America’s contorted value system was reflected by some of the reactions to the blockbuster movie, “The Hunger Games” these past few weeks. (For those living on Neptune, THG is the story of a dystopian future in which America becomes a feudalistic plutocracy. It is based on the mega-selling book of the same title—essentially a revamping of Stephen King’s “The Running Man” that was tailored to appeal to contemporary teen sensibilities.)
Two reactions to THG were telling. First, some people had the audacity to be upset that the lead character was played by an actress who’s figure was NOT emaciated. In fact, the lead actress’s figure was—in objective terms—amazing: perfect curves and a slim waist. Yet many Americans have been conditioned to see only a disgustingly skinny figure as the aesthetic ideal.
Second (and even more disturbing), many were “disappointed” that two of the key characters were played by black actresses—characters who were actually described as dark-skinned in the book. Apparently, the romantic ideals of some still exclusively involve white people. One doesn’t have to witness Revisionist Zionism or Hassidism to see that racism is alive and well in America. To this day, racist perspectives permeate our pop culture due to old provincial mindsets and stubborn parochialisms.
The cinematic rendition of The Hunger Games was a missed teaching opportunity. Here was a chance for a major production in pop culture to address some important themes—thereby delivering to a wide audience a scathing commentary on current American dysfunctions. The story was perfect for illustrating how unjust it is when a privileged few dominate and exploit everyone else…by using methods other than brute physical force.
As we well know, the parable is a potent pedagogic device. The world saw with Orwell’s 1984 that fiction can be a powerful tool for showing the iniquities of radically right-wing modus operandi (e.g. oligarchs aggrandizing themselves at the expense of the rabble, while keeping everyone “in line…all in the name of “freedom”, of course).
Alas, a prime opportunity to teach valuable lessons was squandered by Lionsgate, the studio standing to cash in on this market-friendly, dumbed-down production. (One wonders when such a prime opportunity might arise again.)
That said, THG the movie is a chance to illustrate the Carnival Of Distractions that is our current pop culture. The dystopian future in the story involves an extreme plutocratic order: a cabal of oligarchs dominating a supplicant proletariat by—in part—keeping everyone distracted. Distracted how? By providing captivating entertainment, of course. Panem’s “Capitol” is an entrenched aristocracy that schemes to exploit the supplicant population by keeping everyone preoccupied with hyper-sensationalized—and utterly mindless—programming. Ergo, the pliable rabble is persuaded to go along with the extreme socio-economic stratification (and thus kow-tow to the system of highly-concentrated power foisted upon them). Sound familiar?
This isn’t merely a story about the powerful exploiting the marginalized; it’s about HOW the powerful can maintain a system in which proletarians are marginalize-able. This could have been an eminently edifying parable for the American movie-goer: a way to wake people up to what’s going on in the real world. Instead, it was a tragically missed teaching opportunity—though a venture that will make Lionsgate ga-jillions of dollars…which is, of course, the only purpose of making movies these days. (In an age where “The Tree of Life” is considered “deep” and “philosophically profound”, the bar has been set very, very low.)
The irony is that THG itself ends up being a diluted version of the very thing that is (implicitly) indicted within the story. It is a vapid piece of entertainment that could have been (should have been) so much more. In the end, its success was based on sheer hype…NOT based on the profundity of the parable it could have been (but wasn’t). This irony was surely lost on most of the eager viewers…fans that seem uninterested in learning anything important from the pop-fiction with which they are so infatuated.
It is safe to say that very few viewers learned the important lessons that a more thoughtful adaptation of the novel may have taught. The catch is that the REASON so few will learn anything from this movie is hidden within the movie itself—reasons that would have been explained by a better movie. Few movies are (inadvertently) meta-critiques of the very phenomena of which they are a part. In effect, THG was an accidental piece of post-modernism.
Think about it: How many viewers will take home the lesson that this dystopian future (like most dystopian futures depicted over the years) demonstrates why right-wing policy is a very, very bad idea? How many viewers will see the (blatant) parallels between the plutocracy that is Panem and the plutocratic elements of American society? How many will recognize Panem’s Capitol as right-wing politics / economics taken to its logical extreme? Let’s review:
- Manipulating people by exploiting destitution…and fear? Check.
- Controlling the masses by ensuring a sustained sense of insecurity and dog-eat-dog competition? Check.
- Placating the rabble by keeping them constantly amused? Check.
- Glorifying the rich and powerful? Check.
- Painting a blatant ameritocracy as magnificently meritocratic? Check.
- Inculcating the citizenry with the idea that the “haves” matter more; and the “have-nots” don’t matter as much? Check. (There should be no doubt that the Panem oligarchs used “trickle down” arguments to legitimize the maintenance of their exorbitant privilege: “The better off WE are, the better off everyone else will be.”)
- Demands by those in power for “loyalty”? Calls for “patriotism” to keep the rabble “in line”? Check. Check.
- The criminalization of anything “subversive”? Check.
- The iniquity of highly-concentrated power? The dangers of romanticizing of avarice? The glorification of gratuitous affluence? The inanity of fetishizing decadence and glamour? Check. Check. Check. Check.
(We could go on and on.)
Meanwhile, millions fixated on the contention that the lead actress’ figure was insufficiently emaciated.
The Carnival of Distractions is here on full display. As Stuart Klawans put it in The Nation magazine: “Only a movie (or rather a motion picture event) might call into existence the very dynamic that it pretends to criticize.” It’s safe to say that 99.9% of the audience entirely missed the point that could have been made had the movie version of THG been done more intelligently. (Imagine reading Orwell’s 1984 and concluding: “Winston should have been wearing trendier clothes!”)
One can imagine someone leaving the movie theater in March, noting: “Whew, that was a fucked up world!” …then proceeding to vote for Republicans less than eight months later. (Indeed, pop culture offers a splendid anesthetic for the epidemic cognitive dissonance with which America is currently afflicted.)
Does vacuous entertainment itself lead to fascism? No. But vacuous entertainment is predicated on some of the very things that characterize an incubator for plutocracy: mindless hyper-consumerism and an audience that is kept chronically distracted…while the well-positioned few laugh all the way to the bank. This tragically-missed teaching opportunity tells us a lot about American pop culture. Pop culture, we find, is not something that is amenable to making important points about the world. As with church, people watch TV and go to movies to FEEL good, not to learn anything. Supply meets demand.