Girl on Fire: Hunger Games and Media Spectacle

One of the more obvious elements of The Hunger Games that readers and critics have picked up on is that the Hunger Games represent a media spectacle much like the gladiators of ancient Rome. What I find even more important, however, is the way Katniss, Peeta, Gale, et al are able to use the spectacle for their own political agendas–from subtle subversion to all-out rebellion–while modeling critical media literacy for young adult readers (and hey, older ones too). I meant to write about this last week, but but sometimes life happens (or, you know, other things) and I had actual work to catch up on. And writing this post took me down a grad school rabbit hole. The ideas are not getting organized. Also SPOILER alert, don’t read this if you haven’t read to the end of the trilogy. I explicitly discuss the end.

The subject sort of expanded and ran away from me, so the following may be assorted ramblings. To be very brief, I am interested in Habermas’s literary public sphere and political public sphere. In the literary public sphere, developed during the 18th century, people discussed art and literature in places like salons and coffee houses. Today we call these people hipsters. Or grad students. During this time media culture, specifically print culture basically exploded, bringing unprecedented amounts of information to the public, especially as the literacy rate also rose dramatically. The literary public sphere developed into the political public sphere. In the political public sphere private people use their reason critically, asserting agency (through property ownership or other definitions of citizenship). In the modern form the political public sphere is most clearly enacted through publicity, politicians, advertising, and public relations firms who construct or manipulate the public. For more of an understanding of the public sphere and publicity, look to Jurgen Habermas, whose idea of the public sphere is foundational to democracy in some ways. (Or check out some SparkNotes. gasp! I am not an expert on any of this, so bare with me (or jump in).

In The Hunger Games Trilogy, publicity is used as a weapon as both the Capital and the rebels use propaganda and narrative as a tool to gain control of resources. The Hunger Games are a media spectacle constructed for the explicit purpose of reminding the citizens in the districts who is in charge. For the citizens of the Capital, the Hunger Games create a sort of political amnesia, enabling them to continue their consumption and forget the economic and political disparity that supports their lives of plenty. The pageantry of the ceremonies, interviews, and other parts of the training process allows them to distance themselves further from the actual violence. They have power in both the literary and political public spheres. They are, to varying extents, players in constructing the narrative that gives the Capital power. The people in the districts have no such luxury as it is their children at risk or forced to engage in the violence. In The Hunger Games, Katniss and Peeta both experience this tension as they are forced to participate, feeling their lack of agency. Still, they are able to subvert authority (mourning Rue, the star-crossed lovers story, the berries), gaining control of the narrative in a way that allows them to survive. Thus, the revolution uses the tools of the literary public sphere, in an attempt to assert their voices in the political public sphere (maybe?) Or just take the whole damn thing over.

Skipping forward to Catching Fire and Mockingjay, spectacle is used more frequently in the form of propos as well as in the grandeur and manipulation of the 75th Hunger Games. There is so much to say about the ways the Capital and the rebels fight for control of the narrative and thus for the upperhand in the conflict. There’s also the poignant factor that by the end, the narratives have become so blurred that it’s hard to tell what the truth is. That’s what finally tears Katniss apart after Prim’s death and leads her (along with the proposal of one last Hunger Games) to shoot President Coin instead of President Snow. In the end, among other themes, the series demonstrates how hard it is to know the truth when the truth is being constructed by severely partisan voices. Is the situation extreme? Yes. But Katniss’s confusion and inability to know who to trust also exemplifies the problems inherent in using spectacle and story to gain power. In the beginning the narrative was clear. They knew that the Capital was controlling them and they knew what was bullshit. By the end, no one seems innocent and the narrative itself has become fractured and takes on a life of its own. Katniss can no longer listen to President Snow and dismiss his statement (that rebel bombs killed the children) or take it at face value. The method to the madness is unclear. And it drives her mad.

To back up and track that trajectory, I want to explore just two motifs of a very complicated PR strategy unfolding—the Girl on Fire and the Mockingjay. Both were created by Cinna, who very well may be the greatest publicity mastermind in the series. (This ran away with me, thus it is probably TLTR)

Girl on Fire

Initially the girl on fire imagery Cinna invents for Katniss’s costumes for the publicity before the Hunger Games serves to “warm up” Katniss’s cold attitude while also paying tribute to the fire in her—demonstrated when she volunteers to take Prim’s place–which Cinna appreciates. Cinna uses this imagery to make Katniss more appealing to the audience in the Capital. After the games, the motif is used to make her look softer. The dress gives the illusion that she’s wearing candlelight, rather than the burning embers of Katniss and Peeta’s opening ceremonies garb. As discent spreads through the districts after the games, the imagery takes on a deeper meaning. Katniss’s defiance is spreading like a wildfire. In the next Hunger Games, the imagery grows more dramatic still: “Katniss, the girl on fire, has left behind her flickering flames and bejeweled gowns and soft candlelight frocks. She is as deadly as fire itself” (Catching Fire). The Capital quickly picks up on the imagery, however, using it against Katniss. They kill Cinna (bastards!) and Katniss is launched into the new Hunger Games arena via water. They are trying to extinguish her. She thinks, “This is no place for a girl on fire” (Catching Fire). Shortly thereafter, the girl on fire imagery ceases, giving way to the publicity strategy of the Mockingjay.


