Young people handle dystopia every day: in their lives, their dysfunctional families, their violence-ridden schools.
The Age of Information.
Today, more than ever, individuals are awash in a sea of information that swirls around us invisible as it is inescapable. In many ways, we are still grappling with the concept as struggle to sort, filter, and conceptualize that which surrounds us. We complain about the overbearing nature of algorithms—or, perhaps more frighteningly, do not comment at all—but this is not the first time that Western society has pondered the role and influence of information in our lives.
Access to information provides an important thematic lens through which we can view dystopic fiction and although it does not account for the entirety of the genre’s appeal in and of itself (or, for that matter, the increase in its popularity), we will see that understanding the attraction of dystopia provides some insight into the the societies that produce it and elucidates the ways in which the genre allows individuals to reflect on themes present in the world around them—themes that are ultimately intimately connected with the access and flow of information. My interest here lies specifically in YA dystopic fiction and its resonance with the developmental process of teenagers.
Lois Lowry’s quote suggests that today’s youth might be familiar with tangible aspects of dystopia even if they do not necessarily exist in a state of dystopia themselves; dystopia, then, is fundamentally relatable to youth. Interpersonal violence in schools—on both the physical and virtual levels—has become a growing problem and can be seen as a real life analogue to the war-torn wastelands of YA dystopia; although the physical destruction present in fiction might not manifest in the everyday, youth may identify with the emotional states of those who struggle to survive. And, given the recent and high-profile nature of bullying, issues of survival are likely salient for modern youth.
As a writer, it should come as no surprise that Lowry, like literary critic Darko Suvin, primarily describes the concept of dystopia in literary terms; while a valid, if limited perspective, this does not preclude the term also possessing socio-political implications, with one potentially arguing that the relatable nature of dystopia extends far beyond the iterations outlined by Lowry into the realm of ideology. On a basic level, dystopia often asks protagonists to perform a type of self-assessment while simultaneously evaluating preexisting hierarchal structures and systems of authority. Given that this process asks individuals to contrast themselves with the society that surrounds them, one might make the argument that the themes of utopia and dystopia possess an implicit political element, regardless of authors’ intentions.
Moreover, consider the prevalent construct of the secret as a defining characteristic of dystopian societies like those presented in the classic works of Brave New World and Nineteen Eighty-Four. Often located in the cultural history of the dystopia (e.g., “What events caused us to reach this point?”) or the sustained lies of the present (e.g., “This is for your protection”), acquisition of new (hidden) knowledge represents a fundamental part of the protagonist’s—and, by extension, the reader’s—journey. For young adults, this literary progression can mirror the development occurring in real life as individuals challenge established notions during the coming-of-age process; viewed through the lens of anthropology, dystopian fiction represents a liminal space for both the protagonist and the reader in which old assumptions and knowledge are questioned during a metaphorical rite of passage. , And, although the journey itself provides a crucial model trajectory for youth, perhaps more important, however, is the nature of the secret being kept: as Lowry alludes to, modern youth undoubtedly realize that their world—our world—like that of any dystopia, contains elements of ugliness. The real secret, then, is not the presence of a corrupted underbelly but rather why rot exists in the first place.
Aside from the type of knowledge or even the issues latent in its accessibility, however, we can see that modern culture is undergoing a rather radical reconfiguration with regard to the social structures surrounding information flow. Although we still struggle with the sometimes antagonistic relationship between citizens and the State mirrored in classic and YA dystopia, we have also developed another dimension: citizen versus citizen. Spurred on by innovations in technology that have made mobile gadgetry increasingly affordable and accessible to the public, on-location reporting has grown from the relatively useful process of crowdsourcing information to a practice that includes surveillance, documentation, and vigilante justice as we display our moral outrage over someone else’s ungodly behavior through platforms like paparazzi photos, tweeting of overheard conversations, and the ever-popular blog—we, in effect, have assumed the mantle of Big Brother. It would seem that, like Dr. Moreau, we have been granted knowledge and ability without wisdom.
