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Hunger Games Post: Is the Reaping Fair?

This morning I finished the final Hunger Games book, Mockingjay, and I loved them. They have their flaws to be sure, but it's saying something that my first response to getting to the ending was to want to start at the beginning once more - and actually do it. While the books are tragic and dark, they are tragic and dark in a way that I found compelling and realistic. It's not often that I can say that.

As I'm rereading them, I thought I'd blog about them this time through. I will assume everyone has read the first book or at least seem the movie, so if you haven't and still want to remain unspoiled, just avoid any posts with this "Hunger Games Post:" subject line. If a book involves substantive details from later books I'll put that under an LJ-cut.

Anyway. We're just starting off, so no need for a spoiler-warning. The Hunger Games is set in a world where global warming has made the old status quo unsustainable. This resulted in a rather authoritarian regime with a very unequal society, between the districts (outlying regions that produce, in the words of movie!Snow, "Things we want, things we need") and the Capitol (a pampered head of government and power). All of this led to a rebellion seventy-five years before the book begins. As penance for this rebellion, the districts have to offer up one boy and one girl, between the ages of twelve and eighteen that will fight in a bloody gladiatorial type competition. The one winner is allowed to live and even given a lifetime of riches. In the later books we also learn that all the families in their districts get free food that whole year. Some of the districts more cozy with district see it as a kind of sporting event, but in the poorer ones being chosen is seem as a death sentence.

Here's where things get really interesting, IMO. When you're twelve you get one entry into the reaping lottery, and then an extra entry is added on every year. So it's more likely that older kids will get chosen than the younger ones, although sometimes younger tributes really are chosen as we see in the books. (The heroine's little sister, Prim, is chosen, as is Katniss's ally Rue and several others.) On top of that, kids can sign up for tesserae - a monthly supply of grain and oil for a single person. You can sign up for you and anyone else in your immediate family. That carries over, too, so if you still need tesserae the next year you have the extra entries from the previous years and this one. 

The upshot is that Katniss's friend Gale has fifty-odd entries in the yearly drawing. He's eighteen and has been signing up for tesserae for his younger siblings and mother in addition to himself. Katniss has a high number as well, for similar reasons. On the other hand, the mayor's daughter Madge has never really had to worry about having enough food, only has six or so entries - making it at least eight times more likely that Gale will be picked than that Madge will.

Thinking about this I found myself wondering: is it fair. I mean, obviously the Hunger Games itself is massively unfair. The whole concept that you could take kids at random for something that happened before they were even born (and that wasn't uniquely the districts' fault in any event) outrages me, as it's intended to. But going along with that, is this a good way to allocate those spaces in the Games? On the one hand, those kids who receive tesserae are receiving something that the rich kids didn't (food), but on the other hand the only reason the rich kids didn't need the tesserae is because they were born into privilege. The book makes it seem like social mobility is impossible, and it's not Gale's fault he wasn't born to one of the few shopowners rather than to mining parents.

Think about it this way. Say that the army, rather than being all-volunteer with bonuses, you did a draft. Would it be more fair to be one-citizen-one-entry or let the poor "buy" more entries into the draft as a way to prevent hunger at, say, $1,000 of any government subsidy (public school, welfare, food stamps, Medicaid, etc.) in exchange for an extra entry into the draft. Say there's also an actual war going on, so some proportion of those drafted will actually die. In a lot of ways that's similar to the Hunger Games reaping.

It's really interesting to me to think about why the reaping (as opposed to the games per se) are unfair. On a gut level I believe they are, but working out why is a bit tricksy. I can see a lot of American political parties being behind a system like this, for instance, if the games themselves weren't so unfair in the first place. After all, no one's forcing the poor to accept tesserae, and surely they prefer that to starvation.

What are your thoughts on this? Is this a good way of choosing tributes?

(More posts to come as I read through the Hunger Games; feel free to suggest things you'd like me to talk about and I'll think about it.)


( 6 comments — Leave a comment )
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 21st, 2012 11:51 pm (UTC)
I never noticed the absence of other countries. That is odd, to be sure - but not *so* odd, since this story is set so far after the global warming blowup. We simply don't know enough about their situation, what they knew bout the situation, or indeed what they do. It's possible Katniss simply didn't know about their involvement. We just don't know. (As I said, I was a bit swept away by the story, and I'm looking forward to reread it so I can catch stuff like this.)

