Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Panem Today, Panem Tomorrow, Panem Forever: Exploring the Social Implications of “A Ballad Of Songbirds and Snakes.”

Illustration+by+Rachel+Choi.+
Rachel Choi
Illustration by Rachel Choi.

Citizens of Panem, in the name of nostalgia and not-so-carefully concealed social commentary, the time has come to delve into another dystopian teen drama designed to drain our pockets. 

I am, of course, referring to the 2023 movie adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ “A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes,” a prequel to her original “The Hunger Games” series. Though the 2000s and 2010s were filled with some of the most memorable dystopian-centered media—such as “The Matrix,” “Divergent,” and “Maze Runner”—”The Hunger Games” has stood the test of time.

The series played a pivotal role in starting the YA dystopian trend of the late 2010s, which features romance, eccentric characters, and futuristic style cinematography, to tell a story of inequality and revolution. It left a deep impression in young people’s minds, and some argued that the original series even fueled an “anti-establishment” perspective.

However, our interaction with the films also exposes what so many of Gen Z already fear—that we are all bark and no bite. 

Because we were kids when the first batch was released, es, we understood the moral implications of this world on a surface level, but we also cared a little too much about Team Peeta vs. Team Gale. Now with “A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes” released and discourse surrounding the adaptation in full force, has this fandom truly matured? 

The answer is no. 

Our horny masses have absolutely no chill, much of the discourse surrounding this film revolves around how hot Tom Blyth is and the relationship between his character, Coriolanus Snow, and Lucy Gray (Rachel Zegler)—and there’s nothing wrong with that. Both the films and the books intentionally try to connect the audience to these characters—emphasizing that their personalities are just as important to the world building and overall plot. 

Still, the media’s ability to satirize these interpersonal elements can rob the films of its social commentary. And it is this same perplexing self-awareness that led to TikTok memes about how difficult it was to concentrate on how despicable Snow is because he’s being portrayed by an attractive actor.

Often, dystopian literature highlights the deterioration of a political structure but is ultimately defeatist and takes little time to develop its characters. In George Orwell’s “1984,” one person stands up to “Big Brother” and doesn’t succeed. Though we see the protagonist Winston’s obsessive journaling and internal dialogue, the focus of the novel is not on his personality. So for the sake of bringing in a loyal audience and feeding horny pre-teen readers, YA novels changed that. Character became important to the dystopian world we were meant to immerse ourselves in. 

When examining the world-building and plot of Collins’ series, we find a dictator controlling different districts by exploiting various states of poverty; inducing fear to perpetuate a cycle of oppression. Simultaneously, affluent Capitol citizens are brainwashed to endorse this system. 

It’s not hard to see how the depicted world is not far removed from the one we live in.

Today, the top 1 percent of the world’s wealthiest residents have captured nearly twice as much new wealth as the rest. The industrial rise of wealthy countries in the global North have long depended on the global South. This includes tens of billions of tonnes of raw materials and hundreds of billions of hours of human labor annually, over the past few decades.

The costs of this system for so many historically marginalized countries are catastrophic: genocide, dispossession, famine, and mass impoverishment. We are not detached from the trials portrayed in Collins’ series because we belong in one (or more) of these geopolitical boxes, and embody almost all characters in some way. 

The sad reality is that often we resemble the brainwashed Capitol residents rather than the badass Mockingjay.

Italian film magazine Lo Specchio Scuro published a piece titled “The Puritan Eye. Hypermediation, Sex, and Disagreement of Desire in Today’s Hollywood,” where the author Carlee Gomes argues that in the West, the mere consumption of media is now political. Our deep dependence on consumption has stripped us of “any real political energy and agency.” Gomes continues to say that “as a result it’s become a stand-in for (or perhaps the sole defining quality of) every aspect of being alive today—consuming is activism, it’s love, it’s thinking, it’s sex, it’s fill in the blank.”

