Social Commentary in Science Fiction: Mockingjay

I know I have already written a post on The Hunger Games but here I want to write specifically about the final book/film where everything changes and the story is brought to a satisfactory conclusion (well, for some). Though it follows the same theme of celebrity culture, there are other elements that make this final chapter interesting in its own right.

I feel that the film (part 1, as part 2 has not yet been released) demonstrates many things far more succinctly than its book counterpart. Whereas The Hunger Games effectively satirised celebrity culture and reality TV contests, and Catching Fire covered this element as well as showing a government on the brink of collapse pretending as if all is normal on the airwaves, the third and final book takes it in a different, yet still related direction.

Media War

What we see in Mockingjay is commentary on the media war – specifically how the media is used in war and how war, battles and conflicts are portrayed in the media. The last ten years, perhaps since 9/11, we have seen unprecedented coverage on the news of combat and conflicts from around the world. Even with Desert Storm, it felt a war in a far off place – remote, distant, not affecting us in any great way. We had no real emotional engagement. Certainly, we had daily updates of the progress against Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait, but what we did see was controlled and sanitised. We spoke to senior figures about what happened, we were engaged with a few custom shots and mostly press conferences. Footage was carefully drip-fed.

What we have now is war where Twitter, YouTube, Facebook and the internet plays a major part in shaping our very vision of war. The mainstream media on both sides of the political spectrum are aware of this and do their own bit to shape our perception of war and how our armed forces conduct themselves in combat. We have access to an unprecedented level of information in any global situation – not just in war, but with natural disasters or any event that has the potential to make history. Barely a single second of it does not have bias of some description, all of it is designed as much to sway us as to inform us – arguably the former far more than the latter.

News is a source of entertainment and we can no longer tell the difference between one person’s opinion and a fact, between education and entertainment. Too many people are unwilling to look through the fog of information presented to them. We slide happily into group-think, we allow identity politics to tell us what we are supposed to think. We do not question the motivations or the information presented to us by those who are on our side – quite simply, if something supports our prejudices, we accept it uncritically. Opinions are often given as much value as facts. As a great phrase I keep hearing goes though:

You’re entitled to your own opinions, but you’re not entitled to your own facts.

But what, I hear you ask, does any of this have to do with Katniss Everdeen? What does it have to do with Mockingjay? Everything.

The Need for a Public Face / Voice / Hero

What is the Mockingjay? In the first book, almost completely by accident, she became the symbol behind which any tentative rebellion might unite. The Mockingjay began as  a symbol of alliance between Katniss and Rue and when Rue was killed, it became a figurehead. President Snow banned the symbol in Catching Fire but that only strengthened the resolve of the rebels to spread the message further. It is increasingly graffitied everywhere. Snow knew it was a uniting force, he knew its power and he knew that his power depended on control of the media, control of the situation and control of peoples’ actions. That was what the Mockingjay symbol represented in book 2 – defiance.

By the third book, the titular Mockingjay it is no longer adequate to present it (or Katniss) as a symbol of defiance. This is where the careful orchestration of the character comes in, this is where we see the return of “reality television” for want of a better word. Katniss, in the eyes of the media, becomes (and must become) larger than life if she is to be the cement that must bind the rebellion. This is why we see very little actual fighting and far more focus on Katniss’ media career. The constant repetition of filming the propaganda videos, training this young girl how to act.

Legitimacy

Effie Trinket gets the importance of image and legitimacy in that image, it’s her raison d’être throughout the trilogy. When she finally decides to come into the District 13 fold, and during one particularly disastrous period of filming for Katniss she comments. “Why are you dressing her like a 35 year old woman? Remember, she’s still a girl.” She has spent all three books/films (she is not in the third book until the very end) encouraging and trying to improve Katniss and Peeta’s public face. Haymitch does the same in explaining the importance of an audience liking their protagonists. All of this gives legitimacy to the power behind the voice, but not necessarily to the owner of the voice.

In contrast, Peeta is the public face of the Capitol, even though he has almost certainly been conditioned to be so and is not a willing participant. Yet his presence in the Capitol, speaking out against Katniss and the rebellion, is also lending legitimacy to the Capitol’s cause or anybody else who might be standing against the rebellion. Here is a Games Winner, somebody from one of the districts speaking in support of a tyrannical government.

We do this in real life. We find dissenting voices to speak out as an authority to dismiss the opinions of others. A black, middle class, business-owning Tory voter will write an article for The Daily Mail to explain that anti-black racism is a myth, that it is non-existent because he personally has never experienced it, how his rich white friends always made him feel welcome and treated him as “one of the lads”. Many people will accept this at face value. After all, he is a black man and he is legitimising what we want to hear. He didn’t experience racism growing up, therefore racism doesn’t exist. That’s a fairly simple point that I invented, but it’s amazing how often and easily people fall into that trap.

Larger Than Life

The final point brings me back to Katniss and to President Snow and the contrast between the creation and maintenance of their on-screen personas.

In the case of Katniss, as we have already seen there has been a deliberate and careful crafting of her as the Mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion behind which everybody can and should unite. Yet the people she meets increasingly look to her, especially once she gets out of District 13. Visiting hospitals and others fighting the rebellion, she is rather uncomfortably seen as an arriving messiah. People ask her, plead with her to help them and to save them. She promises what she can, but she realises what a heavy burden she has and realises the consequences if she cannot.

President Snow also has a part to play. In effect, he is the government of Panem. Since the beginning of book one, he has understood the importance of the public face and appearing larger than life. He will never show weakness, even when all is seemingly lost. He knows the importance of symbols, and bans them. He does not like an underdog because they are erratic and he cannot control them – and neither for that matter, can the media over which he has such incredible control – media that is so important to maintaining Panem. This short clip shows two examples of Snow’s control – firstly in his nitpicking of the choice of wording for the media report and secondly his proclamation that an enemy should never see you bleed.

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