Hunger Games

03.31.12

‘The Hunger Games’ Is a Clarion Call of the Social-Media Generation

The 8-to-18 set that has flocked to Suzanne Collins’s trilogy understands their relationship to media—and the rest of the world—in an entirely new way, writes Glynnis MacNicol.

Is Sandra Fluke a modern-day Katniss Everdeen?

The thought came to me after I dove into The Hunger Games last week: all three novels of Suzanne Collins’s bestselling trilogy, plus the movie adaptation of the first book.

Katniss is the books’ 16-year-old heroine. Fluke, you may recall, is the 30-year-old Georgetown law student who was banned from testifying recently (before an all-male GOP committee) in favor of mandatory health-care coverage of birth control. She testified before a Democratic committee the next day, and was rewarded for her efforts by being branded a “slut” and a “prostitute” by Rush Limbaugh.

Fluke’s calm response to Limbaugh’s continued attacks and the national furor that followed reveals a woman remarkably well prepared for the media frenzy that followed. During a recent panel discussion, she reportedly said, “One of the things that I was really concerned about when the verbal attacks began was what kind of a message is this going to send to very young women and pre-teens and young girls.” When the journalist Irin Carmon interviewed Fluke for Marie Claire, she wrote, “It was clear she was really smart and well-equipped for her sudden fame.”

Setting aside the brutal violence woven throughout The Hunger Games, it’s actually not that much of a stretch to turn the Sandra Fluke story into a Hunger Games analogy: Limbaugh is Seneca Crane, the man in charge of running the Hunger Games (who eventually loses his life over his inability to keep Katniss in line); the current GOP line-up are the various “tributes,” or contestants, that he is literally gaming to death for the amusement of thousands; and Sandra Fluke is Katniss, calmly turning everything on its head by refusing to play by the rules.

Let’s consider Katniss. Hailed by The New York Times as “a brilliant, possibly historic creation … stripped of sentimentality and psychosexual ornamentation,” she is being touted as the first post-gender superhero: a character who is testing whether a female action hero can make money at the box office without taking her clothes off.

(If that was in fact the test, she passed: The Hunger Games clocked the third-highest opening of all time, while the books have sold 26 million copies and counting.)

But perhaps the most striking thing about “the girl on fire,” as Katniss is referred to in the books, is her unquestioning acceptance that she is being watched and manipulated by larger forces all the time. Unlike those of us who agonize over the ever-shifting privacy concerns of social-media sites like Facebook, Katniss is not only constantly aware of the public gaze, but is so reconciled to its realities that is does not even merit any sort of reflection. Instead she quickly learns to adjust her behavior to take as much advantage of her public persona as she can:

“While I’ve been concealed by darkness and the sleeping bag and the will it has probably been hard for the cameras to get a good shot of me. I know they must be tracking me now though, the minute I hit the ground, I’m guaranteed a close-up. … Until I consider how I want to play that I’d better at least act on top of things. Not perplexed. Certainly not confused or frightened. No, I need to look one step ahead of the game.”

Equally telling is that Katniss does not devote any energy agonizing over her appearance or attempting to improve it—especially striking in a story centered around a teenage girl. Instead it is like a secondary character in the storyline. One of the most scathing criticisms she offers of Panem—the rich capital city where the Games take place—is that they are grotesquely obsessed with their appearance. Katniss, meanwhile, coldly delegates these image duties to her “makeover team.” As the Games progress she survives by squeezing out as much advantage as she can from meshing her authentic self with the public one that has been created for her—right down to her “romance” with fellow contestant Peeta.

Katniss sees that her perceived image, so long the backbone of successful advertising campaigns everywhere, no longer has anything to do with value or self-worth; it is simply an individual power play. Whoever is best at image-making gets the power, and in the battle for power there are no good guys. There are simply the power-hungry and those who suffer at their hands.

In understanding Katniss, we begin to understand what The Hunger Games reveals about the next generation’s relationship with the media, and by extension with sex, values, the government … you name it. The Hunger Games is the clarion call of the social-media generation, and its huge success suggests that its readers not only recognize its heroine’s media savvy—they share it.

The books’ core audience consists of 8- to 18-year-olds—a group that has learned to read against the backdrop of reality television, Facebook, Twitter, and smartphones. A member of this generation thinks nothing of posting hundreds of personal pictures on Facebook, is accustomed to getting any sort of information in real time, and cannot remember a time when it was a strange and electrifying experience to see yourself in a video.

Katniss does not spend any time in the book agonizing over her appearance or attempting to improve it—especially striking in a story centered around a teenage girl.

(In case you were wondering how any of these kids find the time to read, see Laura Miller’s terrific piece in Salon on how the trilogy became a blockbuster even before it was published, thanks to a network of devoted small-town librarians.)

In The Hunger Games we get a compelling glimpse into how these soon-to-be college students and future entrepreneurs relate to and confidently manipulate the transparent flow of information the pre-Facebook generation sometimes struggles to keep up with.

Perhaps this is to be expected of kids who grew up during a decade of brutal warfare and seem to have more access to more information more quickly than the president did, say, 15 years ago. It’s no surprise that Suzanne Collins has said she came up with the idea for the Hunger Games while channel-surfing between reality television and coverage of the war in Iraq.

Of course, the last year’s news cycle has been filled with stories of those who could step into the role of Katniss. Broadly speaking she’s best represented by the ultra-savvy social media world, which in this country alone has upended the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s decision to quit funding Planned Parenthood, brought the Trayvon Martin shooting to the nation’s attention, and redefined the world’s understanding of the word Occupy. Sandra Fluke is only the latest example.

Is there a lesson to be learned here? In the Hunger Games books, the games never really end; the power players simply shift as the tributes begin playing—and winning!—by their own rules. In real life we appear to be entering a time when groups formerly at the mercy of powerful media forces are taking the lessons they’ve been raised on and beginning to run the show for themselves. Perhaps it’s time to take heed of what Katniss says in the later books: “If we burn, you burn with us.”