“May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor”
Teaching class and collective action with The Hunger Games
Illustrator: Bec Young
The Hunger Games is a wildly popular dystopian book trilogy by Suzanne Collins. The first two of four films based on the novels were international blockbusters. The next installment, Mockingjay: Part 1, is scheduled to open this fall.
Voraciously read by teenagers, The Hunger Games is showing up on school reading lists, alongside classic dystopian novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Dystopian fiction is particularly useful for social justice teaching because its authors traditionally use the genre to expose, criticize, and reimagine the real world. In The Hunger Games, Collins presents a powerful critique of economic injustice and capitalist ideals, and offers a vision of collective action largely led by youth. In an interview, she states:
Telling a story in a futuristic world gives you this freedom to explore things that bother you in contemporary times. So, in the case of The Hunger Games, issues like the vast discrepancy of wealth, the power of television and how it’s used to influence our lives, the possibility that the government could use hunger as a weapon and then, first and foremost to me, the issue of war.
We chose to teach The Hunger Games because of Collins’ critique of class politics, the novel’s emphasis on collective action against economic oppression, and the trilogy’s popularity with our students. We had two goals for the lesson. First, we wanted to challenge students’ stereotypes about social class by helping them recognize how class structures their everyday lives. We used Pierre Bourdieu’s definition of class to guide our pedagogy. In this model, three forms of capital are at work: economic (financial assets), social (networks and institutional relationships), and cultural (education, ways of speaking, style of dress). Our second goal was to encourage students to see class struggle as part of their own histories, and to connect Collins’ story of collective resistance to the real world by providing them with a historical example of class solidarity.
For those unfamiliar with the book, The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic future in the nation of Panem (once North America). After a series of natural disasters and a war, Panem was created as a “shining Capitol ringed by 13 districts” organized around labor industries such as mining, agriculture, and electricity. The people in the districts outside of the wealthy Capitol experience extreme poverty, starvation, and violence. When the 13 districts rose up against the Capitol, the Capitol annihilated District 13 and defeated the rest of the districts. To discourage the districts from further uprisings, the Capitol created the Hunger Games, which require each of the 12 districts to “provide one girl and one boy, called tributes, to participate.” The 24 tributes are sent to an outdoor arena where, over the course of a few weeks, the competitors fight to the death in a televised competition.
The Hunger Games focuses on how social class organizes relationships to power and to the means of production. The 12 districts represent the laboring classes and the Capitol, the bourgeoisie. The citizens of each district produce a particular commodity. For example, Katniss Everdeen is the main character and narrator of the novels; she lives in District 12, which produces coal. But the Capitol owns the means of production, controls and profits from exports, and consumes the bulk of the coal produced, which leaves the residents of District 12 cold and starving. As one of our students put it: “This novel depicts the 1 percent of people who have all the money and the 99 percent who do not. It is a great foreshadowing of the Occupy Wall Street movement in September 2011.”
What Does “Class” Mean to You?
We taught this Hunger Games lesson in two different interdisciplinary undergraduate classes at a university in Vancouver, British Columbia, composed of racially and ethnically diverse Canadian and international students. Although we piloted this lesson at the university level, we have each taught younger students and see this activity as adaptable to middle and high school classrooms. To prepare students for the session, we assigned Ira Shor’s 1972 article “Questions Marxists Ask About Literature” to guide their reading of The Hunger Games. Shor suggests questions that focus on the role of class in fiction writing, including:
- Are characters from all social levels equally well sketched?
- What are the values of each social class in the work?
- Are the main problems or solution in the novel individual or collective?
Students chose a question from this article to guide their reading of The Hunger Games and came prepared with a two-page response.
We wanted to bring assumptions and stereotypes about social class to the surface. So, to open the session, we asked students to think about class in their own lives and asked them to answer two prompts:
- Write about a time you learned to which social class you belong.
- Write about a time that you made an assumption about someone else’s class status. What elements (speech, clothes, peer group) influenced that decision?
As bell hooks (2009, p. 135) writes: “Nowhere is there a more intense silence about the reality of class differences than in educational settings.” Her observation fit well with our experience. As some of our students struggled to describe their class status, they asked “What do you mean by class?” and “My social class or my parents’?” We responded: “What do you think? How do you define class?”
Students talked with each other in general terms about social class as a system that divides people into three broad categories of upper, middle, and lower/working. As this racially and economically diverse group of students from many parts of the world tried to place themselves in a system of economic inequality, they often found class difficult to define.
For students who had grown up in poverty, however, markers of lower- or working-class identity and how others stereotyped them were clear. Some of these students told stories illustrating how class was intimately tied to race in their experiences as visible minorities and/or immigrants to Canada.
