Friday, May 04, 2012

The Hunger Games

We are in a strange moment. It is a moment that calls out for resistance -- the global retrenchment of class power through austerity; the increasingly bold political attacks on women in North America; the still-changing mix of attack on queers and accommodation with queers who are already privileged in other ways, combined with appropriation and re-organization; the quite different mix of re-organization, silencing, and attack on racialized people; the ongoing erasure of disabled people; so much more. And people resist. They live when they are told they should die, they help and love and co-operate when they are told they should consume and compete, they defy when they are told they should least sometimes. Collective expressions of that impulse are important to nurture where they happen but are unpredictable, scattered. So many spaces churn with isolated efforts to survive, leftover imagery from past struggles, and a kind of emptiness that cover real anger and real contemporary struggles of ones and twos and tens getting by, and sometimes managing to blunt the local manifestations of the knife. Those swirling images matter, I think -- they are one of the few hooks that we have for this desire for things to be other than they are, this sense that they can be, when so many of us are not only detached from participatory, democratic spaces that can give collective form to the struggles that fill our everydays but, after decades of neoliberalism, even from the sense that it is possible to create such spaces in ways that could mean anything for our lives. We sense the swirling anger, the swirling images, but we have trouble making the leap to seeing them as genuine possibilities of radical imagination that we can struggle to make real, and instead relate to them more often as ghosts. Yet the desire persists, the need persists, for a world that is more just and free, as well as the echoes, at least, of past efforts to make it so. Hollywood can stir them up, remix them, sell them back to us. We know this because of how much work is done by the social organization of the news and entertainment media to convince us that these things don't matter, that they are fun but without any real meaning or possibility.

This is the realworld cultural context in which Katniss Everdeen's story is being told. I think a big part of her resonance in this moment is her passionate commitment to survival in the face of hardship, and her unflinching insistence in respecting human dignity, her own and other people's, in the face of oppression that denies it. Not only that, but her story allows her to make such choices in moments where their resistant character is clearly visible to us, and where her choices have important material consequences (even if more of those will only become clearer in future instalments in the series). Insistence on survival and dignity in the face of all of the pressures not to survive and all of the pressures that deny our own humanity and push us to deny the humanity of those around us speaks to what we need so very badly in this moment. However, the way these things happen in the movie misdirects us, neutralizes their potential. It builds on what is messed up and awful in what is even as it remixes images of resistance and tunes them to our desires for something more, something better.

Who Katniss Must Be

One important way that The Hunger Games misdirects us is through what it says about who Katniss must be in order for her to win. Some of these elements are present in the story arc in both book and movie, and others are accentuated in the movie -- I would argue because the extremely high level of capital investment in a feature film intending to be a "blockbuster" means a different kind of responsiveness to mass audience expectations (or their incorrect perception by studio execs) than the more modest outlay required for a book. In both, her chance at victory requires her to perform a certain kind of femininity as she tries to position herself, in the lead-up to the start of the games, to get sponsors. That is, being a certain kind of woman is shown as necessary to win. This happens in the book as well, but there it shown more clearly as an imposition, and Katniss is shown as more resistant. (Though see also this piece which points out that the way it is shown wavers between opposing imposition and opposing femininity itself -- for instance, exaggerated femininity, and perhaps a kind of aesthetic queerness, is a primary way in which the Capitol is Othered for the viewer.) Another element of how this shifted with the change in medium is the way her fiery temper is made much more moderate in the movie. That is, for her to act in resistant ways that refuse to deny human dignity, she has to do it in a way consistent with how many people in the audience (and many studio execs) perceive as proper for a woman -- she couldn't be shown as too angry, or people might not like it.

Moreover, in both texts her victory is shown as depending on her being seen as involved in a heterosexual romance (one which even invokes the epitome of hetero romance, Romeo and Juliet, in a number of ways, including the threatened double suicide in the climactic scene). Again, the fact that this is imposition and the fact that she resists -- that is, that heterosexual coupledom is not inherent and natural but is socially imposed as a condition necessary for a woman to be allowed to succeed -- is much clearer in the book, though she ultimately complies there too. In the movie, I think it was deliberately portrayed such that those viewers who had read the book would read Katniss as deliberately faking it to survive, while those who hadn't could just as easily read it as a genuine romance blossoming between her and Peeta. In the movie it seems like an almost invisible instance of the near-universal convention in which the successful conclusion of a movie requires the formation or triumphant preservation of a heterosexual relationship.

