Our current societal entertainments are not so far removed from those depicted in The Hunger Games series. In order to get back on track, we ought to focus on our real lives and not on what passes for reality in the entertainment industry.
I just reread The Hunger Games [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK] by Suzanne Collins. You may have heard of the series because the movie based on the first book is coming out in March. It is sure to be huge. If you haven’t already read the trilogy, I suggest running, not walking, to do so because it is that good. The series takes place in a post-apocalyptic future with our heroine, Katniss Everdeen, participating in a reality show called the Hunger Games. The show is held once a year and involves 24 “tributes” from various parts of the country competing to the death. It is grim, brutal and torturous, yet the elite of the country — those people living in the Capitol — love it. They bet on the players, avidly watch every gruesome death and turn the winner of the Games into a celebrity. Collins makes clear just how contemptible this is.
Even though it’s disgusting, the idea of using horrific deaths as entertainment is not a new one. In ancient Rome, the government kept the populace distracted from political difficulties by using bread and circuses or, as stated in Latin, panem et circenses. (Suzanne Collins illuminated this connection by using Panum as the name of the country in which her series takes place.) Instead of holding politicians’ feet to the fire to ensure that they took good care of their citizenry, the Roman people concentrated on receiving free food and enjoying various contests and the human misery of the gladiators. Nowadays we tend to look down on such behavior, but with just a little introspection you can see that if we’re not already doing the very things that brought down their society, we’re mighty close. Collins makes that connection too because the people in Capitol are clearly supposed to be us.
Let’s start with the circuses. Although we like to think that we are more compassionate and sophisticated than the Romans or the people in Capitol — after all, we have yet to have a real televised death match — we are still a society obsessed with gore. There is the Ultimate Fighting sport, the brutal nature of football, and, perhaps most disturbing, the blood spattered video games in which killing is the way to win. With games like Mortal Kombat (where opponents are killed by vicious martial arts maneuvers) and Shadow of Rome (do I really need to explain this one?), we come extremely close to the Coliseum. The only difference is that in these games, the people getting killed aren’t real. However, with games like Manhunt, in which the player is forced to use common, everyday objects to kill their enemies, we are in Hunger Games territory.
However, games aren’t enough to distract us completely. We also need the human drama, so, like the Capitol citizens, we have been given reality shows. The Capitol just has the one (the Hunger Games) but we have topped them by having a whole lot more. We used to have only a few, but with the introduction of Survivor and Big Brother in the summer of 2000, the reality genre took off. Now there are reality shows for every type of human experience you can imagine: everything from dating, cheating, marriage, and having children to hoarding, addiction, shopping, and business. That’s not even mentioning the more formal contests of skills like cooking and decorating to physical survival and globe hopping. If there’s an experience you’re curious about, there’s a reality show to satisfy that desire. One of the problems with them, though, is that despite their “reality” moniker, they have nothing to do with real life. Instead, they are just a way to keep the masses occupied. Yet even they are not enough, so there is one more tool in the arsenal of distraction: the cult of celebrity.
Just like the Romans with gladiators and the Capitol people with Hunger Game winners, we are obsessed with celebrities. While people have always been interested in celebrities, it didn’t used to be so crazy. Famous people actually got to have a private life without having to hide from hordes of photographers or being approached by regular people wanting to talk to them or get their picture and/or autograph. On the fan side, perhaps it was that people didn’t previously have the means to be so obsessed, but it seems to me like it was that they had more of a sense of reality (heh) and perspective. For example, my cousins and their young daughter used to star in a musical variety show. One time after a show, this older woman started talking with us because we were introduced as their family. With her grandchildren standing right by her side, she talked about how captivated she was by our cousins and how proud she was to have their little daughter’s picture as the screensaver for her computer. I wondered how her grandchildren felt knowing that they — the kids she actually knew and loved — did not hold the prominent place on her computer.
So what is it about famous people that makes some of the non-famous want to get their autograph, touch their hand, talk with them, and even have sex with them? I can understand that the non-famous want to get their brush with stardom by having stories about when they met a famous person, but it goes much deeper than that. At mall appearances, the screaming of the crowd is so loud that you literally cannot hear yourself speak. At celebrity panels, people hang on celebrities’ every word and have been known to ask deeply personal questions. On forums, people post like they actually know the celebrities when they clearly do not, and on MySpace and Facebook pages, people write to celebrities like they truly expect a response. YouTube is littered with fanvids, pictorial montages of celebrities put to music, productions that had to take hours to make. From all this, I can only conclude that people are so dissatisfied with their own lives that they have to insert themselves, however briefly, into someone else’s so that theirs become more exciting.
That is certainly what happens in The Hunger Games. The people in the Capitol (the 1% if you will) are so bored with the excesses of their city that they do any number of outlandish things in order to feel. They wear crazy costumes (one character insisted everyone wear feathers to her birthday party), adorn their bodies outrageously (one character dyes her skin green and surgical enhancements are the norm), and they have so much food that they actually like to vomit and continue gorging in order to eat it all (so bulimic behavior is encouraged). However, worst of all, they use the celebrity factor of the Hunger Games to generate personal excitement. Winners of the Hunger Games are subject to much attention and adoration, with people paying great sums of money to meet and spend time with them. Their appearances, their personal preferences, their lives and even their children come under great scrutiny because the people of the Capitol have little else to do. Personal growth seems pretty scarce.
This is what frightens me for our culture. Just like the ancient Romans and the Capitol people, we seem like we are on the road to ruin. We use games and reality shows to keep us distracted and instead of focusing on our lives, we look toward people who seem to be having more fun and try to get in on the action. There’s nothing wrong with getting involved in the lives of others, but in order for it to be meaningful, you have to be able to participate. Instead of worshipping at the altar of celebrity, what if people used that time to volunteer in their community? Instead of trying to contact celebrities, what if fans spent that time talking face-to-face with people whom they could know and who could know them? Instead of studying celebrities’ love lives, what if people focused on getting an education that matters to them personally? Instead of buying magazines that focus on celebrity fashion and events, what if fans read history, great literature, current events or information about topics that matter to our world? Instead of demanding to know what celebrities think, what if people worked on developing their own opinions and ideas? It kind of boggles the mind to think about what changes would take place, doesn’t it? However, it is what needs to happen. We need to learn from the Romans and concentrate on our real lives, which is one of the big themes I think Collins was trying to impart. Consequently, with all due respect to Henry Ford (who said history is bunk), we need to remember that those who ignore history are destined to repeat it. I don’t know about you but I really don’t want to go the way of the Roman Empire.