsibility to work towards social justice. Cinna, a fashion designer who helps Katniss win the crowds in the book and supports her, has been transformed from a green eyed protagonist in the book to being portrayed by Lenny Kravitz in the film. He is the one character in the Capitol who is wholly sympathetic and somehow aware of the contemptible nature of the society he serves. Somehow, when compared to contemporary fashion designers, this character does not ring true.
The two black tributes in the film, Rue and Thresh, both hail from the agricultural district 2 where crop pickers are forced to work all day in a presumable nod to slavery. Rue is a small, agile young girl who allies with Katniss in the Games before bearing speared by another tribute. As a young small female who dies pitiably, she becomes Katniss’s moral center. As Rue dies, Katniss sings to her and holds her hand, salutes her, and then puts flowers on her before her body is taken away. Collins thus avoids the necessity for Katniss to actually kill a member of one of the victim classes at some point. Thresh, who is also from Rue’s district, inexplicably spares Katniss at a critical moment in gratitude for her kindness to Rue. Again, as in Batman: The Dark Knight, when the black criminal refused to blow up the ship to save his own life, the large black male character shows all the evil white people the true meaning of morality by reacting in a wildly unrealistic way in a life or death situation.
The bad guys of The Hunger Games among the contestants are the “Careers,” tributes who have trained for the contest all their lives and are eager to kill for a chance of glory. The leader is the blonde haired Cato, who is the required blonde haired villain familiar to every teen movie, even apparently post-apocalyptic ones. “Glimmer” the beautiful but evil Aryan chick, serves as part of his pack along with “Marvel,” another evil Aryan. There are a few borderline nonwhite tributes, who exist to be quickly slaughtered and forgotten without us learning their probably unpronounceable names. As always, the heroes are white, the villains are whites, blacks serve as moral mascots to help us tell good from evil, and a few non-whites run around for scenery and to fill a quota of some sort. Whether unconsciously, accidentally, slyly deliberately, or with the kind of sanctimonious liberal racism that presumes only whites can be moral actors for good or evil, the message is for us.
In any movie about social change and revolution, the marginalized assign their own meaning, and no doubt some Communist is writing his own review about the Marxist subtext of The Hunger Games. Nonetheless, while a traditional Leninist could find substance in narrative of exploitation, such a message is outdated when confronting our socially liberal, eminently fashionable, and militantly multicultural ruling class. The residents of the Capitol look more like guest bloggers for Gawker than the lords of the Kremlin. The Hunger Games confronts the nihilism of modernity, with struggle, even deadly struggle, presented as a path to redemption and morally preferable to consumption. Even brutality is better than passively watching others do it for your entertainment and at least it means asserting your own existence. Whites as hunters, fighters, and warriors, even as children, is a bracing image when contrasted to the passive, overweight, apologetic and diabetic couch potatoes our enemies’ society has carefully bred. Nor is easy to avoid who recognizing is the enemy when the very programs on MTV or E! promoting the film are hosted by bizarre surgically warped creatures that look like they crawled straight out of President Snow’s entourage.
All American whites have both the Capitol and the Districts in them, and the mass media that pushes the franchise contains within it a self-directed radical critique. The society is sick beyond saving, in Panem and the Capitol, and the only question is what group will step forward to offer the alternative. The message is Catching Fire.
Down with the Capitol!