Another aspect of what the movie shows that Katniss must be in order for her to win is white. In the early stages of turning the book into a movie, online critics writing from an anti-racist perspective pointed out that Katniss is portrayed as racially ambiguous in the book -- as not white and perhaps as mixed-race. There was a great outcry when Jennifer Lawrence was cast in the role. This is not, I should add, any comment on her skills -- I think she is very talented and she really impressed me in this movie. The problem is that the producers decided that whiteness was necessary to tell the story they wanted to tell in ways that they thought would resonate with enough (white) people to make the movie financially successful. Another troubling moment related to Katniss' whiteness and her heroic journey within the movie is the scene in which Rue dies. It is already clear by this point that Katniss' immediate struggle in the games is meant to be read as connected to a larger, collective struggle of survival and dignity against the oppressive Capitol. In her final moments, Rue tells her "You have to win!" While there is certainly ample justification in the movie in terms of the interpersonal relationship between these two characters to make this a plausible statement for Rue to make, it still reads quite strongly to me as a moment meant to bestow a certain kind of legitimacy on Katniss, a kind of confirmation of the racial universality of the struggle of the white hero through a sympathetic Black character saying to do it for her. This universality, of course, is so often denied to non-white heroes in general, and was specifically denied to a non-white hero in this movie through the casting of Lawrence.

What Struggle Must Be

The movie, again in line with the book in some ways and more than the book in others, also politically misdirects us in what it tells us about what struggle must be.

Before expanding on that, it is important to note that there are ways that it portrays oppression and resistance that are interesting and that do allow us to think usefully about the world in which we actually live. The kind of spatialized mechanisms of control between a centre (the Capitol) and a periphery (the Districts), and the specialized roles in production played by the territories of the periphery, reformulate a very real and active aspect of how our current global social relations work. It even potentially makes this mechanism more visible to readers and viewers because it casts it all within a post-apocalyptic U.S. rather than as the relation between Europe/North America and the rest of the world which is made largely invisible in our realworld culture. The Hunger Games also shows in a number of different ways how horrible violence is ritualized and/or routinized and thus made invisible, particularly to those who are not subject to it. And, certainly, this is an important idea to explore, given the extent to which our lives in North America depend on massive violence that is largely invisible to us, and the extent to which good liberals will immediately reclassify you as someone not worth listening to when you try to point that out. As well, various points made by the "President Snow" character about the political role of the Games, such as giving oppressed people a hint of hope -- not none, but not too much -- resonate with the real world (see: Horatio Alger). And the division of those who benefit from oppressive social relations between a small number of conscious elite oppressors and so many others who more passively benefit but whose desires, structures of feeling, and interpretive practices are organized such that they can maintain a self-image as good, violence-free people yet react to resistance by the oppressed in ways that fully support the oppressive status quo and tacitly or explicitly support repressive and oppressive violence.

But there is a lot about how struggle is portrayed that is much more troubling. For instance, while there are moments where refusal of an oppressive status quo is shown as being an assertion of dignity, there are other moment where resistance is shown as being about virtue. Assertions of human dignity are an important aspect of struggle because it is core to that act to assert that all of us deserve it, even though we are flawed. An emphasis on virtue, however, reinforces an oppressive and culturally dominant idea that only those who are virtuous have a right to object to their oppression, and that ways of objecting to and resisting oppression must be such that virtue is maintained in order to be seen as legitimate. The bind of having to be passive or (an oppressive version of) perfect is yet one more way that resistance gets undermined.

As the previous section outlined, even Katniss' instances of insisting on dignity are in part grounded in certain kinds of implicit claims to virtue through who it is shown she must be in order to be the resistant hero. But it becomes even more stark when you look for signs of oppression and resistance beyond Katniss herself. One powerful association of virtue in the dominant, white-supremacist imaginary in our society is with whiteness, and between sin or evil or corruption and non-whiteness, particularly Blackness. Part of how the movie constructs Katniss' fellow citizens of District 12 as not only oppressed but virtuous in their oppression, therefore, is showing them as largely white and by invoking (sanitized) imagery from our past of hardscrabble, oppressed, poor white folk and white industrial workers. When they show snippets from other districts later in the movie, more multi-racial images of oppressed people are shown, but in the initial establishment of the movie's framework, white members of the audience are pulled in to identify with those who are oppressed in part through the whiteness and ostensible virtue of the oppressed.

