Monday, December 10, 2018

Everybody's Dystopia: The Ambivalent Politics of The Hunger Games

You've probably seen the meme that's been going around for a couple years, generally some variation on a particular idea: This generation was raised on Harry Potter and The Hunger Games, of course they're not going to stand for Trump's authoritarianism.  Whatever the generational political demography may be, there is a problem with this claim.  The politics of The Hunger Games (and Harry Potter, and others that I have little knowledge of) are almost studiously ambivalent on political issues.

In The Hunger Games, any political perspective beside outright totalitarianism can be projected onto Katniss and her compatriots.  The world of Panem is one in which the wealthy exploit the labor of the poor by demanding unwavering patriotism and convincing oppressed peoples to distrust each other.  They demand cultural and ethnic homogeneity. A reluctant hero becomes a symbol of a resistance movement, aiming to convince the population to overthrow the ruling class and establish a more equitable society, though it turns out the leader of the resistance is just as bad as the old leader.  Also... The world of Panem is one in which a centralized state power enslaves rural populations by disarming them.  They demand that everyone work without hope of personal advancement.  A reluctant hero becomes a symbol of a militia aiming to overthrow tyranny and establish a fair society, though it turns out the leader of the militia is just as bad as the old leader.  Both of these descriptions are perfectly accurate.  What's more, the coding in the books and films are just as ambiguous.  The denizens of the capital dress in a fashion reminiscent of European aristocracy and adopt the gilded age's condescending attitude towards the poor. (So it's a class issue!  Get the guillotines! ¡Viva la revoluciĆ³n!)  At the same time, they're effete urban elites who control the media. (See, it's a government issue!  Can't let them gubmint bastards boss us around!)  Katniss herself (See!  A female protagonist! #Resist) is ambivalent (See! She just wants to protect her family, as any good woman would! #FamilyValues) about the political aspect of her role as spokesperson of a resistance movement, and ends up more or less opting out of having any role in the development of a new society.  This is generally true of Harry Potter as well, though we tend to forget that given J. K. Rowling's frequent political statements.  Harry Potter is more explicit politically, the parallels between the Death Eaters and Nazis being so evident that denying them is downright silly, but, as strange as it is for me to have to type this, outright denouncement of Naziism was less politically controversial ten years ago than it is today.  A running gag in video game communities of the time held that there were five types of enemies you could kill without any controversy or guilt: Aliens, Robots, Zombies, Terrorists, and Nazis.  Only moral reprobates (of which there are disconcertingly many) wouldn't side with Harry and his pals. Still, it is only the outright Nazi beliefs of the Death Eaters that qualify one as a villain in this series.

To be clear, I'm not trying to criticize YA series, but rather point out that most of the political content we see in them is projected.  I really don't want to get into a long screed about the efficacy of counter-hegemony so I'll just end the post here.

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