Do We Live in the Hunger Games?

About a week ago I went to see “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire.” I haven’t read the books, and I wasn’t particularly impressed with the first movie—because “Battle Royale” is out there, guys—but the new film was pretty good. As far as young adult dystopias go, the movie had some emotionally poignant moments that were extremely powerful. Plus, who doesn’t like to see a kick-a** female lead move through a story with as much conviction and strength of character as Katniss?

When I left the film, though, I was unsettled. I mean, the movie is about kids murdering each other in the jungle, which I guess is pretty unsettling in general, but that wasn’t what was bothering me. Rather, it was that uncomfortable feeling that you sometimes get—reading dystopian fiction or watching dystopian films—that you’re seeing a gruesome version of your own existence reflected back at you.

Obviously novels and films like this have a long history of making people think about the failings of their political and cultural structures; and it shouldn’t be surprising to see reflections of our own world in them. If there weren’t similarities, we wouldn’t be forced to reassess our view of the world around us.

Yet I can’t help but think that franchises like “The Hunger Games”, bought up by massive film studios with marketing campaigns that literally cost millions of dollars, are being utilized for the very purposes that they seem to be decrying: the use of entertainment to gloss over the unsettling realities of the world around us.

Andrew Slack, an executive director for The Harry Potter Alliance—a group that seeks to address issues around the world that their favorite novels take an interest in confronting—recently wrote in an LA Times article that Lionsgate’s marketing strategy for the film has not been particularly on-par with the work’s social message concerning income equality. He pointed out that the studio recently promoted the film by launching a website, “Capitol Couture,” in conjunction with CoverGirl makeup.

The website is an amazing example of marketing. The design is crisp and clean, and the interviews and photos all give the feeling of an actual fashion website. And while it’s a novel form of marketing, Slack rightfully points out that the website valorizes the very same thing the film seeks to confront. The series, much like Katniss Everdeen herself, has become repackaged and commercialized as something safe and, worst of all, distracting.

The very nature of The Capitol’s system of control in Panem is to sensationalize and entertain the inhabitants of the districts to help them forget about the troubles of the world they live in.

Is wandering off to the movie theatres to indulge in this story—to actually watch, even if it is fictionalized, young children kill each other—any different than folks in the capitol preening over their annual selections?

Is it really that different than say, folks in the United States watching clips of warfare and devastation abroad, of the dead in the streets in Syria and the Philippines, and making their own small contributions to help end the suffering—the very same suffering that, if we reprioritized our political process and our international policy, we could actively help put an end to?

It’s a well-known fact that it would cost around thirty billion dollars a year to end world poverty, and that our very own government is more than comfortable spending around 700 billion dollars a year on our own defense spending. Or that one percent of our population owns about forty percent of the country’s wealth.

So, then, are we really interested in confronting issues of hunger and injustice in the world? Or, is it more important to find a way to fit these things into our own consumptive narrative, to reorient them as a new form of entertainment? Most days we can turn on the news, catch a few clips of devastation abroad, and feel good about being “informed” about the world’s troubles. Never mind that we’ll still keep driving our cars, buying our plastic-packaged goods, and indulging in our gross black-Friday antics.

We’re not protected from this kind of faux-morality on a progressive college campus like Seattle University, either. How often do we pretend that having an opinion about something like Syria is a substitute for being an activist? How often do we take classes about poverty and write papers about postcolonial liberation without having any actually stake in these issues, without having even experienced them? Do we, like the citizens of Panem, treat issues of social justice as yet another good to be marketed and consumed?

Truly, it’s a sign of the ideological strength of our culture of consumption that we can take something like “The Hunger Games,” or any other piece of writing that exposed the gross injustice of our present economic system, and turn it into yet another product to be marketed and consumed.

The odds, as it turns out, are always in Capitalism’s favor.