5 Things Movie Dystopias Get Wrong About Dictatorships
The Hunger Games. Divergent. The Maze Runner. That gritty reboot of Cam Jansen. Dystopias populated by hot teenagers and evil adults are all the rage. That's led to every writer with a moody teen penning thinkpieces about how dystopian fiction is raising a generation of kids who will be politically savvy and cynical.
But while Divergent Hunger Runners makes for entertaining drama if you're 14 and can't decide what boy to have a crush on, they're about as accurate in their portrayal of oppressive governments as a Facebook diatribe against Presidente Obummer. And using them as political teaching tools is like training people to be scared of a guy in a bear suit while an actual grizzly sneaks up behind them.
People Aren't Divided Into Teams
The Hunger Games has the oppressed masses divided into districts based on their industrial output. Divergent divides its people into vocabulary builder words based on their personalities. My upcoming novel, Pop And Locked Up, splits citizens based on the freshness of their rhymes. The factions compete against each other and are taught to consider themselves distinct and crucial parts of society.
But if you want to keep people loyal to a dictator or beatboxer, the last thing you want to do is give them something else to identify with. A dictatorship runs smoothly when everyone is united in a common cause, not squabbling and drawing attention to the differences that make them unique. That's why North Korean propaganda constantly warns about the threat of American invasion. That's why fascists united their people against the threat of communism, and communists united their people against the threat of fascism. That's why Grandmaster Dope Funk preaches against the illicit country music mix tapes penetrating Smoothlandia's borders.
It's no secret that life in North Korea is bad, just like it's no secret that life in the Hunger Games' Panem blows harder than Gale. That's why North Korea gives their people an outside threat. America is more likely to invade Mexico than North Korea, but as long as Uncle Sam is portrayed as the harbinger of the apocalypse, the excuse for oppression is there.
Both governments rule through fear. But North Korea's fear is external, like my fear of the sentient bees that are keeping me trapped in my bedroom. Their propaganda portrays hard work and sacrifice as necessities to hold off the evils of the outside world. Living with poverty and surveillance isn't bad compared to being invaded and killed, right? Everything bad that ever happens in a dictatorship can be blamed on a mysterious external enemy, be they Americans, Jews, or the dreaded Communazis.
Panem's fear is internal. Teenagers are forced to fight to the death for no reason beyond reminding everyone of how mean the government is. There's no external enemy, aside from vague insinuations that the world is a wasteland. So everything bad that ever happens can be blamed on either the government (who makes you sacrifice your children) or the rival districts (which are controlled by the government, have a higher quality of life, and kill your kids).
A North Korean can't fly to America and kick some white guy's ass, but he can fight that fear by joining the military and being a productive member of society. The only thing Panemians (?) can do is suffer and get beaten, so the desire to fight that fear grows until you've got a rebellion. Fictional evil governments and real evil governments both rule through fear, but only the fictional ones are dumb enough to give its citizens a fear they can punch in the face.
Wealth Isn't Flaunted
Panem's Capitol is so blunt about flaunting its ostentatious wealth to the huddled masses that they're a step away from flying over the poor in diamond-studded balloons and peeing on them. Their evil President is so contemptuous of poor people that libertarians would find it offensive. But most dictatorships will downplay the wealth of the elite, or make a policy out of outright hating riches.
A good dictator doesn't use crushing poverty as a weapon, but as a noble example of people making sacrifices for the greater good -- if you skip a meal, a soldier on the front can be fueled! That's why cults of personality carefully portray dictators as both invincible demigods and salt-of-the-Earth men who rose from humble origins and still understand the commoner's plight. They're not making poor people fight to the death for their amusement; they're working right alongside them.
Pol Pot, the only man in history to rival Hitler as a real-life super villain, forced every Cambodian to work in the fields because he thought an impoverished rural lifestyle was the key to a great civilization. Mao wasn't fond of people making money, either. The wealthy have been targets throughout history, because what do they need all that money for when there's soil to till and tanks to build?