Moreover, let us consider how youth currently exist in a culture of confession that was not apparent during previous cycles of utopia/dystopia. Spurred on in part by daytime talk shows, reality television, press conference apologies, and websites like PostSecret, the current environment is suffused with secrets and those willing to share their intimate stories for a price. Somewhat in opposition to confession’s traditional role in Catholicism, secrets now play an active role in public life despite their private nature, a process that mirrors the juxtaposition of personal and public histories by protagonists in YA dystopia., Moreover, we quickly come to see the increased relevancy of this trend when we consider how individuals, groups, organizations, and societies begin to define themselves in terms of the secrets that they hold about others and themselves. The prevalence of events like corporate espionage, copyright infringement lawsuits, and breakdowns in communication between youth and parents all point to entities that wish to contain and restrict information flow. If being an American in the 20th century meant being defined by material possessions, being an American in the 21st century is to be defined by information and secrets. And, if this is indeed the case, how might we view our existence as one that occurs in a series of ever-expanding dystopias? As it turns out, Lowry might have been more correct than she realized when she noted young people’s familiarity with dystopia.
But perhaps this development is not so surprising if we consider the increasing commodification of knowledge in postmodern culture. If we ascribe to Jean-Francois Lyotard’s argument regarding the closely intertwined relationship between knowledge and production—specifically that the cultivation of new knowledge in order to further production—and therefore that information sets are a means to an end and not an end in and of themselves, we witness a startling change in the relationship between society and knowledge. In opposition to the idealistic pursuit that occurred during the Enlightenment period, modern conceptualizations seem to understand knowledge in terms of leverage—in other words, we, like all good consumers, perennially ask the question, “What can you do for me?” Furthermore, the influence of commercialism on Education (i.e., the institution charged with conveying information from one generation to the next) has been probed, conjecturing that educational priorities might be dictated by concerns of the market. Notably, these cultural shifts have not disavowed the value of knowledge but have changed how such worth is determined and classified.
The Frankfurt School’s pessimistic views of mass culture’s relationship with economic influences and independent thought aside, Lyotard also points to the danger posed by the (then) newly-formed entity of the multinational corporation as a body that could potentially supersede or subvert the authority of the nation-state. Businesses like Facebook and Google accumulate enormous amounts of information (often with our willing, if unwitting, participation) and therefore amass incredible power, with the genius of these organizations residing in their ability to facilitate access to our own information! Without castigating such companies—although some assuredly do—we can glimpse similarities between these establishments’ penchant for controlling the dissemination of information and the totalitarian dictatorships prevalent in so many dystopian societies. In spite of the current fervor surrounding the defense of rights outlined in the Constitution, we largely continue to ignore how companies like Google and Facebook have gained the potential to impact concepts like freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and freedom of information; algorithms designed to act as filters allow us to cut through the noise but also severely reduce our ability to conceptualize what is missing. These potential problems, combined with current debates over issues like privacy, piracy, and Net Neutrality indicate that power no longer solely resides in knowledge but increasingly in access to it.
 Lois Lowry, quoted in Hintz, Carrie, and Elaine Ostry. Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults. (New York: Routledge, 2003).
 One might even argue that those who read dystopian fiction most likely do not inhabit a dystopian world, for they would not have the leisure time to consume such fiction.
 This point, of course, should not be taken in a manner that discounts the legitimate struggles of children who grow up in conflict states.
 See Ken Rigby, New Perspectives on Bullying. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2002and Marilyn A. Campbell “Cyber Bullying: An Old Problem in a New Guise?” Australian Journal of Guidance and Counseling 15, no. 1 (2005): 68-76.
 Clare Archer-Lean, “Revisiting Literary Utopias and Dystopias: Some New Genres.” Social Alternatives 28, no. 3 (2009): 3-7.
 Kennon, Patricia. “‘Belonging’ in Young Adult Dystopian Fiction: New Communities Created by Children.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 15, no. 2 (2005): 40-49.
 Patrick Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” Critical Survey 17, no. 1 (2005): 6-21.
 Hintz and Ostry, Utopian and Dystopian. 2003.
 Parrinder, “Entering Dystopia, Entering Erewhon.” 2005.
