Hunger Games: When You are Engulfed in Flames

I’d warn you that there are Spoilers Ahead for Hunger Games II: Catching Fire, but the title of this brief essay — taken from a David Sedaris book which was taken from a Japanese hotel evacuation card — already is a spoiler.

I liked the previous film not for what it overtly was, but for the instructional subtleties that it offered its target audience. Catching Fire goes in a different, more face-value direction and while it has more misses (rinse-off caustic damage, the obviousness of the midnight tree) and more hits (the baby bomb, PTSD birds), it also manages to run face-first into the unforgiving I-beam of the irony of the series.

Here’s what TLP wrote after the first film:

this true lady-centric blockbuster franchise isn’t named after Katniss, it’s named after what happens to Katniss… She has free will, of course, like any five year old with terrible parents, but at every turn is prevented from acting on the world. She is protected by men– enemies and allies alike; directed by others, blessed with lucky accidents and when things get impossible there are packages from the sky.  In philosophical terms, she is continuously robbed of agency.

All of this is even more true for the second film, where the only person who regards Katniss as entirely human is Katniss and maybe her little sister. Everybody else regards and values her, in part or in whole, as a dehumanized symbol onto which they project their aspirations (or fears, in the case of The Man). This is still a valuable lesson about human frailty for young people who are prone to celebrity- and idol-worship, but explicitly at odds with how the film is commercialized with the powerful bow-hunting heroine.

Let me put this very bluntly: What Katniss wants, needs, dreams, and desires is utterly irrelevant to this film. All that is necessary is for her to keep breathing while her friends and allies maneuver her body to where it needs to be to further their plans. In other words, Katniss is most dehumanized, most robbed of personal agency and freedom by her so-called friends. Consider:

  • Effie writes speeches, but Peeta — with a much stronger and better-acted role in this film — is the one who leads the excursion off-script. Katniss only bumbles along behind both of them.
  • Cinna writes and signs his own death warrant, a point that seems to be lost on Katniss when she’s wearing it on stage and being awed by how pretty it is.
  • Haymitch does the footwork to round up allies for Katniss, which Katniss doesn’t want and explicitly rejects — but then she has them anyway… by their choice rather than hers.
  • When Katniss is about to unthinkingly get herself killed by a misplaced Warhammer 40K soldier-dude, it’s Haymitch that steps in and talks the situation down while Katniss stands around dumbfounded.
  • When Peeta gets detonated, it’s that pretty boy — Finnick? I’m bad enough with names, never mind fake ones — that does the CPR to bring him back while Katniss just kind of melts down.
  • While the real use of the bloody obvious tree is bloody obvious, Katniss doesn’t figure it out until Beetee detonates himself because she’s still playing the game she was told to play by The Man.
  • And the closing scene shows that even dumb-hunk Gale was in on the actual plot of the film which merely required a really-breathing Katniss-body, not the actually strong and powerful heroine that got captured by The Man.

I’m sure there are more (it was a 2.5 hour movie) examples, but we have to counter-point the clear disempowerment against the marketing campaign of faux-powerment. Hasbro (haz-BRO) is the case in point here. See, they’ve released Nerf weapons for Girls — you can tell because they’re petite and pink and riff on “rebel” by spelling it “reb-Elle”. I wish I were joking, but I’m not. And if you go to the theater early, you may be subjected to a rather long ad — at least it feels like it goes on forever — which blithely ignores that the word “Nerf” is synonymous with disempowerment. Really, Nerf, verb, “To make worse or weaken, usually in the context of weakening something in order to balance out a game.” See also “Nerfed” or “Nerfing.”

