Mockingjay Part 2 came out nearly two years ago, so it’s not like anyone really cares about the Hunger Games anymore, but it came up in conversation lately so I’ll crank out a post on it. The Hunger Games series is allegedly supposed to be a criticism of TV culture, modern media, and consumerism. There’s an immediate problem here in that TV culture is on the way out and criticizing something that’s bleeding to death is kind of missing the boat, but there’s a bit of a plank in my eye in that regard, so I’m going to focus more on the fact that even if the culture that produced Jersey Shore coterminously with the books’ release hadn’t happened to have entered into atrophy almost immediately afterwards, Hunger Games is an atrocious criticism of that culture.
Television culture is obsessed with appearances and is mostly apathetic to ideas like morality or education. That’s not to say that media should be created with the primary goal of moralizing to or educating their viewer, just that it is pretty uncontroversial to say that “it’s okay so long as it’s pretty people doing it” is generally considered shallow and contemptible as a theme. “It’s okay so long as it’s pretty people doing it” is a theme of the Hunger Games. The Hunger Games linger over the glamour of the pre-games festivities and, in the first book in particular, no effort whatsoever is made to resist them. In the second book, entrenched celebrities varyingly express disapproval for or spit vitriol at the double-dipping of the 75th games, but in the first book not one of the victims selected for almost certain death by lottery has a single bad thing to say about the authoritarian police state responsible. Including our protagonist. Who instead marvels at how awesome her dress looks and can’t stop thanking (in her internal monologue, where we know she’s telling the truth) her costume designer and the talk show host for making her seem glamorous. Even though it’s exactly that glamour that sustains the popularity of the death game that is 99% likely to kill her within the next two weeks.
Because the problem with the people who’re usually responsible for dressing up District 12’s tributes isn’t that they’re active participants in a gladiatorial death match for children used by a victorious empire to gloat over the weakness of their conquered enemies. The problem is that they sucked at it. Stripping teenagers naked and covering them in coal dust isn’t wrong because it’s sexually humiliating human sacrifices in order to slake the lust for glamour of a rapacious consumer culture. No, Cinna almost exactly that and receives high praise, because he’s good at it. Because instead of going for cheap thrills, he’s actually a competent artist who uses the protagonist and her love interest as mannequins with which to show off his prowess as a fashion designer as part of the pageantry used to build up hype for the annual murder of twenty-three teenagers and children. That’s okay, because he successfully makes Katniss and Peeta look glamorous and beautiful. Those other designers’ sin isn’t exploiting victims of a terror state, it’s that they made District 12 look like dorks.
Another common criticism of television culture is the vapid myopia of movie and TV stars. This is especially true of reality television. We’re supposed to believe that people whose only notable traits are selfish irresponsibility, immaturity, and narcissism make for the most thrilling drama of our time. The reality is that the reality TV shows that rely so heavily on these petty, childish stars are only successful because they’re so cheap to make, the drop in revenue from losing more discerning viewers is cancelled out and then some. This is especially true since a lot of those more discerning viewers are jumping ship to YouTube, which is so mind-bogglingly vast that it can sustain niches that never could’ve justified a television channel. There is no way that a show about improv technical and/or academic analytic commentary about video games as they’re played could ever get airtime on television. Six thousand subscribers would never justify any time slot even if the commenters work for free (which is, after all, what all but one of them are doing on that YouTube channel). Those six thousand subscribers spend a few hours a week watching that show, though – and not television. You can be pretty much guaranteed that these aren’t the kind of people who’d watch Jersey Shore, and there are a million other niches just as tiny with subscriber counts in the thousands or tens of thousands, and all of those add up to a lot less people watching television which means that television needs to get a lot cheaper to survive.
So, TV stars just aren’t nearly as important as so many of them come to think of themselves as, is what I’m getting at. There’s enough devoted fans that they can get magazine interviews and paparazzi and other trappings of fame, but not enough that they have any hope of turning around the fortunes of an unsuccessful product or swaying who gets elected president. There is some number of people who care whether or not Paris Hilton uses an iPhone or an Android, and maybe even enough to justify paying her to use one or the other on camera, but her habits are still barely going to make a difference in the fight for marketshare between the two.
Mockingjay is almost entirely dedicated to Katniss and Peeta putting out competing propaganda tapes exalting District 13 and the Capitol (respectively), and the leadership of District 13 (and, presumably, the Capitol) act like the reception of these propaganda tapes will be the success or failure of the war. They treat Katniss like she’s the lynch pin of the war effort and that presenting her celebrity endorsement right is going to be critical to victory. The outcome of a war is decided by its advertising campaign.
So the Hunger Games not only fails to criticize, but outright embraces several of the most prominent flaws of TV culture. When it does produce something vaguely resembling a criticism of TV culture, a vague resemblance is all it can get, because the metaphors are sliced up nonsense and the overall point comes across like “you consumers are the real monsters, the show producers are just reacting to your tastes,” which isn’t true because viewers are leaving television for YouTube because television isn’t giving people what they want. The Hunger Games portrays the games as being fueled by the ravenous needs of the Capitol for entertainment, and poor, starving, oppressed districts are roped in to play the starring role in a destructive, traumatizing piece of media. This is exactly the opposite of how it works in real life. Consumers in the real world are not imposing their demand for entertainment upon a hapless Hollywood. Hollywood is a center of wealth and glamour that draws in willing talent who are quite often willing to take their commitment to the job to unhealthy extremes because they want in on that wealth and glamour. The majority of consumers, meanwhile, are barely interested and just want there to be something on the television when they get home from work, and they don’t care what it is. For the most part, a consumer’s threshold for television quality ranges from “anything better than Jersey Shore will do” to “fuck it, even Jersey Shore will do.” They’re not a horde of decadent elites demanding ever more depraved performances. They’re poor or middle class and will consume whatever’s put in front of them so long as it isn’t total shit, because they’re not on a Slaaneshi quest for ultimate experience, they just want to unwind at the end of the day. They’re way too apathetic to provide the kind of intense demand that the Hunger Games portrays.
The Hunger Games also tries to jam in sideways some kind of commentary on American imperialism. Apparently the Capitol is like the wealthy elite of America because…they…demand blood sacrifices from their occupied territories? Is that a thing that the American elite are doing to the nation’s poor? Is that a thing that America in general is doing to our satellite states? Is there a hyper-popular news channel out there that reports on American drones bombing wedding parties, but then throws a lens flare on the strike and invites the grieving Yemeni families onto to the Tonight Show to pretend they’re thrilled to have gotten on television? Last I checked, the two attitudes of American media outlets towards American imperialism were 1) frothing condemnation, and 2) villification of the victims and, when that can’t work, distraction from the issue’s existing at all. Neither of these are “humanize the victims and try to sell their deaths as dramatic tragedies instead of human rights violations.” This is why cramming in a criticism of American imperialism is a bad idea. The message here is so garbled I can’t even tell if it is a criticism of American imperialism.
Hunger Games was a fad. For all that it was a sales juggernaut during its flash in the pan, you don’t really get a whole lot of people caring anymore. The movies and books are both done, and they’re very definitely past the point where trying to squeeze more blood from either of those stones would yield seriously diminishing returns. For all that they were phenomenally successful while they lasted, they have now stopped lasting. I’m basically just yelling at a cloud, here. Still, it bugs me that after all of the attention the Hunger Games got and all the conversations everyone had about the alleged thought provoking criticism, no one noticed that Hunger Games unironically embraces several of the most prominent flaws of the culture it purports to criticize, and then its actual criticisms are gibberish.