Interestingly, while they do show more breadth of racial backgrounds among the competitors in the Games and in the snippets of other districts, they still show a lot less racial diversity than a post-apocalyptic U.S. would actually have, following today's trends -- the virtual absence of people who are visually identifiable as Latina/o particularly struck me. This, too, is part of trying to generate identification between the movie-going demographic with the most money and the people the story needs the viewer to identify with. And, of course, when they show the beginning of forms of resistance that the movie-going demographic with the most money will find scary or offputting -- when the riots start after Rue's death -- it is shown as a Black man that starts it, playing on racist stereotypes that associate violence and criminality with Black masculinity. (This is also in line with the way that Thresh is portrayed as meeting certain dominant, white, racist stereotypes of Black masculinity.)

A final aspect of this appeal to virtue rather than to assertions of dignity, I think, has to do with the relative apportioning of aesthetics and gender expression alluded to in the previous section. The citizens of District 12 are shown as having very conventional gender expression -- the one fairly minor exception is Katniss, and she is disciplined to more conventional expression as the movie progresses -- and the people of the Capitol are shown as hyperfeminine and queer-ish. Again, dynamics of oppression and resistance are mapped onto imagery that evokes culturally dominant ideas of what is virtuous and what is not.

That is not the only way that the movie misdirects the impulse, so important in our current moment, to see ordinary people standing up for themselves, for survival, for dignity. The social arrangement in the movie makes at least one aspect of oppression in the lives of the characters very stark and visible, both to the characters themselves and to the viewers of the movie -- the domination of the Districts by the Capitol. What could be clearer than the lack of food and the sad lined faces in District 12 in the opening scenes? What could be more stark than the theft of children for a spectacle in which they must murder or be murdered? And while making it obvious and visible makes it easier for those of us viewing the movie to talk about, it also implies that for oppression to matter in the real world it must be similarly stark and obvious to viewers. Which, of course, is not going to be true for many viewers, particularly those of us with privilege of various sorts for whom the awful violence of realworld social relations can be very hard to see and very easy to rationalize away. Or another way in which this could be read by many viewers resonates with one particular tendency among a particular layer of newly politicized people -- I'm thinking of a subset of those associated with the Occupy movement -- which sees only the newly visible (i.e. since the beginning of the financial crisis in 2008) problems and not the longstanding ones. Reinforcing the idea that what matters is what you can already see contributes to the way that this tendency often ignores problems dating back before 2008.

This way of portraying oppression and resistance also makes it appear as unidirectional -- the only problem shown in the movie is the Capitol. While many movements past and present have also framed the world's problems as emanating from a single axis of domination, and feature film storytelling is rarely noted for its portrayal of social complexity, there is also decades of evidence from many writers and many movements that the real world is never that simple and it is oppressive to pretend that it is. Even granting that the story being told needs to show the struggle against the domination by the Capitol as central, there is never a hint that Katniss' experiences are also organized by gender oppression, say, or of the inevitable continuity of racial oppression in a post-apocalyptic North America. This, too, misdirects the identification with struggle generated by the movie.

Perhaps the most fundamental way that The Hunger Games movie misdirects us -- and this is implicitly present in a number of the points I've already made -- is that, through the identification it creates between privileged viewers and oppressed protagonists in a struggle portrayed in a particular monolithic, unidirectional way, it allows us not to see our own place in analagous struggles in the real world. The fact is, even granting the huge imbalances in how wealth and power and privilege are allocated within the continent, most of those of us who live in North America are, on a global scale, citizens of the Capitol, not of the Districts. Nothing about this movie encourages us to wrestle with that. And, of course, many in North America do live lives that are cast into struggle, but even so, the landscape of that struggle is much different and much more complicated than the struggle that is portrayed in the movie. Almost all of us are simultaneously oppressor and oppressed, along different axes. Even when there are moments in which the lines of a particular struggle are clear -- the students of Quebec versus the Charest government's austerity agenda or the Occupy Wall Street folk versus the big banks, for instance -- the impulse to see self as wholly constituted by righteous opposition to external nasty is a guarantee that our work will reproduce major political problems and will thereby limit itself. We must start from our own complicity, and The Hunger Games makes it easy to not do that.

All of that said, I think I still enjoyed the movie more than the two people with whom I originally saw it (and whose critiques of it have certainly informed this piece -- thanks SR and SC!). And, as always, noting all of these things is not so much a demand for political perfection from mass media pop culture artefacts, but more to point out the work that this particular artefact is doing because of how it is put together and the ways in which that is troubling and disappointing.

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