 Shannon McHugh and Chris Tokuhama, “PostSecret: These Are My Confessions.” The Norman Lear Center. June 10, 2010. http://blog.learcenter.org/2010/06/postsecret_these_are_my_confes.html
 John Stephens, “Post-Disaster Fiction: The Problematics of a Genre.” Papers: Explorations into Children’s Literature 3, no. 3 (1992): 126-130.
 Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1979).
 Suzanne de Castell and Mary Bryson, “Retooling Play: Dystopia, Dysphoria, and Difference.” In From Barbie to Mortal Kombat, edited by Justine Cassell and Henry Jenkins. (Cambidge: The MIT Press, 1998).
 Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition. 1979.
I want to start out with a provocation: In our current age, television has become a form of religion, with the screen our altar and actors our saints.
This is, of course, not to say that television supplants other forms of traditional religion (and I would go further to suggest that any antagonism or dissonance between these types of worship says more about you than it does about the strains of belief themselves), but merely that our relationship with the medium has come to reflect many of the qualities that we associate with institutional religion as television has come to assume a pervasive, public, and central part of our lives, with our identities constructed, in part, around our position to TV. We form rituals around television viewing, regularly sitting down in front of our sets to watch True Blood instead of in pews. Or, if we judge importance through money spent instead of time, we might consider how a television is likely the single most expensive appliance we own or just how much we spend on cable per year. And, for some of us, television is the venue through which we connect to foreign others, supplementing the worship of God with a steadfast belief in Albus Dumbledore.
And what is religion, anyway?
I’ve always found it slightly ironic that my name alludes to the support of a religion that I often find myself at odds with; growing up, I had always associated the term “God” with a prominent figure in Western monotheistic religions. When I was younger, I recognized that, on some level, this notion of the Christian God was being forced upon me and I spent much of my life forming my identity in opposition to this conceptualization—I needed to escape from the oppressive and pervasive nature of the theology in order to attempt to craft my own sense of self. It has been difficult to learn that there is more to Christianity than evangelicals and that not everyone is trying to tell me how to live my life. Kant has had a large influence on my worldview and I do not think that God’s existence can be proven (or disproven); I also do not believe in a God that created the universe or exiled Adam and Eve from the Garden. This does not, however, mean that God’s existence does not have any impact on my life—God exists for those who believe in Him and the actions that result from those beliefs are very real to me. Moreover, many of the tropes that inform my work in identity and narrative derive from Christian tradition; religion, along with myths, fairy tales, and a host of other informal stories, all shape the way that we learn to view ourselves and our relationships to the world around us. So, although I continue to refrain from identifying as Christian, I would argue that I am closer to God today than I have ever been and that part of this process has come about through critical reflection on the incredible amount of television that I watch.
And stories, whether they are found in religion or on television, possess the ability to convey incredibly complex ideas to us in a way that we cannot always fully articulate. For example, take the story of Caprica’s “There Is Another Sky,” which is a familiar one if you’ve been exposed to any amount of entertainment growing up; it is the story of Alice, of Dorothy, of Neo, and of many others who have gone on a quest to become a hero. And, although he would not have described himself in terms of heroics, it is also partially the story of Jesus. Throughout the episode, various characters were admonished to “wake up” or expressed a desire to return home. Each has been ushered along by guides who have demonstrated that the power to change, to belong, to be, or become, existed in us all along. These heroes have all ventured into the darkness and found their way back to the world of the living; each of these heroes has woken up and tapped into the power that this revelation brings.
This journey is the same one we undergo when dealing with grief and death: when our loved ones die, we travel with them to the land of the dead; for a time being, a part of us dies as well. We hear the call to come back to the world of the living but also whispers from the underworld. We are scared to embark upon this path because we fear that we will become lost and will not be able to make our way back to the land of the living; we fear that we will lose ourselves in the darkness. (As a side note, this is also what the “There Is Another Sky” of the title refers to via an Emily Dickinson poem.) Funerals, whether experienced in a church or through a screen, act as rituals to transcend the everyday, allowing us to learn a script for letting go of the dead and returning to the surface.
