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We Are the Capitol: Thoughts on the Hunger Games Theme Park

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A couple of weeks ago, Lionsgate announced that they would be opening several Hunger Games theme parks — one in Atlanta, one in Macau, China and one in Dubai. According to the Guardian:

Guests will be greeted by actors dressed as District 12’s downtrodden inhabitants and get the chance to visit locations such as the Hob black market and Peeta Mellark’s bakery. Other rides will include a “lavish” rollercoaster, built to imitate the train in which Katniss and Peeta make the journey to the Capitol and their meeting with almost certain death.

Sounds… fun?

The media discussion on these theme parks is slightly unclear, but it seems like this won’t be a “Hunger Games Land,” so much as part of a larger Lionsgate-themed entertainment park, including other franchises like Twilight. Even so, the decision to make the dystopian world of The Hunger Games into an interactive visitors’ attraction, like Harry Potter World or Cinderella’s castle in Disneyworld, is troubling to say the least, if also rather unsurprising.

But this theme park is simply one more piece in an extended marketing campaign that conveys the book’s dystopian message far more clearly than any book series could do in isolation. The whole point of dystopian fiction is to hold a magnifying glass to the darker parts of our society, and the media reaction to The Hunger Games feels like our society jumping under that magnifying glass, waving its arms and shouting “look at me!” The Hunger Games mirrors the perversions of our own media, and our media responds to the Hunger Games by acting out those perversions even more intensely. At this point, the media around The Hunger Games feels like particularly depressing performance art, with us all playing the role of the Capitol.

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Not-So-Strong Female Characters

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By now, everyone is familiar with the “Strong Female Character” trope. The badass girl who can take anyone in a fight, looks gorgeous doing it, and, most importantly, doesn’t have any of those pesky weaknesses or emotions, except perhaps her love for the hero.

She’s expected to be Strong, where “strong” means unflinching and undeveloped, and where any hesitation, un-pretty sadness or doubt immediately makes her whiny and weak. Although the trope has often been posited as “girl power,” it forces female characters into an even more restrictive narrative box, and perpetuates the idea of “strength” as unattainable, inhuman perfection. And it’s worked. The trope has become so ingrained that critics are quick to criticize female characters for not being “strong” enough, for being “weak,” simply because they’re affected by the dramatic events around them, or because they’re not immediately completely in control of their situation.

Which is why I’ve loved seeing YA-inspired stories recently that deal with the mental toll of being “strong” in an intense, life-and-death type environment. Stories that show female characters who are leaders, who make difficult decisions… and who don’t emerge from it unscathed.

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The Power of Fangirls

Several months ago, I saw an interesting discussing about the Beatles on Twitter. Teenage girls, the tweets said, were responsible for the huge popularity of the Beatles, yet nobody thinks that the Beatles are therefore bad. They were the ones screaming at the concerts, but the Beatles themselves are no longer associated with teenage girl-dom. They’re just associated with being good.

I wish I could remember the source of the tweet, because it’s been playing on my mind recently. No matter how much people disparage teenage girls and their tastes, teenage girls are one of the most powerful taste-making groups in popular culture. They have the passion and the commitment to catapult anything that they love into superstardom. And that, I think, makes people very uncomfortable.

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Katniss Everdeen, the Girl on Fire

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This article contains spoilers through to the end of Mockingjay

Katniss is the protagonist of a powerhouse dystopian/action/war series that just broke records at the box office (something that conventional Hollywood wisdom would tell you should be impossible), and yet she’s one of the most unlikeable female protagonists I’ve ever seen. And, weirdly, her unlikeableness is one of the most likeable things about her.

Because, in the end, Katniss commits the cardinal sin for a female character: she isn’t very nice.

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Teenagers, Twilight and the Hunger Games

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The media machine around Catching Fire is heating up. Stills and trailers have been released. People are getting excited. And I’ve been interested in how the media has presented and discussed The Hunger Games sequel, especially in comparison to that other YA blockbuster, Twilight.

Both are mega-selling book series targeted primarily at teenage girls. Both led to blockbuster movies and tons of merchandise. Both have a female protagonist, action, and romance, although the general tones and themes of the books are as far from one another as can be. But since The Hunger Games launched, the two series have been discussed in very different ways.

As I wrote about on Thursday, some parts of the media have attempted to make The Hungers Games more like Twilight, so that they can fit it into the “things teenage girls like” box and be done with it. I’m not sure I ever heard people being “Team so-and-so” before Twilight, but the media borrowed the term for The Hunger Games, discussing “Team Peeta” and “Team Gale” as though they were the only things that mattered in a movie where Gale plays only a small role and Katniss’s romance with Peeta is all an act to gain popular support. Our world seemed to mirror the Capitol in the stories, as the doomed romance, and not the political message, became the only thing worth discussing, even though it wasn’t real.

