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.

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Passing a Man in the Hallway

I looked at him and only saw: his beard,
His tight-trimmed hair, his square-boned, jutting jaw.

Ungenerous instincts of the victim.

I watched him watch me lace up lazy lips,
And pull the cheerful corners of my mouth
Into a casual kindness, one that shouts
And leaves it at that.

Imagination crippled, fear invoked,
By nothing but a shortened chromosome.

Ungenerous instincts of the victim.

(image from mkuhn)

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So many of my favorite people in the book blogging world - Ms Amy, Ms Nymeth, and Ms Debi, for example, and others as well, some more qquietly, some more subtly - have made comments lately that pointed at a feeling as if they are not contributing enough to the world, that they wonder if what they do 'matters', somehow. And then, somewhere else today I saw something that talked about the 'self-help' industry, and I thought about that feeling. Its one I'm pretty familiar with myself.

So, here's the question. The point of self-help is to help us accomplish our goals, right? Self-help is all about helping us lose weight, helping us get ourselves closer to our idea of the divine, helping us make ourselves happier, helping us understand ourselves, to learn to do great things. I don't say this to denigrate these ideas. I am in favor of great things. Great things are great.

But, the people I've loved most in my life have often never done great things, because often enough they were not helping themselves. They were helping others. And helping others is a very difficult thing. While there are plenty of places to do it, there are few that tell you how. And its tremendously dangerous - I've hurt more than one person I've tried to help in my life. And, in its best form, at the end, you yourself have accomplished nothing. But the people who have this skill, to me, are my favorites.

Statistics, achievement, fame, and 'success' do not, ever, effectively measure how much we help other people's greatness, they can only hint at our own achievements. To all my favorite people, I want you to know, that you are greater than you think, greater than anyone can possibly explain to you, greater than you will ever be awarded for, greater than any of the rest of us deserve.  The greatest of the great are measured by the greatness that others around them achieve. So many of my favorite people speak often about how much they love and admire their own friends, how they are often amazed by how much their friends achieve, by the amazing things they do, by the marvels they create. If you know people that you love and admire, and they seem to be better, more beautiful, more loveable, every year, perhaps, friends, you are a bit to blame for that.

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