Panopticism in The Hunger Games

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Editor’s Note: The content of this article was developed in Advanced Studies in Youth, Church and Culture taught by Andrew Zirschky at Memphis Theological Seminary in partnership with CYMT. To learn more about the CYMT graduate residency, visit cymt.org.

by Joanna Simmerman

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has quickly become one of the most important books of our times because of its popularity and the messages that it sends to young people. The story is set in a futuristic world in which America has been mostly destroyed and the remaining land has been separated into a Capitol and 12 districts. To punish the districts for a past revolt, the Capitol hosts yearly Hunger Games in which every district is required to send one male and one female tribute between the ages of 12 and 18 to fight to the death in a televised arena filled with horrors. The people from the Capitol think that this a very grand event and they have celebrations and take bets on who will make it the longest. Some of the districts feel the same way and even train young men and women to participate in the Games, but other districts think that the Games are a horror and spend their entire lives in fear that they or someone they love might be sent into the Games. This year some of these fears come true in District 12 when Katniss Everdeen is sent to the Games along with her fellow district tribute, Peeta Mellark. Throughout the story they must learn how to survive against terrible odds and how to work together to save each other’s lives.

From the very moment that Katniss stepped up to take her sister’s place as tribute, she is aware of one thing; everyone in the world is watching her to see what she will do. This knowledge carries through the entire book and shapes all of her actions. During training she is always aware of the audience, the game makers, and the other tributes watching her to figure out what kind of a player she will be inside the arena and her survival depends on what future contributors see in her. When she makes it into the arena she often pictures the people outside the arena and tries to figure out what they are thinking. When she makes it out of the Games she is still conscious of people watching her and of the fact that she has to put on a good show to convince them that she was not meaning to defy the Capitol. Her entire existence becomes focused on people, watching them and making sure they are happy and entertained with what they see.

This is an example of the cultural theory of panopticism which means that “surveillance has become the dominant mode of the operation of power” (Storey 132). In our culture today, social media has made it possible for everyone to feel like Katniss because there is the ability for people to always know and see what others are doing through websites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter. Katniss found herself wishing that she was not constantly being watched so that she could be herself, but teenagers today are just the opposite: they wish that they could have that kind of constant surveillance because they do not feel like life has enough meaning without other people being able to take part in it.

One reason why youth might feel such a need for being connected through social media is because they do not feel connected to the people around them. Youth often say that they are lonely and feel like they do not have people in their lives who they can count on and who they consider to have close relationships with. Even though they are members of many groups of people, they do not feel a real sense of community with any of them. This disconnect causes them to often seek that closeness in other ways by simply being connected to anyone they can. I see this in my youth through actions such as feeling naked if they don’t have their phone on them or staying up half the night so they can make sure they are available to text people if anyone needs them. Youth spend so much of their lives feeling lonely, depressed, and unimportant so they try to seek meaning in their lives through any semblance of relationships that they can find, such as friends on Facebook whom they have never met or following their favorite celebrities on Twitter.

This lack of real relationships within society today goes against the fundamental teachings of Christianity. We worship a communal God, who is not just one but three beings in relationship with one another. This is also the same God who created humans to be in relationship with their creator like God and Adam were before the Fall, and also with one another when it was acknowledged that “man is not meant to be alone” and woman was created to join him. When humans destroyed their chance to be in relationship with God the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus was offered to repair the broken relationship. The Church was established to be the manifestation of God on Earth and to demonstrate God’s love to one another and the rest of the world. The Church needs to be a place where people can have relationships with one another that mirror the love of Christ and communal nature of God, even if they do not accept the Christian faith for themselves.

As an important part of the Church, youth ministries need to make sure to offer youth a place where they can come to be themselves and develop real relationships that they do not get the chance to have in other parts of their life. One way that this development happens is through the relationships youth can have with leaders and other adults in the church. Often churches are just fine leaving youth alone with one or two leaders to do whatever they do until the youth get old enough to be mature and become “real” members of the church. This is not what youth need though, and instead of pushing them away, churches need to learn how to include them and invest in their lives through individual relationships with youth. Youth ministries also need to learn how to encourage youth to develop real relationships with one another. Sometimes this encouragement is done through trips or work that bring people together, other times it is just finding a way to get them to lower their walls so they can be honest with one another. However it is done, youth ministries need to find ways to show youth that they are not alone in their lives but they are called to be part of a community and seek Christ for their purpose in life.

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