Monday, 28 January 2013

Disguising Subversion with Love Stories

Romantic Subplot in The Hunger Games

Note: This is not part of my meta-ethics series. I just decided that I did not want to postpone publishing it until that series is done.

As I indicated before, I have recently seen The Hunger Games (movie, not book). One of the things that I found very surprising about this movie was just how subversive it is. Most supposedly subversive movies are either not very subversive at all (Avatar) or do a terrible, muddled job of subversion (V for Vendetta, oh my goodness). At least on the first viewing, The Hunger Games is much smarter than most of Hollywood's supposedly subversive movies, and it even takes a few potshots at conventional Hollywood storytelling--after all, it is about the use of media to suppress underprivileged populations. One of the most impressive instances was the movie's deliberate indication that the romantic subplot distracts from more important political questions.

(Here be spoilers.)

Combatants in the Hunger Games desperately need sponsors to help outfit them as the event proceeds, so the characters must be very deliberate about their public appearances. During the interviews before the Games themselves, Peeta says that he has a crush on Katniss. Katniss is angry that he would use her to further his own publicity, but their trainer Abernathy tells her that it has helped her publicity as well: it has made her desirable. Besides being a shout-out to Girard, this episode indicates that romantic feelings, whether or not they are genuine, are part of the proceedings. Instead of somehow transcending time and place, like we have pretended since Petrarch, love is subject to the society, culture, and ideology the lovers inhabit. Peeta's admission of love, even if it's true, is also an attempt at survival that is endorsed by the media spectacle and becomes part of the narrative that Flickerman, the interviewer and master of ceremonies, helps create. (Of course, he is probably working from a script, too.)

Abernathy latches onto this narrative device. What I find interesting is that another narrative device--Katniss' voluntary substitution of herself for her younger sister--is eclipsed by the romance narrative, at least as far as the publicity is concerned. I say publicity rather than public for a reason: Katniss' adoption of Rue as a surrogate sister certainly get the attention of Rue's district. What Abernathy knows--and likely what the Capital's propogandists rely on--is the fact that the romance narrative will provide explanations for potentially subversive behaviour, explanations that mitigate the subversiveness of it. So when Katniss and Peeta defy the authorities by attempting double-suicide rather than monomachy (and thereby trying to answer Peeta's question about dying in a way that shows the authorities that they do not own him), Abernathy is quick to use the romantic subplot to explain away this behaviour. He says that the pair "showed them up" and that there would be consequences: "This is serious. And not just for you. They don't take these things lightly." So Katniss and Peeta must act as though their behaviour was not about the power or authority, was not in fact directed at the Capital or about anything that might also concern the people of the poor Districts. In order to prevent the Capital from reinforcing that power with violence, they must act (cynically) like their actions are born of the sort of love that transcends time and place. Frankly, I was not sure whether to be impressed by this realization, or disappointed that Katniss decided to play along with the love narrative which disguised her more subversive motives. How much complicity should characters accept in order to survive long enough to fight that power?

One of the interesting things about seeing this as a movie but not reading the book is that I had no way of gauging the not-especially-expressive Katniss's emotions. I could not tell whether she actually reciprocated Peeta's attraction or romantic feelings. (I understand that in the book it is clear she does reciprocate somewhat, but that's second-hand). In this state of ignorance, the romantic subplot seemed even more surreal, even more a ploy to survive the Capital. Certainly her sacrifices for Peeta were not much different from her sacrifices for Rue, for whom she would feel no romantic love. How the other movies treat her relationship with Peeta is now of almost no consequence: the idea that romantic subplot distract from real political subversion in the Hunger Games, and also The Hunger Games, and also, by extension, if you're willing to think it, most popular culture, is already in place. I cannot be sure how strong this effect would be in first person narration.

I want to clarify a few things: I don't think that genuine, non-cynical romantic subplots (or main plots) are necessarily bad. But I would, for a lot of reasons, like to see much more fiction that treat such relationships with more sophistication and more awareness of the problems they can produce, and I would like to see more fiction that does not treat romantic subplots as particularly important. I think The Hunger Games does a good job of showing some of those problems.

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