Let the Games Begin

So, while I have yet to see Catching Fire on the big screen, The Hunger Games franchise has certainly been on my mind, between its box office success showing that female-led action films are more than viable; its interesting gender dynamics (and not just because the woman is the hero); and all of the political discussions surrounding its message, such as the Harry Potter Alliance’s Odds In Our Favor campaign.

Although, might I just say that some of the political articles likening Panem to America kind of missed the part where Panem IS America. It’s not a fantasy land that could be a metaphor for America. Panem is literally the United States of America after global warming and civil war. Also, it’s not fantasy, it’s dystopian sci-fi… Alright, nerdrant moment over.

But I think this is important to remember, as the impoverished Appalachian countryside that became District 12 in a fictional future does exist today and, somewhere in it, I’m sure there is a real 17-year-old girl struggling to take care of her family, even if the world will never see her in a televised fight to the death or leading a revolution. I wonder what she might think of all this.

Anyway, as The Hunger Games is very popular, it’s a perfect example of how popular things aimed at kids or teens end up causing controversy and getting banned. I’ve touched on this before in previous posts, but it remains true that adults are less likely to have read or seen YA media (as the target demographic is typically beyond the reading together stage but younger than the general population). Of course, there are adults (parents or not) who read things like The Hunger Games or Looking For Alaska or The Perks of Being a Wallflower, but many don’t and, thus, may misinterpret what a book is about or have a strong opinion about its content without having read it.

To see this in action, check out this video of older people reacting to the trailer for Catching Fire. Yes, the premise of the games are violent. The point is that that’s bad. The point is that the Capitol has a disregard for human life. The book is saying that violence and disregard for human life are bad things (an edgy stance, I know). Conflating the bad guy’s ideology with the message of a movie or book is something that happens all too often and just causes a lot of pointless controversy and unnecessary tensions. On an unrelated note, am I the only one worried about that one guy in the video?

Censorship aside, I bring you (somewhat) good news (maybe?). I have mentioned before that Brave and The Hunger Games have sparked an interest in archery among young girls, resulting in the Katniss barbie, bow and arrow toys in the much-debated “pink aisle” of the toy store, and one adorable little toddler at the King Richard’s Faire leaving adults in the dust at the archery booth (highlight of my day at the Faire right there).

It seems Nerf has decided to tap into this growing trend with Nerf bows marketed at girls. While on one level this makes me happy as girls are finally being given active, participatory, heroic roles in their own play/media, the commercial itself made me sad. I wasn’t able to find the Nerf Rebelle Guardian Crossbow ad I saw on TV, but here’s a similar one. Yay, Katniss is cool and archery is nifty, but the emphasis on “style” and the pink and purple coloring makes this less a victory and more a condescending pat on the head.

The very name Rebelle (not to mention the Heartbreaker Bow, Pink Crush Blaster, and Diva Dart) is an annoying and unnecessary attempt to keep toys gendered, girly, and unintimidating. What? Was “rebel” not feminine enough? Would boys accidentally play with the pink heartbreaker Katniss bow if its name wasn’t properly labeled? Another advert for the crossbow advertises it as “fashion-forward” and this video introducing the Rebelle product line points out how the little blasters fit in your purse.

Oh boy. Thank you! However would I bounty hunt the other girls at sleepover camp if my blaster didn’t fit in my purse? Oh, and COLORS. Girls love colors, right? I mean, y’know, just the girl ones, obviously. Also, maybe I’m overanalyzing, but I don’t remember Nerf commercials telling boys how to pull a trigger (Remember, girls, use your finger) or reminding you that this handheld fake weapon is specially designed to fit in your hand, your dainty little womanhands. It all just kind of smacks of the Bic For Her pen debacle (read the reviews; it’s the one time reading the comments will restore your faith in humanity).

Companies like Nerf and their marketing departments do realize that these things are in demand because of actual heroines who get shit done, right? Katniss was an actual fictional rebel who led an actual fictional rebellion, not a generic girl power poster girl spouting a pseudo-empowering tagline pun. Merida used an actual, wooden bow with Celtic animal motifs, not pink swishies and polka-dots. Katniss, though she must use fashion as a political tool, is not overly concerned with being stylish (nor is Merida, given how quickly she tears her cumbersome dress). The Capitol is the fashion-forward lot, with their excess and ridiculous fashion trends only there to heighten their vapid consumerism and disconnect from the rest of the world’s stark economic reality.

