Saturday, January 11, 2014

Who We Think We Are in Hunger Games: Catching Fire

"The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon thee.

"I been saying that shit for years. And if you heard it, that meant your ass. I never gave much thought to what it meant. I just thought it was some cold-blooded shit to say to a motherfucker before I popped a cap in his ass. But I saw some shit this morning made me think twice. See, now I'm thinking, maybe it means you're the evil man, and I'm the righteous man, and Mr. 9 millimeter here, he's the shepherd protecting my righteous ass in the valley of darkness. Or it could mean you're the righteous man and I'm the shepherd and it's the world that's evil and selfish. I'd like that.

"But that shit ain't the truth. The truth is, you're the weak, and I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard to be the shepherd."

-- "Jules Winnifield" in Pulp Fiction

You probably remember the scene that quote is from. It's delivered by Samuel Jackson's character. "Jules" is, as he says elsewhere in the scene, in a "transitional period," so after he quotes his usual pre-murderous quasi-biblical schtick, he reflects on it. He recognizes that he would love to think of himself as righteous, or even as a protective shepherd, but he takes the honest way, the painful way, and owns up to the fact that "I'm the tyranny of evil men. But I'm trying, Ringo. I'm trying real hard...".

Keep that in mind, and we'll get back to it by the end of the post. For the moment, though, I want to turn to Hunger Games: Catching Fire. I'm tempted to write a massive, multi-faceted post about as many aspects of the movie as I can cram in, as I sometimes do when it comes to bits of pop culture that get me thinking. There's certainly lots to talk about when it comes to this movie and to the franchise as a whole. There are vestiges of the anti-Blackness (though to my limited eyes it seems considerably improved in this regard) and a complete recapitulation of the anti-femme-ness that marred the first film, for instance. Then there's the way that our expectations of how mainstream storytelling should work resulted in the writers deciding to have the revolutionaries follow a plan that hinges on one moral choice by one person who wasn't even in on the plan -- I'm no expert, but that strikes me as a bad (and profoundly unrealistic) way to plan a revolution. But other ways they showed struggle happening were, I thought, sophisticated and interesting for mainstream pop culture. There are also interesting things to say about gender and relationship practice in the film. But I want to stay focused on one idea.

So. A key way that we relate to stories is through identifying with one or more of the characters therein. Much of the pedagogical impact that stories can have is likely through us placing ourselves in the situation of the characters, and through that imaginative and analytical act learning about them, their world, ourselves, and our world. Now, I don't think that identification with characters is actually as exhaustively descriptive of how we relate to stories as the dominant account of such things would have it. And I certainly think that there is a much broader and richer range of ways that we might be able to relate to stories, if we were provided with more opportunity to develop such practices. But, even so, identification with characters is widespread and important, so that's what I'm going to focus on here.

It's evident from watching the film that the characters that viewers -- all viewers -- are meant to identify with in HG:CF are Katniss and her allies. The story is told from their point of view, they are almost always on screen, and the moral architecture of the world in the film locates them as the "good guys." It's all pretty clear.

Now, in this post, I want in particular to think about how identification of a particular group of viewers with the film works and what its political implications are. That group is, broadly speaking, white North Americans. That's not to say that the things in this post can only apply to white folks, that they apply evenly or universally to white folks, or that none of it is likely to be relevant to anyone else, but to keep it all politically focused, working-class and middle-class white people on this continent are at the centre of what I've written.

The first thing to note is that certain choices were made in the production of the film to make extra sure that white people would identify with Katniss & Co. Notwithstanding the stark class relations within and among white folks, we tend on average to have disproportionate access to financial resources, and Hollywood tends to keep that very much in mind when designing big budget films, to maximize the odds of some of those resources ending up in their coffers. In fact, I think studio execs have a rather distorted and unfairly narrow view of how white people will or will not identify with films, but there is also plenty of evidence of ordinary white folks refusing to engage with narratives about and by racialized people. In the case of the Hunger Games franchise, as I noted in my long and rambly post on the first movie and that many others have discussed more eloquently than I, there was the casting of the part of "Katniss." In the books, she is racially ambiguous and described as having "olive skin," and casting a light-skinned woman of colour to play her would have been much more consistent with the text than casting Jennifer Lawrence. Nothing against Lawrence -- she is brilliant in these movies -- but Hollywood whitewashing characters and stories is a long established practice, and one that must end.

