The eponymous competition at the heart of The Hunger Games is a brutal event, which means death for all but one of the competitors. At first glance, it seems nearly impossible that the gruesome premise behind these fictional games could ever become reality. But can we really be so sure?
Let’s face it, as a species, we don’t exactly have a stellar track record when it comes to treating human life with tenderness and care. In ancient Rome, watching gladiators, prisoners, and slaves battle wild animals, and each other, to the (often gruesome) death was a popular, accepted, and often celebrated form of entertainment. Back in Medieval times (the era, not the dinner theater), nothing drew a crowd like a good ol’ execution—many of which were all-day affairs involving nearly unimaginable forms of torture.
‘Sure,’ you might say, ‘but that was the past, and far away, in distant lands! Now we are super classy modern Americans! That could never happen today.’ Perhaps not “today,” but as recently as 1936, public executions were still drawing crowds in the tens of thousands, right here at home.
Of course, the premise behind The Hunger Games is much closer to gladiatorial events than public executions. However, the latter does prove that until rather recently, Americans were still cool with getting together to watch other people die. As a society, could we go back to that mindset again?
It’s an important question, because at the end of the day, the chances of a real-life Hunger Games won’t depend on whether or not television channels will air it, or if companies will buy advertising on it. As long as there are viewers—consumers—watching, advertisers will pay big money to show them ads, and producers will keep making the programs on which to show them. So the real question is, would Americans be willing—eager even—to watch a real-life Hunger Games? Take a quick look at what America’s already watching and it isn’t hard to imagine.
“Reality” TV isn’t going anywhere. It has become an established and lucrative format, which, since 2002, has dominated TV viewership. In the great race for ratings, it seems that each season of reality programming pushes some kind of boundary just a little further. In terms of taboo subject matter, today we can see more, more easily, and in more places than ever before.
Advances in technology are definitely driving this rapid change in the acceptable versus the taboo. Back when television was a wee baby, viewers would be scandalized by the mere depiction of a double bed in a married couple’s bedroom. It didn’t matter if the couple was even in it. There had to be two beds or…SCANDAL! OUTRAGE! SHAKING OF FISTS AND TALKING LIKE ANGRY JIMMY STEWART!
These days, no one bats an eye at a full hour of spray-tanned seaside smushing, or teen dramas with more sex and booze in a single episode than most adult viewers have enjoyed in their own lives over the last 10 years. It’s not just about lower standards on TV. It’s that what was once taboo has suddenly become mainstream. That opens the door for much of the programming we see today, the bulk of which we couldn’t have imagined being on air fifty years ago.
“The internet, and everything on it, is mainstream now.” —Crooked Little Vein, Warren Ellis
But that’s not just television’s fault. Thanks to that wacky series of tubes, the Internet, you can find a video of almost anything you ever wanted to see—or never wanted to see—in a matter of seconds. Though pornography is the easy example here, the effects of this quick and easy access to the creation and proliferation of media is really much more pervasive than that. Leaked videos from military prisons, kids recording themselves beating up classmates—real-life depictions of real-life violence that are readily available for public consumption. What’s more, it’s not just that people make these videos, or that people can find them easily—it’s that people, many people, want to watch them.
Back to Angry Jimmy Stewart Voice: But surely, we would draw a line where the children are concerned! Surely, we would never pit innocent children against each other for mere entertainment!
Are you sure Jimmy? Yes, it’s true that, in many ways, kids in America have never had it better than they do today—no one is shoving them down a coalmine to work at age six, or marrying them off at age 12. But again, it wasn’t all that long ago when child labor was the norm, and pretty much accepted by society at large.
It’s easy to watch shows like Toddlers & Tiaras and instantly feel like a genetically superior, fully actualized human being, snarking the crazy antics of stage moms and weirdo judges. But don’t forget, even as heavily staged as that show is, those are real kids under all the body glitter and pancake makeup (and those are real creepster men sitting in the back row). Clearly, competition on Toddlers & Tiaras is a far cry from popping the little princesses into an arena and watching them fight for survival (but TLC, call me!). However, we’re certainly not above creating some pretty ethically questionable material involving children, just for the sake of entertainment.
So, does any of this mean we’re headed straight for Panem ourselves? Truthfully, I don’t think so. I’d like to believe that some of our gains as a society (and as a species) are permanent and that any attempt at creating a real-life Hunger Games would never be allowed. But, then again, perhaps future-me will be rereading this post on my iBrain 3 (Apple, call me!) with a touch of bitter irony as I prepare for battle in the 2060 GeriGames (“Social Security, You Have to Earn It…Again”). Either way, may the odds be ever in your favor.