The Tortoise's Tale

"... we went to school in the sea. The Master was an old turtle-we used to call him Tortoise-"
"Why did you call him Tortoise, if he wasn't one?" Alice asked.
"We called him Tortoise, because he taught us, " said the Mock Turtle

Jill P. May, editor

Identity Construction and the Gaze in The Hunger Games

Allison Layfield

Allison Layfield is completing postgraduate studies at Purdue University.

When asked about her inspiration for The Hunger Games, the best-selling Young Adult dystopian novel series, author Suzanne Collins said:

I was very tired and I was lying in bed channel surfing. I happened upon a reality program, recorded live, that pitted young people against each other for money. As I sleepily watched, the lines of reality started to blur for me…I am fearful that today people see so many reality shows and dramas that when the real news is on, its impact is completely lost on them. (Blassingame 727)

This description of Collins' experience hints at two common concerns regarding the way Reality TV has changed how we watch television: first, we have shifted into a moment when we want television to be "real" and the lines between "reality" and "reality tv" have become indistinguishable; second, Collins worries that the effects of these Reality TV shows change the viewers themselves.

These concerns are not new to the academic discourse of Reality Television, but have usually been discussed in terms of surveillance, rampant consumerism, commodification and the effects of late capitalism. Yet these themes are rarely discussed in relationship to Reality TV's target audience, young adults. The very separate discourse of media influence on adolescent identity construction often focuses on television portrayals of adolescence that address issues of marginality, race, class, gender and cult television (Ross 9-18). Reality television rarely enters into this conversation; both discourses miss the opportunity to better understand how media communicates with an adolescent audience regarding identity formation. I propose that The Hunger Games is a key coming-of-age narrative that shows us how interactive media marks a distinctive shift both in how subjects construct themselves and how the act of viewing itself has permanently changed.

While The Hunger Games is a dystopian novel about life under a despotic government, it is also a bildungsroman in which we follow Katniss Everdeen and her transformation from ordinary girl into Reality TV hero (Nayar). This transformation occurs when she is pulled from her home in a coal-mining district and forced to participate in the Hunger Games, an annual event in which children fight to the death in an arena. The structure of these games follows the Reality TV format and is broadcast across the nation. By following Katniss through her character-building transformation, we can explore the relationship between identity construction and Reality TV as a genre: her journey is an example that shows us how Reality TV has changed the way we watch television. The Hunger Games also asks its adolescent audience to think critically about the way television influences their own identity construction process.

Reality TV has set itself apart from previous television viewing practices by introducing two new features to television programming. First, the "reality" element of the show comes from the contestants, who are selected from among the viewing audience. Unlike the stars of fictional television shows, Reality TV stars are not actors. Part of the Reality TV game's appeal is the democratic selection of contestants, which offers an opportunity to close "the gap between the unfulfilled passive viewer and the impossible fullness of the screen idol/advertising model. Reality shows promise to collapse the distance that separates those on either side of the screen by cultivating the fantasy that 'it really could be you up there on that screen—just send in your head shots and a homemade video, or call this number now'" (Andrejevic 9). The "reality" part of the show thus begins before the show is aired; rather than entering the Reality TV program in the first episode, contestants enter the narrative during the audition or video interview, when they have to convince producers that they can provide the necessary drama to keep viewers interested. To do so the contestant must show casting directors and producers that s/he fits the mold of the stock personas needed to make the show function dramatically. But this is not an acting audition. Contestants do not showcase their acting abilities; they work to prove that they are "genuinely" that persona, that their "real" selves neatly fit the persona slot that casting directors are looking to fill. This genuineness is necessary, as Jérôme Bourdon has pointed out, because "participants have no choice but to expose themselves [their genuine selves] as they do not know what will be edited from the shooting" once the show has started (68-69). The show may choose to use audition footage as part of the show, and so the audition tape itself has to feel authentic in order to win over viewers from the first moments on air. But while contestants must be "genuine," they also know which persona archetypes are selected for shows and they construct their "true selves" as representative of a particular Reality TV persona that will be valuable for producers.

The second major feature of Reality TV is its use of voter participation. Voters, through participating in the selection of contestants and winners, receive a television experience that is "mass customized" for them; they transition from a more passive position as viewers to a more active role through which viewers can effect the outcome of narratives (Andrejevic 11). These features of Reality TV—"real" people chosen from the viewing audience and the use of voter participation—mark a shift in the relationship and identity construction for both viewers and the on-screen idols they watch.

Before Reality TV existed, Laura Mulvey identified the relationship between viewer and on-screen idol as related to scopophilia: spectators experience pleasure in looking, in subjecting people to a controlling gaze (16). However, that was in 1975, and while Mulvey's ideas about the Male Gaze are (sadly) still applicable to film and television today, the Reality TV format has fundamentally changed how spectators gaze. To understand how Reality TV has led to a new kind of gaze, it is important to understand how Mulvey's "male gaze" works directionally: the spectator does not gaze directly at the objectified female body on screen; he must first re-direct his scopophilic pleasure through a male protagonist because the woman on screen can never fall in love with the non-diegetic spectator (Mulvey 21). The spectator's gaze moves in one direction only: from his position outside the film, through the male protagonist, toward the object of desire.

With the advent of Reality TV, the spectator's gaze is less controlling and more interactive. No mediation through a character is necessary; the spectator interacts directly with the objects on screen to change what occurs as well as who leaves the narrative. In this new viewing practice, "interactive gazing," the audience and contestants gaze at and interact directly with one another. Spectators interact with contestants through voter participation, and contestants interact with spectators by taking advantage of the narrative and filming techniques of Reality TV to influence how viewers will vote. Where Mulvey's gaze was motivated by scopic and erotic desire, this "interactive gazing" in Reality TV transforms desire into the audience's search for what Jérôme Bourdon calls "the authentic intimate" within the narrative.

In Reality TV the relationship between spectator and contestant revolves around the spectator's search for "moments of authenticity" when contestants are "'really' themselves in an unreal environment" (Bourdon 70). Both producers and the audience know that exposure of the authentic intimate will lead to a show's success; the real draw of the Reality TV game is therefore not so much the structured game of the show, but the emotional game that contestants inevitably play because of their constant interaction under stressful circumstances. While we want to know who will win the show, we watch the show week-to-week because we want to see how contestants negotiate their relationships with one another; watching their interactions allows the audience to "share an intimate acquaintance with the performers" (Bourdon 68). Within this emotional game spectator and producers turn to two key situations for the authentic intimate: lovemaking and conflict, moments during which it is assumed that a person exposes "the naked self" (70). This search for the authentic intimate via interactions between spectators and Reality TV contestants provides an interesting space in which to think about how identity construction works. The desire of the Reality TV audience is not merely scopic, it is also a desire for validation of social norms that we assume are true to human nature. When we search for "the naked self" in Reality TV performances, we are really looking for "real" people to act according to—or in opposition to—our moral codes.

In relation to The Hunger Games, this search for the "naked self" is further complicated by the layers of audiences who "watch" Katniss progress through the games. There is the Panem audience, consisting of viewers in the different districts from which the tributes are collected. Then there are the actual readers of The Hunger Games novels, who watch the games through Katniss's perspective and "see" the filming of the games through written description. Finally, there are the viewers of The Hunger Games film adapted from the first novel. For each of these groups, the "real" Katniss is determined by distinctly different layers of representation. For the sake of this discussion, I will refer to Katniss's diegetic audience as "Panem viewers" when considering the audience who watches the Reality TV game show within the novel. "Readers" refer to the novel's audience, both adult and young adult readers, who filter their experience through Collins' written descriptions. The term "audience" refers to both of these groups as a collective.

Constructing one's identity according to the process and desires of the entertainment industry is a matter of life and death for Katniss, who we watch move through identity construction by adhering to the Reality TV process of molding her "true self" to a reality TV persona. Katniss does this by creating moments of authenticity for the audience during moments of conflict. Through voter participation and the seemingly democratic selection of contestants from the "real" viewing audience, Reality TV games ritualize a process "whereby both performers and audiences are in effect governed through the unreflexive naturalization of particular behavioral norms" (Couldry 58). This naturalization of norms as related to the authentic intimate is apparent when Katniss performs moments of authenticity for Panem viewers who will sponsor her with life-saving gifts. Her successful identity construction will be either validated or rejected by these viewers who reward or punish contestants based on their actions.

The first of these moments comes when she runs from a forest fire deliberately set by the Gamemakers in order to force Katniss to engage with other contestants. As she examines a resulting wound Katniss admits, "I almost fainted at the sight of my leg. The flesh is a brilliant red covered with blisters" (Collins 178). Katniss recognizes that this is a moment in which her true character will be revealed to Panem viewers: "I force myself to take deep, slow breaths, feeling quite certain the cameras are on my face. I can't show weakness at this injury. Not if I want help. Pity does not get you aid. Admiration at your refusal to give in does" (179). Katniss's reaction to her injury is familiar to both Panem viewers and readers of The Hunger Games, two audiences whose heroes are characteristically defined by an unwillingness "to give in" to pain or to ask for help. Katniss is thus defined as a hero for us; she validates the heroic code as natural, as part of her real self. Because readers have seen Katniss in her home environment where she bravely defies Capitol law to hunt for food illegally, we know that her bravery in the face of adversity is genuine—and so her character formation is less constructed by the television show than it is nearly compatible with it. The challenge for Katniss is not to act brave when she feels afraid (she is brave) but to force herself to perform for the camera by using ritualized expressions of bravery and heroics in order to show Panem viewers and producers that she fits the persona of the hero.

As Katniss engages in this interactive relationship with Panem viewers, the camera itself mediates her identity and her survival as she uses surplus footage to demonstrate her ability to be a key dramatic player in the structured conflict of the Hunger Games. When cornered by other contestants who want to eliminate her from the game, she climbs a tree to escape from them; she quietly hides while the Careers (contestants who trained to enter the Hunger Games) kill another girl nearby. As Katniss watches, it is revealed that her ally Peeta has joined the Career Pack. Although surprised at this revelation, Katniss recognizes that she has an opportunity to win back the audience's support. She tells us: "While I've been concealed by darkness and the sleeping bag and the willow branches, it has probably been difficult for the cameras to get a good shot of me. I know they must be tracking me now though. The minute I hit the ground, I'm guaranteed a close-up" (Collins 163). As Pramod Nayar points out, the Hunger Games, similar to other Reality TV shows, "valorize individual skill, utility and individual thinking." These characteristics are also definitive of the action/military hero, and Katniss has solidified her appeal as an action hero within the Reality TV show of the Hunger Games. But she has also given us a peek at the ideological function of Reality TV games in general: these shows piece together narratives that "both affirm prevailing beliefs and naturalize them by embedding them in contexts that represent themselves as real" (Henthorne 96). Katniss's injury, and her ability to move past this injury to utilize the camera to present herself as emotionally strong are without a doubt real in the sense that her actions are unscripted and she is actually injured. However, the gamemakers have significant agency in constructing her as hero given that they have created the fireballs and indeed the entire world of the arena. Katniss can make decisions, but only within the gamemakers' constraints (Risko 81). While she has utilized cameras to imitate the action hero's nonchalance in the face of danger, the public expression of her identity is only partially under her control and is also constructed by the entertainment industry and the state.

When Katniss jumps out of the trees and smiles at the camera, we understand that she is aware of the cameras and how surplus footage will be edited for Panem viewers. Surplus exposure reassures spectators that the artifice of the show does not negate its authenticity; it also helps convince Panem viewers that the contestants are revealing their "true" selves, even though they know that the show is edited.? In the moment of high emotional tension surrounding her revelation with Peeta, Katniss must show that she is worthy of the audience's attention, and that she is able to compete in the structured game of the show. Katniss is not only aware of how the show will edit and produce this moment, she is able to imagine the audience's reaction and use it to her advantage:

The audience will be beside themselves, knowing I was in the tree, that I overheard the Careers talking…I need to look one step ahead of the game. So as I slide out of the foliage and into the dawn light, I pause a second, giving the cameras time to lock on me. Then I cock my head slightly to the side and give a knowing smile. There! Let them figure out what that means!" (Collins 163)

Her ability to recognize an audience's reaction stems from her knowledge of the Reality TV game genre (Fisher 28). Because she watched the Hunger Games throughout her childhood, she knows how Panem viewers react to plot twists, as well as that these twists can be used for her own survival on the show (Wright 102). This is the interactive gaze at work: Katniss imagines how Panem viewers watch her, and she behaves accordingly. She watches their gift-giving behavior and uses her own actions to influence their future behavior. This is possible because she has previously been a spectator. And so a cycle of interaction occurs: she learns how to be a contestant from having been a Panem viewer and having participated in the audience/tribute relationship in the past (Wright 102). She also acknowledges the "real" relationship with Panem viewers—she is performing for them; they know she knows how to manipulate Reality TV conventions—and that her performance here will make her moments of authenticity all the more real later in the games. Eventually, Katniss is rewarded with the Panem viewers' "vote" of approval that arrives in the form of medicine to help heal her burn. This moment also establishes her agency within the show. She knows that producers will edit her narrative, and so she constructs a moment that is full of mystery and drama so that producers cannot ignore her; thus she begins to take control of her narrative.

Katniss also delivers moments of authenticity through her love story with Peeta. Upon the announcement that, in this particular Hunger Games, two tributes from the same district can win, Katniss immediately thinks, "Two of us can live. Both of us can live" (244); this realization leads directly into her understanding of "us," and that Katniss and Peeta can survive the games together. She then says, "Before I can stop myself, I call out Peeta's name" (244), which ends the book's second section, "The Games." The next section, "The Victor," begins with Katniss' realization that this instinctive reaction to find Peeta is both authentic and dangerous: "I clap my hands over my mouth, but the sound has already escaped…What a stupid thing to do! I wait, frozen, for the woods to come alive with assailants" (247). This uncontrolled vocal outburst parallels an earlier moment in the story when Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place in the Hunger Games. In both situations, Katniss screams aloud and places herself in danger by voicing her compassion for others. Because of this parallel between Katniss's pre-Reality TV actions and her filmed actions, the audience understands that she has genuine feelings for Peeta and this authentic moment will validate their upcoming love scene.

After searching for Peeta and finding him mortally injured, Katniss cleans his wounds and they take shelter in a cave. Certain he will die, Peeta begins to discuss his death. Katniss reacts: "Impulsively, I learn forward and kiss him, stopping his words. This is probably overdue anyway since he's right, we are supposed to be madly in love" (261). Her immediate reaction to talk of his death is an expression of love, and while it's followed by thoughts of how the kiss plays into their Reality TV narrative, Panem viewers read this as a moment of authenticity, once again rewarding Katniss with a gift of broth to help Peeta—and their love story—survive. In realizing they will only survive the games if Panem viewers support them as a couple, Katniss turns her moment of authenticity into a performance (Henthorne 102). To maintain the authenticity of the love scene she imagines a formulaic love narrative for the audience: "If I want to keep Peeta alive, I've got to give the audience something more to care about. Star-crossed lovers desperate to get home together. Two hearts beating as one. Romance" (261). From this moment on, Katniss and Peeta perform their love story for the cameras as a direct communication with Panem viewers. However, here Katniss' relationship to the audience differs from her earlier performance in the tree: as she engages in a relationship with Peeta to satisfy Panem viewer expectations, she begins to conflate reality and performance. As the games continue, and even after Peeta and Katniss eventually win and exit the arena, she is uncertain about her love for him; the public identity she has created cannot be separated from how she understands her inner self.

A contestant's conflation of reality and the show's narrative is necessary in order to win the Reality TV game; a contestant must deliver not only moments of authenticity but also a final, "hyper-real moment" defined by "a sense of revelation, of supreme authenticity of the naked self" (Bourdon 71). These moments in which the true self is exposed happen through two kinds of narrative tension, love and conflict, because we understand love and conflict as potentially revelatory (71). Here, I would like to extend the idea of "revelation" in Bourdon's definition: the hyper-real moment must have the potential to transcend the enclosed "reality" of Reality TV, extending the revelation into the contestant's real life; it must be normal-life-changing in order to reach "supreme" authenticity. When Katniss gives Peeta a handful of poisonous berries and the couple agrees to kill themselves, she is delivering the hyper-real moment to her audience. But she is also exercising the little agency she has as an individual controlled by the Capitol (Henthorne 102). The self she has constructed transcends the show's narrative; once commodified as a love object and built to fit the soldier-hero persona, Katniss has no "genuine" self to go back to in "real life." She realizes this as she renames herself on the train home from the Hunger Games: "Katniss Everdeen. A girl who lives in the Seam. Hunts in the Woods. Trades in the Hob…I try to remember who I am and who I am not" (370).

The identity construction process that Katniss undergoes during the Reality TV show is not limited to her as a contestant; Panem viewers experience a similar process. Because contestants are genuine people and not actors, Reality TV spectators thus watch Reality TV strategically; watching the show means learning to understand how you too might be able to critically look at your performance in "real" life, before categorizing yourself as a Reality TV persona who might be able to participate and win. While spectators gaze at and interact with contestants, they also have the opportunity to construct themselves as possible contestants. Thus the identity construction process transfers from the diegetic world of the show to the non-diegetic "reality" of spectators' lives, giving Reality TV the potential to re-shape how we construct our identities, as possible products valuable in the entertainment market.

Katniss is not the only one permanently changed by the Hunger Games; Panem viewers have changed how they participate in the games as well. Traditionally, the twelve districts of Panem only support (vote) for the child tributes from their own district, as sponsoring others could potentially aid in the killing of their own district's children. But when Katniss tries to save Rue, the tribute from District 11, the district responds with a gift of food. In the second book of the series, Catching Fire, details from Katniss's Hunger Games costume become the symbol of the rebel fighters as her actions inspire small rebellions in the districts of Panem. This interaction, which occurs through the televised Hunger Games, transcends the diegetic/non-diegetic boundaries of television narratives and the identities constructed through the show have the potential to permanently change both Panem viewers and the contestant who engage in the show together. Finally, Katniss's transformation process not only affects Reality TV viewers within the novel, it positions adolescent readers of the novel in a critical space that asks them to question how Katniss' struggle for agency in her identity construction process might relate to readers' own world outside of the novel.

While the novel creates a space for adolescent readers to compare their own lives to the lives of characters in The Hunger Games, teachers can help students make use of this critical space by guiding them towards a comparison in several ways. One way to do this is to help students recognize that Katniss is not a natural-born hero. She may be courageous, but she becomes a Reality TV star because she knows how to perform the role of the hero in a way that her audience can understand. By asking students to recognize Katniss's extreme self-awareness under the eye of the camera, along with the way she fits herself into the persona of the soldier hero, teachers can help students reflect on the "personas" they are expected to perform in their own world through critical reading and writing activities.

Another way is to use The Hunger Games novels series as a way to introduce social justice projects into the Language Arts/English classroom. Amber M. Simmons suggests that the use of such projects can help students relate to and fight against real-world issues of hunger, poverty, forced labor and the use of child soldiers, and in doing so help them develop a critical consciousness about the world in which they live (24). Thus the trilogy both serves as an introduction to and gives students the ability to talk about important issues with which they may not have experience. This might help students see beyond an often-accepted rhetoric that everyone is equal and individual (Simmons 26). As a result, students can begin to find ways to help those in need, through organizing events like hunger or loose-change drives that support charities. These projects both show students that their actions can affect change, helping them to overcome a feeling of helplessness and futility that may accompany the development of their critical consciousness regarding real-world issues (24).

While this second pedagogical approach does a wonderful job of using literature to help students become involved with real-world projects, teachers can further develop this social-justice approach by asking high school and college-level students to reflect not only on real-world issues but their own subject position in relation to these issues. Simmons proposes that students research forced labor and the blood diamond industry in Sierra Leone alongside The Hunger Games as part of a social-justice project. In such a project, I would add that it is vital for students to recognize that the blood diamond industry depends on a demand for diamonds. We could, for instance, ask students to reflect on their own relationship to diamonds: What are diamonds used for? How do we commonly see diamonds in our part of the world? How does culture/media encourage us to use diamonds? After learning about Sierra Leone, how can they change their own relationship to the diamond industry? Incorporating reflective writing assignments that ask students to consider more than their own individual identities, and focus on their choices and subject positions in the world can help them better understand how inequalities around issues like hunger and labor are created and maintained by our own actions. By combining a social justice approach with reflective writing activities, teachers encourage students to think in terms of solidarity rather than simple charity; and it is the impossibility of solidarity which usually divides the social world in dystopian fiction such as The Hunger Games (Fisher 27). While this might be too overwhelming and broad-reaching a concept for younger students, it can help high school and college-aged students see the world not as a self/other dichotomy, but as a system in which they are a functioning part and therefore possess the potential to change the world by helping others and by changing their own behaviors and habits.


Works cited:

Andrejevic, Mark. Reality TV: The Work of Being Watched. Lanham, Md: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004. Print.

Blassingame, James. "An Interview with Suzanne Collins." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 52:8 (2009) 726-727. Print.

Bourdon, Jérôme. "Self-Despotism: Reality Television and the New Subject of Politics." Framework: The Journal of Cinema & Media 49.1 (2008): 66-82. 30 March 2012.

Collins, Suzanne. The Hunger Games. New York: Scholastic Press, 2008. Print.

Couldry, Nick. "The Ritualized Norms of Television's 'Reality' Games." Reality TV: Remaking Television Culture. Ed. Susan Murray and Laurie Ouelette. New York: New York University Press, 2004. 57-74. Print.

Fisher, Mark. "Precarious Dystopias: The Hunger Games, In Time and Never Let Me Go." Film Quarterly 65.4 (2012): 27-33. JSTOR. <>. 18 March 2013.

Henthorne, Tom. Approaching the Hunger Games Trilogy. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2012. Print.

Mulvey, Laura. " Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema." Visual and Other Pleasures. Bloomington, In: Indiana University Press. 1989. 14-26. Print.

Nayar, Pramod K. "Growing Up Different(ly): Space, Community and the Dissensual Bildungsroman in Suzanne Collins' the Hunger Games." Journal of Postcolonial Networks, JPN Reviews 2. 12 May 2012. Dec. 2012>. 24 Dec. 2012.

Pharr, Mary, and Leisa A. Clark, eds. Of Bread, Blood, and the Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co., Publishers, 2012. Print.

Risko, Guy Andre. "Katniss Everdeen's Liminal Choices and the Foundations of Revolutionary Ethics."Of Bread, Blood, and the Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy. ed. Pharr, Mary and Clark, Leisa A. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co., Publishers, 2012. 80-88. Print.

Simmons, Amber M. "Class on Fire: Using the Hunger Games Trilogy to Encourage Social Action." Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 56.1 (September 2012): 22-34. Print.

Wright, Katheryn. "Revolutionary Art in the Age of Reality TV."Of Bread, Blood, and the Hunger Games: Critical Essays on the Suzanne Collins Trilogy. ed. Pharr, Mary and Clark, Leisa A. Jefferson, N.C: McFarland & Co., Publishers, 2012. 98-107. Print.


Allison Layfield

Volume 17, Issue 1, The Looking Glass, May/June 2013

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