Warren Blumenfeld: The Hunger Games as metaphor for youth oppression & resistance

Guest post by Warren Blumenfeld

I believe one of the litmus tests by which a society can be judged is the ways it treats its young people, for this opens a window projecting how that society operates generally.

Adultism, as defined by John Bell includes “behaviors and attitudes based on the assumption that adults are better than young people, and entitled to act upon young people without their agreement. This mistreatment is reinforced by social institutions, laws, customs, and attitudes.” Within an adultist society, adults construct the rules, with little or no input from youth, which they force young people to follow.

Even the terminology our society employs to refer to youth betrays a hierarchical power dynamic. For example, we refer to young people as “kids,” a term originally applying to young goats. By referring to youth as farm animals provides adults cover in controlling and maintaining unlimited power over human beings. (We must treat and respect animals more than we do as well.) Even the term “child” implies an imbalance of power. When people refer to an individual of any age as “the child of,” we automatically place that individual in a diminutive form.

Of course, parents and other adults have the inherent responsibility of protecting young people from harming themselves and being harmed by others, and of teaching them how to live and function in society within our ever changing global community. In Freudian terms, we must develop a balance between the individual’s unrestrained instinctual drives and restraints (repression) on these drives in the service of maintaining society (civilization), and to sustain the life of the individual.

We as a society, nonetheless, must set a line demarcating protection from control, teaching from oppression, minimal and fundamental repression from what Herbert Marcuse terms “surplus repression” (that which goes over and beyond what is necessary for the protection of the individual and the smooth functioning of society, and enters into the realm of domination, control, and oppression).

Reading and watching The Hunger Games series of young adult novels by Suzanne Collins released in 2008 and recently made into a sequence of movies, I was quite fascinated by what I interpreted as a commentary on our oppressive (surplus-repressive) society. The author presents the story through the perspective of 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, which takes place in Panem, the post-apocalyptic nation where the former countries of North America once existed. The Capitol (as it is named), a technologically advanced metropolis, exerts total political control over the entire nation. The Hunger Games denotes an annual event in which one young woman and one young man aged 12–18 from each of the twelve districts are selected by lottery to compete in a televised brutal and deadly battle. Of the 24 “contestants,” only one will survive, though in the initial installment of the series, two contestants contest this rule, and they begin to forge a crack in the wall of domination.

One of the primary ways oppression in any and all of its varieties operates is when the dominant group, in this case adults, pit members of minoritized groups, in this case youth, against one another through competition for gold stars and grades, for supposedly scarce resources, for attention, love, and affection, for financial and career success, and, in the metaphor of The Hunger Games, for life itself.

In terms of education, however, philosopher and author Alfie Kohn calls for a radical rethinking of the competitive structure on which our educational system is based, away from what he calls the “I win, therefore, you lose” viewpoint. Kohn refers to competition as a “disease,” an “addiction,” a “poison” on which we are raised, something trained and not born into us. He argues that students and workers can enjoy, learn, and produce more with other people rather than against them, and he advocates for cooperative education.

In addition, those of any age who bully often do so, though sometimes unconsciously, to reinforce dominant group scripts established and forced onto minoritized individuals and groups to memorize when they enter the stage called “life.” When youth bully other youth, very often those who bully “pass down” the bullying they receive from others, often from adults. Youth killing other youth, as depicted in The Hunger Games, epitomizes the most extreme form of bullying.

Teräshjo and Salmivalli argue that those who bully fulfill the social “function” of establishing and reinforcing social norms. They found that students often justify bullying behaviors by blaming the targets of their attacks, and emphasizing that they somehow deserve the peer aggression or that they in some ways deviate from the established social norms. This I contend is a form of ruthless socialization.

Social rank theory, as used by Hawker and Boulton, proposes that aggressive individuals actually hold a higher rank, power, or status within a social group. Therefore, aggressive behavior, and bullying in particular, may provide those who engage in aggressive behaviors a sense of belonging. Hawker and Boulton contend that peer victimization serves a number of functions. First, it establishes and maintains a social hierarchy within a given group (an “in-group”), and second, it maintains distinctions between members of the in-group, from members of other groups (“out-groups”).

Adultism also operates as a continuum from subtle to extreme, from adults ignoring or neglecting young people, to statements like “Children should be seen and not heard,” “You’re too young to do that,” and “Just grow up,” to “You’re stupid,” and “You’re ugly,” to “When you are living in my house, you follow my rules,” to circumscribed or qualified love, to corporal punishment, and eviction by family from one’s home, to sexual and other violent assaultive acts, to murder. As a society, we deprive youth of their basic civil and human rights only somewhat less than we deprive these rights from convicted prison inmates.

What if, however, youth joined together to defeat adultist oppression – the surplus repression establishing and maintaining adult privilege and control over youth? More generally, what if all minoritized groups joined together to challenge dominant group privilege and oppression in all its forms?

In actually, youth and other groups of our vast society are, indeed, standing up, speaking out, and joining in coalition to contest the barriers built throughout time and space. This is true in The Hunger Games as it is outside of science fiction tropes.

As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the downfall of the once virtually impenetrable Berlin Wall, we must join together to take down the “freedom” of people to deprive other people of their freedoms. In other words, we need to dismantle the walls constructed by individuals, institutions, and societies that stand only for the purpose of maintaining power and control over others.

We can begin by considering our real motives next time we attempt to restrict or punish a young person.

Dr. Warren J. Blumenfeld is author of Warren’s Words: Smart Commentary on Social Justice (Purple Press); editor of Homophobia: How We All Pay the Price (Beacon Press), co-editor of Readings for Diversity and Social Justice (Routledge) and Investigating Christian Privilege and Religious Oppression in the United States (Sense), and co-author of Looking at Gay and Lesbian Life (Beacon Press).