So if we take a step back and consider Berger’s argument for the cyclical relationship between society and human beings through a process of production/externalization and consumption/internalization in conjunction with Gerbner and Gross’ Cultivation Theory, we can readily see a case made for television fulfilling some of the same core functions of religion. Television, as a product of man, follows its own internal logic and, through its existence and subsequent consumption, forces an in-kind response by its audiences. Television’s logic, then, structures and orders the world in a fashion similar to that of religion, with Gerbner and Gross suggesting that the process of identification is proportional to the amount of television consumed. In short, television, like religion, helps us to make sense of our world.
1) Reality television, in particular, provides a fruitful arena for further exploration of these concepts due to its current popularity and ability to blur the line between authenticity/fabrication. Borrowing from a heritage in documentary film making, the genre assumes a sheen of objectivity while nevertheless evidencing elements of manipulation by editors and writers. Moreover, the accessibility of its “stars” (due to their status as “normal” people) make the salience of their behavioral scripts that much more evident for people who would wish to use them as models of successful/unsuccessful behavior. Although dangerous due to a general lack of situational information/context, viewers might be tempted to repeat behavior that they see on screen, hastening the process of internalization, for it was undertaken by someone “just like me.”
2) Making a similar case for advertising’s ability to act as religion, James Twitchell contends that, “like religion, which has little to do with the actual delivery of salvation in the next world but everything to do with the ordering of life in this one, commercial speech has little to do with material objects per se but everything to do with how we perceive them” (1996). While some might object to the mixing of influences in areas such as advertising and religion, a certain amount of comingling is inevitable if we classify each entity as a belief system—a certain way of seeing the world complete with its own set of values—and understand that individuals might incorporate multiple elements into their particular worldview. (I might also suggest that a large part of the Catholic church’s growth was due to its efforts of self-promotion and advertising.) Aspects such as religion and advertising tell believers, in their own ways, what is (and is not) important in society, something that Twitchell refers to as “magic” (1996). Each characteristic also professes a particular point of view and attempts to integrate itself into everyday life, drawing on our desire to become part of something (e.g., an idea, a concept, or a movement) that is larger than ourselves. Perhaps, most importantly, these forces play on this desire in order to allow humans to give their lives meaning and worth, with a common thread being that followers can classify themselves in terms of the external: God, works of art, name brands, etc. Although the attraction may assume different forms, it survives because it continues to speak to a deep desire for structure—advertising works the same reason that we believe in high art, higher education, and higher powers.
The process of ordering and imbuing value ultimately demonstrates how advertising can not only create culture but also act to shape it, a process also evidenced by marketing techniques’ ability to consume and/or reference previously shared cultural knowledge while simultaneously contributing to the cultural milieu. The concurrent horizontal and vertical spread of advertising is reminiscent of memes, a concept created by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. According to Dawkins, memes represent discrete units of cultural knowledge that propagate in a particular society (analogous to genes) through a number of transmission methods (1976). While the concept of memetics certainly spans across areas other than advertising, Dawkins notably included, as examples of memes, catch phrases (i.e., slogans), melodies (i.e., jingles), and fads. Consequentially, although advertising inevitably forms a new type of culture in societies, ads also serve to broaden exposure to, or strengthen the connections of, existing aspects of culture for those subjected to it as they burrow deep into our collective society.
Despite the intricate and multi-faceted nature of its impact, we can use the narrative characteristics of advertising as framework for understanding its influence. On a basic level, the format of advertising typically takes the form of a loose narrative, complete with implied back-story—television spots, in particular, provide a salient example of this. Yet, the messages present in advertising can also cause us to question our sense of self as we evaluate our belief systems and values as previously mentioned. Consider how personal identities can result from narrative or actually be narrative; sentences containing “to be” verbs can be unpacked to reveal a larger narrative structure that can help us to “cope with new situations in terms of our past experience and gives us tools to plan for the future” (Sfard & Prusak, 2005). Twitchell supports this idea by mentioning that “the real force of Adcult is felt where we least expect it: in our nervous system, in our shared myths, in our concepts of self, and in our marking of time” (1996, p. 124). Advertising, it seems, not only allows us to construct a framework through which we understand our world, but also continually informs us about who we are (or who we should be) as a collection of narratives that serves to influence the greater perceptions of youth in a manner reminiscent of the role of television in Cultivation Theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976).
