Since I began turning its pages, I assumed The Hunger Games was a rallying cry for like-minded progressives and radicals. This was thanks to its pretty upfront indictment of state-inflicted violence and, in particular, of hunger caused by gross economic inequality. Occupy Panem! I thought. Redistribute the wealth!
But then I learned that the Tea Party dug its message, too, and saw the Capitol as a perfect metaphor for the Obama administration — so much so that there was “a Hunger Games-themed youth event [last year] at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual shindig for conservative activists and Republican leaders who wish to woo them.”
Certainly it’s true that rural, regional agrarian types are the novel’s heroes, while a decadent, gender-bending group of urban elites are the enemies. And yet, that’s a simplistic reading, particularly when the action moves forward in the final installments. When I revisited Catching Fire in time for the film last summer, I felt almost haunted by the themes of collective resistance vs. authoritarianism that run deeply through it, from the victors’ tour to the arena. It felt deeply radical, full of moments of attempted human connection in an environment designed to pit people against each other, literally and figuratively.
To help sort through the subtext, I spoke to Mari Armstrong-Hough, visiting assistant professor of sociology and medical humanities at Davidson College and assistant professor at Meiji University in Tokyo. She’s both a sociologist and a fan of the Hunger Games series and the “social theory” the books put forward.
“I was convinced to read them by a vegan radical historian I knew from Japanese camp,” she says. While reading it in the context of the growing income gap, and the frustration that was causing, in the States, Armstrong-Hough recalls that it was impossible not to notice the social commentary, nor to untie the strands of it from the plot. And yet, particularly given the flipped switch of Mockingjay, wherein the revolutionaries show their own capacity for cruelty and depravity, she says, “I don’t think the franchise is promoting any particular kind of society.”
Instead, according to Armstrong-Hough, it’s a model of total resistance. “We see politicking, corruption, and unjustified violence from both the guardians of the status quo in the Capitol and the architects of the rebellion,” she says. “Katniss, whom we naturally align ourselves with, rejects both these systems.”
This double rejection feels timely, Armstrong-Hough notes. “So many Americans are disenchanted with politics itself, not just one side of the aisle or the other.”
“What I did see, though, was a sort of theory of social change that I found surprisingly sophisticated,” she says, adding that the books remind her of the ideas of James C. Scott, a Yale-based social and political theorist. An influential, self-described “crude Marxist” professor who lives on a farm and raises animals in between publishing tomes about anarchism, Scott is a figure of interest to people on both ends of the ideological spectrum. The New York Times called one of Scott’s books “a magisterial critique of top-down social planning that has been cited, and debated, by the free-market libertarians of the Cato Institute… development economists and partisans of Occupy Wall Street alike.”
Which sounds just about right for The Hunger Games. Katniss’ refusal to submit to being the pawn of either The Capitol or District 13 until her bruised, battered, near-dying breath serves as a celebration of, and even a tribute to, continual lifelong resistance, says Armstrong-Hough.
Beyond just advocating personal resistance to forces of political control, she says the books put forth the idea that “violence breeds docility.” “I don’t mean that threatening people with violence makes them docile, because it doesn’t. I mean that teaching people to be violent and consume violence makes them docile,” she explains. “The Games institutionalize a political docility not so much because they threaten violence to the districts’ children, but because they create a society in which people think they must choose survival over solidarity. I think a lot of people, regardless of their political affiliation, feel like there has been a lot of being forced to choose survival over solidarity going around in the US.”
This makes perfect sense. Think of all of Katniss’ big moments. Standing up for, and with, Rue and then with Peeta at the end of the first Games. Choosing to team up with her fellow victors in the second Games, with that hand-holding moment on TV. Choosing to connect with the mourning, angry people on the victory tour. Katniss often begins the Games in a state of complete alienation and distrust, but then, when faced with oppression from above, chooses trust — or at least the illusion of it — at key moments. That’s how she ends up inciting the populace.
“Katniss’ big disruption isn’t to be skilled or strategic or politically savvy,” says Armstrong-Hough. “It is to express solidarity in this really natural way at the most critical moments.”
Of course, if Katniss is a flinty anarchist with a libertarian streak (and Gale is a total mansplaining manarchist, albeit a hot one), then I’d have to say that Peeta is a kindly socialist who yearns to feed the masses with bread. He’s the one who frequently urges Katniss to befriend others, and he always tries to reject violence. He, just as much as Katniss, chooses solidarity and love over alienation. Thus their story has meaning for people frustrated with the status quo who go far beyond the Che T-shirt set.
“It’s a society in which the children from different — and regionalized — classes are pitted against one another and the asshole prep school kids from the north usually win,” jokes Armstrong-Hough. “As someone who went through the elite education machine and who has lived in the South, I can really see why it appeals to people we don’t usually assume will embrace essentially radical social critique.”