Fri
Apr 15 2011 3:04pm
Dystopias Can Be Beaten: The Hunger Games As a Dystopia in the Age of New Media

The Hunger Games illustrationThe Media. Often, those words have a negative connotation. So much so that, as is explored in Ryan Britt’s article, “This Just In: Journalists In Popular Science Fiction and Fantasy Are Evil,” here on Tor.com, journalists depicted in sci-fi often get a bad rap. At their best, they are misguided drones who finally figure out the error of their ways and buck the system. At their worst, they are mere tools of the Establishment, aiding in the dumbing-down and placating of society’s sheep.

This second, less-forgiving view of journalists and journalism seems to be a hallmark of the dystopian stories with which we’re most familiar. Journalists acting in the interest of the State rather than in the interest of the truth. Old-school dystopian novels like 1984 and Brave New World express a fear of The Media in different ways and for different reasons, but both see it in the same way: as the enemy of the people.

How does that idea hold up twenty-seven years after the year 1984 and closer to AD 2540 (the year 632 AF in Brave New World) than Aldous Huxley was?

Not as well as it used to, since The Media, an institution of which we’re still suspicious, has become more accessible. Dystopian stories today depict many of the same enemies as those in older stories, but the media is seen as an equal-opportunity tool that can explode a dystopia as easily as support it.

In George Orwell’s 1984, The Media was clearly seen as a tool of the oppressor, spreading the propaganda necessary to keep the totalitarian state alive and The Party in power. Orwell seemed to fear The Media, because of the ways it could so easily be used to hide and distort the truth. Those who controlled The Media controlled what citizens knew of history as well as current events, so that when watching the news everything was in the wrong context, and nobody was the wiser. It was the protagonist, Winston Smith’s, job to erase people and events from the historical record, controlling the citizenry by never allowing them to learn from their country’s mistakes and believe that Oceania had always been perfect and right. In 1984, The Media worked by withholding information.

By contrast, The Media in Brave New World controlled the people by bombarding citizens with so much information that they stopped caring all together. (Sound familiar?) The Media was entertainment first and foremost, as the World State in Brave New World placed a high value on pleasure. People were experiencing so much pleasure that they weren’t inclined to worry about things like their reproductive rights, or being given access to massive amounts of drugs that would make them less likely to want to fight. Toward the end of the book, when John flagellates himself at the lighthouse to atone for not mourning his mother properly, it is filmed and publicly broadcast, destroying his hermit life as citizens come from all over to watch him be “savage.” When, in a fit of conflicting emotions, he starts beating Lenina, the amassed crowd takes that as a signal to be as primal as possible, and begin having a drugged-up orgy. They have so much media, they miss the point of it, relating it only to themselves and what they want without being capable of seeing the larger picture.

In his book, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Neil Postman describes the differences between the authors’ approaches in this way:

What Orwell feared were those who would ban books. What Huxley feared was that there would be no reason to ban a book, for there would be no one who wanted to read one. Orwell feared those who would deprive us of information. Huxley feared those who would give us so much that we would be reduced to passivity and egoism. Orwell feared that the truth would be concealed from us. Huxley feared the truth would be drowned in a sea of irrelevance. Orwell feared we would become a captive culture. Huxley feared we would become a trivial culture, preoccupied with some equivalent of the feelies, the orgy porgy, and the centrifugal bumblepuppy. As Huxley remarked in Brave New World Revisited, the civil libertarians and rationalists who are ever on the alert to oppose tyranny “failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.” In 1984, Orwell added, people are controlled by inflicting pain. In Brave New World, they are controlled by inflicting pleasure. In short, Orwell feared that what we fear will ruin us. Huxley feared that our desire will ruin us.

In both those dystopian scenarios, however, it is never assumed that people—on a large scale—might use the World State’s/Party’s tools against them to revolt. In older dystopian novels, the trend seems to be that they’re the story of one person who sees what’s wrong with society and has to go up against everyone. Maybe they have one or two sympathetic friends, but on the whole all of society seems out to get them, and The Media remains this forbidding institution to which the general public has no access. This makes sense for these two novels, having been written in the 1930s when the press was a forbidding presence.

It’s interesting, then, to see how a modern dystopian story like The Hunger Games trilogy incorporates The Media into the revolution.

