The Hunger Games is not art. It is good, entertaining trash. That is to say, the movie did not change my life, stretch me or touch my soul some artful movies do. But it is far from a waste of time and money, which some movies are.
Many of us go to the movies not to experience art, but to escape into entertaining trash and like it. “Trash doesn’t belong to the academic tradition, and that’s part of the fun of trash—that you know (or should know) that you don’t have to take it seriously, that it was never meant to be any more than frivolous and trifling and entertaining,” says Pauline Kael in “Trash, Art, and the Movies.” She adds, “I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t admit having at some time in his life enjoyed trashy American movies; I don’t trust any of the tastes of people who were born with such good taste that they didn’t need to find their way through trash.” I agree, kind of. I agree that part of the fun of movies is escaping the serious feeling of school and finding pleasure in entertainment, but I also think we can take it seriously.
Before seeing The Hunger Games, I had read the book, being sucked in and throughly entertained, grateful for the temporary escape from the thick, dark, brilliant nonfiction of my school program. I felt about the first book how I felt about the first movie: good trash. Very entertaining. An escape. Yet I am relieved to see that virtual space is saturated with critique of the blockbuster. Interesting points are being made about:
Race: Why is Rue black? Why did they choose to have a black man, Rue’s father, start the riot in her district?
Easy Violence: It is so violent. How is it that Katniss does not seem to have a spiritual crisis by killing another kid?
The Government’s Role in Poverty: What is the role of government here? Should we see that too much government leads to revolution or should we see the potential damage of a society where wealth is so unequally distributed?
And oh so much more…
I think the conversations are valuable especially because the books are intentionally geared to a mainstream teenage audience who should be encouraged to analyze media while enjoying it. And because the movie is such good trash, a ton of people are going to see it, which makes it a powerful cultural moment. I support using popular media to find some common language about things like race, violence and class. So let me briefly weigh in.
I keep the series in the context of adolescent drama. That is, in the same family as the Harry Potter (I secretly love) and the Twilight (I openly hate) series. All three are written by women, turned into blockbuster movies and geared to teens. When it comes to pop culture that is widely popular with the young women, I am a protective momma bear. What messages will the hoards of young women who go see The Hunger Games get about what it means to be a young woman?
1. This movie does indeed pass the Bechdel feminist movie test. Criteria to pass this test includes:
- There are more than two women in the film who are named
- Those named women talk to each other and
- Those named women talk to each other about something other than men.
Granted, there are really only three young women named in a way that sticks (Katniss, Rue and Primrose), and they talk about, well, death. But hey, it’s something. Young women deserve to see women on screen dignified with names, allowed to talk and allowed to talk about interesting things. Can we all agree on that? (Harry Potter passes the feminist movie test, Twilight does not)
2. Katniss is a refreshingly nice mix of stereotypically male and female characteristics. I am not sure how I feel about her stereotypically masculine qualities being a killer of animals turned people, but alas. She has body fat. She is a survivor. She builds relationships in a death arena, sacrifices herself in many ways without disappearing, looks great in gowns and cargo pants alike and is generous while kicking ass. Young women should have other young women on screen to watch who express gender creatively.
3. If you were to put Hermione, Bella and Katniss in a cage match, Katniss would prove the easy victor. She gets to be the heroine (unlike Hermione) by being strong and compassionate (unlike the whiny, dependent Bella). What I am uncomfortable with in all three series is the lack of female relationships in general and female friendship in particular. All three women are foiled against two main men and a slew of other males. They are the token females, the exceptions to the male normative in a male world run by men. Finally, we have a female heroine who does not need the protection of a pasty vampire, yet she is caught in a similar love triangle as Bella. In the only relationship Katniss has with other females (namely Rue, Prim and her inept mom) she plays the role of mother, not friend. Like Bella and even Hermione, eventually her main drama will be choosing between two men. Our young women deserve to be shown a heroine script where there are different kinds of female intimacy. Where women have different roles to choose from than lover and mother and can live for a bigger, more interesting, more complex, more varied dream than having two pining men to choose between.
Should you go see The Hunger Games? I would say yes. It’s good trash. Enjoy being entertained, then come join the conversation.