For those of us who grew up with a series like “The Hunger Games,” it’s no different. Being a part of consumer culture has made us both victims and perpetrators of this narrative. We understand that Effie’s grandiose outfits and Lucretius Flickerman’s funny antics are the same tactics meant to distract us from atrocities both on the screen and in real life. Those of us living in geopolitical privilege can both engage and even relate to Katniss’s revolutionary cause, while simultaneously aware of our complacency to the system. 

We are both privileged members of the Capitol and hometown supporters of our coinciding tributes—simultaneously audience members hungry for action and spectacle, and District citizens bearing witness. There is a helplessness to this position that mirrors the helplessness of the innate privilege of knowing that brutality is happening under our nose, while relying on the self-imposed limits to our activism, like posting infographics and GoFundMe links—similar to sending care packages to tributes in the arena.

 

How profoundly meta it is to gaze at our phone and be confronted with the tragic reality of people in Congo forced into ‘modern-day slavery’ to produce the very resources powering that phone. The same phones where we call out our representatives, donate money, and attempt to make any difference at all. 

This reality is comparable to members of the Capitol whose spectator status fueled The Hunger Games. We cannot, and should not, be without guilt when consuming this media, because in every way, it is political.

In both the original series and now in the prequel, Collins’ depiction of District 11—a predominantly Black and heavily policed district—hints to the audience that this is intended to mirror the political state we live in. It suggests that there are varying layers of inequality, and that Black and Brown people are frequently “othered,” even from other abused district residents. Even the lack of dialogue and passing images of District 11—likely not intentional by Collins who is a white woman—is indicative of how often we ignore the oppression of Black and Brown people. This concept is also not lost by viewers

We are constantly confronted with the political implications of our perspective. As an audience with the foreknowledge of main character Snow’s eventual rise to dictatorship, we are encouraged to sympathize with him, but also question the impulse, as he fits the physical description of those who are the most privileged. 

Snow is an attractive young, white man with blond hair and blue eyes, fodder for a cultural landscape that so easily forgives straight white men for the same things historically marginalized identities are disproportionately prosecuted for. 

Maybe we are Sejanus Plinth, a former District turned Capitol citizen who feels inherently responsible for the plight of the oppressed because he used to be one of them. Sejanus’s ruthless, if not naive, dedication to social justice ultimately led to his demise at the hands of power-hungry Snow. His death was one of the most impactful displays of politically-motivated execution in the entire film. It urges us to ask: how many of us are willing to die for what we believe in? More than that, how many people do die at the hands of systems that reward compliance over critical social disruption?

Many of us aspire to be protagonists, the main characters of our own stories. Lucy Gray and Katpiss Evergreen, two young girls compelled to perform and fight against their oppressive government for survival, might resonate with how some of us felt when our reproductive rights were stripped away by our own Supreme Court. We want to believe that as individuals who observed or participated in any civil rights movement over the past five years, we can understand Katniss’s anger and the urgent need to fight back. And while many of us may indeed share similarities with Katniss, the reality is that main characters—the faces of revolution—are often a rarity among activists.

The allure of dystopian narratives lies in their potential to awaken our social consciousness. As we navigate the complexities of our own dystopian reality, may we, like the characters of “The Hunger Games,” find the courage to challenge the status quo. 

However, if there is one thing “The Hunger Games” affirms, is that today’s young adults are undeniably self-aware. The true distinction between this generation of young adults and the ones that came before it isn’t our supernatural capacity to “change the world,” it’s that while we can, and want to, we often lack what it takes to do so. 

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About the Contributors
Shannon Garrido, Editor-in-chief
Shannon Andera Garrido Berges (she/her) currently serves as editor-in-chief, formerly she managed global content and covers news centered around the Caribbean. Her interests include Dominican politics, pop culture, and environmental reporting. She is an undergrad at Emerson College, majoring in Journalism.
Hadera McKay, Content Managing Editor
Hadera McKay (she/her) is a senior at Emerson College pursuing her BA and accelerated MA in Publishing and Writing. She primarily writes on the convergence of Blackness and pop culture. Her writing has appeared in Catapult and she is currently an Editorial Assistant for the literary journal Ploughshares.
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