Warning: contains spoilers
While studying Film and English at the University of East Anglia in the late 1980s, I witnessed a pub debate about the meaning of James Cameron’s movie Aliens (1986). ‘It’s about the family,’ one of my housemates declared confidently. ‘Oh, really?’ the other challenged. ‘I thought it was about Vietnam.’
The idea that any popular story could hold a single hidden message, and be ‘about’ only one thing, a specific allegorical code waiting to be deciphered, suddenly seemed so ridiculous that the debate segued into another round of drinks and an earnest analysis of Morrissey lyrics. We were young, and just starting to analyze media texts. But we were asking questions, and assuming that there were meanings below the surface; that a narrative could suggest multiple ideas, and stand for many things.
A couple of decades on, and The Hunger Games is the next big thing: a bestselling trilogy of novels, recently adapted into a blockbuster film. What is The Hunger Games ‘about’? One of my friends – on Facebook and Twitter, not across the table of a Norwich pub – claims that the science-fiction set up, with twelve Districts serving a wealthy Capitol, is structured primarily around class, and is begging for Marxist analysis. Another argues that the trilogy, with its brutal depiction of violence and its aftermath, explores war trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Neither of them is wrong, of course. We all read texts from our own cultural perspective; unsurprisingly, the first friend is a Marxist scholar, while the second writes about the military and post-9/11 politics. My own area of interest is the relationship between producers, popular texts and audiences – the matrix through which media messages circulate, are shaped and received – and I interpreted The Hunger Games through that framework. To me – though I accept those other readings as entirely valid – the trilogy is also ‘about’ Media Studies, and it may be the most important text in reaffirming the value of Media Studies to exactly the people who matter; a generation of teenagers, our prospective undergraduates.
I use ‘Media Studies’ loosely here, as an embracing, umbrella term to include the critical analysis of popular texts and audiences from a range of perspectives, across a range of forms – from the close textual examination of a television show to the quantitative interrogation of a movie’s audience, from the exploration of generic codes in a video game to a study of the political discourses surrounding a news website. I use the term loosely, although ‘Media Studies’ contains multitudes, because that is how the discipline’s detractors see it.
We know how they see it, because they enjoy telling us. As Martin McQuillan observed in the Times Higher Education (‘Weapon of Mass Education,’ 1 March 2012), the recent appointment of Les Ebdon as director of the Office of Fair Access prompted the usual sniping (‘The more Mickey Mouse courses that are on offer, the more opportunity for mindless academics to preach them’) from the usual suspects such as the Daily Mail and the Conservative Fair Access to University Group. These are tired barbs and old canards, but they have an effect. Sally Feldman, Dean of Media, Arts and Design at the University of Westminster, admitted that while her own institution had been the first to offer Media Studies, ‘we eventually became so sick of the derisive comments and negative associations that we removed the name’ (‘Painful Reflection’, Times Higher Education, 22 March 2012).
McQuillan wryly asks why ” those in the media do not take themselves seriously enough to think of the media itself as an object of academic study,’ and attributes it to ‘some form of transferential self-loathing.” But popular media – even in the modest form of broadcast television – can also inspire. As with media scholar Raymond Williams, coining the term ‘flow’ to describe the choppy stream of 1970s American TV; as with rock singer Bono, observing in the late 80s that ‘I can’t tell the difference between ABC News and Hill Street Blues’, so flicking between channels gave Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins the idea for her recent trilogy. Collins was switching from CNN coverage of the Iraq War to the reality show Survivor when the two programmes began to merge for her into a part-scripted, part-simulated military-entertainment contest where young people would become celebrities, or die in the attempt.
As such, The Hunger Games – the first book, now adapted into a film – seems a relatively straightforward Cinderella story of Katniss Everdeen, ‘reaped’ from her low-income mining district and plucked, painted, groomed and trained until she is ready to be the next media darling, her attempt to survive in the deadly arena broadcast to millions of viewers: it’s Britain’s Got Talent and The Apprentice armed with bows and arrows. Even by the end of the first volume, though, the dynamic between producer and participant has become more complex. Katniss, initially resistant to manipulation, fabricates a star-crossed relationship between herself and her team-mate Peeta, and learns that constructing a convincing narrative is at least as important for survival as her hunting and foraging skills. She lives not just because she can fight, but because she reluctantly adopts a character and plays a part for the viewing audience.
But it is in Book Three, Mockingjay, that the matrix of meaning-making becomes most intricate, when Katniss – again reluctantly – becomes the figurehead for a group of rebels who have seized the means of media production. Followed by cameramen, she travels to other oppressed districts and finds herself transformed into a cultural icon, the documentary footage of her visits deftly and instantly edited into political propaganda. Free of the Capitol’s control, Katniss is incorporated into a rebel version of ‘reality’ just as simulated as the dominant party line; she is being used by both sides, with the hand-held cameras of the resistance army no more authentic, no more a guarantee of ‘truth’, than the Capitol’s studio sets.
Collins, a long-time writer for children’s television, knows and understands the medium, and describes its conventions convincingly; Katniss’ account of the propaganda films reads almost like breathless A Level analysis. ‘Cut to the hospital collapsing in on itself, the desperation of the onlookers as I continue in voice-over…back to me now, my hands lifting up… now comes a truly fantastic montage of the battle… some amazing shots of the rebels… smash-cut back to me moving in on the camera…tight on the Capitol seal…’ Like seventeen year-old Katniss, the reader is forced to confront the constructions that make up our news, our entertainment and the unnerving overlaps between them; the increasing hybrid genre of ‘scripted reality’. Collins coins a word for these hybrids, in another context: ‘muttations.’
Mockingjay plunges Katniss into street-level warfare, but also media conflict and battles of the mind. While she and her team lead a mission that seems increasingly like terrorism, her allies struggle for control of the nation’s television network, inserting their own propaganda into official broadcasts, and she and her comrades, suffering from hallucinogenic drugs and the effects of torture, start to doubt their own reality. The novel’s recurring question, an exchange between Katniss and her pretend-boyfriend Peeta, is ‘real or not real?’ When she finally tells him ‘real’, in the novel’s last sentence, it’s a pragmatic, exhausted compromise, rather than the exultant affirmation of Molly Bloom’s climactic ‘yes’. As Bono once suggested, media fantasy can be ‘better than the real thing’; as Baudrillard noted, the image can not just replace reality, but make us forget that the real thing ever existed.
Those Daily Mail reporters for whom the mention of Molly Bloom, Baudrillard and Bono within a single paragraph represents the worst ‘anything goes’ attitude of Cultural Studies will not be convinced. But the teenagers reading Suzanne Collins’ remarkable trilogy – the young scholars who will be choosing their degree options in just a few years – will be starting to ask the same kinds of questions we were asking at UEA in the late 1980s. What does a popular text mean, how does its meaning circulate, and who does it serve? Katniss observes at one point ‘I thought I was something of an expert on hunger, but this is an entirely new kind.’
Those readers, learning to challenge, to question and to analyse without immediately accepting someone else’s ‘truth’, will be experiencing a new kind of hunger.