Even the action of the first commercial above, while clearly trying to cash in on The Hunger Games, depicts a fluffy, style-driven archery competition, thus, recasting a dystopian novel about wealth inequality, the politics of power, and a gladiatorial combat to the death as something safe and substanceless. I’m not saying have the girls duke it out or put them in fatigues, but boys’ toy commercials usually get some semblance of action or danger (or at least a guitar riff). The whole thing just seems, well, neutered.

It’s very President Snow, to be honest. Katniss can exist and people can like her, so long as she’s not a threat. So long as she remains a silly girl in love with Peeta whose only thought is her yummy co-star, er, co-tribute. It’s really distressing how much the media reception of The Hunger Games parallels The Hunger Games. On that note, the director of Catching Fire and Suzanne Collins have actually both said they like the seemingly disconnected marketing for the film for this very reason. It’s drives home the fact that we are the Capitol. And while we’re discussing that, you may find Hank Green’s take on the matter interesting.

Well, two steps forward, one step back, right? As insulting as they seem to me, my younger cousins probably would flip for these toys. It’s just sad that this is the best we have to offer our young Katnisses and Meridas. So, well, let the games begin. Just make sure you’re a player, not a pawn.

Oh, also, this.

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About boundandgaggedbooks

Shannon is a freelance writer and folklore buff. She has a degree from Hampshire College in Creative Writing/Mythology & Religion, with an emphasis on epic/oral traditions, their anthropological implications, and their modern counterparts. Her work can be found in Fabulously Feminist, Wolf Wariors: The National Wolfwatcher Coalition Anthology, The Concord Monitor, Redhead Magazine, and The Climax.

11 responses to “Let the Games Begin”

  1. Nora says :

    I totally agree with how condescending the name and styling of the bow look. But as someone who got to test it out at a nerf event, it was an awesome toy. The darts went pretty far. Now it might not be a toy that I would buy in it’s current design state, but if it gets given a “gender neutral” look, I’ll totally be first on line for it.

    • boundandgaggedbooks says :

      Thanks for commenting. Play-testing for Nerf sounds awesome. The toy itself (cotton candy treatment aside) does look cool. That’s what’s frustrating. I want to be able to get it… for my cousins. Right, my cousins… I’m not saying it has to be totally gender neutral either. Just less… This.

  2. ceruleanstarshine says :

    We bought it for my daughter (age 6) and her best friend. The two of them are a pleasant mix of tiny, confident, soon to be independent tough girls who–while still loving princesses–think shooting bows and going on adventures are way more awesome than just sitting around.

    I was offended in the store because we picked up my daughters first, and were just like “She’s going to love this–a PINK bow.” It was just sitting there on the shelf, with a bunch of other Christmas-y items. The issue came when we decided we should get her best friend one so they could play together, and couldn’t find the darn thing anywhere. Searching the Nerf aisle at Toys R Us we realized everything is black and orange–which is great, but kinda boring. All the packaging has pictures of boys on it, no girls anywhere. They hadn’t even heard of the Rebelle. Walmart, same story. I went back to a different Target and the second time it was in stock–in the “pink” aisle. Same story as Toys R Us in the Nerf aisle. I told the clerk “I never would have looked here, it just blends in with all the pink on the shelf.”

    It does come in a blue also, as we picked the blue one up for the best friend. I doubt they will care about colors, they’ll just be happy that they have bows to shoot with/at each other. They both already love basic Nerf guns.

    As to the message behind Catching FIre..after reading it, listening to the audio, then watching the movie, I have to say I am quite disappointed (but not really surprised) by the media reaction to it. As you said, they have completely missed the point. I do think they stayed true to the book and I liked that they portrayed (while still staying PG13) the darker aspects of the books. It isn’t supposed to be a fun game–it’s an awful, awful event. The reactions of the crowds, the immediate shut down by President Snow and his enforcers, the whole BOOK is about the effects of living in a dystopian society that is completely broken…but all anyone talks about is the love triangle, and the clothes. Blah.

    That being said, every single time I see her spin in her “wedding dress” and turn into the Mockingjay..I get goosebumps. Even though I know what happens to her, and Cinna, afterwards.

  3. djmatticus says :

    The best that our big money, big business, toy companies have to offer. But, I bet there are plenty of kits out there to build your own bows. Or, small shops that carry other bow and arrow toys that don’t reinforce the fact that we are the capital. We have the choice on where we spend our money, and what we buy for ourselves and our children… we should be doing more to “vote with our dollars” as well as speak out about the ridiculousness of what we are seeing…

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