April 2, 2012

What's Wrong With The Hunger Games Is What No One Noticed

guess what happens next

When a media universally misses the point, it's on purpose.


Rue is a little girl in The Hunger Games, and in the movie she's played by a black girl. According to Jezebel, Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Disappointed.

racist-tweets_hunger games.jpg
Well, six people are, anyway.

There's an underlying rage, coming out as overt prejudice and plain old racism. Sternberg is called a "black bitch," a "nigger" and one person writes that though he pictured Rue with "darker skin," he "didn't really take it all the way to black." It's as if that is the worst possible thing a person could be.

So there are some racist fans, so what?   In itself, why would this be surprising?  There are racists everywhere.  I once asked a black guy where I could find some racists and he punched me in the mouth, turns out I'm a racist. Who knew?  Actually, I did, because every time I see a black guy do anything odd I say to myself for no reason at all, "oh, hell no, oh no you didn't."   This is going on in my head, silently, no audience.  Apparently not only do I see race, I hear it.  And god forbid it's a black woman, my neck and skull actually start moving from side to side as I think, "mmmm hhhmmmmm!"   Why do I do this?  I don't talk like that. So much for individuality, so much for free thought, I am so polluted by the world that my reflex thoughts are someone else's.  You don't even want to know whose thoughts I think when I see boobs.

Of course, if this racism was attached to a Transformers movie you can be sure that Jezebel would pronounce all of the Transformers audience racist.  But in this case, it's only some of the audience who are racist, because progressive Jezebel likes The Hunger Games, and they're not racist.  How can they be?  They're post-feminists, i.e.  the racism for Jezebel is merely an opportunity to criticize the bridge trolls who live in Central Time, just in time for the elections.

Most of the "racist" comments I've seen about this complain about the race from a  anti-Hollywood, anti-left perspective, i.e. "there goes liberal Hollywood, pushing the liberal  agenda."    The complaint appears to be not that they don't like black characters in general, but that this was some underhanded move to use the story to promote a political agenda, like making Sherlock Holmes a gay action hero.  Now that's just wrong.  

If that's the case I don't completely fault them, the story is important to these girls/women, and they feel betrayed that someone alters it to suit their interests rather than give a faithful telling of the story, which, as happens to stories, become partly owned by the audience. 

The point here is not whether Rue should be black or not.  What's interesting is how Jezebel seized on the racial controversy, but completely avoided the one bludgeoning them in the face for two hours: this is a book for females, written by a female, with femalist themes, gigantically popular among females, yet is more sexist than a rap video.


Everything that's terrible about THG is in this sentence:

Hunger Games was written by a woman and stars a woman (much as we love JK Rowling, her series isn't named after Hermione) -- making it a true lady-centric blockbuster franchise.

Here's your first point of irony: this true lady-centric blockbuster franchise isn't named after Katniss, it's named after what happens to Katniss, which is why it is truly a lady-centric franchise. 

How would you classify this book/movie's genre?  Is it an action movie with a female twist?  Is it a love story?  A drama?  Sci-fi?

No. It is a fairy tale.


We can start with the obvious.  The book is about 24 kids thrown into an arena to fight to the death, only the toughest, the most resourceful, the strongest will survive, and it better be you because your whole village depends on it.  It is such a scary premise that there was some concern it was too violent for kids to watch.  Well, big surprise:  Katniss wins.  

Hmmm, here is a surprise: Katniss never kills anyone.  That's weird, what does she do to win?  Take as much time as you want on this, it's an open book test.  The answer is nothing.

This is not a criticism about the entertainment value of the story, but about its popularity and the pretense that it has a strong female character. I like the story of Cinderella, but I doubt that anyone would consider Cinderella a strong female character, yet Katniss and Cinderella are identical.

The traditional progressive complaint about fairy tales like Cinderella is that they supposedly teach girls to want to be princesses and want to live happily ever after.  But is that so bad?  The real problem with fairy tales is that the protagonist never actually does anything to become a princess.  Forget about gerrymandering or slaying a dragon or poisoning her rivals: does she even get a pretty dress, go to the ball and seduce the prince?  Those may be anti-feminist actions, but at least they are actions.  No.  She is given two dresses, carried to the ball, and the Prince comes and finds her. Twice.  Her only direct and volitional action is to leave the ball at midnight, and even that isn't so much a choice as because of a threat. (1)  The clear problem with this isn't that girls will want to hold out for a Prince, but that it might foster the illusion their value is so innately high that even without pretty clothes or a sense of agency a Prince will come find them.  Sleeping Beauty and Snow White are worse: they don't even have to bother to stay alive to get their Prince.

