4.15.2012

Race and Gender in The Hunger Games

Well, everyone else has written about it. I was beginning to feel left out.

Let me begin by saying that I am not the most authoritative speaker on the Hunger Games in the blogging world. I imagine tha twoud be a highly contested title. And I can guarantee I'd lose it. Lawks, I'm not the most authoritative speaker on the Hunger Games IN MY HOUSE. I haven't even read the second and third books.

Yes, there will be spoilers

I mostly only wrote because I finally picked up on something very interesting to me - in District 11, the home district of the much mourned Rue, the citizens are publicly whipped if they are caught stealing bread. And, they're black (to clarify - they usually have very dark skin, and they are geographically located in what is now the deep South - I am interpolating the rest myself, though this seems to be the most common interpretation, and that of the movie).

I don't know why I didn't put this together when I read it, but the I-almost-have-it feeling I got when originally reading the book, with Rue and Thresh, finally clicked, and I realized where I recognized Rue from - "Birmingham Sunday" (I highly recommend the Joan Baez version, if you don't know the song - the song itself begins about 1:00 in). The story behind Birmingham Sunday is a simple one - it retells a real incident, where the black church headed by Martin Luther King was bombed by white extremists. Four people were killed: four young black girls, all around 12 years old.

Now let me tell you what I almost wrote next - "Four young girls, innocent of any of the trouble of their times. So young, so beautiful, and all ended." I stand by that - and I stand by my affection for the emotional power of Baez's performance in the song memorializing them. But the description is troubling in a number of ways - why do I remember this song more than, say, the equally poignant 'Emmet Till'? "Young girls," "Innocent," "Beautiful."

The same words of course could be applied to Rue (or to Katniss's sister, Prim, notably), and her death strikes the same string (I admit it, I cried, in the book and the movie). The formula is a very effective one. Take a little girl, it helps if they're slender and beautiful, tell them to offer up innocent eyes. You'll notice that you never have to watch Rue kill anyone. The closest she comes is to suggest to Katniss how SHE can kill the people who are waiting to murder her (Katniss, too, only kills when forced to, a different, interesting thing to consider. If she had fought for her life by killing, say, Foxface on purpose, even when Foxface made no attempt on her life, how would that change our perception of her?). The story could just have easily have involved Rue cutting down a hornets nest in her OWN tree to save Katniss. But it doesn't.

Because, we want Rue to be pure, when she dies, we want her to be innocent. It is interesting, now, to trace this backwards in the history of American race relations. Rue, yes, in the Hunger Games. Or the girl who is raped and murdered in Grisham's 'A Time to Kill'. Birmingham Sunday. Or go way back - there is Eliza in 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'. To get sympathetic white people riled up and willing to stick their necks out for their disadvantaged black brethren? Kill a fresh faced young black woman. If there is sex involved, all the better. Now, draw this narrative out to its logical conclusion - when a grown black man is beaten or killed, as a society, it affects us, sure, but not quite so viscerally. And for many of us it doesn't relaly affect us at all. When asked we might say its sad, but the underlying feeling when a black man is killed is that he's just a part of a rash of these murders. Think about the stereotypes of these murder victims - drug dealer, gang banger, petty criminal. These black men (or, older black women who carry their own stereotypes. Or unnatractive or non-docile black children - see 'Topsy' in Uncle Tom's Cabin) are not sufficiently innocent for us to really mourn them, in our collective consciousness as a nation. We mourn them differently. When a newscaster tuts over them the 'what a waste' is looking backward - he could have been so much had he not driven himself to here, instead of 'What a waste, he was so much, and cut off so young,' the way we feel about our Rue-characters.

Keep in mind, for a moment, that Rue clearly had a strong will to live. And so did Katniss. And that, eventually, one would have had to kill the other if noone else had. If Rue, to save herself and feed her family, had in some alternate version of the story, ended the book by pushing Katniss out of a tree, would we hate Rue? We hate, say, Glimmer, after all.

The horror of the Hunger Games, after all, should not be that it kills innocent children. ITs that that it takes innocent children and makes them into monsters. That is one of the things I loved about the movie (that, in Collins' defense, the structure of the book would not have allowed) - that after Rue dies, you see all these men, all these, essentially, slaves, rise up and start to push over their master's edifice of slavery, not from any kind of blind race hatred, the way we portray these actions now (take, say, the LA Riots and our national understanding of them), but rather out of love, and desperation. You love them, you ache for them, as they rip over the grain scales, and get in fistfights with the riot police. That was one of the victories of the movie for me - it doesn't glamourize social upheaval, it doesn't say that those men made any real difference - they didn't. But it tells that anger and frustration, even violently so, is a real, human emotion, with real, human causes, and that its presence as part of our culture, today, is not simply somethign to be tutted over - its a sign that we have promises that need keeping, broken hearts that need mending, love that needs to be given, apologies to offer.

