As part of an April fundraiser at my school, I paid a dollar to ‘dress down’ one day, and wore my homemade stenciled mockingjay t-shirt:
While a number of kids (though far fewer than I’d hoped) commented on it, their comments were kind of troubling.
The loud, popular, Type-A kids would usually ask me, “Do you like The Hunger Games™ or something’?”, as if they’d forgotten our society’s penchant for using t-shirts to proclaim to others the things which one enjoys.
The ‘geeky’ kids would usually just announce that hey, they liked my shirt (at which point I would try to drum up some business by offering to make and sell them one of their very own).
What nobody said, however, was “Hey, nice mockingjay shirt” or “Cool! District Twelve, represent!”(we are in Kentucky, after all).
In other words, because ours is a culture which believes everything has a price (and can therefore be bought and sold), even something as simple as an encircled-bird-holding-an-arrow ceases to be a symbol of hope and resistance against tyranny, and instead simply becomes a logo representing a profitable franchise.
ADDENDUM: I wore the same shirt to a first-grade classroom a few weeks later; a couple of kids saw the shirt and declared, “The Hunger Games are bad.” Indeed! The question then becomes: what changes in how our youth view the world in the years between first and eighth grade?
Because I spend a fair amount of time in a public junior high school, I see a fair amount of ‘Hunger Games’ merch, and I’ve yet to see a single item that hasn’t been emblazoned with the name of that franchise in big, flaming letters. Now, maybe it’s because I approach my various internalized fandoms from in-universe perspectives, but I find such branding—and most of the merch, for that matter—to be pretty generally disgusting.
(Especially tasteless is a movie tie-in booklet going by the title “The Hunger Games Ultimate Tribute Guide” which is little more than a collection of glorified headshots (literally, a pocketbook that allows teenagers (the franchise’s target demographic) to examine the faces of murdered peers, 70% of whose names we never learn).
For the record, let’s remember that The Hunger Games themselves are a yearly event in which two dozen children are coerced by the threat of starvation into fighting to the death for the entertainment of their society’s elites. So, my question is…do our youth believe they have no choice in how they are able to express their enjoyment of this franchise, save going online or to the mall and purchasing—and then wearing or carrying—branded merchandise which is essentially advertising for such a deplorably transparent, blood-soaked system of control? Why the hell a thinking person would possibly want to do this is completely beyond me.
Thankfully, however, the answer is Yes, they do have a choice, but most don’t see it. The first step in breaking the chains of consumption is, as always, to UN-COOL it (in this case by pointing out the ugly truths we’re not supposed to see/think about), and then DIY it (like by making your own mockingjay shirt, as I’ve done above). Personally, I’d be on cloud nine if a teen counter-emblazoned her The Hunger Games™ backpack with a big, red “FUCK”:
Can you imagine? Or think: if kids took copies of glossy Hunger Games™ movie tie-in ‘books’ and added stickers drawing attention to the non-fictional plights of actual child soldiers, coal miners, and trafficked humans—to say nothing of top-down wealth inequality, unsustainable resource extraction, or the coercive, oppressive nature of pyramid-shaped prison societies, &c. (as in most dystopian fiction, when the society in question is just Ours turned up to eleven, there is no shortage of applicable parallels to be drawn). Just think of it!
Sidebar: And since I’m already talking about unthinking franchise patronage, let’s remember that this isn’t an issue unique to The Hunger Games. I’m still completely unable to grasp last year’s petition—signed by over 34,000 people—for the US government to build a Death Star. Yes, that really happened! So, I guess people will just turn off their brains and click ‘Like’ for anything that even vaguely relates to whatever their profitable geeky franchise of choice is? I shudder to imagine these people’s thought processes: “Oh, hurhur, Death Star. That mean Star Wars. Me like Star Wars. Hurhur. <sign petition>.”
Even though the White House comically vetoed the petition, their explanation neglected (most troublingly) to mention the fact that the Death Star program— and the Tarkin Doctrine it represented—was the end-result of an evil empire of FUCKING SPACE-NAZIS!?!
So, anyway. When the teaser-trailer for Catching Fire came out about the same time, I was already kind of grumbly and had these things on my mind (because I always have these things on my mind!).
What I found especially telling was a line from Woody Harrelson’s character Haymitch, breaking the news to our newly-victorious heroine Katniss that “[her] job is to be a distraction from what the real problems are.”
Boy, that about sums it all up, doesn’t it? In a nutshell, that’s a pretty good reason why I have a really hard time passively watching professional sports, sitcoms, televised ‘talent’ shows, big, loud superhero blockbusters, NASCAR, and other such mainstream bread-and-circuses (the panem et circenses from which Collins took the name of her novels’ dystopian nation):
I know what the real problems are, and I don’t want to be distracted.
In the course of the teaser, the obligatory title-cards flash up and inform us that “Every revolution … begins with a spark”. While I guess that’s true, wouldn’t it be amazing if (for once!) we saw through the age-old story of plucky, ragtag rebels fighting against the System, and stopped living vicariously through the pictures on the screen and took it to the streets?
I’m really hoping against hope that Catching Fire’s release this November will be the straw that breaks the camel’s back (glad to see I’m not the only one) and bursts the dam holding back all of our simmering anger and frustration—that people will finally WAKE UP to recognize the hidden workings of Our Culture—because what we need isn’t a Revolution, but a Revolt.
I say that because unfortunately, the ‘revolution’ depicted in Collins’ trilogy is the classic definition of that word—a purely political shakeup whose outcome is not breakup of power or a cultural evolution, but simply a change in leadership (“Meet the new boss, same as the old boss”), maintaining the status-quo notion that we’re all incapable of governing ourselves and need someone at the top of the pyramid to tell us what to do. If people get riled up and start doing something about it (which would be good) but model on THG (which would be bad), we’ll just be right back where we started.
At this point, however, I’d be completely overjoyed if Woody Harrelson (a self-identified anarchist, let’s remember) started throwing inflammatory, expressly political, apocalyptically-minded comments about Our Culture’s systems of control into every obligatory late-night-talk-show appearance or press junket he did in support of this film!
ADDENDUM: This is a good start: