Friday, April 6, 2012

Hungry for Underdogs

“The truth does not change according to our ability to stomach it.” Flannery O’Connor

Last weekend, I saw The Hunger Games. I went into it with a lot of apprehension. I think John was surprised when I told him that I would see the film with him as I had been steadfastly avoiding the trilogy ever since it first appeared in our home a couple of years ago. The stark spines have been staring out at me from our bookshelf ever since and I looked past them even when I was desperate for a new book to begin. Something – probably the movie – motivated me to crack open the first one. I started the novel and a week later, we planned to see the film.

I am not one for dystopian fiction as a genre in general. When we know that Treblinka, the Nanking Massacre, the Bosnian war and the horrific Rwandan genocide really did exist, not in the annals of our history books but in fairly recent years, I wonder why it’s necessary to imagine a dark and violent world. I worry that it makes people complacent about the dark and violent world we already inhabit. I consider myself an optimist for the most part but it seems to me that we have demonstrated time-and-time again throughout human history that it doesn’t take much kindling for us to explode in a powder keg of sadism and barbarism toward one another. I’m referring to really ugly, premeditated and sustained brutality that requires the consent of a large percentage of population, too, not just random flashes of violence. If objectification is the spark, disconnection and paranoia are the fuel. Perhaps we are hardwired for it, too, programmed deep inside the reptilian part of the human brain. This is why dystopian fiction has little appeal to me: it’s too real.

Unless, of course, people can extrapolate from these very imaginable story lines and see how our current world easily contains the seeds for the frightening future described. This has been the most interesting aspect of the Hunger Games phenomenon to me: the premise of teens killing teens for the entertainment of the elite was turned into a massively popular series and now film. How is it affecting the consciousness of readers about our contemporary world? Could it awaken people to the gross disparities in the world, the dangers of voyeurism, detachment and oligarchic power structures? Does the story lead to more penetrating insights and questions? Or has the series been spun like cotton candy into more pop culture pabulum, a cautionary tale in and of itself, consumed and enjoyed without much consideration? This is not radically different from how the wealthy in Panem’s Capitol relish the annual fight to the death in The Hunger Games

These questions have caused me no shortage of angst. Given that there are disparities in our world, we like to think that we root for the disenfranchised, the scrappy survivors. The outward support of underdogs is woven into the fabric of our human narrative. From Harry Potter to Jay Gatsby, Norma Rae to Katniss Everdeen, we love cheering on those with the odds stacked against them. It’s a source of pride: I root for the underdogs. We like what we think that says about us, that we root for David over Goliath. 

Is this how it plays out in real life, though?

In the film, Seneca Crane, the Head Gamemaker (the lead person behind the scenes who helps to direct, create and manipulate the environment the Tributes are fighting on) has a conversation with President Snow that was very telling. President Snow is unhappy with how the Games are going and the conversation leads back to the Katniss somehow managing to elude a gruesome death thus far. The President is displeased.

The Gamemaker, sensing that he has to sell this unexpected angle, says, “I mean, everyone loves a good underdog.”

President Snow icily shuts him down. “I don’t. There are lots of underdogs and I think if you could see them, you would not root for them either.”

This is very true. If an actual downtrodden person were in front of the cold-blooded Seneca Crane, he would avoid that person at any cost. The idea that we like to align with the underdog is a story we tell ourselves, not necessarily something that applies to real life. Harry Potter, the ostracized and weird orphan with the scar on his forehead? We adore him in fictionalized form. In real life, though, I’m not so sure. Norma Rae, the status quo-disrupting firebrand? Keep your distance.

As vegan, of course, I cannot help but see an analogy to the billions of animals killed every year, killed largely because we want to keep enjoying the things we enjoy and maintain our status in the hierarchy we engineered. The quintessential underdogs are the animals humans eat: the birds in captivity, the fish suffocating in giant nets, the calves taken from their mothers, the mothers forced into pregnancy after pregnancy until death. If we were truly empathetic to the exploited and disadvantaged, the narrative we like to tell ourselves, wouldn’t we naturally strive toward being vegan? Wouldn’t that be the best way to root for those who have been institutionally tyrannized?

I think we need to stop repeating this line that we root for the oppressed and have an honest reckoning with ourselves. Do we really? Or do we draw the line at the liberties don’t want to give up? The flesh, the milk, the eggs: are they worth the suffering we inflict and the delusion we sell ourselves? We are better than this. We need to stop repeating this lie that we can care about others and we can exploit them at the same time. 

Monkeywrench the machinery. Opt out. Take a real stand for the underdog. Go vegan.


  1. I think people root for the underdog when that underdog is likely to become the unexpected hero (though that really means it's not so unexpected). Everyone loves the rags-to-riches, homeless-to-success, servant-to-heiress storylines.

    But most victims are not destined to become heroes. Most will remain nameless, faceless, anonymous. We do not want to identify with those who are not beating their adversities with flags flying. Rather a "blame the victim" mentality is more common. If we say said persons brought their own problems on themselves, then we can also say we would do things differently and this makes us feel safer. It also removes our having to stop and look at our own actions and perhaps, change our behavior.

    It's easy to see how this applies to animals. Billions are killed each day yet people will rally around that one cow who escaped and jumped a high fence or the dog that made the news. The others are just part of a crowd that is (for lack of a better word) dehumanized. As long as we don't REALLY look at them and their suffering, we don't REALLY need to look at ourselves and our role in it.

  2. Rhea, thanks for your insights. I think you're absolutely right. I remember when I worked at a large animal shelter, whenever a stray had made the news - if a dog was rescued floating on ice in Lake Michigan, for example, or animals had been rescued from abuse - we would get calls all day from people who wanted those specific animals. There were highly adoptable, beautiful dogs and cats waiting for homes but they weren't "special" because they didn't have heroic stories. I agree, too, that we like those individual stories, and have a hard time considering the nameless many.


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