The Hunger Games trilogy takes place in a dystopian North America, a country called Panem, which is divided into Twelve Districts. In order to control the populace, the government uses the media in two ways. First, they continue to replay footage on the news of a damaged District Thirteen, which as far back as most can remember has been completely destroyed by the government in the last rebellion. They replay the footage regularly as an example to all who would consider revolution—This Could Happen To You. Second, they broadcast the titular Hunger Games, a horrific annual event in which two children, a boy and a girl, are chosen by lottery from each District, and forced into an arena to fight to the death. The winner earns his or her District increased food rations for the year.

The entire media cycle of the Hunger Games—the televised selection of the boys and girls, or Tributes; the preparation leading up to the Games; the Games themselves, filled with pageantry as well as savagery; coverage of the winner at the end of it all—reminds Panem’s citizens that their lives are mere playthings, existing to bring entertainment and pleasure to the elite that reside in Panem’s Capitol.

Katniss Everdeen, the trilogy’s 16-year-old protagonist, is a Tribute in the Hunger Games representing District 12 along with Peeta, the boy Tribute who harbors feelings for her. They are primped and coached for the cameras, fed better than they’ve ever been fed before so they don’t look starved on television, and encouraged to pretend they have feelings for each other on-camera so as to add to the dramatic tension. Because, eventually, they are expected to try and kill each other, and star-crossed lovers being forced to kill each other makes for great TV.

So, for much of The Hunger Games, the first book in the trilogy, we are dealing with dystopian media as we know it. However, whether Katniss means to or not—and she doesn’t for fear that her family would be in danger—she begins doing things that show her defiance on camera. She wears a pin a friend gives her depicting a bird called a Mockingjay, a genetically engineered hybrid of a mockingbird and a blue jay because she, like that bird, shouldn’t exist but does anyway. She wears it as a personal reminder to perservere. When a Tribute with whom she’s formed an alliance dies, she covers the body in flowers, knowing full well that the cameras are on her, and performs her District’s hand gesture symbolizing respect for the dead. Then, in a moment of brilliant television that neither she, nor the government could have planned for, she and Peeta threaten suicide rather than have to kill each other, betting that the Capitol would rather have two winners than none. They gamble correctly and both come home as winners of the Hunger Games.

While the character of Katniss lives in the far future, she seems to be the product of our media-savvy age; an age of reality shows, 24-hour news channels, and limitless information on the internet in which even your average person has a rudimentary understanding of “what works” and “what doesn’t” as entertainment. In The Hunger Games, Katniss does things like wear the Mockingjay pin or dress her ally’s grave in flowers to satisfy her own sense of morality, but subconsciously knowing that the country is watching and vaguely hoping that somewhere, somehow, someone is getting pissed off.

In Catching Fire, we see that her small, defiant actions on camera have inspired rebels all across the Twelve Districts to revolt, and Katniss becomes a symbol of the revolution. Mockingjay pins start turning up everywhere, people start doing her District 12 hand gesture as a sign that they support her, and as a signal to other rebels across Panem. The more the Capitol broadcasts events intended to subjugate the population, the more average citizens find ways of doing things on camera to show their dissent. Televison becomes the battleground on which this new civil war is being fought, and whoever controls the flow of information controls the people. This has always been the case in dystopian media, but Catching Fire shows us that this idea of controlling the people through The Media goes both ways. It’s about more than just protesting in the hopes that The Media will cover it, it’s about the population insinuating themselves into this institution that has tried to stifle them.

In Mockingjay, the last book in the trilogy, the rebellion is in full swing. The rebels actively cut into the Capitol’s broadcasts to show the nation that they are still fighting, despite Capitol reports to the contrary. The ending of the trilogy is bittersweet, but it is clear that The Media cannot be used against the people ever again. They are too savvy for that. If they are ever going to be oppressed again, the oppressors are going to have to be much more creative and insidious than that, because “controlling people’s media” is so common it’s become cliche. And transparent.

It’s appropriate that, in an age where young people are uploading their own videos on all sorts of websites, delivering all sorts of messages, there is a book in which the young heroine and those around her use The Media to their advantage in the face of an oppressor. The Hunger Games trilogy is dystopia for the 21st Century, and provides a more positive outlook than its predecessors. Whereas older dystopian stories tend to focus on the hopelessness of their characters—Winston Smith at the end of 1984, brainwashed and sitting on a park bench, or John’s suicide at the end of Brave New WorldThe Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay provide an alternative. They say to the person reading, “You can fight fire with fire. You can prevail.”

