I once worked with a guy who believed that our current fascination with reality shows revealed our interest in watching people die. I went for it but I wondered how this fascination carried over to reality shows like The Real Housewives franchise. The challenges staged on Survivor could actually malfunction and give the audience the bloodbath they were looking for, but The Real Housewives? Then I realized that the people on these shows have an ambition that makes them ruthless and merciless. Their desire to win and to achieve fame overrides any faint desire to be civil and certainly mutes any desire to honor another’s humanity. So I would expand what my colleague said about the desire to see people die to include the desire to see people kill them. When I have watched these programs, the people on them are indeed trying to kill one another, and they are merciless, ruthless in doing so. They have a very generous definition of what it means to take a life. The vanquished are killed not just if they stop breathing, but when they are humiliated and shamed; when they have been belittled; when any hope that they can face themselves in the mirror and see themselves as lovable is gone; when it makes no sense that anyone could love them. If you know what to look for, reality television can be a killing field.
I’ve been reading The Hunger Games trilogy and it’s a series that understands the horror of our bloodlust compellingly. I have only recently finished reading The Hunger Games and started on Catching Fire, but it has been very good reading–a wonderful interpretation of our times.
The story occurs in a dystopic future world that has been ravaged by both natural disaster and the human battle to reclaim a world through the devastation. Panem, the glory of this distress, emerged as the Capitol that organized the remains of the world. In the wake of a civil war of the thirteen districts against the Capitol that saw twelve defeated and one vanquished, the Capitol stages an elaborate ritual to commemorate the treasonous rebellion. Thus, the Hunger Games features one boy and one girl from each of the twelve districts between the ages of twelve and eighteen who try to kill one another. The winner is the one person who survives. The Hunger Games are like a macabre Olympics, a grim spectacle televised to an audience eagerly cheering for their district’s tribute or for their favorite participant.
While the audience may be distracted by the spectacle itself, the relief of not being one of the participants or having one of their children participate, Katniss, the novel’s protagonist, manages to be one of the few people who stays focused on the true stakes of the Games. Katniss is the bomb. As one of my dear friends says of Katniss, “she is so capable.” You not only want her on your team, you want your daughter to grow up to be like her. I really liked Jennifer Garner’s character, Sydney Bristow, on Alias and Katniss reminds me a lot of this character.
I haven’t yet seen the big screen adaptation of The Hunger Games because movies just cost too much money, but I look forward to seeing it on DVD. I have been following the reviews and the commentary on the film and have been struck by how peculiar the discussions have been in light of the near simultaneous coverage of the tragic killing of Trayvon Martin by self-appointed neighborhood watch volunteer, George Zimmerman. I recently listened to Michel Martin, of NPR’s wonderful program “Tell Me More,” host an interesting conversation about whether or not The Hunger Games was an appropriate film for children, and yet it seemed odd that Trayvon Martin never emerged as a subject for consideration. The Trayvon Martin case has helped to reveal for public consideration the role that racism has in shaping the way that many black parents of black children define aspects of responsible parenting and their unique worries about raising their children, particularly their sons. These discussions would have seemed relevant to a contemporary discussion about protecting children and the filtering of harmful content as it relates to them. Commenters on the NPR story about children viewing The Hunger Games accepted the terms of the discussion as they were presented and continued the debate about the race of the characters as well as the issue of violence itself and the savagery of the Games as suitable for children to watch. The reporting on Trayvon Martin’s experience of being profiled and eventually killed resonated with many people, black folk in particular, as the potential danger they know young people face. It seems to me that deciding on whether or not your child sees The Hunger Games would be greatly informed by how you imagine the dangers confronting them. Thus, it seems that thinking about the narrative of Trayvon Martin’s story as it is being articulated through the media would have been interesting to consider in terms of how parents responded to a question about being responsible to their children.
I have long felt that the world where children reside as children is much more brutal than claims regarding their alleged innocence suggest. Not only do I think this as a consequence of thinking about my own childhood but as I think about bullying that children encounter in schools today. If children are as innocent as many folks like to imagine, where do they find the ability and the skill to be so cruel towards their peers? When I watch reality television, I am often reminded of how much I longed to be in the company of mature people when I was a child. I used to imagine that as a person got older, they became more caring and compassionate, but it has become even clearer to me now that these are virtues that have to be taught. Reality shows further confirm that maturity is not promised with age. Maturity is something that children must be prepared to accept.
When I was a child, my education included observing ugly and distressing scenes. I remember bringing home “bread bowls” to collect donations for poor children in El Salvador. I remember being moved by seeing children my age who were dirty and nearly starving. Even as a child, I knew that the extremely poor were with us and it accompanied lessons about moral responsibility but also lessons against greed, excess, and waste. I am old enough to remember mimeograph machines. I remember our teachers conserving paper by mimeographing the clear side of flyers for new notices or worksheets. I remember the light purple ink and the moist paper distributed to us with an implicit message about showing respect for those children in El Salvador by not being wasteful with resources.
As someone raised Catholic and who attended Catholic schools, I also learned about violence. I don’t know that I always thought about the crucifixion through the lens of violence, as odd as that might seem, but I remember learning about the fate of some of the missionaries and being repulsed by the violence. Of course, at a young age, I had not yet questioned missionary work itself as problematic, but when we would pray for Sister Dororthy Kazel and when I saw her picture in the foyer of our school, I definitely thought about rape and murder. Indeed, in my own life, innocence precedes memory.
The Hunger Games suggests that children are always in conversation with their environment, which denies them innocence. I think that Katniss is prepared to be capable because she was raised to live in the world as it existed as opposed to being raised in the world her parents wanted for her. She is a figure of hope for me because she is so clear eyed about her world; she’s not at all delusional. For example, I love the assessment she makes in Catching Fire about life in District 11 versus District 12. About the differences she thinks:
“Well, I’ve learned one thing today. This place is not a larger version of District 12. Our fence is unguarded and rarely charged. Our Peacekeepers are unwelcome but less brutal. Our hardships evoke more fatigue than fury. Here in 11, they suffer more acutely and feel more desperation.”
I find value in being able to recognize these kinds of differences. For me it’s that key distinction that bell hooks makes between suffering and oppression when she writes that she will grant that all people suffer but cannot extend that universal claim to oppression. So the direct claim is something like: I will grant you that we all suffer but it is not the case that we are all oppressed. Whether or not children should see The Hunger Games is an odd question when posed within the context of oppression. That is to say, it seems superfluous to ask whether or not a parent should allow their children to see The Hunger Games when they are living the Hunger Games. Trayvon Martin was like a tribute from District 11. But to the point of how I began this post, I think it’s useful to think of what it might mean for all of us to consider how we in some way participate in the Games.
For more posts on Trayvon Martin, see the A Heap See Page.