The Hunger Games has this same feminist problem.  Other than the initial volunteering to replace her younger sister, Katniss never makes any decisions of her own, never acts with consequence-- but her life is constructed to appear that she makes important decisions.   She has free will, of course, like any five year old with terrible parents, but at every turn is prevented from acting on the world. She is protected by men-- enemies and allies alike; directed by others, blessed with lucky accidents and when things get impossible there are packages from the sky.  In philosophical terms, she is continuously robbed of agency.  She is deus ex machinaed all the way to the end. (2)

For example, though this is a story about kids killing kids, somehow Katniss never actually plans and executes any kids, she's never guilty of murder one.  She does kill Rue's murderer, but it was reflexive, a defensive act.  Importantly, she does not choose NOT to kill,  she does not choose a pacifist position, she explicitly states twice in the book how much she wants to kill.  But she never does it. She tries to kill big bad Cato at the end, twice, and fails.  Only after he is torn to shreds by mutants does she perform a mercy killing on him, at his request.  In other words, she doesn't choose to kill or not kill-- it doesn't come up. (3)

The story goes out of its way to prevent her from having to make choices and especially from bearing their consequences.   Events unfold in such a way that it appears she made a choice, but decisions are actually made for her.  At the end she and Peeta, her kinda-boyfriend, are the last two contestants left.  Only one can live.  What should happen next?  Does she kill him?  Or let him kill her?  Think about it, what does she choose?  Remember, this is about a strong female character forced to play a killing game.  Wait-- never mind, they change the rules at the end: everyone's a winner!

"But she chooses to commit suicide at the end!"  That would have been a choice, but the book robs her of that as well, this is the point.  The book does not allow her to make irreversible choices, it lets her believe she is making free choices and then negates them, again, just like a five year old girl with terrible parents.

She does commit one consciously deliberate act, and it's quite revealing.  At the end of the book, she's ambivalent about whether she loves contestant Peeta.  But the Games allowed two winners only because they appeared to be in love; so all she has to do, for the cameras, is pretend to be in love with a boy she already likes a lot.  But after all she's been through in the arena, this-- what is coincidentally called ACTING-- is what is described, in the shocking last sentence of the chapter,  as "the most dangerous part of The Hunger Games."

This is not hyperbole.  This is literally correct: for someone who has not ever done it, acting with agency would indeed be dangerous.  But those stories aren't fairy tales, those stories are legends.


That the book is successful or exciting is not the point here.  What's fascinating/horrifying is that this fairy tale has managed to convince everyone, especially people who consider themselves feminists, that it represents a form of female empowerment when it is exactly the opposite. What you should not underestimate is how deliberate this magic trick is.  This is society successfully pretending to change so that nothing changes.  The goal is making the other team contribute to their own oblivion.  The goal is status quo.


The classic feminist example of "robbed of agency" is the woman who "chooses" to wear makeup, do her hair, display/hide the right amount of cleavage.   Is she choosing this, or is society imposing this false choice on her?  Because if she feels she has to do it in order to land the account, then it's not really her choice.  Hence a controversy about agency.

What makes this such an impossible, lose-lose situation for a woman is that this choice isn't about "what to do" but about who she is, what society wants a woman to be: while she must make herself look pretty, if she is observed doing this she is immediately and simultaneously critiqued for being vain.  The decision about whether to be or not to doll herself up is thus somewhat up to her, but the judgment about whether she is vain is entirely out of her hands-- it is a judgment imposed on her for doing exactly what is expected of her.  Her only hope is that she is can make herself look pretty enough that it looks like it was not on purpose, i.e reveal the results but hide the process. (4) This manipulation of her is all deliberate design-- what society actually wants is that it gets her to be pretty, demarcates her as an object to be gazed upon--  but not bear any of the guilt/responsibility for forcing her into this.  If it works and you are pretty I guess that's some consolation, but imagine if you're not pretty but still have to go through all this, suspecting but never admitting that everyone is going to think, "why'd she even bother?"   Being pretty is in many ways worse, because you're not only competing with other pretty women but with yourself ("you look tired today")  and, as the old saying goes, a beautiful woman dies two deaths.  But before you go try some of our Nivea skin care products.  That's the system, it wants you to participate in your own marginalization so you don't dare unplug.  It's exhausting being a chick.  I mean girl--  woman.  Jesus. (5)

Though this is an example of the feminist agency problem, you should note carefully that the "society" that forces this false choice on women is actually other women, not men, and it starts with the overly invested way mothers reproach their daughters to "dress like a lady."   Certainly the original energy for this madness comes from men, from "the patriarchy", but if every man was executed tonight nothing would change tomorrow.  It's on autopilot.  Case in point: this story of a girl robbed of agency was written by a woman.

So this is why we have a book about a post-apocalyptic killing game that spends zero pages describing how Katniss kills anyone but spends countless pages on how she is dressed, how everyone is dressed.  What will she wear?  What kind of jewelry?   Hair up?  Will the "sponsors" like her better this way or that?   Her chief weapon isn't a bow, it's her appearance.

This is also a good place to observe that the real life, pre-and post movie release controversies about The Hunger Games have also been about physical appearances-- not just race, but is Jennifer Lawrence too tall?  Hair too blonde? 