Like Katniss, the mockingjay represents a failure on the Capital’s part to control the narrative. They engineered jabberjays to serve as spies, but the original rebels figured it out and used the birds to deliver false information to the Capital. The jabberjays were abandoned and mixed with mockingbirds. Katniss reflects, “A mockingbird is just a songbird. A mockingjay is a creature the Capitol never intended to exist. They hadn’t counted on the highly controlled jabberjay having the brains to adapt to the wild, to pass on its genetic code, to thrive in a new form. They hadn’t anticipated its will to live” (Catching Fire). The Capital hadn’t anticipated Katniss’s will to live either, and the loss of control over the narrative to Katniss through those berries enrages President Snow. I discussed Katniss’s mockingjay pin elsewhere, but it is interesting how the mockingjay becomes a role Katniss plays in the media war during the uprising. (Plus, a mockingjay flying across stock footage of District 13 is what tips people off that the Capital is hiding something.) The mockingjay becomes a symbol of the resistance and then Cinna turns Katniss into one, transforming her wedding dress into an image of rebellion:

“I slowly come to a stop, wondering if I’m naked and why Cinna has arranged to burn away my wedding dress. But I’m not naked. I’m in a dress of the exact design of my wedding dress, only it’s the color of coal and made of tiny feathers. Wonderingly, I lift my long, flowing sleeves into the air, and that’s when I see myself on the television screen. Clothed in black except for the white patches on my sleeves. Or should I say my wings. Because Cinna has turned me into a mockingjay.” (Catching Fire)

In Mockingjay, after the trauma of the 75th Hunger Games, Katniss has to learn how to become the mockingjay, a process that gives her a crash course in propaganda. She’s a little slower on the uptake than the reader: “The bird, the pin, the song, the berries, the watch, the cracker, the dress that burst into flames. I am the mockingjay. The one that survived despite the Capitol’s plans. The symbol of the rebellion” (Catching Fire). But she also has the toughest job, overcoming PTSD to act like she has it together while Peeta is hijacked: “It isn’t enough, what I’ve done in the past, defying the Capitol in the Games, providing a rallying point. I must now become the actual leader, the face, the voice, the embodiment of the revolution. The person who the districts—most of which are now openly at war with the Capitol—can count on to blaze the path to victory. I won’t have to do it alone. They have a whole team of people to make me over, dress me, write my speeches, orchestrate my appearances—as if that doesn’t sound horribly familiar—and all I have to do is play my part” (Mockingjay). Agreeing to play the part keeps Katniss alive, even though she feels guilty about what that costs others. It also gives her bargaining power. She realizes the value of her star power. The spectacle of the mockingjay doesn’t work without her. As Katniss performs in the propos and demonstrates the fight she has inside as well as the tenderness she has for the other rebels, she is also consistently threatened by Snow and his forces.

You’ll notice, that the references to the mockingjay end about half way through the last novel. Once Katniss becomes consumed by worry over Peeta and the full extent of his hijacking is known, she begins to lose control over the narrative. Haymitch explains, “We can’t lose the Mockingjay now. And you can’t perform unless you know Snow can’t take it out on Peeta” (Mockingjay). Yet, in the time it takes to keep her going and to wait out the siege on District 13, Katniss’s inability to perform, Coin’s thirst for power, and the escalating violence shift the narrative. Violence trumps the mockingjay story, perhaps demonstrating that propaganda can only get you so far. The problem, however, is that the secrets, spectacles, and narratives that got the revolution going contribute to the chaos that breaks out when the fight hits the Capital. As both narratives collide, “the cause” loses its innocence just as Katniss loses Prim. Perhaps what Collins is demonstrating, then, is not an issue of good vs. evil. In the end, the use of propaganda is dangerous, no matter who’s controlling the narrative. The ends don’t justify the means and you can never take the message at face value. That is scary.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned before, one of the things I appreciate about this series as YA literature is the way that it models critical media literacy as a means of resistance. Each of the central young people reacts to or uses media differently and in evolving ways as they learn from one another. Gale initially criticizes the Hunger Games but aims to resist by escaping. Later, however, he acts more directly taking part in the efforts to make Katniss the Mockingjay. In the 74th Hunger Games, Peeta expresses desire to own a part of himself that the Capital can’t touch—to participate, but on his own terms. Still, he is the best of the three at working within the system in subversive ways. He engineers the love story and Katniss’s faux pregnancy. He also does best in the interviews. He’s a PR natural. Katniss is probably the most complicated as she shifts from passive resistance or civil disobedience to more aggressive means of rebellion. She takes up the storylines that Peeta concocts, as well as her role as the Mockingjay, but she is not a natural at any of it. She works best out of the spotlight, which makes her relationship with her own infamy perpetually vexing.

Anyway, earlier this week I decided (with help from Emily!) that in my spring Composition & Literature course I’m going to teach The Hunger Games and Lord of the Flies, focusing on themes about childhood innocence, violence, dystopia, and the adult gaze (via Perry Nodleman’s The Hidden Adult, which is genius and I have taught before). I am really excited, especially since my copy of LotF has my notes in it from AP Lit 8 years ago. My sister wasn’t even born yet….

See also, The Western Center for Journalism‘s analysis of the film adaptation’s political agenda (liberal? conservative? neither?).

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