However, I’ve noticed that people rarely discuss The Hunger Games as a novel aimed at and loved by teenagers any more, as they do with Twilight. “Aimed at teenage girls” or “popular with teenage girls” is the ultimate insult. “Teenage girls” means boy bands and giggling and stupidity. They are constantly mentioned in connection with Twilight, because the world doesn’t like Twilight that much, and it’s much more fun to mock the series’ popularity with some snide remarks at its fans than it is to try and seriously understand that popularity. And mocking it isn’t very hard. Just say that teenage girls love it, and that seems to be enough.

Yet the world at large seems to like The Hunger Games. While Twilight always remained a subject of mockery (much of it admittedly well-placed), The Hunger Games has been praised and embraced as a mainstream hit. It’s not uncool or girly to like The Hunger Games. And so the book’s target market, its initial fans, the readers who first made it a bestseller in the YA section and lined up at midnight for the premiere? They are not mentioned. Their very connection with the books, any mention of them in related articles, would discredit the series, changing it from a cool new cult thing into something shallow and poor quality and a bit ridiculous. Occasionally, they’re thrown a bone in the form of “Team Peeta or Team Gale?” discussions, but this only separates the original audience even further from the idea that The Hunger Games is a worthwhile mainstream series. By bringing out “Peeta or Gale?” every now and again, separate from its other discussions, the media is able to praise the series itself for its action, the characters, and the commentary on politics and the media and compliment the mainstream audience (aka the white male grown ups) for enjoying them, while simultaneously suggesting that teenage girls only care for “shallow” things like boys and romance. The Hunger Games is not a series for teenage girls — only its Twilight-like elements are for them. Elements invented by the media itself, because girls liking a violent dystopian series with lots of serious themes? Impossible. It must be the boys.

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Team Peeta or Team Gale?

How about Team Katniss instead?

It’s difficult to miss how massive The Hunger Games movie has been. It had the 3rd largest grossing opening weekend ever, Hunger Games fever has been everywhere, and, best of all, in my opinion, this attention is focussed on a movie aimed at teenage girls, with a well-developed female character as its protagonist.

Except, for some reason, the media just can’t stop talking about the boys.

Perhaps it’s a Twilight thing. Twilight made mega-bucks off the rivalry between Edward and Jacob, not only in the popularity of the series itself but also in an endless stream of merchandising. But Twilight was a paranormal romance. The idea point of the story, the entire reason the francise was written, was for swooning over hot, supernaturally talented boys and the normal highschool girls who love them. The Hunger Games isn’t about boys. The Hunger Games is about poverty and oppression and the media circus that is reality TV and a hundred other things, but teenage love isn’t really one of them. The characters are too busy trying to stay alive.

The Hunger Games is an incredibly successful mainstream movie about a female protagonist who manages to hold her own in a fight to the death and ultimately outsmart the men acting as puppetmasters of the whole cruel show. The movie is about her relationship with her younger sister. It’s about her loyalty to her District and her hatred of the Capitol and her strength and involvement in a massive rebellion. Romance does play a part in the narrative, but mostly as a negative, as a way that Katniss’s freedom is taken from her, as she is forced to play the role of a helpless young girl in love in order to survive. So it’s somewhat surprising and disappointing to walk into a shop and see shelves covered with “Peeta or Gale” merchandise. Or to read article after article comparing the series to Twilight and turning Peeta and Gale into Edward and Jacob. Or see and hear entertainment programs that are just obsessed with this rivalry, discussing “teams” like they’re the entire point of the series. It’s highly ironic that the romance that Katniss performs in the movie to win over ship-happy viewers of the Games has carried over into the advertising of and dialogue about the whole movie, as though everyone has missed the point of the act entirely, and are taking part in some twisted kind of performance theatre about the world of the movie. Social commentary indeed.

Perhaps I’m being petty. I love obsessing over a good fictional romance as much as the next person, and if the Peeta and Gale story speaks to fans, then who am I to criticise them? But I think that the obsessive focus on the men of Katniss’s story — one of whom is barely in the movie, and the other of whom doesn’t really do anything beyond contributing his charisma — not only underestimates the intelligence of potential viewers but undermines the success of the movie and the message it could give to the movie executives who oh-so-frequently sideline female characters. The Hunger Games is an incredibly successful action/science-fiction/dystopian movie with a female protagonist. The movie never makes a big deal about the fact that she is a girl. She doesn’t succeed despite being a girl, and she isn’t presented as “one of the boys.” She’s just Katniss. Surely the movie industry must take note of this, and see that women can lead incredibly successful Hollywood movies. That women don’t have to be shoehorned in movies where their only interest is finding a husband. That all genders are willing to see a movie about a female character if the story is compelling. But when popular discourse focusses on the boys, on the love triangle that barely even features in the story, passing Katniss around like she’s a prize for the most deserving of the male characters, it becomes easy for executives to dismiss it as another “girly,” “romance” sort of story, popular with teenagers but not exactly a sign that women can lead non-romance-based movies.

And they hardly need another excuse for that.

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