10 comments:

Amanda said...

The monster idea is one that is very strongly touched on in the book. Do you remember? That was one of the big thematic elements, Peeta swearing he wouldn't be a monster for them, for their games, and Katniss who can't fully understand, not until the end, what he means. For her, this is about survival, and she will kill if she needs to. For him, that's not what the games are about at all, and he will not become a monster to protect himself. The theme is expanded in the other two books. I do think you should read them. :D

Jason Gignac said...

Amanda - Yes, and I hope I didn't give the impression that I think she dodged the monster idea, it was definitely a major part of the books I agree. I think, to be honest, the presence of the innocent young victim is more of a hook, to get us to engage emotionally - and an effective one, it odes open up the emotions of the reader, so they CAN appreciate the moral dilemmas of more troubled characters. I think the fact that you have to have a Rue to engage people is more acommentary on what we, as readers, require, than what Ms Collins, as an author, provides. If that makes sense?

Allie said...

I really liked this post.

Rue and her death are an interesting conversation piece, and I think you added a lot of depth to it that I didn't really focus on before.

I think one of the strengths of the movie was showing the kids as real kids-and I think Rue was the perfect example. When I was reading this with my students, they had a hard time having an emotional reaction to Rue dying. We ended up spending a day on that chapter-visualizing what happened. I think they were so desensitized to the violence that they didn't see Rue as a little girl...so I had them bring in pictures of younger siblings, and we visualized Rue's death with their siblings in mind. It made the whole thing very real for them-and then it all clicked, that these were children fighting to the death, not action heroes.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Allie - That's interesting. I would have loved to have more teachers who worked hard to let us engage our emotions in what we read, bravo to you for doing it. It reminds me of my English class in senior year, where we read the Scarlet Letter. Our teacher had us all make our own scarlet letters that expressed our own secret sins, and talked to us about shame and self-regret, and fear of society, and all the things that come with it - it connected the themese of the Scarlet LEtter to the themes of being a teenager in a very powerful way. Its interesting that you are teaching a class full of kids that are probably pretty desensitized to violence about a book with a society that is painfully desensitized to violence. Do they see those parallels? How do they feel about them?

Trapunto said...

Really interesting. And I love these comments! I did not pick up the racial angle at all in the book the Hunger Games at all. The far-futuristic/ fantasy setting invited me to look for a different set of specific problems rather than a continuation of the specific ones of this era. Maybe this is because I've read so much speculative fiction--I take a lot of interpretive cues from the way the author is telling the story, and Collins' tone marked her out early as the philosophical kind of moralist rather than the political kind for me, so that's how I read her book. The socio-economic oppression had been so harsh for so many generations in Panem, I assumed racial oppression had been subsumed.

Your post really makes me notice for the first how unusual it is that in the Help, which I just finished reading, every time the audience is taken inside an incident of racial violence (the Birmingham church bombing and the young girls is mentioned, but only in passing) victims are always men: the primaries being a sweet-natured teenager blinded with a tire iron and an activist father shot to death in front of his family. I suppose you could also include the 24-year-old writer who dies by being run over by a truck because he is working under poor conditions. In that case it's his dead body that's heaved about with violent disrespect, there's the same focus on getting you to imagine the scene and feel sickened.

I wonder if the lack of sacrificial maidens in the Help has something to do with the all-female cast of narrators and the female empowerment themes...

You really liked the Hunger Games movie, then? Better than the book?

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - Yes, though I am on the wrong side of the popular opinion divide, I actually liked the movie better than the book, a little bit. Everyone misses the first person PoV of the book - I don't. I loved that you could cut out to the larger world. It gave me the impression, more powerfully, of how small she was in the world at large, and made me paradoxically feel closer to her, because of it.

I do not strictly separate the world of philosophy from the world of politics. Politics is more like applied philosophy in my mind, I suppose - the relationship is something like that between medicine and biology. Now that you point it out, that perhaps does not entirely make sense, however.

I haven't read The Help (I know, I know, I'm the worst book blogger on Earth), so it would be difficult for me to make a judgement of it, but it is interesting to me that all the victims in it are men. I had read seeral reviews, here and there, discussing frustration at the portrayal of black men as drunken, violent monsters who black women had to suffer alongside - but again, that was a third hand impression, I'm not saying its right. Intriguing.