Then there is also the decision in the writing of the books to set the stories in District 12, and the ways in which imagery of poverty was mobilized, particularly in the first movie but in a way that underlies the second as well. It was quite obvious in the first movie that when poverty was being shown to mobilize sympathy for the plight of Katniss' home district, it was very white imagery of poverty -- Appalachia in the US, which has historically been and continues to be a home to many poor white people, and broader pre-Depression white working-class imagery. And this imagery of poor people portrayed sympathetically was in contrast to the images of poor people being portrayed as dangerous which, in the first movie, tended to be associated with Blackness.

Just to be clear, while Hollywood's tendency to whitewash is a problem and its tendency to reproduce the "white=good, Black=bad and dangerous" dichotomy are bad things, there is nothing wrong with a story being grounded in white working-class experience -- making a claim like that is not at all what I'm leading to. But I want to be clear that the way the movie is put together means that everyone is expected to identify with Katniss & Co., and white folks in particular are given lots of space to do so.

Lots of people who see these films are likely to read them in political ways. They are, after all, stories about young people subjected to a brutal series of events that are very explicitly integral to that world's highly oppressive social relations, and the trajectory of the stories lead towards mass uprising. This makes a reading of the story in its own terms that references things political to be largely inescapable, and a reading of the story that connects that to political goings on in the real world is a pretty small and obvious step. Moreover, the moment that we are living through is one that is more open than many other points in my lifetime to reading stories of uprising and unrest with reference to the real world -- the economic crisis that rumbled to the surface in 2008 and the series of uprisings around the globe in response to the interweaving of that crisis with more longstanding dynamics of oppression have opened up space for such reading, even in and through the dominant media. It's nothing new that lots of people are having a rough time, but even more people are than before, and there's also more space in the culture to note and deplore it, and to suggest that it is a systemic problem rather than a product of individual failings. And, finally, the studio has capitalized on this dynamic in its marketing, and at least one form of niche marketing has aimed to get the film to resonate with the many people feeling this kind of simmering dissatisfaction with the current order of things.

Who We Think We Are

My sense -- not arrived at scientifically but one that I am quite confident in, all the same -- is that the ways that the dynamics of identification play out in the case of this film combine with the ample space for political readings to produce some rather troubling implications for how most white North Americans who read the film politically are likely to derive lessons and meaning from it.

That is, to the extent that white folks are taking political lessons from this film, they are doing so via identification with Katniss & Co. -- who are shown, after all, as hard working white folks who are getting a raw deal and who are taking action to change things. The thing is, if you are interested in deriving actually useful lessons, this is not a good way to do it at all. What we are doing when we identify in that way is identifying via markers that are superficial, reified, and symbolic, rather than being connected to how things work. If we actually take the time to map out at least the broad strokes of social relations in the Hunger Games world and map them onto social relations in the real world, it becomes clear that white North Americans as we currently exist are, by and large, not easily mappable onto the residents of District 12 -- the fact that they are, in fact, mostly-white North Americans in their own world is entirely beside the point.

One of the key (and interesting) things that Suzanne Collins did in constructing this world is that (after erasing the existence and relevance of actually-existing indigenous people and settler colonialism, of course) she imagined a reconfiguration of social relations in North America along more explicitly colonial lines. There is a centre that has militarily conquered and subjugated various peripheral areas and that rules them directly. It is all much more starkly spatialized than opperssive and exploitative social relations within North America are today, and resembles the conquest and direct rule of classic European colonization of the rest of the world. It's not a perfect match -- there doesn't seem to have been quite the same sort of racialization of the people in the Districts in the way that accompanied European conquest in the real world, for instance, though if I remember the books correctly I think the Othering of the people in the Districts by the Capitol has moved somewhat down that path. For that and other reasons it's not a perfect mapping, but I think it's reasonable.

