Bread and Circuses: Panem as Dystopian Future or Present?
by Benjamin Thevenin — Brigham Young University
March 28, 2012 – 00:00
Science fiction narratives have long provided contemporary social commentary within the context of imagined future societies. The Invasion of the Body Snatchers critiqued McCarthyism in the ‘50s, and in the ‘90s The Matrix questioned the Internet’s potential as a means of oppression or empowerment. Now, The Hunger Games offers a critique of the political corruption and economic inequality experienced in the ‘00s. And it makes this critique accessible to young audiences—those most vulnerable to these challenges and most capable of developing their solutions.
In the trilogy’s most Brechtian moment, gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee explains to Katniss that ‘Panem’ refers to a quotation from the Roman satirist Juvenal. “Panem et Circenses translates into ‘Bread and Circuses.’ The writer was saying that in return for full bellies and entertainment, his people had given up their political responsibilities and therefore their power." The ‘Bread and Circuses’ argument has often been used in critiques of mass society, emphasizing how contemporary entertainment media distracts and pacifies the public. But its use in The Hunger Games is particularly interesting. This story about oppressed laboring peoples forced to sacrifice their children to media exploitation and death in order to secure physical sustenance seems appropriate given the simultaneous glut of sensational media content and lack of economic stability and political efficacy in today’s society. And Katniss’ development as a (radical) political agent seems especially compelling to a generation who are now participating in populist protests across the globe (from the Arab Spring to Occupy to the Indignados).
Now, I’m not suggesting that the series provides any substantial doctrine for political engagement, but it may serve as an interesting object of analysis for critical media literacy education. For example, despite the series’ social commentary, the movie avoids potentially alienating political content and instead emphasizes the love triangle. And despite its (at least, implicit) critique of capitalism, the franchise will undoubtedly profit from loads of merchandise (a few of which have already prompted confusion). It’s likely that The Hunger Games will prove just another distraction from the real struggles we face today. But I hope it provides an opportunity for young people to begin thinking and talking about political power, economic equality, and the often contradictory role of media in these issues. And maybe it even promotes the kind of critical political interventions that would make the Mockingjay proud.
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