Already there are real-life Katnisses. There’s Asmaa Mahfouz, the young woman who sparked the revolution in Egypt. There is Lillian Rodriguez, an artist who uses video to mobilize and motivate young women toward greater sociopolitical agency. Young people (hell, all people) today need stories like The Hunger Games reminding them that activism is not something they need to aspire to, it’s something of which they are already capable. That they are more powerful and have more tools at their disposal than they might realize. That one person really can affect change, and that even dystopias are not irreversible. Dystopias can be beaten.


Teresa Jusino is two years older than Buffy Summers. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like ChinaShopMag.com, PinkRaygun.com, Newsarama, and PopMatters.com. Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres; she is the editor of Beginning of Line, the Caprica fan fiction site; and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, which is on sale now wherever books are sold! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

This article is part of Dystopia Week: ‹ previous | index | next ›
This article is part of The Hunger Games on Tor.com: index | next ›
9 comments
David Thomson
1. ZetaStriker
Wow, this drives me crazy. The more I hear about The Hunger Games, the more it sounds like an utterly blatant ripoff of Battle Royale. Why is this being rewarded with a film and attention on a website like this?
Pamela Adams
2. Pam Adams
Mira Grant's Feed has independent journalists- primarily bloggers- saving us from they zombie dystopia.
Teresa Jusino
3. TeresaJusino
I've been meaning to read Feed. Now, I'm definitely looking forward to it! :)

@ZetaStriker - Um, because it's good. Reserve judgment for after you've read the book! :)
Gerry__Quinn
4. Gerry__Quinn
ZetaStriker@1:

But Battle Royale was a ripoff of The Running Man. And The Running Man was a ripoff of The Naked Prey ;-)
Gerry__Quinn
5. a-j
Which may in itself been a rip-off of the The Most Dangerous Game and so on and so on. Battle Royale is a great and deeply disturbing film (I've not read the original manga) and The Hunger Games uses the same essential concept, both based on/inspired by the Roman gladiatorial contests I suspect. I wholly back TeresaJusino. When I first heard about The Hunger Games, my immediate reaction was to say: 'But that's Battle Royale!'. Then a friend lent it to me.

As it happens, as a teenager many moons ago I wrote a short story set in a future world where one day a year all the teenagers go on a Government inspired killing spree of eachother. Whom do I sue?
Gerry__Quinn
7. S. E. Gaime
I've never read the Hunger Games, but using the media to your advantage is not a new idea. Frank Herbert used it in Dune when Feyd was in a gladiator match, and after defeating his opponent, he declared that since his opponent fought so honorably, that he should be given a proper burial - to which the crowd went crazy. Same thing in Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged - well no gladiator fight there.
Teresa Jusino
8. TeresaJusino
S.E. Gaime @7 - I wasn't saying it was a new idea, just that it was new (or at least unusual) for dystopian novels. I haven't read any of the Dune books, but that's not dystopia, is it?

Atlas Shrugged is, though, right? That might have the same idea in it, but I refuse to read Ayn Rand on the grounds that I read an essay of hers on Objectivism and wanted to claw out my own eyeballs.
Chuk Goodin
9. Chuk
I do like The Hunger Games. I get the Battle Royale comparisons, but it's not like either of them are the first ones to do that type of story. The author insists she didn't know about BR before people started telling her her book was like it. I don't think they have much in common besides the very broad one-line descriptions of each being similar.
Stephen Dunscombe
10. cythraul
"This Just In: Journalists In Popular Science Fiction and Fantasy Are Evil."

With one huge, glaring exception: comic books.

In comic books, journalists are the heroes. When I tried to think of
a journalist in SFF, the first one who came to mind was Lois Lane,
followed quickly by Clark Kent, Peter Parker, and Spider Jerusalem. All comic book characters, and all heroic.

@a-j: Battle Royale was a prose novel, then a
movie, then a manga. The novel is brilliant, and the film does a pretty
good job adapting it. I haven't read the manga, but have heard
terrible things about it.

Also, The Hunger Games, Battle Royale, The Running Man,
and all other works about using bloodsport as entertainment to control
the masses are all ultimately drawing their inspiration from real-life Rome.

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