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Gerbner, G., & Gross, L. (1976). Living with television: The violence profile. The Journal of Communication, 26(2), 172-199.
Sfard, A., & Prusak, A. (2005). Telling identities: In search of an analytic tool for investigating learning as a culturally shaped activity. Educational Researcher, 34(4), 14-22.
Twitchell, J. (1996). Adcult USA: The Triumph of Advertising in American Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.
But what is reality television? Although the genre seems to defy firm definitions, we, like Justice Stewart, instinctually “know it when [we] see it.” The truth is that reality television spans a range of programming, from clip shows like America’s Funniest Home Videos, to do-it-yourself offerings on The Food Network, investigative reporting on newsmagazines like 60 Minutes, the docu-soap Cops, and many other sub-genres in between, including the reality survival competition that forms the basis for The Hunger Games. Although a complete dissection of the genre is beyond the scope of this chapter—indeed, entire books have been written on the subject—reality television and its implications will serve as a lens by which we can begin to understand how Katniss experiences the profound effects of image, celebrity, and authenticity throughout The Hunger Games.
She Hits Everyone in the Eye
For the residents of Panem, reality television is not just entertainment—it is a pervasive cultural entity that has become inseparable from citizens’ personal identity. Although fans of The Hunger Games can likely cite overt allusions to reality television throughout the series, the genre also invokes a cultural history rife with unease regarding the mediated image in the United States.
Reacting to atrocities witnessed throughout the course of World War II, Americans in the 1950s became obsessed with notions of power and control, fearing that they would be subsumed by the invisible hand of a totalitarian regime. In particular, the relatively young medium of television became suspect as it represented a major broadcast system that seemed to have a hypnotic pull on its audience, leaving viewers entranced by its images. And images, according to author and historian Daniel Boorstin, were becoming increasingly prominent throughout the 19th century as part of the Graphic Revolution replete with the power to disassociate the real from its representation. Boorstin argued that although the mass reproduction of images might provide increased levels of access for the public, the individual significance of the images declined as a result of their replication; as the number of images increased, the importance they derived from their connection to the original subject became more diffuse. And, once divorced from their original context, the images became free to take on a meaning all their own. Employing the term “pseudo-event” to describe an aspect of this relationship, Boorstin endeavored to illuminate shifting cultural norms that had increasingly come to consider the representation of an event more significant than the event itself.
Katniss unwittingly touches upon Boorstin’s point early inThe Hunger Games, noting that the Games exert their control by forcing Tributes from the various districts to kill another while the rest of Panem looks on. Katniss’ assertion hints that The Hunger Games hold power primarily because they are watched, voluntarily or otherwise; in a way, without a public to witness the slaughter, none of the events in the Arena matter. Yet, what Katniss unsurprisingly fails to remark upon given the seemingly ever-present nature of media in Panem is that the events of The Hunger Games are largely experienced through a screen; although individuals may witness the Reaping or the Tribute’s parade in person, the majority of their experiences result from watching the Capitol’s transmissions. Without the reach of a broadcast medium like television (or, in modern culture, streaming Internet video), the ability of The Hunger Games to effect subjugation would be limited in scope, for although the Games’ influence would surely be felt by those who witnessed such an event in person, the intended impact would rapidly decline as it radiated outward. Furthermore, by formulating common referents, a medium like television facilitates the development of a mass culture, which, in the most pessimistic conceptualizations, represents a passive audience ripe for manipulation. For cultural critics of the Frankfurt School (1923-1950s), who were still reeling from the aftereffects of Fascism and totalitarianism, this was a dangerous proposition indeed. Although the exact nature of modern audiences is up for debate, with scholars increasingly championing viewers’ active participation with media, Panem has seemingly realized a deep-seeded fear of the Frankfurt School. It would appear, then, that The Hunger Games function as an oppressive force precisely because of its status as a mediated spectacle of suffering.
