When I first read The Hunger Games a year or so ago, I was expecting a critique of modern media culture and the way it turns suffering into entertainment. A lot of the publicity surrounding the book had stressed its satire on reality TV, and the interview with the author which was attached to the paperback I read made this explicit. “I was channel surging between reality TV and actual war coverage,” says Collins in response to being asked how she came up with the idea for the novel, “…And I was tired and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.”
This element of the book’s narrative is sketched in fairly broad and clear lines, blending the sort of critique found in Ben Elton’s Popcorn with the near-future horror of Battle Royale within the dystopian tradition of sci-fi. What struck me particularly, though, on my first read, was its concern with another form of media coercion. Katniss’ negotiation of her romantic feelings within the media spectacle of the Games reminded me of the pressures on young women to mediatise their sexuality; to produce sexualised images of themselves for the enjoyment of others.
Compared to the overarching scenario of the novel – the Districts, the Games, the Tributes – this is a relatively muted strain within the novel. Perhaps because it doesn’t have the Capital Letters attached which Farah Mendlesohn has identified as so much part of fantasy and sci-fi world-building. No-one has to explain to each other during the infodumps or expositions that, in Panem, young people’s sexual lives are increasingly involved with technological mediation. Leveraging a romantic story-line appears as an innovation within the fictional world, and one particular to the heroes, rather than one of the rules imposed on them.
But it seemed to me one of the absolutely central parts of the novel’s critique of media culture. Katniss’ developing feeling for Peeta are continually used as a source of entertainment for other people. The press conferences at either ends of the Games are only the most obvious examples of this. Within the arena, she finds herself deliberately producing easily-consumable snippets of her sexuality in order to attract the attention of potential sponsors and get the viewers on her side:
Impulsively, I lean forward and kiss him, stopping his words. This is probably overdue anyway, since he’s right, we are supposed to be madly in love. It’s the first time I’ve ever kissed a boy, which should probably make some sort of impression, I guess
If I want to keep Peeta alive, I’ve got to give the audience something more to care about. Star-crossed lovers desperate to get home together. Two hearts beating as one. Romance.
The tone veers between the cynicism of giving a jaded audience for a violent reality show something new, and the hero working out her own feelings towards the first boy she’s been romantically involved with. The ambiguity of “should probably make some sort of impression, I guess” captures these two aspects: it should probably make her feel something, but it should also be worth something to the viewers as she performs her “first time” for the spectators.
The particular force of this strand of the book relies on the blurring of the lines here. Collins doesn’t give us an entirely calculating central figure who plays to the gallery, remembering and representing her past emotional life. Instead Katniss is genuinely working through her feelings whilst also having to edit and broadcast them in an acceptably sensational and consumable way at the same time. The performance element becomes even more explicit later in the same plotline:
I want to draw away, to close those shutters again, but I know I can’t. It’s as if I can hear Haymitch whispering in my ear ‘Say it! Say it”’
I swallow hard and get the words out. ‘You don’t have much competition anywhere.’ And this time, it’s me who leans in.
Our lips have barely touched when the clunk outside makes us jump…A silver parachute attached to a basket. I rip it open and inside there’s a feast…But in my head I can hear Haymitch’s smug, if slightly exasperated, words: ‘Yes, that’s what I’m looking for, sweetheart.’
The imagined voice of the Haymitch as director comes to represent the trade-off Katniss makes in these scenes, and the imperative that she perform her teenage sexuality in ways which will please the watchers. The equation made elsewhere of “one kiss” with “one pot of broth” is only the most articulate example of this scheme, and it’s worth pointing out that Katniss formulates this equation herself.
The breathy, repulsive murmurings of the “director” in her ear, telling her how to carry out her love scene, are an alienated version of her own need to get through all this. She is not remembering, but improvising. There is no exposition scene about this, only the hero realising the nature of the forces she is subject to, and trying to negotiate ways to survive within them.
In the most schematic terms, Katniss is in continual danger, and the way she finds to avert the danger is to act out for the cameras as a teenage girl discovering her sexuality. If she gives them the right performance of blossoming sexual feelings, she might somehow get out of this situation physically undamaged. It’s corroding her sense of her emotional life, and causing her to invent a mental director’s voice which tells her how to pose and how to pout, but it might keep the violence away long enough.
Without the capital letters of Tribute or Games, this is nonetheless a powerful strain within the novel. Given the findings of the report Safeguarding Teen Intimate Relationships, and young women’s reporting on the pressures within their own sexual lives, it’s one of the book’s most urgent critiques. In that study, 44% of English teenage girls had sent an intimate image of message to a partner, and 27% had done so “because they felt pressured”.
The same report found that “control and surveillance” were perceived by many as normal parts of intimate relationships, and that various forms of abuse had become normalised. The production of sexual images by young women is apparently not simply a matter of happy, untroubled self-expression. At the least it involves a highly stylized performance of sexuality by people who are still coming to terms with their own sexual feelings and identities.
Beyond intimate relationships, the word “teen” is amongst the few most common search terms on sites which host pornography. There is clearly a massive market for representations of “teen” sexuality, a category which disturbingly blurs the line between those above and those below the age of consent. Katniss’ negotiation of the violence and coercion which surrounds her, her attempt to survive by a correct performance of youthful sexuality for an audience she can feel scrutinising her every move, is one of the bleakest elements within The Hunger Games. Perhaps because it needs so few sci-fi trappings.