Wealth isn't something you rub in the face of a downtrodden populace -- it's something you hold up as an example of the outside enemy's decadence. Most revolutions were inspired by anger over the excesses of a wealthy elite. The Soviet Union, the French Revolution, the little-known but incredibly violent Greenlandian Uprising ... after all the rich were disposed of, the first thoughts of the new leaders weren't "Alright, now it's our turn to wear diamonds, eat caviar, and be totally ignorant of how this looks to the rest of the country!" They made themselves look the same as everyone else, no matter how well-off they might have secretly been.
You can see the same strategy today. Whenever there's a suggestion that the rich should pay more taxes or stop hunting the poor for sport, there's a backlash in which they claim to be just scraping by and that hunting man is the only way they can feel alive anymore. People love to compare the decadent citizens of Panem's Capitol to America's wealthiest one percent, but Panem's rich people don't even have jobs or live in the same city as everyone else. And Panem's government looking at human history and thinking it's a good idea to have a city that does nothing but party and profit from the backbreaking labor of poor people is like deciding a bear trap looks fuckable even though there's a severed penis beside it.
Making People Murder Each Other Is Generally Unpopular
In the annual Hunger Games, 24 innocent teenagers enter a sadistic battlefield, and only one emerges alive. The brutal deaths of the others are broadcast as a warning: Mess with the government and they'll attack you with some stupid bullshit wolf monsters. But the kid who wins is guaranteed a life of leisure, or at least as much as you can enjoy in a country where you're used for propaganda.
North Korea does the closest thing we have to a real Hunger Games, in that most of its people are starving and it throws a festival that draws the attention of the entire country. The Arirang Mass Games are possibly the most impressive display of human coordination ever conceived.
The parallels are eerie. Performers are chosen as children and dedicate their time to mastering dance and gymnastics. It destroys any chance of having a normal life, and they'll be used for propaganda. But instead of getting slaughtered, they'll all enjoy relative comfort, because you can't ask people to perform at peak physical condition if they're living on a diet of dirt and positive thoughts.
That's why dictatorships are big on festivals, holidays, sports, and handing out medals for every accomplishment from military heroism to blood donation, like the entire country is a big Boy Scout Troop. Shockingly, it's a lot easier to keep people in line with games and a million Koreans moving in unison than it is to constantly threaten them with ceremonial death.
You could make millions of these for the cost of one high-tech Death Arena.
"But Mark," you protest. "As Cracked's number one Hunger Games fan, a fact that should be self-evident, given that I'm commenting while sprawled atop my Peeta body pillow, it's my duty to inform you that they were inspired by Rome's violent gladiatorial games! Those weren't just made up by Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe to sell movies, despite your repeated claims!"
Dictatorships are downtrodden, depressing forms of rule. That's why ruling parties try to bedazzle the shit out of them. The name "Panem" comes from panem et circenses, or "bread and circuses," a term used for a government keeping the public happy with superficial pleasures instead of real progress. But gladiators weren't kids snatched from their homes by cackling villains. And the games were entertainment for everyone, not threatening displays of brutality. And Panem sucks at the panem part, too.
"But Mark," you continue, "The Hunger Games aren't meant to be entertaining. They're intended to punish the Districts for their failed uprising 75 years ago. Did you even read the novels, play the board game, and design your own Hunger Games cereal?"
Yes, I did. They're called Snow Flakes, and they're delicious. Also, collectively punishing people for something that happened before they were born is dumber than replacing both your hands with rusty chainsaws. There's a reason the modern world doesn't make random Germans fight to the death. World War II had barely ended before America started throwing money at West Germany like it was a stripper with a heart of gold and three kids to feed. That made them a loyal anti-communist ally. Panem treated the Districts like shit, causing half of them to join Panem's enemy the moment they emerged. And I'm just saying that wouldn't have happened if they had replaced their murder games with collectible pins.
Race And Gender Are Important
As the Atlantic points out, teen dystopias are set in worlds in which the government commits every evil imaginable, but racism and sexism are unheard of and religion doesn't exist. That's because the scariest future pop culture can imagine is one in which beautiful white people are oppressed right alongside everyone else. But those are glaring omissions in a reality in which race, gender, and religion have played key roles in every dictatorship.