Students had less trouble articulating the assumptions they used to decide someone else’s class location. When asked to list stereotypes they used to assign social class, they called out “education,” “clothes,” and “where they live.” We could see students defining social class in terms of economics (how much money one makes) and in terms of cultural capital (education, style of dress). Students pointed out that one can buy cultural capital—particular clothes or cars—on credit. Although students were savvy readers of visible (and often stereotypical) markers of social class, they lacked a critical vocabulary for talking about how economic, cultural, and social forms of capital are tied to ownership, power, and privilege.
During our planning, we had deliberately decided not to share a working definition of social class because we wanted to see how students were thinking about and understanding social class. However, after teaching this several times, we think it would be better to put forward a clear definition of social class so that students would have common vocabulary with which to work.
This preliminary discussion did underscore for us the importance of using The Hunger Games to draw attention to privilege and the kind of power exercised over others through what we own or don’t own. We wanted students to understand that markers of status mask structures that benefit one group over another; to explore the structural dimension of class and how class, race/ethnicity, gender, and sexuality intersect; and to see that class is not only about oppression—it’s also about the possibility of collective action to create a more equitable society.
To Strike or Not to Strike
Our next step was an activity that we hoped would challenge students to think about those issues.
We separated students into five character groups: Effie Trinket, Madge Undersee, Peeta Mellark, Rue, and Cato (see Resources). We chose a cross section of characters from the book, deliberately omitting Katniss so that students would delve deeper into the other characters’ motivations and how they might affiliate. We have tried this activity in a number of different contexts, and it works best if students are familiar with the novel and its characters. We gave students this scenario:
On a hunting trip in the outskirts of District 12, Katniss and her best friend, Gale Hawthorne, find a metal box with some historical documents that the Capitol did not destroy, including newspaper clippings from the 1919 general strike in Seattle, Washington. These documents have inspired Gale to call for a general strike across the districts to protest the annual reaping and the Capitol’s control of labor.
In his speech to District 12, Gale says, “It’s to the Capitol’s advantage to have us divided among ourselves.” He asks that all districts stop production of materials for the Capitol. The consequences of joining the strike are serious. Already the Capitol has mobilized “peacekeepers” to each of the districts.
People within your district disagree on whether or not to strike.
As you can see from the scenario, we decided to add a real-world element to the mix. We had Gale find two documents related to the 1919 labor strike in Seattle (see Resources): activist and journalist Anna Louise Strong’s “Call to Arms” from the labor-owned Union Record and an editorial against the strike from another local newspaper. The Hunger Games mirrors in many ways the setup of Seattle’s five-day general strike. Although some workers united across lines of race and gender, organizations that were essential to organizing the labor action, including the American Federation of Labor, did not allow people of color or women to join their ranks. We wanted students to recognize that Collins’ novel was based on the history of class conflict in North America and to get a sense of the strategies activist-writers used to encourage readers to act.
We then gave the groups the following task:
Your character must take a position about whether or not to strike in solidarity with other districts. Your character should write a short statement. It can be in the form of one of the following:
- A “call to arms” that persuades—or an editorial that dissuades—your district from going on strike.
- Any text that you think fits what your character would do (e.g., a private note to another character, a public service announcement).
Use the information in the character profile to decide what action your character might take in this situation. Think like your character, use quotes from them, and consider their motivation as you justify their actions.
Who are your allies? What districts might work with you? Why? How will you organize?
We hoped that students would consider how characters in the novel might use their economic, cultural, and social capital to collaborate either for or against a rebellion.
Given our previous experiences using popular culture to teach, we were not surprised that the activity engaged the students. They had heated debates about how a character would act and why, and we watched students return to the book over and over to find evidence for their points. After each group had created their statement about whether or not to strike, the groups presented, in character, to the class. For instance, one group decided to create a script with visual images for a televised public service announcement and performed it for the class in the character of Effie Trinket. Another group crafted a private note, while a third made a public statement against the strike but secretly allied themselves with other districts in support of the strike.
Who Has the Power?
After the dramatic activity, we asked, “What influenced your decision about whether or not to strike?” In one class, two of the five groups said that access to power was most important, indicating that they had started to expand their definitions of class to acknowledge the significance of social and cultural capital. They also realized that one’s class location is not just about individual “choice” or effort, but rather about one’s access to power, privilege, and opportunity.
For example, Madge Undersee, the mayor’s daughter in District 12, has more economic capital than many in District 12; she also has substantial social capital because of her family connections. Students pointed out that Madge’s network, tied to her father’s role as mayor, would make it difficult for her to publicly support the strike. In the novel, however, Madge uses her social capital in the struggle for justice and provides Katniss with an image of solidarity for the revolution, the mockingjay pin. As a result, the groups had intense discussions about whether or how Madge would affiliate with others against the Capitol. One student wrote: “Characters are trying to find someone who has power (for example, Madge) to ally with and support them. So the power struggles and differences set a tension between upper and lower classes.”
