If, as an adult, you saw The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 last weekend, you might have been a little disturbed. The third installment of the Hunger Games film franchise—in which protagonist Katniss Everdeen struggles with PTSD while simultaneously becoming the official face of a rebellion—is by far the most evocative of real-world inhumanity.
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It’s a truly upsetting beginning to a two-movie reckoning, but it’s mostly because this isn’t Saving Private Ryan—it’s a story meant for teens. The series’ previous installments, of course, were no frolic in the meadow, either. After all, we’re talking about a world where children are forced to murder each other to help their starving families survive a pitiless, ruling elite. The people of Panem had been stabbed, shot, and beaten dozens of times—both on camera and in Suzanne Collins’ book series—before this most recent film hit theaters. But as its source text might have signaled to incoming audiences, Mockingjay’s violence is something different altogether. Its brutality is partly why the book has been so relatively unpopular within the fandom; running the gamut from public executions by firing squad to prisoner torture and fear conditioning to hospital bombings, the ugly cruelties of this part of the story blur the line between critical fantasy and real life situations more than its predecessors.
Like all great dystopian fiction, The Hunger Games is a chilling allegory for the despair of the present, and from Syria to Gaza to Ferguson, Mockingjay echoes a lot of awful real-world scenarios. And then one has to level with the reality that 13-year-olds are reading, and watching, right along with us. Despite its young adult genre, Mockingjay—the PG-13 rating of which seems extremely charitable—seems like it might contain too much suffering for young people, whose worlds are already barraged with gratuitously violent media. It’s easy to understand how scenes in which ragged, injured children are being given medical treatment alongside the corpses of their friends (only to be fire-bombed minutes later in a sick power play against Katniss) could be traumatic for younger viewers, especially since recent studies have begun second-guessing the previously held notion that violent media has no negative affect on viewers.
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But parents ought to sleep soundly, because for the most part, that worry isn’t founded in any reality at all—in fact, the chilling barbarism contained in Mockingjay likely has the opposite effect of a Kill Bill or Grand Theft Auto (if, indeed, they desensitize kids to violence or make them more aggressive): When it resonates at all, Mockingjay is probably breeding more empathy, not less. Disturbing Stories Can Help Young People Define Ethical Boundaries The first thing you have to understand is that the way adolescents process violent media is not in the way adults might worry they do. For teenagers in particular, according to psychologist Gayani DeSilva, the ritual of consuming disturbing stories like The Hunger Games is extremely constructive. A child and adolescent psychiatrist at St. Joseph Hospital who also works with teens in the prison systems of California and New Mexico, DeSilva says that adolescents are particularly attuned to this sort of media because it helps them define their own ethical boundaries.
“The teenage years are a time to question social mores … and develop and commit to their individual set of morals and values,” says DeSilva. “Teens actively look for a better way to do things. Coupled with a broad belief in their invincibility, they truly believe they can change their world.” What’s more, she says, violence that adults see as being symbolic of deeply scarring real-world events don’t entirely have the same effect on young people, who instead see them as reflections of the internal stakes young people grapple with as they approach adulthood. “I don’t think this kind of violence is desensitizing as much as it is reflective of their id,” DeSilva says. “I think it does help teens understand their primitive process, their struggle of determining where they take a stand on how to interact with the world, and how to resolve those violent fantasies of their own.”
This clinical assessment holds up from a historical perspective as well. Steve Mintz, a history professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, points out that almost all young children “seem to be able to distinguish between ‘real’ violence and its visual representation” in entertainment, and that “middle-class kids are more knowledgeable [now] than in the past, and have been [more] exposed to violent imagery on the news, in newspapers, as well as through fictional imagery.” But he also says that the success of disturbing media like Mockingjay isn’t just the product of a cynical youth; it can be viewed as an unconscious collective response to how adults perceive children in general. “As children’s lives have, in certain respects, become more constrained (with school pressures intensified, geographical mobility limited, outdoor time truncated, and play more highly supervised), movies have compensated by challenging the restraints on the young and empowering their young protagonists,” Mintz says.
“In this sense, violence in film can be seen as a reaction against the ‘juvenilization’ of the young in a culture that still seeks to enclose the young within a restrictive cultural category that offers few ways for them to demonstrate their growing maturity or express their autonomy.” That said, just as recent studies have discovered an individual’s personality matters when linking aggression with violent entertainment, both DeSilva and Mintz also stipulate that context and individual circumstance matter immensely when discussing teens as a viewing demographic. DeSilva, for one, explains that underprivileged and traumatized adolescents, unlike some of their peers, have completely different emotional toolsets and therefore approach entertainment differently, and possibly negatively. “Teens with histories of trauma operate at a much younger age when it comes to processing emotional, developmental, and cognitive stimuli,” she says. “They may relate directly to the reality of the violence and become more depressed and prone to further demoralizing and oppressive feelings.” Finding Meaning in The Hunger Games’ Bleak World So what are tweens paying attention to in The Hunger Games movies, if not just yet how much District 11 resembles a plantation, or how a tortured Peeta seems to have been delivered straight from the gates of Guantanamo Bay?
Culture and communications researchers at Drexel University conducted a study last year on how teens interacted with The Hunger Games and found evidence to support DeSilva’s observations on teenagers’ optimism and perceived invincibility. In a more qualitative study, they processed over 100,000 tweets to examine the ways in which teens process and adapt the language of dystopian YA into everyday interactions on social media. Their findings, collected around the release of Catching Fire last fall, indicate that the violence only seems to enhance the meaningfulness of role-playing in online fan communities. “We found that, particularly with younger ages, preteens and young teens were using the language of The Hunger Games—everything from protecting the family to having to enter an arena—to describe their experiences in everyday life,” says Allison Novak, one of the study’s authors. Novak’s study also included corroborating datasets around The Dark Knight, among other teen-fandom-heavy movies, and found similar language patterns. “Sometimes their uses seem kind of silly, or they’re just being dramatic, which fits in with what we already know about teenagers, but at the same time, it’s doing something healthy: It’s giving them a vocabulary to articulate things that are stressful.”
It goes further. Ever seen those weird fan accounts on Twitter that tweet as fictional characters? Those are part of the identification that allow teens (the typical account owners) to, as Novak says, “supplement their everyday experiences with roleplaying.” Beyond specific fan accounts, Twitter has also been the breeding ground where young adults are using hashtag rhetoric, like the nonprofit Harry Potter Alliance’s MyHungerGames economic inequality awareness campaign, to synthesize their own realities with those in dystopian fiction.
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Once used to wrestle with the internal strife of adolescence, now the Hunger Games allegory creates a space for frank confessions of childhood hunger, poverty, and worker abuse in everyday life. So, relax—or better, rejoice—at all the tragic gore disturbing your kid in Mockingjay. We have to be careful about the kinds of media violence we call “gratuitous,” because depending on the context of both the graphic content and the young person viewing it, it’s possible it’s not as inappropriate as one might think. Moreover, it will continue to positively affect its younger audiences well into adulthood, when atrocities come to mean something else entirely.