Trapunto said...

No, certainly not unrelated. The way I see it, philosophy talks about the universals of the human condition--veering very close to psychology sometimes--and the branch of philosophy that discusses what humans should generally do as individuals with that knowledge of their condition is ethics. Whereas politics talks about the condition of humans in this place, under these social structures, right now . . . and gets you to think what might be done to alter the social structures through current governmental channels.

So, I would call a sci-fi writer like George Orwell or Sylvia Louise Engdahl or Sheri Tepper more the political kind of moralist, while one like Ursula LeGuin has been (with exceptions in the past decade-and-a-half; Bush really got her goat) more the philosophical kind. And some even cross back and forth in their storytelling styles, so maybe it is a strange distinction! For me it's almost more a scent hanging around the prose than anything else.

There's an abusive black husband in the Help, but you hear about him from the wife's perspective, so the violence is downplayed in her telling. The rest of the badly behaved males are white.

I'm glad to hear you liked the movie. Book to movie conversions work out that way for me too, sometimes. Very rare that a film made to be a Major Motion Picture Event can sustain a meaningful first person perspective, so jettisoning it seems like a pretty good strategy. Did you like the actress who played Katniss? I have mostly heard complaints.

Jason Gignac said...

Its interesting, your discussion of the diff between politics and philosophy sounds a lot like science versus engineering to me. A physicist, after all, deals in the theoretical - he makes formulas that function in a vacuum, and provide precise answers. An engineer must design a building that will work in the practical, and much of what they design would have to be 'fuzzier' - because you simply cannot take into account all the possible variables and produce 'truth' the way you can with physics. But, you make your decision based on physics, because thats as much truth as you know, you know? Its the same way with philosophy in a lot of ways - someone like, say, John Stuart Mill might come out with an elegant theory of, say, ethics - that one need only calculate how much good and how much ill is done by a given action. And this can serve (if one agrees with Mill) as a sort of floating benchmark, a way to try to make decisions - but in the rough and tumble of reality, all your calculation will be rough approximates, consciously lacking in the exactitude of 'calculation'. Politics, and personal decision making are, in this sense, simply applied philosophy.

I've never read Ms LeGuin (shame), so I can't comment on her owrk, but in terms of Orwell's, I think this fits this quite well - his book is attached to the specifics of an imagined reality, its built around fuzzy logics of history and circumstance, to try to guess at actual human societal structures. Books that were more philosophical in my mind (I just read James Agee's 'A Death in the Family' for example), instead focus on the very small, the very precise and isolated, to look for truths about human beings, instead. I wonder if that's what you mean?

I stand corrected on The Help.

I did like Katniss, and I was very surprised I did, because the whole issue of race and 'prettiness' got my goat before I came into it. Of course the movie tarts up reality quite a bit - yes, the buildings in the Applachia of District 12 are dusty and the people look hardbitten and tired, but only in the sort of prosaic way that we like to IMAGINE poverty, as being pretty and uplifting and a good incubator for moral rectitude. A more realistic depiction, probably, would have everyone's teeth falling out and skin jaundiced and sick from malnutrition and poor diet, would have the men coughing bloodily from coal dust, woudl have had vice and crime and all the other things that ride on the coattails of desperate want. But, I was able to accept this (as well as the 'prettiness' of Katniss), because I understood that the movie is not meant to epress truth in that way - it was just meant to focus on exprssing a particular range of feeling, and a realistic depiction of hunger and want would have distracted from that. And Katniss herself, the actress, did a fine job with a difficult role - I mean, for goodness sake, half of the BASIS of her character in the book is that she works hard to never feel anything. How do you play someone with no feelings when you need the audience to identify with and sympathize with you? Seh did a remarkable job insofar as she felt damaged instead of empty. I had the impression from the job she did, that her emotionless moments weren't the characters strongest moments, but her weakest, and that's a difficult thing to do, since we expect action heroes to be cool under pressure as a virtue. Especially girls.

Lu @ Regular Rumination said...

I think the greatest strength of the movie was showing things outside of Katniss's very limited perspective. Like the manufacturing of the games by Seneca, and, especially, District 11 after Rue's death. Interesting thoughts here. Thanks for sharing!

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Lu -

I really enjoyed being able to see a wider perspective, as well, several of the scenes outside of Katniss's eyes wwere really powerful. Thanks!