This is just another example of errantly offering to sell empowerment with a skin-deep counter-exclusion* ad campaign instead of encouraging people to take power. This is the merchandising version of the “Put a Bow on It” trend, only made more egregious by the fact that it’s the Nerf brand in front of an explicitly disempowering film which I promise I’ll get back to in a moment. I don’t understand the phenomenon: my niece will do gleefully savage violence to my person with whatever happens to be available regardless of color; attempts at inclusivity are unnecessary for her active (and hyper-violent) imagination. A dearth of flamingo-hunting opportunities has resulted in blowback on inclusively-pink camouflage. Even peacefully inclusive engineering toys are being regarded as woefully condescending by their canny and incredulous target audience, a condition which hasn’t changed in a couple of decades:

which leads me to this point succinctly made:


Okay, so, back on topic. What Katniss wants is to run away and hide. I can totally feel with her on that. What she gets, though, is to be Plutarch’s puppet in his admixture of lime-lighting and invasive oppression designed specifically to keep pushing on her while people are looking up to and then dying for her — and she can’t figure out why because what she wants is to run away and hide. She is unaware of how she links to TLP’s critique that “This manipulation of her is all deliberate design– what society actually wants is that it gets her to be pretty, demarcates her as an object to be gazed upon–  but not bear any of the guilt/responsibility for forcing her into this.” She can only see herself, not what everybody else is projecting onto her: she’s staring at the audience, not at the screen she’s providing for them. This is a realistically valid situation for a person to be in — consider what the media did to Jessica Lynch back in 2003 — but it’s the opposite of empowerment.

What we know is that all this has happened before and it will all happen again, specifically with Hillary Clinton’s supporters trying to push her to another presidential campaign in 2016. I don’t know what they think they want from the old plutocratic sell-out, other than a chance for them to prove that most of the voters in the US aren’t misogynistic. I’ve not heard a single thing said about how a Clinton administration would be different from the current administration, which Lawrence Lessig pointedly criticized as being too much like what a Clinton administration would’ve been like despite the campaign promises of difference and change. Here’s an alternate idea: how about we elect some other woman? Senator Warren is my preference, but Senator Gillibrand can also talk a lot of sense. Set one of them up with (Sec Def) Chuck Hagel as VP against, say, Chris Christie and maybe Condi Rice — really, I like her on domestic policy issues; it’s just her foreign policy positions that are woefully misguided — then we could have an interesting presidential campaign that might have both actual differences and a lack of obviously wrong choices. But the point here is that (as far as I can tell) Hillary Clinton is in a similar position to Katniss in that her followers care more about what she means to them more than they actually care about her, and that’s not particularly good for anybody.

The funny thing about Catching Fire is that for all the attention Katniss gets, it’s the viciously nihilistic Johanna (who ends up apparently captured by The Man) that has personal power. Yes, she uses to go along with the plot — probably because it seems like the best way to meaningfully rebel against The Man and the horrible society The Man claims to have created, which she goes off-script to angrily denounce. And Johanna’s role is another valuable lesson for kids, since most of them aren’t going to become president someday: it’s more important to play your part well than to play an important part. Had Johanna screwed up any of her key actions, the consequences to her associates could have compromised the whole mission that she agreed to join in on: the team may have not figured out the environmental hazards, or not clued in to the point behind the tree, or the evacuation could’ve been compromised by a tracking beacon, or a not-killed-yet competitor. This isn’t to say that girls should feel compelled to strip in elevators just to express interest in a guy (even though we can be dense), but rather to observe that Johanna’s priorities, choices, and capacity to focus on objectives demonstrates a purity of will that makes her a better icon of the empowered female than Katniss.

I kind of expect that I’ll be disappointed with her character arc, though; just a hunch about needing to leave ample room for the do-nothing heroine at the big upcoming finale on the other side of that really cheesy CG Mockingjay.


* “Counter-exclusion” is how groups can self-righteously entrench segregatory failure while refusing to be victimized by it. The Parks & Recreation episode “Pawnee Rangers” shows a counter-exclusion which collapses once the kids figure out that they’re in a group based on counter-exclusivity, with inclusive grouping for shared purpose being the heart-warming conclusion of the episode. (Did I really just say “heart-warming”?)