Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Our Fascination with Suffering

Last night, I saw The Hunger Games at AMC's Summer Night program. What it is is AMC brings back 6 or 7 big movies to replay for 3 nights a week in July and August. Best part: $3 tickets. It was a lot of fun. The week before, I saw The Amazing Spider-Man. The week before that was Dark Knight Rises, which I didn't attend. After watching The Hunger Games again for the first time in more than a year, I started thinking. (That's never good.) Why is my generation so obsessed with The Hunger Games? Why do we enjoy watching totalitarian governments abuse and destroy human beings? What is the draw? We can't relate to it - we've never been torn away from our families and forced to fight to the death. We don't live in shacks, and we don't have to hunt game to keep from starving. Why does our generation devour it so greedily?

My mom said it was due to us being raised on violent media. That is true. We are desensitized as a whole. We play video and computer games, watch movies, and hear news stories filled with graphic violence. However, if you talk to the average American teenager, I doubt they would say they want to see a murder take place outside their bedroom window. The question remains then, why does The Hunger Games speak so loudly to us?

Constantly being controlled by outside forces

I have another idea. It is fear of being out of control. Katniss (the protagonist of THG) lives in the poorest district of her country. Her father died in a work-related accident, and her mother suffers from depression. She has been thrown into a pretty rough life, and this is before she is shipped off to fight against 23 of her peers in a death-trap of an arena. The whole time, Katniss is struggling to take charge of her fate. "May the odds be ever in your favor" is not a reassuring phrase. She doesn't want to be controlled by "the odds," by the government, by her mentor, by the sponsors, by a relationship, or by other forces that appear over the course of Catching Fire and Mockingjay. Her short life has always been defined by outside events, and she is constantly battling against them. In the end, she must be in control for her to be happy. Ultimately, she does place herself in a situation where she is always in control, even if it isn't always for the best. (I don't want to say too much about the epilogue, even though I could go on for a while.)

Okay, so the average millennial is afraid of being out of control. We could go one step further and say that it is a fear of the unknown. As a group, we have everything. We have food, water, education, air conditioning, cell phones, iPods, cars, Burger King, Angry Birds, and even whole industries that wait on us hand and foot. We are protected from violence (I know that there is terrible violence in some homes and neighborhoods, but I am generalizing), we are protected from want, and sometimes even protected from work! We're afraid of poverty because we wouldn't know how to behave or survive. (Let's be real - if your average suburban teenager was placed in The Hunger Games, it would not end well for them.) It's the unknown and unfamiliar that scares us.

Revolution: the blackout changed us
Apocalypse movies and TV shows are rampant. We are afraid of pollution and using up our resources (After Earth, Elysium, Wall-E, Firefly, Revolution, Oblivion), of epidemics (World War Z, Contagion, any other zombie movie ever), of unexpected attack (Pacific Rim, Falling Skies, Red Dawn, Apollo 18, Pretty Little Liars), and even our own desires (Secret Life of the American Teenager, Juno, Hannibal). We are afraid of things beyond our control, that we don't know and cannot know. Think about the traumatic events of the last decade or so. We have had terrorist attacks, natural disasters, swine flu scare, and an economic collapse. All of those things come out of the blue, and children/teens have no way to emotionally prepare for them. Our enemies have not been countries we can identify and prepare to defend ourselves against. Of course we are afraid of the unknown, of chance, or of helplessness. We have felt this way, and Hollywood and New York respond to those feelings.

I feel that the perfect example of this is Pretty Little Liars, a show on ABC Family.
AttAcked by the unknown
Four regular teenage girls are thrust into a world of fear when their best friend suddenly goes missing (and is killed). They are haunted by "A," the unknown tormentor and hoarder of their secrets. A sees everything and is not afraid of hurting - or killing - those who get in her way. To the rest of their world in a idyllic American suburb, they are just strange, but they are being targeted and emotionally (sometimes physically) harmed through the texts and actions of someone they do not know.