Women are often only considered useful for traditional feminine pursuits. The Nazis and Soviets both gave medals to women who raised reality show numbers of kids. Women's rights are low on the list of things the Nazis ruined, but German women were expected to do nothing but cook, clean, and get knocked up. Thousands of working women were forced out of their jobs, and unmarried women were considered parasites, although they could redeem themselves by volunteering to have a child with an SS officer. "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" wouldn't have been a hit there, is what I'm getting at.
Then there's race and religion, two topics I know the Internet is great at discussing. Can you name a single dictatorship that didn't factor one or both into their fucked-up equations? North Korean ideology states that anyone who isn't Korean is an inferior human being. The Cambodian genocide targeted Muslims, Christians, Buddhists, and any ethnic minority that didn't fit the image of a perfect peasant. Stalin violently deported enough ethnic groups to throw an Olympic Games. There was that whole apartheid thing you may have heard about. I could go on, but ethnic cleansing tends to make for poor comedy fodder, unless the method was unusually wacky. Stupid genocidal dictators don't take comedians into account.
Discrimination has been the driving force behind every single one of the world's worst regimes, and yet in all these dystopias, everyone gets along just swell and the government is evil for unexplained reasons. At best, you might get some mumbling about keeping order after a catastrophe, but for all the details we get, the official story might as well be that no one in the government was hugged enough growing up.
So the message isn't "prejudice leads to evil," it's "governments will always become evil for no reason." You can fight back against evil in reality by showing people that their enemies are actually just like them. In fiction, you fight back with violence, because the government is inherently cruel and that's the only logical solution. Finding a peaceful solution to the Hunger Games would be like finding a peaceful solution to Sauron.
Teen dystopias give readers the worst possible solution to a problem that isn't fundamentally explained. We're left with a child's or an Ayn Rand fan's understanding that governments will always be awful, and no understanding of how everyday people let them reach that point through discrimination. It's like having an exterminator who firebombs your house at the first sign of ants, but doesn't bother to explain that leaving all those sugar cubes on the floor is what attracted them in the first place.
Change Isn't Accomplished By One Special Person Everyone Mindlessly Follows
Panem's situation is hopeless until Katniss Everdeen, a strong, independent woman, bumbles her way through a death match, gets led by the nose through an elaborate treason plot without suspecting a thing, then does whatever she's told to do while stressing out over which of two hot guys to make out with. She's a figurehead who singlehandedly rallies the masses to victory. In V For Vendetta, the government is humming along until one dude shows up and inspires everyone to fight for their freedom by dressing and acting exactly like him. In The Maze Runner, everyone stuck in the titular Maze has been stumped for years until the protagonist shows up and solves it in days.
That makes for a good story. It makes for such a great story that we tell it all the time in real life. Nelson Mandela singlehandedly brought down apartheid, Gandhi singlehandedly led India to independence, and the Soviet Union collapsed under the sheer might of Ronald Reagan's freedom erection.
In reality, entire courses can be taught on what really makes regimes collapse, and two teachers could disagree on everything. Gandhi certainly earned the ultimate honor of being portrayed by Ben Kingsley, but Indian independence was a centuries-long struggle fought by countless people. Apartheid was resisted from the moment it began. The Soviet Union collapsed when enough people living under it thought to themselves "Wait a minute, this shit sucks!" and did something about it, whether that was stage protests, write and distribute pamphlets, or simply complain to their neighbor without caring what anyone would think of them for it. And that's not even getting into complicated outside factors that I'm too dumb to explain, like economics and international pressure.
That can make dictatorships look like terrifying and mysterious institutions that rise and fall beyond the control of a single human being. And, well, that's because they are. But that also means every act of protest, no matter how small, builds momentum until the stage is set for someone charismatic and media-friendly enough to Katniss up the place. No one's going to build a memorial of you because you chastised your homophobic friend for using a slur, but you still made your little addition to the growing volume of evidence that the world was changing.
By writing a story that has one person do all the hero-ing, you're telling people that they don't have to do anything to improve the world. Why bother? Everything will be hopeless until a sexy savior comes along. All you'll have to do is follow their lead, and everything will be better forever. And that attitude, of course, is what created history's worst dictatorships.
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