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Hunger Games (Book 1): Capitalism and Gender Performances

Updated: Dec 3, 2022

Written by critically acclaimed author, Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games, is a science fiction book that is situated in the world of Panem (the city of the bourgeoisie), surrounded by thirteen districts that live in conditions of abject poverty. While the book has become an intrinsic part of Young Adult Literature today, its films have also been hugely successful, amassing huge numbers at the box office. The book largely revolves around the Capitol of Panem, which sustains its control over the districts by making them participate in a televised event, known as the Hunger Games. It mainly involves the selection of a boy and a girl from each of the twelve districts through the reaping system, forcing them to fight each other to death, in order to not just survive, but to reward their specific district with benefits (in the form of food supply). This blog will focus on three aspects of social world constituting the Hunger Games: surveillance, the optics surrounding the games, as well as performance of gender within the game itself through a focus on its female protagonist, Katniss Everdeen.

In more ways than one, the Hunger Games establishes the ways in which capitalism, and the hegemony of ruling class ideologies pervade the lives of ordinary citizens to make sure the elites stay in power. Hence, the games are very much structured around the idea that the “event”, must be televised. This is important for many reasons, largely because it renders what is otherwise a very gory and violent practice-into something that becomes a source of entertainment for the ruling elite. It lulls people into a state of amusement, shielding the fact that the entire system is built on the asymmetry of power that exists between the districts and the Capitol. The real is transformed into a virtual space through technical and aesthetic manipulation of viewers and participants. This is evident from the fact that there is a “game-maker” that manages and controls people, creating a simulation that very deliberately separates the elites from the brutality of the conditions they subject the districts to for the purposes of making sure that they do not rebel. The element of “optics” is specifically enhanced through the inclusion of characters like Cinna, and Portia, whose job is making sure that tributes are styled to look a certain way, in order to attract sponsors. The “Tribute Parade”, where Cinna dresses Katniss up as “the girl on fire”, manages to shield the insidiousness of the entire event through a focus on the outfits, and presentation of the tributes, creating a kind of glamorized spectacle that dehumanizes the poor for the entertainment of the elites. Secondly, it is also important to note the ways in which surveillance functions within the Hunger Games, to further highlight the ways in which the ruling elite in Panem maintains its iron-grip over the districts to make sure power remains consolidated within their own hands. To make sure that citizens within these districts remain disciplined and do not deviate from the norms for acceptable behavior established by the Capitol, cameras are constantly installed in every nook and corner of the area in the Hunger Games, often hidden in trees or other objects, reminding the tributes of the fact that they are constantly being surveilled, and hence, unable to escape/manipulate things in their own favor. That power is only granted to the game-makers who regulate the behavior of the tributes, changing the simulated set-up to suit their own whims. In much the same way, the existence of electrical fences police the movement of the people within the districts, making sure that they are unable to interact with other districts, for fear that they might join hands, and create a sense of social solidarity that could pose a very real threat to the Capitol world order. In much the same way, we see that “Jabberjays” were mutated birds that were manufactured in Capitol labs in order to monitor “rebels” in the Capitol, due to their ability to remember conversations between people, so that it could then be repeated back in an effort to make sure that the Capitol’s “enemies” could be surveilled continuously.

Lastly, the Hunger Games is also important because it problematizes the ways in which traditional femininity is performed by the book’s lead character, Katniss Everdeen, who is District 12’s tribute. For one, structural inequalities, force Katniss into the role of the primary breadwinner in the family. Given that her mother is emotionally absent after her father died in a coal mine accident, Katniss is immediately forced to take up the role of the “patriarch”, allowing her to take up stereotypically masculine attributes. In many ways, Katniss makes it a point to suppress her emotions from a young age, realizing that her tears will make her look weak, and in a world which is built on survival, it would put her at a visible disadvantage. Katniss’s rejection of traditional femininity is also always made to make her look superior to her mother, whose femininity she seeks as being representative of her “weakness”. She is not fond of the dresses her mother lays out for her for the reaping, effectively distancing herself from feminine notions of beauty. Later on, as well, while Katniss takes up a persona that involves her participating in stereotypically feminine preoccupations involving fashion and romance, she repurposes them to use them to her own advantage, and to gain an edge over the other players in the game. Hence, the gender politics in The Hunger Games, is vastly different from stereotypical representations of female leads in books, and films. Here, instead of being a passive recipient, Katniss actively takes on a more assertive role.

In this way, through a focus on gender performances (and how they deviate from traditional representations of femininity), as well as the ways in which ideological control functions to discipline and surveil citizens in Capitol, Suzanne Collins is able to depict the ways in which social worlds in the world of fiction can both reflect and also disturb certain ideas/norms that are deemed to be “fixed”.

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