Beyond the Blood: What The Hunger Games Can Teach Tweens

Yes, it's violent — but The Hunger Games: Catching Fire can lead to discussions about a number of important issues

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Murray Close / Lionsgate

A debate that began with the first Hunger Games film will, undoubtedly, pick up again this week as we await the release of the sequel, Catching Fire. Should tweens see the movie?

The films — both are rated PG-13 — are based on a young-adult fiction series by Suzanne Collins in which a totalitarian regime holds games every year in which children are forced to murder one another. Some (on this very site) have argued that no amount of good filmmaking or positive messaging should justify taking an under-13-year-old to films with such a violent premise. Others say that the link between violence in films and real violent behavior is shaky, at best, and the films are actually far less violent than the books themselves. (They are, after all, trying to get tweens into the theater, and they can’t do that without a PG-13 rating.)

I’m not a parent (nor do I plan to be anytime soon), so I can’t speak to whether I would take my own 8-year-old to see The Hunger Games. I can, however, say with some confidence that both the book and film series hold valuable lessons for youngsters — ones that, rather than coming from parents, are perhaps much more digestible coming from a hyperpopular pop-culture franchise represented by Jennifer Lawrence.

Here are four lessons tweens can take away from The Hunger Games: Catching Fire:

1. Women can be strong in a nonstereotypical way
Women in popular culture tend to fall into familiar categories. One is the damsel in distress. She has a pretty face, is relatively useless when the hero gets into a fight and is a prize to be won at the end of the tale (think: most Disney princesses).

Then, even the “strong” female characters are easily stereotyped. When they’re young, they’re tomboys who just won’t wear dresses, get into all sorts of trouble and usually are orphaned or without a mother: Lyra in The Golden Compass, Becky “Icebox” in Little Giants, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird and Arya in Game of Thrones. When these strong women grow up, they often become the fierce mother protecting their child … or some random kid who is in danger: Ripley in the Alien movies, Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies and even Leigh Anne Tuohy in The Blind Side. There are, of course, exceptions, but very few.

But Katniss Everdeen — The Hunger Games’ heroine — is something entirely new. She doesn’t need to be saved. Give her a bow and arrow, and she can take care of herself. In fact, she tends to come to the rescue of men, not the other way around. She also seems totally ambivalent in reciprocating the amorous advances of her suitors. She has more important things to worry about: like surviving the game and keeping her family alive. She’s even willing to manipulate men’s affections to ensure her own survival (sorry, Peeta). In doing so (as I’ll expand upon in the next section), she embodies both male and female ideals. She’s one of the most complex female characters we’ve seen in pop culture in a long time. And that’s a good thing.

2. Boys can look up to a woman as a role model
For whatever reason, a girl looking up to male heroes like Harry Potter or Iron Man is considered perfectly normal, but female role models for young boys are scarce. But as A.O. Scott and Manohla Dargis over at the New York Times observed, Katniss embodies both male and female qualities. She’s a hunter-defender that takes on the roll of patriarch of her family after her father dies. But she also exudes femininity and uses her sex appeal and guile to win her fans for the games. She nurtures, and she kills.

Male and female tributes are set on equal footing at the beginning of the Hunger Games. There’s a male and female tribute from each district, and never does Collins imply that the females are at some disadvantage in the brutal arena simply because they have uteruses. So boys can relate to Katniss just as well (if not better) than they can relate to Peeta. In fact, if they want to idolize the strongest character, they’ll choose Katniss over any man in the series.

3. War — even when necessary — has real and dire consequences
Far from glorifying violence (as many other popular TV shows, video games and films for tweens do), The Hunger Games shows the consequences of brutality. In the Hunger Games themselves, the “bad guys” are clearly the tributes who train to kill and enjoy violence. The “good guys” are the ones who kill only to survive. Outside the arena, the true “bad guys” are the government officials who created the violent Hunger Games. Even when killing becomes necessary in order to overthrow this totalitarian government and restore democracy to Panem, the violence has dire consequences. (Without spoiling anything, many people die.)

When Katniss returns home at the beginning of the second book/film (as previewed in the trailer), she’s not a hero basking in her glory, she’s a young girl who’s seen too much. She shows signs of PTSD: she has nightmares, pushes away her comrade in war Peeta and becomes terrified at the prospect of returning to the games.

As Collins shared in her interview with TIME’s Lev Grossman, Collins’ father was a Vietnam vet who taught at West Point. As a result, she was exposed to war at a young age. When asked if she thought the violence she wrote was gratuitous, she said, “I think it’s very uncomfortable for people to talk to their children about war, and so they don’t because it’s easier not to. But then you have young people at 18 enlisting in the army, and they really don’t have the slightest idea what they’re getting into. I think we’re putting our children at an enormous disadvantage by not educating them about war, by not letting them understand about it from a very early age.”

4. Politics, race and class divide us
Collins’ futuristic dystopia taps into some very real racial and political realities all too familiar in this day and age. The government spies on its people. It uses a reality-television show on steroids — the Hunger Games — as progovernment propaganda and a scare tactic. The divide between the lavish trappings of the Capitol and the poverty of more distant districts results in a clash between socioeconomic backgrounds — the haves and the have-nots — and, inevitably, race has a place in upheaval. Rue and Thresh, both described as dark-skinned in the book, come from District 11, which we see is populated with many (if not mostly) black workers. And they are the ones to start the rebellion when Katniss covers Rue’s body in flowers in an act of love and (perhaps unintentional) defiance. The other poorer districts are the first to join District 11 in the uprising.

Today’s moviegoing tweens have grown up in the age of reality TV. They’ve also spent the past few years witnessing (but not necessarily understanding) reports about Occupy Wall Street, upheavals and civil wars in the Middle East and controversies about the National Security Agency and surveillance of citizens. Just as Collins suggested, war is a tough subject to broach, so are questions of race, class, totalitarianism, spying and civil war. Why not let the movie lead to a conversation about these important issues?