The Hunger Games, Lisa Simpson, and The Semiotics of Revolution

Recently, Donald Sutherland, who plays the villain, President Snow, in the Hunger Games movies, said that he hoped those films would cause a “revolution” among young people. Sutherland, a longtime supporter of left-wing causes, asks why young people aren’t marching in the streets to fight inequality, and suggests a fairly typical assessment: there is no revolution because millennials are too worried about job hunting and making ends meet to get organized.

While there is, undeniably, always a time/resources crunch aspect to whether or not people become activists, there is another potentially interesting notion at work here, and the Hunger Games, the movie that Sutherland stars in, represents a useful cultural artifact to make the case with. There are now a dizzying array of political signifiers, so to speak, meaning that revolutionary symbols are increasingly difficult to make sense of. Personally, I interpreted the Hunger Games as a quasi-Marxist statement. Of course, I thought, the point of the story is to critique the crushing economic inequality of the fictionalized version of the future United States in the books and movies. The narrative is obviously about a proletarian revolt against a corrupt, plutocratic elite who sees the lives of the poor as worth little more than a flashy spectacle to be colorfully snuffed out on reality television. I assumed this was the sensible reading of the text but then, with the release of the new movie, I saw a banner for an event at my school that a campus group was putting on that made me reconsider my certainty. The banner said, in big letters made to look like a movie poster, “LIBERTARIAN THEMES IN THE HUNGER GAMES.”

I was initially skeptical when I saw the advertisement. It seemed perfectly clear to me that anything about a rich elite suppressing a poor, divided proletariat owed more to Karl than Ayn, but the more I thought about it, the more I had to admit that you could, if you wanted, read the great sin in the Hunger Games as “government” instead of “inequality.” Apparently, I wasn’t alone in coming to see the story as politically multivocal, either, as a number of journalists and critics have tackled the ambiguous politics of the movies, as well. This gets at what I was suggesting above: the semiotics of revolution have become increasingly complicated. When Paul Ryan can (apparently unironically) Rage Against the Machine, is it a surprise that we lack unambiguous political symbols that suggest specific identities, actions, or targets? Is it any wonder that the Hunger Games can be read as a Marxist tract, a libertarian polemic, or a cynical suggestion that things aren’t really that bad and organizing gets you nowhere?

Sutherland’s hope, that we will see a youth revolution, is a noble and utopian one, but requires a fair amount of shared, background cultural understandings that we may lack. I would argue, however, that a useful academic project to address this may be to examine the multivocality of political symbols themselves. In the sociology of media we have a long tradition of “audience studies,” where researchers examine how symbols, texts, narratives, and images are received, interpreted, and used by diverse audiences. It might be revealing to analyze the connection between how political symbols, revolutionary texts, and social movement discourses are understood by audiences. This goes beyond seeing how frames resonate with audiences, although it is similar, and it could go as deep as examining how people first became aware of what a “social movement” or a “revolution” is in the first place.

For example, I racked my brain for the earliest memory I have of a social movement, and realized it’s this stirring, anti-corporate song, sung by a bookish girl who was my hero when I was a kid:

That early example was part of a long and complicated process whereby I came to associate social movements and revolutions with the struggle for economic equality. I bring that vocabulary of images I carry around in my head to my reading of something like the Hunger Games. I am primed, in other words, to read a more Marxist interpretation into a story about a revolution. Someone else, though, may be equally primed to read a more libertarian interpretation into various texts, an interpretation that generally would not cross my mind due to, once again, the interpretive framework I have for making sense of political symbols. By conducting a sort of “audience studies” of social movements we could map out the complicated multivocality of political and revolutionary symbols toward the end of better understanding why particular ideas, frames, and discourses resonate with some people and not others.

1 Comment

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One response to “The Hunger Games, Lisa Simpson, and The Semiotics of Revolution

  1. Thanks for a really useful way to see how symbols and themes can resonate differently based on shared experiences and positions. Pat Buchanan used to give speeches that had very different meanings to at least five audiences: Republicans, isolationists, conservative Christians, patriot/militia folks, and antisemites (some overlap I quip). A neat related idea from Communications Studies is “constitutive rhetoric.”

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