Monday, October 18, 2010

The Hunger Games and Dawn of the Dead

There are some social constructs that stick in our minds : class, race, wealth. Love. However, it's only when looking at our world through the eyes of an outsider that we begin to see how ridiculous those scaffolds are. What does it really mean, when the zombie apocalypse happens, that we had the most expensive wristwatch or handbag? How can the privileged ever understand the suffering of the oppressed?

These are the questions if social commentary in the mass media. Jonathon Swift did it, and almost got excommunicated. Dr. Bartle did it, and no one realized. For all that it's a common theme, there are still elements that make any form of satire worthwhile. For Dawn of the Dead, it was the innate tragedy. For The Hunger Games, the answer is less apparent.

Standing aside from allegations of a certain friendliness with Battle Royale, let's take a look at Katniss and her dystopian ideal. There will be spoilers. You have been warned.

At the core of Dawn of the Dead lies the idea that what is important to you in life is important to you in death. That this is the fate of one of the main characters, as he turns into a zombie and leads the way through the secret barricade to his pregnant wife, is set up early on, and with surprising empathy. Every other zombie is content to wander around the mall. If he didn't care so much about his wife and unborn child, they would have been safe. That's the tragedy. Sure, the rest of the downfall of society isn't pretty, but, at its core, Dawn of the Dead is about love.

Compare that to The Hunger Games, where it takes Katniss an entire book to figure out her fellow tribute is in love with her, and at the end, she still doesn't get it. I'm not dismissing Katniss here, though I'll admit it took me a while to stomach her true motivations. She's 16. For those of you who have been 16, you'll remember how selfish teenagers can be. For those of you who aren't there yet, try to be a jerk in moderation, for your parents' sake. Now, Katniss, she was left in a very difficult situation. Her father died and her mother mentally checked out. She had to take care of her little sister, do all the running of the household, and put food on the table since she was 11. She cares about her sister. There can be no doubt about that. But the rest of the world? That's another story.

She cares about Rue because she reminds her of Prim. She says as much, after Rue dies. That upset me, until I realized how in-character it is. Forget eating goose-liver pate when she'd been raised on scraps. That makes no sense. But everything she does after she enters the arena is rational, in an uncomfortable kind of way. Katniss only cares about herself. She assumes everyone to be as selfish as she is. In essence, she's a sociopath.

In terms of the world envisioned in Dawn of the Dead, she's one of the idiots blazing around the mall, and who eventually dies.  She's the guy who gets his arm stuck in the blood pressure monitor.  She's the one most likely to turn on her teammates, and come out on top.  She is what we try to weed out of society, because evolution has taught us that, to survive, we need community.  She is the antithesis of all of these things, and she is successful.

We don't want to believe it.  In Dawn of the Dead, all the jerks are punished.  Unfortunately, that's part of its inherent romanticism.  It believes that, in the end, the good guys win.  I'm sorry, but I know who will be the first to go in a zombie apocalypse.  Me, followed by everyone else who tries to help other people.  The jerks are the ones who will survive.  We already have sociopaths in upper management.  Capitalism itself is sociopathic.  Katniss survives because she works alone.  She kisses Peeta to get food.  She never quite says she loves him, but knows exactly where to place the silences.  When he finds out she doesn't love him, and he's hurt, she can't possibly understand why.

I've got the second two books, and I intend to read them.  I want to know what happens, even though I think the story ends with the first book.  I'm interested to see where Ms. Collins takes this half-character, who thinks in terms of advantages and never lets her guard down because she doesn't even realise the distance between herself and the world.  Katniss is the person I would want to be with when the zombie apocalypse happens.  Unfortunately, she wouldn't want to be around me.

From the standpoint of psychology, I found The Hunger Games interesting.  Much in the same way that I love Prom Night for its elegant camera angles and correct representation of a delusional mindset, Katniss was a study in just how far this could go in a YA novel.  It's not Hannibal level, but Katniss isn't cruel - she simply does what has to be done.  The descriptions of events occur as she feels about them, not how anyone else would.  When Peeta has been slashed across the thigh and she tries to clean the wound, she doesn't talk about how much pain he must be in, except in a clinical "his face went white" kind of way.  She doesn't empathise.  Cleaning Peeta's wound is entirely about her, and about her feelings, and she helps him because she doesn't want to lose him because of how it would make her feel.

In a way, I find Katniss comforting.  As an avid game player, I'm often confused when confronted with sociopathic main characters who seem just as at ease ripping off someone's head as they are eating a bowl of ice cream.  It doesn't make sense, and I don't want to be that person.  My real appreciation for The Hunger Games comes from the discomfort it gives me.  I'm not comfortable, listening to Katniss' thoughts.  I don't want to read her surgical descriptions of events that would ruin my world.  Yet I'm compelled to continue, because there's one thing that is planted, right at the beginning of the book, before the Reaping, before the arena, and it's a simple, but repeated: "there's nothing romantic between us."

So, really, what Katniss is for me, is hope.  I hope that she'll grow, and I look forward to seeing if she does.  I believe that she would survive the Hunger Games, whereas Peeta survived through cleverness and avoidance, and would probably have died there, under the mud.  I believe there's something wrong with Katniss, deeply, deeply wrong, in the terms of the social construct we call a conscience, and I believe that anyone who reads the book, child or teenager or otherwise, can't help but see that.  Her actions, until you understand, don't make sense.  People who don't see it may complain she's a broken character.  Yes, she is, but in a far worse way than poor writing could create.  The fact that she acts in such an illogical way is actually what made me keep reading.  It takes a lot of work to get a sociopath right.  In a way, it might even have been a terrifying thing to consider.  Nietzsche's abyss is still going strong.

And, of course, there's the gender role reversal that makes me happy, if only because there are no damsel in distress characters.  Suitably, they all get killed and we never hear from them again.  I'm sure I would be a fated DID if I was in The Hunger Games; gladly, it's not reality, and I can still like strong female characters without having the fortitude to stab people myself.  In a way, Katniss is almost too strong.  She gets upset about dying, but gets over it quickly.  We don't see a weakness in her that we might expect to see in ourselves.  She's the Terminator, and we're John Connor.  Much like in a good horror movie, when you can't look away, watching Katniss interact with her world is a work of carefully crafted art.  She's more terrifying than the world around her, but she's a product of that world.  The lessons is the same as in Dawn of the Dead :

We are what society makes us.  Maybe it's time for a change.

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