Many students felt they could build alliances only with districts that shared their social class. A student noted: “In the role play the notion of individuals forming alliances with others experiencing the same circumstances was a common theme that kept reoccurring.” Students articulated how social class also provides possibilities for resistance and collaboration: “We are from District 12—the poorest district—but we have a lot of power because we produce coal.” The group decided to stop producing coal for the Capitol and to affiliate with other groups to make coal the “standard of value of every district.” This group also found the historical documents from 1919 helpful for reframing their understanding of class. One student observed: “The historical documents remind people they have real power, because most resources are held by people in poor districts. They can work together to fight against the Capitol.” This was one of the key themes we had hoped to impart through this activity.
An essential lesson of the Seattle general strike is that society—like the Capitol in The Hunger Games—depends on workers, and that the working class can exercise power through withholding labor. Thus, solidarity is a currency workers can use to create a better world and push their own interests. The Capitol exploits citizens differently in each district so that some have more privilege than others; however all districts share a common colonial relationship with the Capitol. These students began to strip through the differences and find their common source of oppression—and power.
It would be overreaching to say that this activity challenged every student’s stereotypes about class or that all participants expanded their definitions of social class to include an understanding of power and privilege. For example, when asked to reflect on how their assumptions about social class had shifted after completing the activities, some students said that they ignored the historical documents and simply focused on the fun of being a character from the novel. Others explained that their views hadn’t changed: “This role play confirmed my assumptions of social class when it came to upper class as generally they’re well-off and ignorant, pompous, etc. And for lower class [it] confirmed it as well; they’re driven and hardworking, not the least bit lazy.” This was surprising because Collins deliberately creates a range of characters within and across each of the 12 districts. In future sessions we might do more to emphasize Ira Shor’s question: Are characters from all social levels equally well-sketched?
We also realized that we hadn’t provided enough background information, given the power of class stereotypes that obscure fundamental issues of inequality. In the future, we would teach this novel and lesson across several sessions, include a concrete definition of class, and require additional reading to give students relevant vocabulary as well as a more in-depth introduction to reading critically for class issues in literature.
The Hunger Games could be taught in any number of ways to focus on a range of issues. For instance, some might argue that Collins’ novel is as much about gender as it is about class. The book features a strong heroine who outsmarts, takes action against, and resists the Capitol. Others might address the ways race is portrayed in the novels and in the film versions. The main characters in The Hunger Games are often read—and cast—as white, although Collins describes Katniss as biracial. Collins attempts to address racial oppression through the inclusion of District 11 and the character Rue, who is African American. In a blog post about the racial politics of The Hunger Games trilogy, critic Zetta Elliott points out: “In the white imagination, the dystopian future involves white people living through the realities that people of color have lived or are living through right now!” The racist backlash against the casting of actors of color to play major characters in the first film version of The Hunger Games could provide an opportunity for in-depth discussion. Our lesson would be more powerful and realistic if students focused on how class in The Hunger Games intersects with race (including whiteness), gender, and sexuality.
One student wrote about The Hunger Games: “Suffering people, starving to survive, coming together with hope, is the poetics of a story that threatens the social order in the Capitol.” Pairing that dramatic situation with the real-life drama of a historic general strike facilitated conversations that challenged stereotypes about class, and offered a positive vision of the power of solidarity against injustice.
- Hunger Games Role Play materials
- Bourdieu, Pierre. 1986. “Forms of Capital” in J. Richardson, ed. Handbook of Theory and Research for the Sociology of Education. Greenwood.
- Collins, Suzanne. 2008. The Hunger Games. Scholastic.
- Elliott, Zetta. 2013. “Black Girls Hunger for Heroes, Too: A black feminist conversation on fantasy fiction for teens” in Bitch Magazine. bitchmagazine.org/post/black-girls-hunger-for-heroes-too-a-black-feminist-conversation-on-fantasy-fiction-for-teens.
- hooks, bell. 2009. “Confronting Class in the Classroom” in A. Darder, M. Baltodano, and R. D. Torres, eds. The Critical Pedagogy Reader (2nd ed.). Routledge.
- Shor, Ira. 1972. “Questions Marxists Ask About Literature.” College English 34.2: 178-9.
- Strong, Anna Louise. 1919. “Call to Arms.” Union Record. Reprinted by HistoryLink.org. historylink.org/index.cfm?DisplayPage=output.cfm&file_id=739/.
- Valby, Karen. 2011. “Team ‘Hunger Games’ Talks: Author Suzanne Collins and director Gary Ross on their allegiance to each other and their actors” in Entertainment Weekly. insidemovies.ew.com/2011/04/07/hunger-games-suzanne-collins-gary-ross-exclusive.