But perhaps we should not be so hard on Katniss. Growing up in an environment that necessitated the cultivation of skills like hunting and foraging, Katniss’ initial perspective is firmly grounded in a world based on truth. Plants, for example, must be checked (and double-checked!) to ensure their genuineness, lest a false bite result in death. In order for Katniss to survive, not only must she be able to identify plants but must also trust in their authenticity; prior to her experience in the Arena, Katniss undoubtedly understands the world in rather literal terms, primarily concerned with objects’ functional or transactional value. However, as hinted by Boorstin, additional layers of meaning exist beyond an item’s utility—layers that Katniss has not yet been trained to see.
Echoing portions of Boorstin’s previous work, French philosopher Jean Baudrillard conceptualized four types of value that objects could possess in modern society: functional, transactional, symbolic, and sign. Admittedly a more complex theory than the description provided herein, we can momentarily consider how Baudrillard’s value categories of “functional” and “transactional” might align with Boorstin’s previously introduced concept of the “real,” while “symbolic” and “sign” evidence an affinity toward “representation.” Whereas the functional and transactional value of items primarily relates to their usefulness, the categories of “symbolic” and “sign” are predominantly derived as a result of the objects’ relationship to other objects (sign) or to actors (symbolic). Accordingly, being relatively weak in her comprehension of representation’s nuances, Katniss characteristically makes little comment on Madge’s gift of a mockingjay pin. However, unbeknownst to Katniss (and most likely Madge herself), Madge has introduced one of the story’s first symbols, in the process imbuing the pin with an additional layer of meaning. Not just symbolic in a literary sense, the mockingjay pin gains significance because it is attached to Katniss, an association that will later bear fruit as fans well know.
Before moving on, let’s revisit the import of The Hunger Games in light of Baudrillard: what is the value of the Games? Although some might rightly argue that The Hunger Games perform a function for President Snow and the rest of the Capitol, this is not the same as saying the Games hold functional value in the framework outlined by Baudrillard. The deaths of the Tributes, while undeniably tragic, do not in and of themselves fully account for The Hunger Games’ locus of control. In order to supplement Boorstin’s explanation of how The Hunger Games act to repress the populace with the why, Baudrillard might point to the web of associations that stem from the event itself: in many ways, the lives and identities of Panem’s residents are defined in terms of a relationship with The Hunger Games, meaning that the Games possess an enormous amount of value as a sign. The residents of the Capitol, for example, evidence a fundamentally different association with The Hunger Games, viewing it as a form of entertainment or sport, while the denizens of the Districts perceive the event as a grim reminder of a failed rebellion. Holding a superficial understanding of The Hunger Games’ true import when we first meet her, Katniss could not possibly comprehend that her destiny is to become a symbol, for the nascent Katniss clearly does not deal in representations or images. Katniss, at this stage in her development, could not be the famed reality show starlet known as the “girl on fire” even if she wanted to.
By All Accounts, Unforgettable
Returning briefly to reality television, we see that Panem, like modern America, finds itself inundated with the genre, whose pervasive tropes, defined character (stereo)types, and ubiquitous catchphrases have indelibly affected us as we subtly react to what we see on screen. Although we might voice moral outrage at offerings like The Jersey Shore or decry the spate of shows glamorizing teen pregnancy, perhaps our most significant response to unscripted popular entertainment is a fundamental shift in our conceptualization of fame and celebrity. Advancing a premise that promotes the ravenous consumption of otherwise non-descript “real” people by a seemingly insatiable audience, reality television forwards the position that anyone—including us!—can gain renown if we merely manage to get in front of a camera. Although the hopeful might understand this change in celebrity as democratizing, the cynic might also argue that fame’s newfound accessibility also indicates its relative worthlessness in the modern age; individuals today can, as the saying goes, simply be famous for being famous.
