A sociologist discusses the political leanings of Katniss Everdeen

Would Katniss fit in with political progressives, the Tea Party, or libertarians? One sociologist weighs in:

“I was convinced to read them by a vegan radical historian I knew from Japanese camp,” she says. While reading it in the context of the growing income gap, and the frustration that was causing, in the States, Armstrong-Hough recalls that it was impossible not to notice the social commentary, nor to untie the strands of it from the plot. And yet, particularly given the flipped switch of Mockingjay, wherein the revolutionaries show their own capacity for cruelty and depravity, she says, “I don’t think the franchise is promoting any particular kind of society.”Instead, according to Armstrong-Hough, it’s a model of total resistance. “We see politicking, corruption, and unjustified violence from both the guardians of the status quo in the Capitol and the architects of the rebellion,” she says. “Katniss, whom we naturally align ourselves with, rejects both these systems.”

This double rejection feels timely, Armstrong-Hough notes. “So many Americans are disenchanted with politics itself, not just one side of the aisle or the other.”

“What I did see, though, was a sort of theory of social change that I found surprisingly sophisticated,” she says, adding that the books remind her of the ideas of James C. Scott, a Yale-based social and political theorist. An influential, self-described “crude Marxist” professor who lives on a farm and raises animals in between publishing tomes about anarchism, Scott is a figure of interest to people on both ends of the ideological spectrum. The New York Times called one of Scott’s books “a magisterial critique of top-down social planning that has been cited, and debated, by the free-market libertarians of the Cato Institute… development economists and partisans of Occupy Wall Street alike.”…

Beyond just advocating personal resistance to forces of political control, she says the books put forth the idea that “violence breeds docility.” “I don’t mean that threatening people with violence makes them docile, because it doesn’t. I mean that teaching people to be violent and consume violence makes them docile,” she explains. “The Games institutionalize a political docility not so much because they threaten violence to the districts’ children, but because they create a society in which people think they must choose survival over solidarity. I think a lot of people, regardless of their political affiliation, feel like there has been a lot of being forced to choose survival over solidarity going around in the US.”

So The Hunger Games is a Marxist critique where the games distract everyone from the oppression from the Capitol? Or is it at the end primarily about not giving into revenge and instead establishing a stable society (since Katniss shoots Coin rather than Snow)?

The book ends like a lot of these kinds of stories often do: the heroine returns home, troubled by all the conflict, settled into “normal” family life. In fact, there isn’t much vision at the end of what Panem has become. We are told that kids are taught about the Hunger Games. But, what kind of government do they have? How do all the districts get along? The story isn’t terribly concerned with all of this; much of the energy of the series is about fighting the long battle, not about depicting the better society.


Quick Review: The Casual Vacancy and Back to Blood

I recently read two recently-published New York Times best sellers: The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling and Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe. Even though the books come from very different authors, one known for writing about a boy wizard and the other known for “new journalism” and tackling status, I thought the books had a lot in common. After a quick overview of each story, I discuss some of the similarities:

1. The Casual Vacancy is about English small-town life as the village of Pagford debates whether a nearby council estate (public housing project in American terms) should remain under their purview or should come under control of the nearby large city. The sudden death of a local council member alters the debate and different members of the community, from residents of the council estate, disaffected teenagers, and local business owners get involved in the decision. In the end, the battle doesn’t really turn out well for anyone involved.

2. Back to Blood is about multicultural Miami where different ethnic and social groups vie for control. The main story is about a Russian businessman turned art benefactor who is investigated by a beleaguered Cuban cop and WASP reporter. Others are caught up in this story including the black police chief, the Cuban mayor, a Cuban psychiatric nurse, and a pornography addiction psychiatrist. Similarly, no one really wins in the end.

3. Although set in very different places, the muted English countryside versus vibrant Miami (reflected to some degree by the writing styles, more conventional for Rowling, more in-your-face from Wolfe), there are common themes.

3a. Power and status. At the heart of these novels are characters vying for control. Of course, this looks different in different places: in Pagford, England, this means being a local council member or having a respectable job in the local community (say as a bakery owner or a doctor) while in Miami, this means the ability to own expensive clothes, cars, houses, and boats while also twisting people’s arms in the directions you want them to go. The characters in both books spend a lot of time worrying about their relative position and scheming about how to get to the top of the heap or how not to be buried completely by others (there is little room for middle ground).

3b. Sex. This is tied to power and status, but both books feature a lot of sexual activity. On one hand, it is presented as one of the rare moments when the characters aren’t solely consumed by the quest for power and yet, on the other hand, sex and who is having sex with whom and for what reason, is inevitably wrapped up in the naked grab for power and status.

3c. Characters alienated from society. Both books are full of characters who feel like they don’t fit in society, that they don’t know where they belong or aren’t able to achieve what they would really want to achieve. This comes across in some classic types: there are teenagers who feel like the adults around them are idiots and so they grasp at ways to make their own name. There are characters caught in the cogs of bureaucracy, particularly adults who are “successful” but don’t feel like it, who have some agency but are ultimately dependent on social and government institutions.

3d. Communities striving for goals but having difficulty overcoming the frailty of their human actors. Although the communities are quite different in size and aspirations (Miami striving to be a world-class city and Pagford striving to control more of its own destiny), their characters want them to be known and coherent places. They want their neighborhoods as well as their municipalities to be about something. Alas, both places are reliant on social actors that can’t overcome their own anxieties and hang-ups and this limits what the larger whole can become.

