I delved into The Hunger Games for the first time on a plane ride in May. As other readers have discovered, it is addictive reading, and I had finished the first volume by the time I returned home three days later. Immediately I went to my computer, opened up Amazon.com, and ordered the second and third volumes. I had to see what happened!
It is easy to contrast the world of Panem with our world, to see only what is different between them. For instance, it is almost unthinkable that residents of the Capitol could watch the Hunger Games and understand them as entertainment. Only pure monsters could derive enjoyment from watching children put into an arena to kill each other or be killed by the elaborate death traps put there by the game makers. When I first read about this, my thought was, “How can these people not see that this is the worst kind of cruelty, plain and simple?” I would like to believe that were I part of this fictional society that I would have raised a voice against the Hunger Games or at least abstained from watching them as an act of protest.
Or would I have done so?
When we read about something as starkly inhumane as the Hunger Games, it is easiest to distance ourselves from it at first. To claim that we would never get involved in something so grotesque. A harder challenge is to look at where there is a similarity between the world of Panem and our own world. Where in our culture does something count as entertainment that is actually more sinister? What do we unthinkingly participate in that actually harms other people or does damage in some other way?
Growing up, during football season, each Sunday my family went to mass, ate brunch out somewhere, and then snuggled up on the couch to watch the Minnesota Vikings and whoever else happened to be playing. In an effort to win approval from my dad, I came up with questions that showcased my knowledge of the game, such as, “The Vikings will go up by three after this field goal, right dad?” I liked this family time together and learned to appreciate the finer points of the game. When I got married to a football fan, Sundays continued to look the same each fall: church, food, football (and usually more food!).
I never thought much about watching football on Sundays; it just seemed like what people do on Sundays. But now that I have two sons, I have begun to think about watching football a bit differently. I really do not want my sons to play football, not with everything we are learning and the so much more we do not yet know about how football injuries, particularly brain injuries, cause football players to grow old before their time. Even former star Kurt Warner has expressed his preference that his sons not play football because of the size of players and the violence of the game.* And if I do not want my sons to play football, isn’t it a bit hypocritical to watch football each Sunday, supporting a game in which other people’s sons are getting hurt?
This football dilemma is a very real one right now in my household. I am not sure what I am going to do this fall when the Vikings take the field. But reading The Hunger Games has made me aware that the choices we make about what counts as entertainment are, in fact, choices with ethical consequences. Certainly, when there are bounties on football players’ heads and opposing teams hit them hard in order to injure them, I am not as responsible for the injury as the player who caused it. But if I watch football games, I implicitly am part of a system in which people are paid to hit each other and to hit each other hard. So just as the residents of the Capitol had a little bit of blood on their hands each time a child died in the arena, if for no other reason than they stood silent as the Hunger Games went on, I, too, have a little bit of the football players’ blood (and brain injuries) on my hands.
I want to be clear that my point here is not to target football per se. I also could have written about reality television shows that ask contestants to demean themselves in order to win a competition or that turn the process of falling in love and getting married into a circus. I could have discussed the pornography industry, which thrives on debasing women and men, separating their sexual being from the rest of their human being. I could even have discussed relatively innocuous dramas like Gossip Girl, (which I embarrassingly admit to watching regularly), that send the message, among other things, that a person is only as good as she or he looks.
My bigger point is that it is important to take a step back now and again to think about what we choose to consumer for entertainment. What television shows and movies do we watch? What music do we listen to? These are decisions that do matter and can have an impact on the lives of other people in our world. The impact may not be as dire as depicted in The Hunger Games, but that does not mean it is any less worth our attention.
Think about what “counts” as entertainment for you. Why is it enjoyable for you? Can you imagine any negative consequences, to you or to others, that come with this form of entertainment?