Mockingjay’s Contradictory Revolution

The latest Hunger Games installment suggests that everything we do—even our resistance—is compromised.

Sady Doyle

(Lions Gate)

There’s not a lot of suc­cor for those of us who are cranky and sus­pi­cious of mass cul­ture these days.

The part of the franchise that induces a sense of queasiness (and, I think, the brilliant part of it) has always been that, on some level, The Hunger Games is what it critiques: It asks us to abhor the idea that people would watch children fight to the death, but it does so by showing us riveting scenes of children fighting to the death. Now, Mockingjay—Part I asks us to be skeptical of “revolutionary” media and celebrity, but it does so by giving us a “revolutionary” blockbuster fronted by Jennifer Lawrence.

The old dichotomies — art ver­sus com­merce, speak­ing up ver­sus sell­ing out — don’t car­ry the weight they once did. Celebri­ties increas­ing­ly bear the ban­ner of our pro­gres­sive move­ments, even when that means the move­ments them­selves get a bit mud­dled in trans­la­tion. (Tay­lor Swift, greet­ed as fem­i­nist super­hero” by MTV, recent­ly opined that so many girls out there say I’m not a fem­i­nist’ because they think it means some­thing angry or dis­grun­tled or com­plain­ing. They pic­ture like riot­ing and pick­et­ing, it is not that at all.” Actu­al­ly, it is that — riot­ing, pick­et­ing, and com­plain­ing, the syn­onym for all of these being protest­ing,” are pret­ty darn essen­tial — but hey, who am I to stand in the way of mass appeal?) And it often seems hokey and naïve to wor­ry about all this; to ask whether turn­ing rev­o­lu­tion into a brand is a way to get tough mes­sages across effec­tive­ly, or just a new way to increase our iden­ti­fi­ca­tion and loy­al­ty to brand­ed products.

You could argue that it’s always been this way; Fredric Jame­son wor­ried that The Clash couldn’t stand far enough out­side of cap­i­tal­ism to cri­tique it with­out being co-opt­ed by it. (Jame­son, it turns out, was cor­rect.) Still, it’s with a queasy sense of com­pro­mise that I tell you that one of my favorite pieces of pop cul­ture right now is The Hunger Games: a best­selling YA book series, and now a block­buster movie series, that is entire­ly about why best­sellers and block­busters are bad for you.

And now, with the release of Mock­ing­jay — Part 1, the series is mov­ing into its most inter­est­ing, and most com­pro­mised, stretch: ques­tion­ing not just whether medi­at­ed cul­ture is bad for us, but whether rev­o­lu­tion­ary” media is all it’s cracked up to be.

You’d prob­a­bly have to be liv­ing under a rock to not know the plot of The Hunger Games by this point, but here goes: In a dystopi­an future world where most cit­i­zens live in crush­ing pover­ty, chil­dren from across the coun­try are invit­ed to the mega-wealthy Capi­tol to com­pete in the tit­u­lar Games. They fight each oth­er to the death on live TV, and the win­ner gets a life­time of free food.

The Hunger Games are an all-inclu­sive media spec­ta­cle, so it’s not enough to be strong or ruth­less: The audi­ence is fund­ing their favorite char­ac­ters.” To get weapons, food and med­i­cine, you need to have the right out­fit, give the best inter­views, shape your life into the right dra­mat­ic plot arc. In a room full of mur­der­ers, you need to be the mur­der­er peo­ple like.

Enter Kat­niss Everdeen (Jen­nifer Lawrence), who is by now a two-time sur­vivor of the Games. She’s a stern, reserved, inde­pen­dent sort of young woman — a life­time of hunt­ing for squir­rels to avoid star­va­tion will do that to you — who became a fan favorite in the Games with­out entire­ly mean­ing to. And now, sim­ply by virtue of seem­ing even more dis­pleased with the Games than most of the oth­er doomed con­tes­tants, she’s man­aged to spark a full-blown rev­o­lu­tion against the Capitol.

The Capi­tol, nat­u­ral­ly, has respond­ed by bomb­ing Katniss’s entire home dis­trict, giv­ing her nowhere to go but the secret under­ground base of the Dis­trict 13 rev­o­lu­tion­ar­ies — who, it turns out, have been plan­ning this war for a very long time.

This is where a series that start­ed out as a pret­ty sharp media satire adds anoth­er lay­er, and some­how gets both sharp­er and much, much dark­er. Because once Kat­niss is safe­ly ensconced among the rebels, she doesn’t become their leader, or a gen­er­al. Instead, she stars in their pro­pa­gan­da videos.

The series has focused exclu­sive­ly on Katniss’s world­view up to this point. And she is, I think, a great hero­ine: prin­ci­pled, self-suf­fi­cient, strong. But the series’ focus on Kat­niss has allowed us to miss one of the most impor­tant things about her: She’s become the face of the rev­o­lu­tion, but she real­ly didn’t do any­thing to earn that status.

