I went to see The Hunger Games last weekend. Not only have I not read the books, I hadn’t even heard of them until recently, but I was blown away by the story invented by Suzanne Collins.
In it, North America has been destroyed by war, famine and plague, and been replaced by a post-apocalyptic world called Panem, which consists of the wealthy metropolis Capitol, and 12 poor districts surrounding it. As punishment for their earlier rebellion, two members from each district are selected each year to participate in what is known as The Hunger Games, in which only one will come out alive - all for the viewing pleasure of the Capitol as it is screened on reality television.
Katniss Everdeen, who lovers of the franchise have come to know as a strong, brave, independent woman, volunteers to take the place of her younger sister when her name is pulled out of the draw. People everywhere have related to the young heroine, who symbolises hope in a world which could best be described as less than perfect.
Which is why news this week that Mattel are to be creating a Barbie doll in her name is, quite frankly, shocking.
On a superficial, and perhaps crude level, one may argue that Katniss is the perfect candidate to be plasticised. After all, with her stick-thin figure, which, quite frankly, suggests that Barbie probably goes hungry once in a while, what better way to represent the heroine of a story called The Hunger Games, in which, like Barbie, food is way down on the list of priorities?
This, one may argue, is a gross oversimplification and unjust association because, after all, the residents populating the districts do not go hungry by choice.
On closer analysis, however, more, and perhaps fairer associations between Katniss and Barbie arise. Both are played with for entertainment purposes, both are dressed up in fancy clothes, and both are paraded around, as the owner sees fit.
But is that really something to be celebrated? Many argue no.
For unlike Barbie, Katniss, with her anti-corporate beliefs, is anything but a product of cosmopolitan society. She doesn’t remain with a fixed smile on her face while people prod at her, make her wear ridiculous outfits, and value her as if she were little more than a doll made of plastic. She doesn’t remain silent as people around her control her. She is smart, she uses her brain, and she fights to the death, quite literally, to break away from the reality which has bought into her.
So Mattel’s decision to tangibly immortalise her by way of a Barbie doll is not just odd, but extremely worrying. It’s as if, by making a role model out of the heroine, it both reflects the movie and the judgmental message accompanying it simultaneously in an almost satirically ironic way as it contradicts the values she and the story stand for. Thus, it is guilty of the very thing it argues against – making money and providing entertainment at the expense of the vulnerable.
But deeper worries, other than offending the fan base of The Hunger Games, are at stake when we look into the self-reflecting mirror Suzanne Collins has placed on us.
For obvious to anyone who has read the book or seen the film, the post-apocalyptic word of Panem is our world. What with the reality television takeover of the last decade and a diabolical economy which is seeing the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, we are both the self-righteous residents of the Capitol and the struggling inhabitants of the districts. Most obvious is the X-Factor type show in which the vulnerable are poked, prodded and humiliated for the viewing pleasure of the public, and perhaps less clear but ever as apparent last week’s budget, which, by introducing regional pay to the public sector, is widening the gap between the Capitol and the districts. Like Mattel, the government may be claiming to stand by its people and the things they stand for, but as is becoming more and more apparent, these claims are nothing more than empty promises and ironic contradictions.
Seeing as the public sector is already fighting for survival, should we now expect Dr Ken and Nurse Barbie to hit the shelves?
And as for Hunger Barbie, would somebody please just give her a pie?