A Tool for Dignity and Justice: Reading the Social Critique in The Hunger Games

by: Emma Rose

Do you remember that kid in your high school literature class who geeked out over books like 1984 and Brave New World?  The one who thought the government was conspiring against the world? That was me.

I’ve always loved dystopian fiction. So, when I heard about The Hunger Games, they shot to the top of my list. I ate them up and finished all three books in less than four days. Yet, something was different about these books.  For some reason, the story of Katniss Everdeen was more disturbing and sickening than those of Winston and John. Suzanne Collins’s critique of 21st Century North America made me nauseous and dizzy.  I can’t count how many times the text overwhelmed me to the point that I had to shut the book and sit in silence. While some naysayers reject the series for its violent plot, I think that its value lies in this injustice. Collins’s unthinkable, atrocious game unveils present day reality.

I read The Hunger Games after returning from a service immersion trip to El Salvador, a decision one of my friends so lovingly called a “self-induced mind fuck.”  On this trip, I saw the 30-year aftermath of the Salvadoran Civil War and met people whose stories and lives completely altered my world view.  In 1980, El Salvador exploded in a clash of warring ideologies and corn husk bombs. After enduring 50 years of peasant genocide, guerilla fighters rose up against the military. The result was one of the deadliest civil wars in world history.

To the north, the United States was participating in a battle of its own: The Cold War.  In need of allies, the U.S. started reaching out to other countries that felt threatened by Communism.  In exchange for allegiance, they sent weapons and thousands of taxpayer dollars to the Salvadoran military, essentially funding the war.  Outspoken peacemakers, such as Archbishop Oscar Romero, were assassinated by military hit men who received their training at the School of the Americas in Fort Benning, Georgia.

To this day, Salvadorans in the process of healing.  Those who experienced the war still live with scars of the past, while the new generation bleeds with present pain. Ever since the dollarization of the Salvadoran economy, the country has been financially dependent on the United States. U.S. policy still affects the daily lives of Salvadoran people, and in some areas, the country is more dangerous now than it was in the 1980s. To make this story short, let’s just say our foreign relations aren’t all lamb stew and dried plums.

What, you may ask, does the social system of El Salvador have to do with post-nuclear, dystopian fiction? My answer to you is everything.

With books like 1984 and Brave New World, I’ve always been able to place myself in the role of the protagonist. Winston and John, although they live in different times and stories, share one thing in common: their drive.  Both recognize the oppression in their societies and take action against it. When I read The Hunger Games, I couldn’t put myself in Katniss’s place.  I was not a young woman fighting for her life to feed her family or her best friend who plotted a revolution as he watched from home or the good-hearted romantic who wanted to maintain his morality while protecting the one he loved.

In fact, I didn’t fit in District 12 at all — but was instead a citizen of the Capitol. My life coincided not with the liberator but with the oppressor.

My group and I returned to the States overcome by shock and disillusionment.  How could the country that we consider home have contributed to so much violence: child soldiers, massacres, political domination, modern day drug and gang wars? How was I oblivious to this part of American history? How do the ways that I live, consume, and pay taxes affect the dignity of people living halfway across the world?  What policies are in place today that hinder people from living full, just lives? The entire time I read the series, these questions played on repeat in the back of my mind.  The more I read, the more clearly the Capitol became the United States and the Districts became countries such as El Salvador, Israel, Iraq and Mexico. Then, as the culture shock began to wear off, I started making domestic connections.  Collins addressed themes that we can see on the streets of Chicago every day: the wealth gap, starvation, unbalanced food distribution and children killing children. The list goes on.

If I was only allowed to credit the movie for one thing, it would be bringing all of these themes into crisper vision. During Rue’s death scene, I couldn’t help but realize that most of the people in the audience probably never witnessed a young child die from politically-driven violence or starvation.  Such tragedies are simply not part of the everyday life of a Lincoln Park resident. Yet, even though we are blessed enough to live in a peaceful, well-provided-for neighborhood where deaths like Rue’s are considered monstrous, we seek out the books and movies.  Over and over again, I thought: “I paid to watch these children die. I chose this as a form of entertainment, just like a citizen of the Capitol.”

I was drawn to The Hunger Games by its promise of social commentary and the rave reviews.    My friend was right: the books have been a complete “mind fuck,” just as life is sometimes.

But, that’s all the more reason to stay engaged.  I believe that a good book is one that you carry in the back of your mind for three days after you read it.  It’s one that gets under your skin and makes you question your present reality.  Collins stepped off the long-treaded path typical dystopian fiction and began forging her own trails for readers and moviegoers to explore.  I strongly encourage you to read (or re-read) the books and listen for a path that beckons you.  What strikes you most about the series’ critique of reality? Who are the Rues in your life who need care and attention? What steps can we take collectively to turn a literary fad into a tool for dignity and justice?

Emma Rose is a fourth-year student at DePaul University and is studying Catholic Studies, Creative Writing, and Spanish. She is passionate about blues dancing, service and justice work, baking, faith, laughter, and relationships. She hopes to pursue an MA in International Studies to research the systems that drive politically driven violence and material poverty in developing nations and the role that developed nations play in said systems.

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