She didn’t start the war. Many of the oth­er major play­ers in the series have been fight­ing the war with­out her. (The entire plot of the last install­ment, Catch­ing Fire, cen­tered on a rev­o­lu­tion­ary mis­sion that Kat­niss par­tic­i­pat­ed in with­out know­ing it.)

We like Kat­niss, so we want to believe she’s impor­tant. But she isn’t a politi­cian. She’s not a mil­i­tary strate­gist. She’s not a rev­o­lu­tion­ary thinker. She’s a sur­vivor, and can han­dle a weapon, but that’s true of most sol­diers. The only real val­ue Kat­niss Everdeen has to the rev­o­lu­tion is the fact that peo­ple like see­ing her on tele­vi­sion. She’s a weapon of mass sym­pa­thy; if she believes in this war, peo­ple at home will join it. And then they will die.

Mean­while, back in the Capi­tol, Katniss’s main love inter­est and fel­low Games sur­vivor Pee­ta has been brain­washed into shilling for the Capi­tol through their pro­pa­gan­da. Kat­niss and Pee­ta have become ene­my com­bat­ants who only inter­act through TV screens; as all the tense action-movie sequences about cos­tume design and media strat­e­gy ought to tell you, the future of the world now depends on which one of these two attrac­tive teenagers makes for a more lik­able celebri­ty. It’s a pret­ty grim joke, but the more you think about it, the fun­nier it gets.

There are lots of rea­sons that Hunger Games fans tend not to like Mock­ing­jay: It’s dark, it’s cyn­i­cal, it’s even more vio­lent than the rest of the already-vio­lent series, our hero­ine seems too pas­sive or too frag­ile (on top of the fact that she’s large­ly side­lined from the war, pret­ty much every­one in the series, includ­ing Kat­niss, is deal­ing with severe PTSD by this point).

But there’s some­thing real in there: The the­sis of The Hunger Games has always been not that the rev­o­lu­tion will be tele­vised, but that the rev­o­lu­tion will be tele­vi­sion. Our media loy­al­ties will be what shape our lives; peo­ple fight, and peo­ple die, but the win­ner is the side with the best spin.

Cyn­i­cal­ly enough, Mock­ing­jay also argues that, when wars of spin are being fought, jus­tice can­not be achieved: Kat­niss start­ed her media career as the unwill­ing face of the Games, a toy war, and she’s now the face of the Rebel­lion, a real war. But either way, this young woman who oppos­es the tele­vised killing of chil­dren is doomed to spend her life on cam­era, ral­ly­ing sup­port for children’s deaths.

Or maybe I’ve been tricked, too. The Hunger Games is a mas­sive and mas­sive­ly well-fund­ed prod­uct. Mock­ing­jay — Part I is expect­ed to do so well at the box office that no oth­er films opened this week­end; it was con­sid­ered fool­ish to com­pete. Cer­tain aspects of it — the drawn-out and frankly pret­ty tire­some love tri­an­gle” between Kat­niss, Pee­ta, and her brood­ing man-friend Gale — could not be more pre-fab, or more tai­lored to an insult­ing idea of what’s mar­ketable” for young women.

The part of the fran­chise that induces a sense of queasi­ness (and, I think, the bril­liant part of it) has always been that, on some lev­el, The Hunger Games is what it cri­tiques: It asks us to abhor the idea that peo­ple would watch chil­dren fight to the death, but it does so by show­ing us riv­et­ing scenes of chil­dren fight­ing to the death. Now, Mock­ing­jay — Part I asks us to be skep­ti­cal of rev­o­lu­tion­ary” media and celebri­ty, but it does so by giv­ing us a rev­o­lu­tion­ary” block­buster front­ed by Jen­nifer Lawrence.

The Hunger Games series asks us, over and over, to stop think­ing about how we can win” the Games, and start think­ing about how we can end them. Or, in oth­er words, to stop try­ing to nego­ti­ate a more pow­er­ful posi­tion with­in oppres­sive sys­tems, and to start think­ing about how we can get out­side of those sys­tems altogether.

But Mock­ing­jay is ask­ing us to also con­sid­er the very real pos­si­bil­i­ty that there is no out­side”; that every­thing we do is inher­ent­ly com­pro­mised, and that no mat­ter how much we think we hate it, we’re always play­ing the game.

The Hunger Games has the same prob­lems as celebri­ty fem­i­nism and The Clash and every­thing else: It’s made by the sys­tem it cri­tiques, and serves that system’s end goals. But the fact that the film is explic­it­ly ask­ing us to con­sid­er the prob­lem inher­ent in its own suc­cess makes it smarter than most cul­tur­al pro­duc­tions — even if it offers no real answers as to whether the mes­sage or the mon­ey will win out. 

Sady Doyle is an In These Times con­tribut­ing writer. She is the author of Train­wreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… and Why (Melville House, 2016) and was the founder of the blog Tiger Beat­down. You can fol­low her on Twit­ter at @sadydoyle.
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