As for the parents' willingness to sacrifice their children, I think there is an answer there. The kids are separated out from everyone before the reaping, after which point it's not a real possibility to get away. Before then, there's only a statistically small chance your kid will be called up - but definite and heavy consequence if the kid doesn't attend. Add to that the lack of weapons, the ruthless laws, the past history of obliterating Thirteen, and the fact very few could survive without wages from government industries, and the lack of information about what's going on in other districts. I hate the concept of the games, but I can also see how people would acquiesce.

I'm not sure every post will be philosophy though that does come most naturally to me, so it's a possibility. Personally I think the books are a very provoking metaphor if nothing else, and I think these scenes are worth discussing at that level. I do hope you enjoy some of them but also understand if it's not your thing, so I won't be offended if you choose not to read this stuff.
(Deleted comment)
Sep. 22nd, 2012 12:19 am (UTC)
Fair enough! That's allowed, too. I do hope I didn't come off passive/aggressive, I really was trying to say it's okay if these particular posts don't prove to be your cup of tea.

And thanks for the comment, btw. You definitely got me thinking.
Sep. 22nd, 2012 01:54 am (UTC)
I've only seen the movie, and have yet to read the books. But I have to say the world did seem a little one-note and unexplained to me also, though I hope that more will be made clear in the books.

Clearly the Reaping is stacked. It clearly serves the powers in charge to have the poorest (and thus the ones with less to lose) be the most intimidated. I think that it must have been set up to be deliberately unfair: the ones who might be thought most likely to violently revolt would be those who are the most desperate. By stacking the Reaping and making it most likely that the poor kids will be picked, they repress those people and make them too fearful to revolt. That's probably why the "reminder" film every year as well. Plus, I think that at the topmost echelons of Power in that world, there is an element of sadism that enjoys seeing the poorest people beaten down. Kind of like certain people in our own world think that people are poor because they deserve to be poor, and by extension, they deserve to be kicked around as well...

The part that doesn't ring true for me is the way each District is a stereotype of only one commodity. Everyone in District 12 is part of a coal-mining economy. (This includes the shop owners and people like Peeta's parents who are bakers, because they cater to the people of the District.) Yet if exchange and communications between Districts is forbidden, where do the other commodities come from? Also it doesn't address the issue of how coal will run out--if it is being relied on so heavily, wouldn't it be making the global warming worse? Perhaps that's also addressed in the book, but I have to say I wondered about it.

But the issue that caught my own attention is the whole idea of the Games--they are clearly an extreme extension of the current craze for reality shows like "Survivor", in which people are aggressively eliminated one by one. It's not the first time that theme's been dealt with in the movies: "The Running Man" and "Truman" also show what using "real" people for "entertainment" could lead to. I think the idea of the Games is a fascinating and yet repulsive extrapolation of a trend, and very very disturbing.

As it should be.
Sep. 22nd, 2012 02:28 am (UTC)
That's a good point regarding the reality show element of it all. It makes a lot of sense given the capitol is so made-over they seem *all* facade. But it's truly tragic in its own way.

I think you and Juno are right about the world-building aspect of it. Because the book is set well in the future, it doesn't spend a lot of time explaining how we got there but just takes it as a given that things are this way and moves on from there. That works quite well at times because it draws attention to the things that haven't changed. But in other ways it can be a real weakness.

On where they get the things they need to live... lack of communication doesn't mean lack of trade. There are definitely trains that can move things around, and the citizens get paid so they could use that money to buy goods. I can also see some few people - shoe-cobblers and the like - developing primitive businesses to sell things to the other citizens. (Gale's mum actually is a washer-woman rather than working in the mines, for instance.) I'm not sure that's any more improbable than having a coaltown or a tourist town where all the work is either in the industry or supporting the workers of that industry.

On the whole "class warfare" thing: at one point Katniss speculates that that is the purpose: have the coal-miners mad at the shopkeepers rather than at the Capitol. (Kind of like the strategy of having working class poor fear "welfare queens" rather than getting frustrated at captains of industry.)

Interesting points all around! Thanks.
Sep. 22nd, 2012 02:35 am (UTC)
I have to say, it's likely that a number of people on your flist are rather finicky about good world-building, given that most of us owe allegiance to the master fictional world-builder, *grin*. Most sci-fi and fantasy seems to me to be a little lacking in that regard compared to the Legendarium. LOL!
Sep. 22nd, 2012 06:52 am (UTC)
I haven't either seen the film or read the book. But with regard to your army comparison, I've heard that even in all-volunteer armies you are more likely to find the poor entering the army. They find the army offers them a career or an education they would not find otherwise accessible. Of course, there are other reasons for joining, too. And it may seem wildly exaggerated to compare this (indirectly) to the Reaping and the tesserae. Still, even choices that seem to be free can be stacked, one way or another.
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