Hunger Games, social inequality and hope

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I went to watch The Hunger Games the other night. I don’t watch many movies (in or out of the theatres) and it took me a few minutes to adjust to the pace of the editing. I also spent a fair amount of time with my eyes shut as I have no interest in seeing images of children killing children. That said, I found the movie interesting. I’m not sure if the story was meant as political commentary or just meant to sell books and movies, but regardless it can be used as a mirror from which to pick out patterns and ideas.

In The Hunger Games selected teenagers (known as tributes) have to compete to the death in an arena. During the two week period between selection and the commencement of the games they are trained, but also taught to try to sell themselves to the sponsors who can parachute in supplies for them during the games. Watching the movie, I couldn’t help thinking about the book Poor Bashing, by Jean Swanson. She quotes an advocate for the poor who says

“If we have a family that needs something; if they’re a nice family; if the mom was beaten by her ex-boyfriend or husband and she has three kids under five and they’re all blond and blue-eyed and curly haired; if she is struggling through getting her Grade 12 and working in the evenings as a waitress at John’s diner and doesn’t smoke, drink or play bingo, I can get her anything. … If I have a woman who is drug addicted and just got her kids back from the [child protection authorities] because she’s kept herself clean for a period of time and her abusive boyfriend is in and out of the picture and she drinks from time to time, and her kid needs special medication not covered by the medical plan, I’m going to have to pull teeth to get that.” (137) 

The poor and desperate still have to sell themselves. We all still judge who we feel worthy of our help. We still choose based on our own ideas of right and wrong. I was writing a news release recently about a local poverty issue. I had a number of local stories to work from and I found myself wanting to highlight the stories that sounded most “sympathetic” and I felt bad about wanting to do that, because I think we all need to expand who we are sympathetic too.


There is some truth to the line in The Hunger Games, spoken by a man in power, that “I’ve seen the underdogs, and if you’d seen them too, you wouldn’t root for them.” The underdogs are not always the nice. They aren’t always polite. Sometimes they smell or talk too loud. Why should our ideas of about aesthetics, manners or behavior play into questions of whether we help them or not? Are the norms, manners and choices of the financially better off truly superior to those they would judge? The Hunger Games mocked the idea of gentility through the ridiculous shallowness of the people from the capital. Good tastes, looks, behaviors… aren’t always good.

Of course the bigger issue is that those who need assistance don’t always make the decisions we want them to. Should they have to? Should they have to make the decisions we want them to in order to gain our assistance? There is an argument perhaps that assistance for some people is a waste because the person will use it unwisely and require more and more and more assistance. Maybe resources could be better spent other ways?

We live in a world of abundance. We are not in a triage situation, at least not yet. We should not have to judge who we should put our limited resources towards helping. We feel limited only because of the rules that we humans have invented, particularly how we create money with debt attached to it. Way too much of the poverty in the world is created through human-invented rules. We could put those rules aside. We could help one another. We could help everyone without regard for how appealing the person is or not.

The second key idea I found in The Hunger Games is the question of meaning. The powers-that-be in the movie are not pleased with how the game ends. They insist it must be spun as a romantic story, because it causes less damage to see it that way than to see it as an act of rebellion.

So I stop and think about the idea of meaning. Two people can see different meanings in something and people can try to persuade others which meaning to believe. Not all attempts to persuade others works. In The Hunger Games, those in power attempted to convince the tributes that their being chosen was an honor. They have little to no success at that. I haven’t read the next books yet, but I suspect that the effort to convince people that Katniss’ actions in The Hunger Games were about love and not rebellion will fail too.

Were the Occupy protests about entitlement or were they about injustice? Are the student protests in Montreal about entitlement or are they about stopping the growing class divisions? How we interpret the motives of people alters the power an event has to influence public opinion and public response.

I cringe when things are described as “lifestyle choices” because to me that terminology negates the significance of choices, just as describing Katniss’ actions as those of a love-struck teenager negates the significance of what she did. Lifestyle choices implies everything is equal and meaningless. Is homeschooling a lifestyle choice? Yes, of course it is but it isn’t just that. It is a statement also of what I believe is important in life and what I believe has meaning. It is choosing to reject the school model for education, the list of standards provided by the schools and the idea that parents should focus on their economic roles rather than parenting. It is a lifestyle choice… with reason attached.

Of course the moment one attaches reason to something – the moment one suggests there is value attached to something – then we end up with trouble. Is homeschooling a criticism of those who do not homeschool? Is it a claim of superiority? How do I claim “this is good because…” without implying that the opposite is bad. Or is it okay to? Calling something a lifestyle choice, just a personal preference, helps smooth things over and prevent people from insulting or being insulted. There’s good in it, but also bad.

In The Hunger Games Katniss found a way to rebel. She found a way to force a rule change.  It was very small, yet it brought hope. We need ways of doing that in our lives. We need ways of doing whatever little bit we can. To me the Occupy movement was a sign of hope. To me the student protests are a sign of hope. Little actions pile up. In the words of a children’s song I know, “bit by bit the river grows, till all at once it overflows.”

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