Encapsulated by Mark Rowlands’ term “vfame,” the relative ease of an unmerited rise in reputation indicates how fame in the current cultural climate has largely divorced from its original association with distinguished achievement. Although traditional vestiges of fame have not necessarily disappeared, it would appear that vfame has become a prominent force in American culture—something Katniss surely would not agree with. Recalling, in part, Kierkegaard’s thoughts on nihilism, vfame’s appearance stems from an inability of people to distinguish quality (or perhaps lack of concern in doing so), resulting in all things being equally valuable and hence equally unimportant. This, in rather negative terms, is the price that we pay for the democratization of celebrity: fame—or, more accurately, vfame—is uniformly available to all in a manner that mirrors a function of religion and yet promises a rather empty sort of transcendence. Although alluring, vfame is rather unstable as it is tied to notions of novelty and sensation as opposed to fame, which is grounded by its association with real talent or achievement; individuals who achieve vfame typically cannot affect the longevity of their success in substantial terms as they were not instrumental in its creation to begin with. Stars in the current age, as it were, are not born so much as made. Moreover, the inability of the public to distinguish quality leads us to focus on the wrong questions (and, perhaps worse, to not even realize that we are asking the wrong questions) in ways that have very real consequences; although vfame and its associated lapse in thinking might be most obvious in the realm of celebrities, it also manifests in other institutions such as politics. As a culture that is obsessed with image and reputation, we have, in some ways, forgotten how to judge the things that really matter because we have lost a sense of what our standards should be.
Born out of an early to mid-20th century society in which the concept of the “celebrity” was being renegotiated by America, concepts like vfame built upon an engrained cultural history of the United States that was firmly steeped in a Puritan work ethic. Americans, who had honored heroes exemplifying ideals associated with a culture of production, were struggling to reconcile these notions in the presence of an environment now focused on consumption. Although Katniss, as proxy for modern audiences, might initially find this shift difficult to appreciate, one need only consider that the premium placed on production is so central to American ideology that it continues to linger today: in a culture that exhibits rampant consumerism, we still value the “self-made man” and sell the myth of America as a place where anyone can achieve success through hard work. To abandon these ideas would necessitate that we reinterpret the very meaning of “America.” Thus, we become more sympathetic to the critics of the day who lamented the loss of the greatness of man and bristled against the notion that fame or celebrity could be manufactured—such a system would only result in individuals who were lacking and unworthy of their status. To this day, our relationship with celebrities is a tenuous and complex one at best, for although we celebrate the achievements of some, we continue to flock to the spectacle created by the public meltdown of others, unable or unwilling to help; we vacillate between positions of adulation, envy, contempt, and pity, ever poised for incensement but all too willing to forgive.
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that reality television puts us a little on edge, as the genre represents a fundamental blurring of fact and fiction. Celebrities, we see, are just like us—just like our neighbors, who, through the magic of reality television, can become stars! Ever-shifting classifications leave us on unstable ground. But also consider the aforementioned philosophy of Boorstin: stars are, among other things, individuals whose images are important enough to be reproduced, which causes “celebrity” to transition from a type of person to a description of how someone is represented in society. In other words, we witness a shift from a term that labels who someone is to a term that designates who someone seems to be. Celebrities, it might be argued, derive at least a portion of their power in modern culture because they embody a collection of images that has been imbued with some sort of significance. Ultimately, it seems that much of our unease with celebrity and fame centers on notions of authenticity.
All I Can Think of Are Hidden Things
Long before Katniss ever becomes a celebrity herself, she exhibits disdain for the Capitol and its residents, evidencing a particularly adverse reaction to things she considers artificial. As previously discussed, authenticity played a particular role in Katniss’ growth and her ability to survive: for Katniss, a false image literally represented an affront on the level of life or death, for a lapse in judgment could have resulted in possible electrocution or poisoning. Concordantly, Katniss dismisses the strange colors of the Capital along with the characteristic features of its citizens—stylists, in particular, are purported to be grotesque—because she is not readily able to reconcile these visuals with her established worldview. As Katniss operates on a literal level, directly associating identity with appearance, the self can only present in one way (in this case, relatively unadorned) and maintain its authenticity.
