Inside the Capitol, the political elite have become immune to the regular killings splashed across their screens. They’ve rationalized it as the price they have to pay for their way of life. But a handful of teenage survivors of the slaughter are starting to speak out, using their status as heroes to start questioning the whole system on live TV.
The teens are articulate, telegenic, extremely media savvy, and highly dangerous to the president’s party. They’re the best chance for profound political change that anyone has seen in years, and they end up fomenting revolution.
That, of course, is the basic plot of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy, in which the eponymous games pit teen “tributes” against each other in murderous trials by combat. It’s also a pretty good description of what happened this week in American politics as the teen-led #NeverAgain movement continues growing into the most powerful force for change since #MeToo.
For days we’ve been amazed as the survivors of the Parkland massacre have repeatedly spoken truth to power — specifically, the moneyed power of the National Rifle Association and its bought-and-paid-for politicians. But should we be so surprised? This is exactly the response we should expect from a generation brought up on dystopian YA novels in which downtrodden teens rise up.
They wear their hearts on their sleeves, and we cannot help but love them for it.
Not that Emma Gonzalez and her compatriots are directly inspired by Hunger Games protagonist Katniss Everdeen. But there are distinct parallels. Like Katniss, these teens have just the right blend of righteous fury and incredible calm under pressure. They are strong enough to be visibly vulnerable. They wear their hearts on their sleeves, and we cannot help but love them for it.
Thrust into situations not of their choosing, their authenticity stands out in a sea of political artifice. When their friends die in a preventable tragedy, they call BS. And they have the cunning to know how to stretch out their moment into a movement, planning national marches and walkouts that ensure we’ll be talking about this at least two months from now.
As author Patrick Tomlinson noted on Twitter, it really shouldn’t surprise us if teens are following the YA dystopia playbook. Especially not given the way the generation in power has played the role of the bad guys.
Really? You followed the damned script to a T. You pumped up millions of kids, for two decades, to believe they and their friends could make a difference. Then you thrust them all into a dystopian nightmare of violence and persecution.
And NOW you’re shocked they’re all Katniss?
— Patrick S. Tomlinson (@stealthygeek) February 21, 2018
The Lesson of the Mockingjay
Suzanne Collins was initially inspired to write Hunger Games in 2003 by an unsettling juxtaposition on her TV. She was channel-surfing, flipping between a reality show and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. It wasn’t too much of a stretch to imagine a future society that ritualized warfare, turning the killing of teenagers (who are, after all, the majority of combatants in most modern wars) into must-see TV.
That setup soon became a cliché, the premise that launched a thousand post-apocalyptic dystopias. But look more closely at the original, because what really interested Collins was combat by media: how the teenage participants in the ritual manage turn all that TV attention to their advantage.
Re-reading the book trilogy today — as opposed to rewatching the movie quadrilogy, which focused a little too much on the action and bloodshed — this is what comes across. Katniss and her fellow tributes are hyper-aware at all times of the cameras, of the viewing public, of the scale of the game and the nature of the audience.
They’re in the fight of their lives. They’d better damn well be trained and ready.
The tributes adapt to the reality of reality TV culture. They both seek and receive media coaching from anyone who cares to advise them. And here is the perfect rejoinder to any conspiracy theorists who think they have a “gotcha” in the notion that the Parkland survivors were coached for their TV interviews: Why shouldn’t they be? They’re in the fight of their lives. They’d better damn well be trained and ready.
The battle for the future of Panem is a game of chess in which everyone is treating Katniss as a pawn — including, crucially, Katniss herself. When both the president and the cynical leaders of the resistance treat her as a strategic media asset to be either built up or torn down, why wouldn’t she take command of the narrative herself?
The lesson of the Mockingjay is this: if you’re going to be the story anyway, be the story on your own terms. Make it count for something good.
The Parkland teens are using their moment in a way most activists can only dream of. Less than a week into their political tenure and they’re taking the NRA on in the spotlight of the TV arena, and actually making it look weak by comparison.
They’re walking right up to Marco Rubio, who has taken the most NRA dollars of any senator, and asking politely that he stop — to a standing ovation. Live on CNN Wednesday night, like a poor parody of Hunger Games TV host Caesar Flickerman, Rubio could only focus on his own media power: “People buy into my agenda!”
In American politics, this is how you win: via memorable spectacle in which you look like the strong, savvy, and reasonable one.
The NRA actually is weaker than most people think. Many gun owners already know it’s a shell of its former self, a front for manufacturers that sends out membership cards to anyone it can get in its database whether they wanted to join or not, artificially inflating its numbers to 5 million.
But that fact alone doesn’t effect any change. What you need is someone with a measure of impunity to step forward and say loudly what needs to be said: The emperor wears no clothes. The courtiers all knew it, but it took a child to say it. And for the first time in a decade of legislative victories, the NRA suddenly appears to be on the back foot.
NRA chief Wayne LaPierre is now incoherently screaming about socialism. This is a new level of insanity for the NRA.
And you know what’s causing it? They’re scared. Because they know the kids at Stoneman Douglas are more powerful than their money.
— Caroline O. (@RVAwonk) February 22, 2018
Snow and Trump, separated at birth?
Meanwhile, the man who occupies the Oval Office is trying to have it both ways — but mostly making it all about him. This week saw Trump mouthing vague support for a minor piece of gun regulation, also making outrageous comments about arming teachers and then, in another desperate bid for a news cycle, claiming he was misunderstood. Somehow, again, the president’s deflections helped him muddle through; the man who took $30 million from the NRA has not received a tenth of the ire that was directed at Rubio.
Our non-fictional president doesn’t have one iota of Hunger Games President Snow’s cunning. Snow was supremely silver-tongued and faked empathy well, whereas Trump has to be coached to say things like “I hear you.” But they have at least this in common: they know it’s good optics to be seen on TV talking to the teens, whether in a White House “listening” event or a Panem-wide victory tour.
One sign of the current strength of the #NeverAgain teens: They haven’t yet been the targets of Trump tweets. He’s made a half-hearted stab at suggesting the CNN event was rigged because one teen who pulled out of the event claims he was fed a question (which CNN denies), but he has stayed away from attacking the kids themselves.
This was more surprising than you might think. The man with the world’s worst impulse control, who has ranted at Gold Star families and judges, who casually fired his FBI chief, insulted America’s allies and retweeted abominable lie-filled racist videos, still won’t dare touch these kids directly.
“What is to prevent, say, an uprising?”
Possibly because, when it comes to controlling the media narrative, game recognizes game. More likely, he just doesn’t know how far this thing could go, or whether he and his NRA buddies could have a youth revolution on his hands.
“If a girl from District 12 of all places can defy the Capitol and walk away unharmed, what is to stop them from doing the same?” President Snow asks in Catching Fire. “What is to prevent, say, an uprising?”
An excellent question, Mr. President. To which we might add: if a bunch of kids from Parkland, Florida can defy the organization that basically bought the U.S. Capitol, and walk away with sky-high approval ratings, what is to prevent an uprising of teens from all across the U.S. from doing the same?