Hunger Games salute used by Thai protesters

Young adult fiction can lend itself to protest movements:

Fans of the popular book and film franchise The Hunger Games will recognize the hand signal instantly: the middle three fingers of the hand, raised to the sky. A gesture of resistance against the repressive government in the fictional world of Panem, it has now become a very real symbol of protest in Thailand at demonstrations against the junta that took power after the May 22 coup d’etat.

Crowds making the gesture have been pulled off the streets, according to reports, and a lone protestor was dragged into a taxi and arrested after making the hand signal…

Although the junta imposed a media blackout for television, satellite, and radio thanks to the immense popularity of social media in Thailand, discussion and criticism of the coup has continued on platforms like Twitter and Facebook—including tweets both documenting and encouraging the salute.

This is a fascinating example of protesters borrowing from the realm of literature and entertainment. The Hunger Games books contain some interesting commentary about modern society amidst their action and made-for-TV scenes. Just how different is the situation with the Capitol from the situation in Thailand? It may not even matter as it links their protests to a well-recognized symbol from mass-produced and consumed books and movies that can draw attention to their plight. Is there a similar symbol they could have used that would get them more attention or help their cause more?

The dystopias right in front of us: “Sochi is Pure Dystopian Reality”

Much has been written about Sochi and its varying degrees of glitz and cover-up. This piece considers the dystopian aspects of Sochi and how it compares to recent fictional dystopias.

But here’s the best-worst part: no matter how many articles use the word “dystopia,” Sochi doesn’t just look like a hellish future straight off the NYT bestseller list. It’s a complete and active masterpiece—because despite all the plot markers, despite all the freaky realities that scream something is really wrong here, we still tune in. Just like the Hunger Games‘ Capitol citizens, Western audiences eat up happy-faced Olympic broadcasts as readily as we have since the games were first televised on a closed circuit in Berlin in 1936. We’ll read all the coverage as entertainment, make Twitter jokes about stray dogs, and laugh about it over drinks (even if it’s to keep from crying). Six thousand athletes will compete just as they did in London in 2012, even if tourists don’t quite make it out. The Olympics are the Olympics, after all. Sochi is the Dystopian Singularity because we accept it as reality—and thus are complicit in its success…

If this is really happening, though, at least we have a few protagonists. Members of the radical-feminist punk performance art collective Pussy Riot have been active, powerful critics of President Putin’s regime—which is exactly how they came to the West’s attention at all. After several members’ arrest and political imprisonment for hooliganism (after they performed a radical protest song in Moscow’s biggest cathedral), Maria “Masha” Alyokhina and Nadezhda “Nadya” Tolokonnikova were released in December just months before their two-year sentence was up. (They maintain that their release was a Putin PR stunt.) While the pair have since split from Pussy Riot proper to pursue their own activism for prisoners’ rights, their association with the group and the media tour they’ve taken in the past few months has made many aware of the dire sociopolitical circumstances in Russia. Last week they appeared on The Colbert Report and at an Amnesty International benefit concert, where they urged people to boycott or protest the Games and the leaders overseeing them. There’s no quantitative way to measure Nadya and Masha’s success—and it’s likely that some might miss the point—but it’s a good bet that their story (and Pussy Riot’s message) has resonated with audiences even if it doesn’t affect their willingness to add to the ratings.

There are quieter acts of solidarity, as well, scripted straight from Katniss’s victory tour: Russian snowboarder Alexey Sobolev appeared to display a Pussy Riot member on the bottom of his board when he took to the slopes on Thursday; the same day, Google unleashed a pro-LGBT Doodle. One could even argue that Jonny Weir’s fashion statements are marks of resistance. But these won’t change the fact that things will probably worsen in Russia after the Games end and the world stops watching; the Olympics are notorious for draining economies dry and Sochi is the most expensive Games ever assembled.

Certainly, Sochi isn’t single-handedly decimating the dystopia YA marketplace, but it’s nonetheless a perfect example of why the genre is failing. It’s not because a shallow fad has run its course; it’s because the fantasies and the facts have become nearly identical. And that’s the problem — Entertainment is meant to be an escape, fantasy and science-fiction in particular; movies about poverty don’t do well during a recession because no one in the midst of turmoil likes seeing their suffering splashed onto the silver screen. And it’s not just in Sochi, either; from Snowden, to the American wealth gap, to the (thankfully canceled) prospect of DMX cage-fighting George Zimmerman on pay-per-view, to the world’s premier newspaper printing an accused pedophile’s “response” to his child victim’s account, there are countless examples of our satirical imagination matching the real world right at our front door. (And we wonder why people still get fooled by Onion articles.) The fact is, when the allegory starts looking like the reality, it’s time for the allegory to evolve.

Perhaps we should then ask what the average viewer/consumer is supposed to do in this situation. Ignore the Olympics? Engage in a more real world right in front of them? Insist the Olympics avoid countries with lots of inequality (Russia might seem like an obvious choice but others might argue this could rule out the United States)?

This also hints that the really important dystopias are not ones we imagine but rather ones that are right in front of us that we don’t notice. This might be like the tourist experience: we are often like visitors who hope to see the popular sights and are distracted by what is new and exciting. How closely do we look behind the scenes? (This is starting to sound like a pitch I would make in an Introduction to Sociology course.) A number of sociologists have voiced their concerns about “fake” places, often invoking Disney World or Las Vegas or Times Square, that tend to hide the real world behind consumerism and private spaces.

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…