Given that how things work matters, it should be no surprise at all that oppression that is socially organized in a different way means that resistance to that oppression also needs to happen differently, and that the landscape for making choices about that resistance is different. If you look at some of the scenes of military intervention into other Districts and into District 12 early in the movie, you are not seeing anything that white North Americans, even poor and working-class white North Americans who are standing up against exploitation, are likely to face. Not that state never responds nastily to white folks resisting -- of course it does -- but that kind of intervention via state violence isn't what we face; that, in fact, looks a lot more like what is done in our names to Black and brown people the world over. It is what our North American armies and immediate proxies have done directly in Falluja, in Kandahar, and in many other cities just since the turn of the century. It is what proxies that are another step or two removed but that are still clearly obedient to the dictates of the West have done and continue to do in many, many countries around the globe. And though it mostly takes a less visibly spectacular, and more everyday-violence sort of form, it is much closer to the underlying dynamics of how life is organized and how resistance can and does happen where distinct communities of non-white poor and working-class people exist today within North America -- from the oppressively policed Latina/o and Black areas of major North American cities, to places that have become by-words of indigenous resistance on the land like Elsipogtog, Oka, Ipperwash, and so many more.

(I feel compelled to add that noting the centrality of this colonial/racial divide in how oppression and state responses to resistance are socially organized makes me think of, and probably on some level was informed by, a hip-hop song called "Panic on the Streets" by a group called Rebels Advocate, whom I think are Palestinian-American, though I could be wrong about that. In part, the chorus goes:

"They call it Chi-town, but to us it's like Kandahar
New York, looking like Falluja
Drama goes down, in Beirut or Houston
And I can't tell Ramallah from them Detroit slums
And if you're hometown, New York, Jerusalem,
Tripoli to Tivoli, it's all panic in the streets"

Listen here.)

In any case, I'm not saying that white folks shouldn't know, learn, and think about struggles that are organized like that -- it's imperative that we do, and that we act in support. But we need to recognize how we exist in relation to them, and how such struggles relate to our landscape of choices and necessities when it comes to resisting oppression and exploitation.

We -- by whom I mean that majority of middle-class and working-class white people in North America -- are not residents of District 12. We are, by this more social relational mapping between the real world and the Hunger Games world, some mixture of citizens of the Capitol and residents of Districts 1 and 2. (Note that some non-white folks would likely map onto those formations as well, but as I said at the start that's beyond the purview of this post.) Some of us are the passive beneficiaries (and often celebrators) of the brutal violence that our state dishes out. Some of us are the exploited but still relatively privileged guardians and enforcers of how things are. That doesn't mean that life is all sunshine and roses. That doesn't mean that resistance isn't necessary, or even that resistance to oppression and exploitation isn't integral to daily life in important ways for many white North Americans -- it clearly is, and that is something to acknowledge, respect, support, and nurture. But as I've said repeatedly, the how of it matters, and the landscape for our decisions is not that of Katniss and Co. The landscape for our decisions would have much more in common with ordinary people who live in the Capitol or who live in Districts 1 and 2, and with a few exceptions (Cinna, Plutarch, Effie) we don't get to see what that might look like, and even those exceptions don't give us enough of a window into life and resistance in those areas for us to derive much meaning. (That said, though, particularly through Cinna and Plutarch's contributions, we at least see that resistance within the heart of the Capitol happens, and that it can be important -- and that lesson of "resist where you are" is crucial.)

Anyway, all of this brings us back to Jules. In real life, most of humanity is not clearly divided into the righteous, the shepherds, and the tyranny of evil men -- the lives of most ordinary people express a mix of the three. But through identifying with Katniss and Co. and relating to their struggles in ways that don't clearly demarcate both that and how they differ from our own, we're failing to really wrestle with how things work and with the rather different realities that ground our political choices -- in particular, how even if we aren't actively contributing to it, we are still passively benefiting from the flavour of tyranny of evil men that looks a lot like what was visited on District 12 in the movie. That reality is central to how we have to make any choices about acting in the world. We, inspired if not exactly informed by the resistance of people like Cinna and Plutarch in the movie, can, like Jules, begin the work of trying real hard to change our relationship to that tyranny even as we move through the journey of our own struggles.


Marie Snyder said...

I agree completely with your analysis, although I went down a different road when I first saw the movie. I included a snippet of your post in my thoughts today as they furthered my point so clearly.

Scott Neigh said...

Thanks, Marie! :)