Laugh-Sighing at Media Reactions to The Hunger Games

Writing Buddy and I went and saw Catching Fire last week, which was an exercise in film excellence and reignited emotions for the series. It’s been a while since I read the books (just long enough, it turns out, for me to forget about the goddamn mutated monkeys of terror holy cow) so it’s been interesting to get back into the swing of all things horrifyingly dystopian and revolutionary… and find my palm raising towards my face once again over all the interview questions regarding the love triangle.

The love loop in The Hunger Games is one of the more irritating ones in the sphere, I think, since though I liked both ‘love interests’ as people and characters and acknowledged Katniss’ positive dynamics with both of them, it seemed wholly, achingly unnecessary. The relationship with Peeta was the one that got the most development and, well, the one we saw the most of, and it would have been nothing short of a cop-out if our heroine (who was expressedly not interested in romance at all) had ended up with the other guy. From a conservation of detail point of view, it was pretty obvious who Katniss was going to end up with if she was going to end up with anyone, and any touchy-feelyness on Gale’s part seemed like added drama for the sake of added drama.

And, of course, the romantic angle isn’t what the series is about, it’s an element shoved way, way at the back in terms of importance. It’s a story about a sadistic dystopian government that rules by fear, the division between oppressing classes, the power of hope and human endurance and the desire for freedom and revolution. It’s a hard-hitting, violent sci-fi in a terrifyingly believable future, a commentary on the media of our world and our society’s casual bloodlust and voyeurism. It just happens to have a teenaged girl narrating and leading it, who happens to be caught between the affections of two dudes, and naturally and very, very ironically this is what the media latches onto.

The Onion, funnily enough, hits the satirical nail on the head:

I think there’s still a stigma that exists around stories and works that star or are aimed at teenaged girls. Teenaged girls are, of course, all boy-crazy, self-conscious gossipy aliens of a lesser class to the mature adults of the world who spend their time turning against one another in fits of hormonal cattiness,  their preferred media source being things with glossy pages and/or lots of descriptions of abdominal muscles. There are lots of heavily ‘mature’ themes within The Hunger Games and were it not centred around young people, chiefly Katniss herself, I doubt it would have ended up classed anywhere near the YA section. But because it has a sixteen-year-old girl at its head, all those eager to put it in boxes happily do so, which leads to some ironic complications.

Everyone who gets the story argues against the love triangle that the media enjoys focussing on. When asked if she was “Team Peeta or Team Gale”, phrasing borrowed from the Twilight fanbase (don’t even get me started), Willow Shields, who plays Prim, answered that she was Team Katniss.

“Everyone thinks of the book being such a romance and thinks that there’s such a huge love triangle, but I don’t think of it that way. I think of Katniss fighting for her family and being a strong character for young girls.”

The sentiment is echoed by the rest of the cast. While they acknowledge the importance of the romantic subplot (which keeps many people alive as well as providing character development and cutesies in the midst of a televised coliseum), they make sure to point out that it isn’t the focus of the story.

The focus is Katniss, who is not the ‘typical’ (as the box-putters define it) teen heroine lamenting having to choose between two hunks. Katniss is a very atypical YA heroine in a lot of ways; she’s openly and properly flawed, survival-focussed, brutal and pragmatic, and one of her establishing character moments is threatening to cook a cat. Her ultimate goal is to protect her family, and that certainly does not include all of the celebrity buzz and “you are so special” treatment surrounding her when she gets into and then thwarts the Games.

Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss

“I don’t have time for this BS. Can I have my hunting boots back?”

One of the key themes in the series is the manipulation of media, used to rule the Districts by fear as well as keep the upper classes entertained, as well as help keep Katniss and Peeta alive when they pretend to be in a star-crossed relationship to garner sympathy and interest from the Games audience, thus getting them more sponsors who don’t want to see their ship sunk.

In Catching Fire the Capitol folks thrust a lot of focus onto the relationship between Katniss and Peeta to “distract from the real problems” of the bloody rebellion that is beginning around the nation. The entire thing is a calculated farce on both sides meant to string the audience along, which is why it’s so funny (and a little unnerving) that the real world’s media is focussing on exactly the same thing. The outfits, the relationship plot twists, the latest romantic scoop, everything that, wacky futuristic fashions or otherwise, is very much a reflection of our own celebrity culture. Except of course these hyped-up individuals are real people, and the same society cheering for them is also going to watch them kill each other for a prize. You laugh now, but reality TV isn’t that many steps away from achieving this.

As well as a warning against the horrors of war, The Hunger Games is a blatant criticism of a voyeuristic, obsessed, manipulated and manipulative media. It’s not just the Capitol bad guys that do it either, but the revolutionaries and even the tributes themselves. And the audience and readers get swept up in it too — you find yourself hating characters for what we’re shown of them from our limited point of view, like big horrid Cato from the first book, and getting sucked into the bloodlust and spectacle of it all and wanting him to get killed off… only for him to be humanised at the last second, reminding us how monstrous the entire system is right before we find ourselves cringing away from his agonising end wondering why on earth we wished for that.

Peeta and Katniss in Captiol promotional material

This deliberately looks like propaganda guys come on

And, in the midst of the third book where everything is going wrong in all directions and the world we’ve become fascinated with is war-torn and covered in the bodies of our favourite characters, we wonder why we were so caught up on the freakin’ love subplots when all this is going on. Why is no one talking about the culture of violence in these books and movies? I think, regrettably, the answer is because people aren’t excited by it because it’s either seen as normal or because they want to delicately avert their eyes and gloss over the biggest issue the story is tackling in favour of juicy gossip.

That is the clever thing about the books, and the biggest statement it makes: we are all part of this problem. We are all products of the media that is fed to us, subconsciously or otherwise. It’s a mindset like that that leads to a society like the Capitol, which funnily enough is desensitised to violence to the point of finding it entertaining and obsessed with the glitz and glamour of celebrity and fictional character romance. Sound familiar?


Filed under Pop Culture Ponderings

6 responses to “Laugh-Sighing at Media Reactions to The Hunger Games

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