Before I mentioned The Amazing Spider-Man and The Dark Knight Rises. Could we list all of the superhero movies that have been released in the last couple years? Iron Man, Iron Man 2, Iron Man 3, The Dark Knight, The Dark Knight Rises, Thor, The Incredible Hulk, Captain America, The Avengers, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, The Green Hornet, X-Men: First Class, Green Lantern, Man of Steel, and we have Wolverine and Thor: A Dark World coming out this year. Those are only a few of the many superhero movies that have been released recently. Why is this genre so successful now? Don't get me wrong, I enjoy superhero movies, but there is only so much one can do with a superhero film. The hero has a bit of self-discovery, and then saves mankind from a perilous teeter on the edge of oblivion.
Super strength and super morals
Our generation is looking for a hero. We want to believe that there is a person who can defend us from the unknown and unexpected. We are looking for someone stronger than we are, someone with superpowers, whether it be super strength, time travelling abilities, magic, or ridiculous intelligence to protect us. We want to know that when General Zod comes from space, Superman will be there. We want to be able to sleep knowing that if Daleks come, the Doctor will be there too. We want to believe that if there is a serial killer in the night, Sherlock Holmes will find him. The unknown and uncontrollable terrifies us, and we want to believe in Something Bigger, Someone in control. If only our generation understood what they were asking. Some of us already know the answer.


  1. I'm not sure the movie Hunger Games' popularity has much to do with the fear of losing control. I think the "draw" for many women is that it shows a strong, capable, compassionate female protagonist FIGHTING the evil totalitarian government. Classic scene? Katniss throws a spear through the competitor who mortally wounds her little friend Rue, then cradles the child as she dies and surrounds her body with flowers. Katniss has the courage to spit in the face of a society that worships material things and oppresses the poor. We identify with her because we would like to have her strength and courage. I think the reason most guys like the Hunger Games is because Jennifer Lawrence is "hot" and there is high action with only a few brief mushy scenes. I rarely watch TV, although I am dying to see the next Sherlock Holmes (w/Benedict Cumberbatch), so I can't comment on the popularity of the shows you mentioned. Regarding entertainment media in general, I think that a lot of what we are drawn to is determined by our desire to walk in someone else's shoes whether it be to learn, to live a dream, or to feel an experience without the mortal or spiritual consequences--much like why we read fiction.

  2. Interesting thoughts. I think more than us wanting to find a hero, I think we want to imagine ourselves being the hero. Like Susan mentioned, we want to watch Katniss because she is strong, capable and compassionate...all traits that we ourselves hope to embody. I think part of the reason we like Katniss so much is because she reminds us of ourselves, or how we want to be at least. As humans, we are fighters. We won't go down without a fight (look at cancer survivors etc) and feel connected to movie characters who won't either.

    1. True - maybe we like superhero movies because we are able to see that superhumans are just super humans. We like to believe that we are capable of becoming super. Although we may not be strong enough now, we could rise to the occasion if placed in that situation. (It's almost like transcendentalism...) Superheroes are just humans with ridiculous skills. We like to see that they are fallible. That might be an arguement against my interpretation of Katniss - she is willing to be weak sometimes, with very real flaws. That willingness is what makes her strong!

      Thanks for your comments! :)

  3. Thanks for your comments, Mrs. Searles!

    I would argue that Katniss isn't as strong as we'd like to think. She lives through unbelievable trials, yes, but does she survive? She rejects those who have been through the same experience, as well as family and friends who want to help her recover. The reason I said she is obsessed with control is that she not only fights Panam, but emotionally toys with two boys that would die for her, and constantly turns on people throughout the books. I would say that Rue is the last person she truly loves. I wouldn't hold Katniss up as a female role model of strength or compassion. It is drilled out of her. It IS difficult to be critical of her as the books are written in 1st person, but Collins is pointing out the horrors of war. War breaks people. Why do we like to read/watch that? Maybe we're interested in (and shocked by) the idea that we are capable of turning on our neighbors to survive. I love fiction, but think about it - why would such a generation as mine want to "feel the experience" of The Hunger Games series? Maybe it's because we feel guilty for being rich, while others struggle with real hunger and poverty. Maybe it is because we want to believe that we would be strong enough to survive, even if it's unhappily as Katniss does. I think it's all very interesting... Thanks again for your thoughts!