In the end, I’m tempted to write these off as the sort of themes one finds all the time in “serious adult literature,” the sort of books that peel back the facade of life and expose people for the vain creatures that they are. These are not uncommon themes in more modern books where there are no real heroes, most characters are just trying to get by, and authors revel in tackling sociological issues. But, I don’t think it is an accident that the two books cover similar ground. Power, sex, alienation, and communities striving for success are known issues in our 21st century world. Compared to movies, books like these offer more space to develop these themes and really expose the depths to which individuals and institutions have fallen. Stories like these can translate sociological themes into a medium that the public understands.

Yet, I can’t help but wish that both books had more redemptive endings. If power, sex, alienation, and community striving do make the world go round, how can this be tackled in a “right” way? Is there anyone or any social institution who can put us on the right path? In ways common to 21st century commentary, both of these books offer a bleak view of social life and not much hope for the future.

Quick Review: Hunger Games movie

Lots of action and some story and less commentary about oppressive regimes. As I noted in my review of the book series in September 2010, these books were ready-made to be movies. Here area  few thoughts about the movie itself and the experience of seeing it in a full theater.

1. I thought the movie was engaging. At the same time, the movie takes a book that is relatively sparse in terms of character development and explicit commentary and is even thinner in these areas. But there is a lot of action and some of the key relationships, Katniss and Prim, Katniss and Rue, and Katniss and Peeta, are given more time.

2. I thought the best actor in the movie was Stanley Tucci who was perfect as Caessr Flickerman.

3. With not as much time to work with in the movie, the opening parts of the first book are really compressed. What we miss in the movie then is a more complete understanding of the despair and desolation in District 12. I felt like the movie wanted us to think that the Capitol and President Snow were bad people but we didn’t have enough of the backstory to really feel it.

4. I wonder how many of the people in the theater tonight recognized any of the social commentary that is lurking in the books. The books could be taken in a couple of different directions. First, we could think about reality TV – how far away are we from a situation where people are killing each other for prizes on television? Second, the Capitol is supposed to represent tyranny and oppression and trying to stave off rebellion with a futuristic “bread and circuses.” But the movie seems to be more about the action itself and the audience members responded to this. I wonder how much the next two movies take up the social commentary and how they represent the growing rebellion against the Capitol.

4a. There were a couple of points during the Hunger Games themselves when a character was killed and people watching the movie laughed. This is an interesting reaction that sounded like it came from some teenagers or younger kids. While the action was violent (though a number of reviews said it was understated), I wonder how different it really was from what these kids have seen before. How many murders have they already seen in movies, on TV, and in video games? Plus, the kissing got a lot of reactions. Do both murders and kissing make teenagers nervous, thus the laughter?

5. I’m often amused by what “the future” looks like in movies. I was not impressed by the Capitol. Parts of the CGI were impressive (the people modeled in the large crowd scenes, for example) but it was clearly fake. The residents are shown in lively colors and interesting hair and makeup. The buildings are a little different but if you have seen a futuristic movie before, they look familiar. The special computer setup to control the Hunger Games is interesting but we’ve seen things like this before. They have 200 mph trains…which other parts of the world have now. So we’re supposed to be believe that the future includes some more avant garde style, a little better technology, and people are still glued to television screens? Not terribly futuristic.

6. The music during the closing credits was good. I’ve read some positive comments about the soundtrack and it may be worth checking out further.

7. I haven’t been in a full movie theater in quite a while. On one hand, there is a kind of buzz in the air and if the movie is good (and it apparently was tonight), people clap at the hand. On the other hand, you have lots of people going in and out and talking (and revealing key points of the plot to people next to them).

8. I was thinking earlier today that I have hopped on certain cultural bandwagons and not others. Why read all of the Hunger Games books and see the first movie or be an early adopter of Adele’s bestselling album from last year while waiting years to read Harry Potter and see all the movies? I don’t know. But if I do want to join the crowd, I can always say that I am engaging in cultural research…

Quick Review: The Hunger Games series

The Hunger Games trilogy by author Suzanne Collins is popular. Hollywood is currently searching for a starlet to play the main character, Katniss Everdeen. And I too have recently read these books and have some thoughts:

1. I like the premise of the Hunger Games. The story is set in a dystopian world where the Capitol controls all 13 surrounding districts. As part of the control, each year the districts submit two teenagers, one male and one female, to compete in a reality TV contest where the winner must be the last one alive. Katniss is selected to compete in the Hunger Games and that is where the fun begins.

2. If I had to sum up the tone of the books in one phrase: this is like the young adult fiction version of a Jerry Bruckheimer film. Lots of action, little else. The characters have little emotional depth and don’t spend much time dwelling on what is happening. The real story is the action which includes two sets of Hunger Games and a war. Reading scenes where Katniss is in pain or disoriented is like watching jittery hand-held movie scenes.

3. I did not find the main character, Katniss, to be likable. Granted, she has had a difficult life but she is often caustic and unpleasant. She has good reason to be irritated – she ends up being a pawn for more powerful people throughout much of the three books – but I would think it is difficult for readers to make a connection with her. If there any connection to be made, it would be with her action-hero side as she shows determination and courage.

4. While it isn’t really explored in the books, this could be a devastating critique of reality television. Throughout the three books, Katniss is on display, first for entertainment and then later for propaganda. She chafes at this role but in this future version of society, people seem to be easily manipulated by what they see on their television screens. The power struggle in the books is often about who gets to control the overall narrative in the land.

5. Who is on the side of good or evil is muddied in the final book. While much of the action is taken against the oppressive Capitol, Katniss struggles with the idea that the rebels may be just as bad. This is not a typical good vs. evil outcome – the main outcome centers on the consequences of Katniss’ final actions.

Overall, I rated this series 2.5 out of 5 stars. The premise was interesting but I wasn’t fond of the execution or the outcome. This trilogy fits in with the dystopian turn in young adult fiction and will likely be a movie hit in the near future.