Like Katniss, we too may be tempted to summarily reject the unfamiliar; our modern anxieties might best be encapsulated by the question: What to do with a problem like Lady Gaga? Perhaps the strongest contemporary mass image that mirrors the visual impact of the stylists on Katniss (followed closely by New York socialite Jocelyn Wildenstein), Lady Gaga suffers continual criticism for her over-the-top theatrical presentations. With dresses made from meat and Hello Kitty heads, it is all too easy to write Lady Gaga as “attention-starved,” simplifying her presence to the succinct “weird.” Yet, it seems rash to write off Lady Gaga and the world of fame as nothing more than frivolity and fluff, for pop culture is only as vapid as our disinclination to engage in it.
Consider, for example, how the Capitol and its residents (of whom a prominent one would undoubtedly be Lady Gaga) embody the spirit of Decadence, a particularly prominent theme in Victorian culture. A reaction to the 19th century movement of Romanticism, Decadence championed concepts like artifice, which served to demonstrate man’s ability to rebel against, and possibly tame, the natural order. Although this inclination toward the unnatural manifested in myriad ways, French poet and philosopher Chrarles Baudelaire viewed women’s use of cosmetics as a particular site of interest, for proper application did not just enhance a woman’s beauty but acted to transform her, allowing transcendence through artifice.
With this in mind, we begin to understand the innate control wielded by figures such as Cinna and Caesar Flickman. Perceived as facile by some, these two men represent a class of individuals adept at understanding the power inherent in fame, reputation, celebrity, and appearance; in the Capitol, image mongers such as these hold sway. Although one reading of these characters plants them firmly in the realm of artifice, painting them as masters of emotional manipulation and spectacle, an alternate view might consider how these two have come to recognize a shift toward a new localized reality—one that Katniss must adapt to or perish.
And yet, despite their commonality, these two individuals also underscore fundamentally different approaches to image: Caesar (and, perhaps, by extension, the Capitol) wields his power in order to mask or redirect while Cinna endeavors to showcase a deep-seeded quality through the management of reputation and representation. Coexisting simultaneously, these two properties of illusion mirror the complimentary natures of Peeta and Katniss with regard to image. Peeta, skilled in physical camouflage, exhibits an emotional candidness that Katniss is initially unready, or unwilling, to match; Katniss, very much the inverse of Peeta, is characterized by traits associated with hunting, finding, and sight in the “real” world all while maintaining a level of emotive subterfuge. Over the course of the 74th Hunger Games, however, Katniss quickly learns to anticipate how her actions in the Arena will affect her representation and reputation beyond the battlefield. With the help of Haymitch, Katniss begins to better understand the link between a robust virtual self and a healthy physical one as she pauses for the cameras and plays up her affection for Peeta in exchange for much-needed rewards of food and medicine. As she matures, Katniss comes into alignment with Cinna and Caesar, individuals who, despite being participatory members of a system arguably deemed inauthentic, distinguish themselves from the majority of Panem by understanding how image works; Cinna and Caesar (and later Katniss) are not just powerful, but empowered and autonomous.
Herein lies the true import of Collins’ choice to weave the trope of reality television into the fabric of The Hunger Games: throughout the trilogy, the audience is continually called upon to question the nature of authenticity as it presents in the context of a media ecology. Ultimately, the question is not whether Katniss (or anyone else) maintains a sense of authenticity by participating in the games of the Capitol—trading a true self for a performed self—but rather an askance of how we might effect multiple presentations of self without being inauthentic. How does Katniss, in her quest to survive, embody Erving Goffman’s claims that we are constantly performing, altering our presentation as we attempt to cater to different audiences? Is Katniss truly being inauthentic or does she ask us to redefine the concept of authenticity and its evaluation? Struggling with these very questions, users of social media today constantly juggle notions of authenticity and self-presentation with platforms like Facebook and Twitter forming asynchronous time streams that seamlessly coexist alongside our real-life personas. Which one of these selves, if any, is authentic? Like Katniss, we are born into the world of the “real” without a ready ability to conceptualize the power latent in the virtual, consequentially resenting what we do not understand.