That's why The Hunger Games is such a diabolical head fake.  Forget about it being entertaining, which I concede it is.  It has managed to convince everyone that a passive character whose main strength is that she thinks a lot of thoughts and feels a lot of feelings, but who ultimately lets every decision be made by someone else-- that is a female hero, a winner. You wouldn't allow yourself to like a story where the woman lacks agency, so it's clothed in a vampire story or a female Running Man so it sounds like she's making things happen.  Or, if you prefer, in order to allow you to like an anti-feminist story, it is necessary to brand it as a vampire story or a female Running Man.   Regardless of how you phrase it, the purpose is to get you to like this kind of a story. It wants you to think this is the next step in female protagonists.  But it's a trick: nothing has changed since the royal ball. 

That these "adolescent girl" stories-- Twilight and THG-- have women who are essentially lead by men, circumstance, and fate-- whose main executive decision is "do I love this guy or that guy"-- is a window on our culture worth discussing.  When you have a daughter, your first question should be, "how is the system going to try to crush her?"  and plan accordingly.  This story's answer is, "no matter what happens, just talk a lot and it'll sort itself out."  That Jezebel is distracted by the racial angle here strikes me as an unconsciously deliberate avoidance of the larger issue.  Oh, the audience is racist, that's the problem.




I.   The threat is not that her coach will become a pumpkin.  It is "the longer you stay, the more likely you will be detected to be a fraud."  This is a critical childhood anxiety (which is why it is in a fairy tale), a narcissistic anxiety, and a feminist anxiety.   The only thing she has to offer are her looks, and those are artificial (makeup and clothes) and transient.  Eventually, the botox wears off.  Tellingly, it cannot occur to Cinderella to even anti-feministly use her boobs to seduce the Prince and then win him over with her charm/grace/personality.  Ultimate decision and action is always someone else's (godmother, Prince, etc.)

2.  To reinforce this point, consider that "deus ex machina" is translated, "god from the machine" where machine= people who made the story.  So not an act of god, but rather the author putting a god into the story to affect things; the important implication is that it is not random but deliberate.  So when Katniss's potential victim happens to be wearing body armor, it is not an accident that Katniss couldn't kill him, or dumb luck, it was the deliberate intention of the author not allow Katniss to kill him.

The purpose of deus ex machina in ancient stories was to place the final reconciliation at the spiritual level: God saved you, time to commune.  But since Nietzsche said there is no god, "deus ex machina"= man, for the purpose of delivering earthly prizes.  This is the essence of the fairy tale-- as magical as they may be, the end result is always an earthly reward (marriage, riches, survival) and never a spiritual one.  Hence, fairy tales are vital to the religious and non-religious children alike because they act as a bridge away from spiritual to earthly ("time to grow up")-- the child's imaginary world directed away from more imagination and towards the practical; or, in other terms, away from the Imaginary towards the Symbolic.

3. So if Katniss tries to kill someone, and fails, she has agency; but if I, the reader, can predict  that at no point will she actually kill anyone because I can tell the author doesn't want to put her into such a position-- and then she tries to kill someone and "fails", then Katniss lacks agency.  Note that the person who is aware that he has free will feels as though he lacks agency ("it doesn't matter what I do") becomes either depressed or paranoid, or both.

4.  An interesting exception is hair coloring.  The brunette who dyes her hair blonde isn't  trying to look Swedish, the point is to make sure everyone knows it's artificial because it's a signal: I don't want blonde hair, I want to be a <<blonde>>.

5. An example of this and Lacan's partial object is the 40 something woman who looks in the mirror and decides that her entire sexuality is in a single special part of her, say, her butt-- so she diets to make the butt look good at the expense of bony shoulders and a gaunt face.  Men sometimes do the same to their spouses, empowering a single body part of hers with all of the sexuality, e.g. looking at the calf or the hip bone doesn't simply remind him of the 20 year old version of his wife, but becomes the fetish that replaces the long gone 20 year old version. But this isn't illusion or delusion, he is not imagining what his wife looked like, the single body part is enough to generate arousal, in the same way that any fetish (specific kind of shoe, or a foot, or a piece of lace) is entirely sufficient. The problem is that this doesn't make the woman look hotter, it replaces the woman, so now neither the 20 year old version nor the 40 year old version are necessary.

The extreme of this logic is in anorexia, where the whole body is sacrificed in order to get "thin"- but because the thinness isn't directed in a body part but in an idea, a feeling, they still wear baggy clothes not to hide their fat but to hide the collateral damage of emaciation to their body which they are completely aware of. They know other people think they're too thin, they know "87 lbs" is a small number, but the anorexic is trying to control an idea. "I can see that my shoulders are sticking out, I know everyone can see my ribs, but yet I know I am horrifically fat."  The control, the act of not eating, is the special body part; it is the obsessed-over fetish that exists for its own sake.

Addendum:  if you don't know how to read, you should probably click this.