The HungerGames seriesis a fan favorite in popular culture. It happens to also be a favorite oncollege campuses—both for the students and faculty.
By ShannonChisholm ’14
The HungerGames trilogy,written by Suzanne Collins, has struck a chord with the American public. In2011, The Hunger Games ranked as the third most banned bookseries in America, but that did nothing to stem its popularity. By 2012, 27.7million copies had been sold in the United States.
“I saw theway students were tearing through The Hunger Games trilogy,”says Dr. Michelle Laughran, associate professor of history. “People who weren’teven avid readers had their faces buried in these books and were blowingthrough a thousand pages in a week or two. It really amazed me. As educators,it’s our job to plug into that interest and make sure people get the most outof it.” To add to that interest, which was felt across Saint Joseph’s and othercollege and university campuses around the world, Laughran created theCollege’s very own Hunger Games panel, which was held lastfall.
So, how canwe examine a fictional series about a 16-year-old girl living in a futuristicdystopia? The panel—made up of four faculty members—dug deep into the story’splot, examining it through the lenses of their respective fields of expertise:psychology, sociology, communications, and political science.
In theseries, popularity just may equal survival. At the annual Hunger Games event,representatives from “districts” are gathered together in a large, outdoorarena, with its perimeters sealed. These representatives—some scared, someemboldened—are forced to compete in a game of survival, battling natural andmanmade dangers of the arena and each other. The Hunger Games event ends whenthere is one lone survivor.
Aside fromthe shear brute nature of the event, where the worst is sometimes brought outof the individuals, there’s something to be said about how each person isperceived in the eyes of the general public. When the public is pleased with arepresentative, they can provide gifts to him or her—like healing balms. So,the series’ main character, Katniss Everdeen, must learn to not only survivebut also how to be a winner in the court of public opinion—which she does bypretending to be in love with Peeta Mellark, another representative caught upin the arena.
“The bookraises the issue of authenticity,” says Dr. Josh Schoenfeld, associateprofessor of psychology. “Authenticity, in a human sense, means communicatingand acting in a way that is true to what you are really thinking and feeling.”John Hufstader, associate professor of communications, agrees, having seen howappearance and authenticity impact even those who are perceived to be thestrongest. Effie Trinket, a representative from The Capitol and who acts as anofficial escort to Katniss and Peeta, is literally covered in falseimpressions. In the film, “she’s seen as powerful and strong when the camera’spulled back,” says Hufstader. “But when it zooms in, you can see how phony sheis,” with excessive makeup and even a jittery demeanor.
LikeKatniss, people are often forced to play a role to gain attention. Thisfabrication of identity isn’t anything new. Both on television and in everydaylife people are driven to present a kind of false image in order to getattention.
“We haveturned attention into a commodity,” says Schoenfeld. “Attention now equalsmoney.” And in The Hunger Games, positive attention equalssurvival.
The Media,Inequality & Oppression
Mediastudies have long been a component to how experts examine society. And it’s nodifferent in The Hunger Games. In the fictional nation of Panem,popular culture and the media play a fundamental role in the publicizing andoppression of the communities. By broadcasting the Hunger Games contest,citizens are practically forced to accept their own subjugation. Entertainment,it seems, distracts people from thinking about themselves as something moreimportant than the contrived broadcasts.
“Theseparation between factual hard news with serious relevance, such as poverty andinequality, and the soft news of infotainment is often hard to see,” says Dr.Katrina Hoop, associate professor of sociology. “The rise of infotainment, orinformation-based media that includes entertainment, distracts the public fromimportant issues.”
The mediaalso distracts audiences through commercials and pushes people to consume asmany items as possible, even if it means going beyond their budget.
“In Americayou can live what is considered a decent life and still be very poor,” saysHoop. “You can lack basic healthcare coverage or live in an underdevelopedcommunity with bad infrastructure, but because of cheap goods and consumption,coupled with distraction by the media, we are led to believe inequality doesn’texist or isn’t as bad because on the surface our lives are comfortable.”
Inequality,Inside & Between
Thedistricts in The Hunger Games vary in a number of ways, but oneobvious point where they begin to take on different characteristics is in thehealth and skill of their representatives in the Hunger Games arena.“Tributes,” as they are called, from District1 are often stronger and moreformidable than those from District 12. Inequality exists between the districtsas well as within the districts. There is a stratification of power in thebooks that resembles the one that exists in the real world.
“It’s notthat we just have inequality amongst very rich countries and very poorcountries,” says Mark Hibben, associate professor of political science. “Youalso have high amounts of inequality within wealthy states.”
Thesesocioeconomic differences can be seen in District 12. The poorest people of thedistrict, like Katniss, come from the “Seam,” who work in the coal mines andare on the edge of starvation most days. People who live in the villages of theGames’ winners no longer need to work and have more food than is necessary. Thecontrast in the lives of people from the Seam and the winners’ villages areradically different.
“Over thelast 30 years, development strategies have impacted global inequality,” saysHibben. “The Washington Consensus, popular with institutions like the IMF andWorld Bank, is a development model that pushes opening up markets and sometimesreinforces things you see inThe Hunger Games books, includinginequality, dislocation, and alienation.”
Twodevelopment strategies that have affected inequality today are dependencytheory and modernization theory. Dependency theory blames colonial history forthe lack of growth in certain parts of the world, while modernization blamescorrupt institutions. This has left some areas poor even though they areresource-rich and around a billion people live on $1.25 a day. The massinequality described in the books is not too far off from that very reality.
Implicationsfor the Future
The Hunger Games brings to light many important issues thatshould be addressed both nationally and internationally. Suzanne Collins’thought-provoking story has caught the public’s imagination because the themesare eerily relatable to the real world. This may be a simple story about onegirl and her struggle to survive, but it could be something much deeper thanthat.