Teaching the Hunger Games in the Undergraduate American Studies Classroom

Following is a post that I wrote for the blog of the American Studies Journal. Here’s the link to the piece in its original context.

Last semester, I ended my introductory American Studies seminar, Popular Culture and American Childhood, with M.T. Anderson’s wonderful 2001 young-adult dystopia Feed. All semester, we had been talking about ways that twentieth-century American children’s culture, and the discourses of anxiety and celebration surrounding this culture, reflected changing American thought on matters of race, gender, class, power, and politics. Feed’s dark depiction of children and teenagers living with a proto-Internet implanted in their brains extended our ongoing discussion about the market, consumption, and youth culture, and the role of socioeconomic status, race, and gender in children’s experience of that market.

Katniss Barbie is coming soon.

This year, however, the movie version of Suzanne Collins’ 2008 book The Hunger Games was released in the middle of the semester, and heroine Katniss and the dystopian setting of Panem appeared in several unrelated class discussions. At the same time, I read several provocative pieces online about the series, the movie, and matters of gender, class, and race. After polling my students, who were generally keen on the idea, I made a decision to substitute The Hunger Games (henceforth, HG) for Feed as our capstone text.

Although a course like this one regularly assigns pop-cultural readings and texts that are close to students’ hearts (from NWA songs to Disney Princesses), this was the first time we had worked with a text that was directly in the contemporary cultural spotlight. By reading HG alongside the reactions of bloggers and online communities, I thought we could analyze how the meaning of a popular text gets negotiated across platforms and in real time.

Because I had only three class days to give to the discussion, I assigned just the first book of the trilogy. HG splits neatly into three sections of its own accord—each section being about 130 pages. Alongside these sections, I assigned auxiliary blog posts and articles.

We began our discussion of the first third of the book, in which Katniss is picked for the Games and whisked away to the Capitol, with Laura Miller’s 2010 New Yorker piece, “Fresh Hell.” This was one of the first of a now-familiar genre: the “why so many YA dystopias?” think piece. Miller argues that YA dystopias differ from dystopias written for adults insofar as they don’t require action from the reader: “The Hunger Games is not an argument,” Miller writes. “It’s not about persuading the reader to stop something terrible from happening—it’s about what’s happening, right this minute, in the stormy psyche of the adolescent reader.”

Miller’s assertion was good for helping students clarify to what degree Panem could be seen as a commentary on contemporary society or politics. In connection with an analysis of the potential political meaning of the narrative, we talked about the way that “Hunger Games” fever had translated into consumer objects (see: “Capitol Colors” nail polish; tutorials on making Katniss’ side braid), and discussed whether consumption and political empowerment were mutually exclusive.

On the second day of discussion, Katniss was deep in the Games, and we read several posts about negative online reactions to the casting of black actors Amandla Sternberg and Lenny Kravitz for the pivotal roles of Katniss allies Rue and Cinna. (The pieces I assigned were by Roxie Moxie, on the blog Racialicious: “Yes, There Are Black People In Your Hunger Games”, and by Dodai Stewart, on Jezebel: “Racist Hunger Games Fans Are Very Disappointed.”) Students tied these reactions to matters of representation in children’s culture that we had discussed earlier in the semester in conjunction with controversies over ethnically correct dolls and children’s literature.

On the final day of discussion, with Katniss victorious, we tackled the issue of gender in the Games, reading academic Rebecca Hains’ blog post “Katniss Everdeen: The First Post-Girl-Power Hero.” Tying Katniss’ persona to earlier discussions about adventure and domesticity in children’s books and video games for boys and for girls, we also talked about the way that the book was sold as a “girl’s book.” Finally, we read Timothy Noah’s blog post for The New Republic, “The Immorality of ‘Hunger Games,’” in which Noah argued that the very premise of the series was deeply problematic:

The Hunger Games wants to have it both ways. It wants us to register severe moral disapproval of a society that would require children to hunt one another as if they were woodland creatures. But…The Hunger Games also invites us to root for the right person to win the competition by, um, killing other children.

This last piece provoked the most interesting reaction in my students—they argued vehemently against Noah, who admittedly hadn’t read the book, using their own knowledge of the book’s premise and execution.

If I repeat the Hunger Games “unit” in the future, I’ll do a couple of things to enrich the discussion. Given more time, I would like to connect Hunger Games to the Japanese book and movie “Battle Royale,” which have a very similar plot (as many have noted). I’ve considered the idea of assigning a piece from the anthology The Japanification of Children’s Popular Culture, a viewing of “Battle Royale,” and a discussion of the meaning of violence between children across cultural contexts.

It wasn’t possible to assign a viewing of the HG movie alongside the book, as the movie was still in theatres. Viewing the filmic adaptation would have helped, however, in our discussions about the representation of violence in the book and the movie. It’s interesting that the film itself is actually far less graphically violent than the book, due to the strictures of the PG-13 rating. Since we had been talking all semester about the ways that kids’ culture sometimes contains a degree of violence and sex that adults don’t see, due to their lack of deep knowledge of the content (see: comic books in the pre-code era), an analysis of the ways that the book’s moments of trauma are dulled and hidden in the movie would have tied together several more threads from the semester’s work.