ASK Emory: Teen Fascination With the Dark Side

ASK EMORY • BY EMORY LUCE BALDWIN

Dear Emory,

I can’t believe how clueless I was. I was recently surprised—no, shocked—to discover that the Hunger Games stories are about teenagers chosen by lottery to hunt and kill other young people like themselves. Because my daughter was reading “Young Adult Fiction,” I assumed without question this was appropriate fiction for a young girl like her.

I’m also wondering why my daughter is so attracted to this kind of story? How are 12-year-olds affected when they read dark stories like these? She is pestering me to see the latest Hunger Games movie, saying “I’ve already read the books, and seen the first two movies. What difference does it make?” Am I too late, or is there something I can still do to protect my daughter’s innocence?

Appalled on Allegheny

Dear Appalled,

Dystopian books and movies like the Hunger Games are very popular with teens today, and I’ve heard other parents express similar worries to yours. Although a book’s popularity does not make it great fiction (Fifty Shades of Grey, anyone?), it’s true that the Hunger Games books have been hugely successful, outselling even the Harry Potter series.

So, what makes these books so compelling to millions of teens and tweens?

The Hunger Games books have all the usual elements: love, jealousy, heartbreak, etc. But I suspect it is the series’ broader themes about a culture that simultaneously celebrates and destroys young people that resonate with readers today.

Sacrifice

The books’ author, Suzanne Collins, was inspired by the Greek myth of Athenian youths periodically sacrificed to the Minotaur in Crete to save their families at home. The adolescents in The Hunger Games live in a future where they are forced to compete with their peers to the point of exhaustion, and must survive an authoritarian society willing to sacrifice them and their friends. If they lose, they may die. But if they win, they will be showered with wealth, fame, and privilege.

The world at any time can be a hard and dangerous place. Books and movies like the Hunger Games give kids another perspective, a safe way to see how others deal with problems and situations that may be wildly exaggerated, but still seem similar enough to be useful.

Social death

When today’s middle and high schools are juxtaposed with the imaginary world of Panem, I see some striking similarities. Even if your daughter and her friends are not literally fighting for their lives, it sometimes feels that way to young teens. The relentless exhortations to “do your best,” the imposed competition for good grades, and the constant pressure to succeed can be exhausting. Every teen is afraid they won’t be able to keep up. If the only way to live is to be successful, then is failure a kind of social death? Is this the fear we see reflected in the distressingly high rates of adolescent anxiety, eating disorders, depression, and even suicide?

Given that your daughter has already read these books, Appalled, perhaps you could use this as an opportunity to share this experience with her, to find out more about how she thinks about and understands these stories, and even connect with her as she explores these ideas and problems. I suggest you read the Hunger Games yourself. As you’ll find, the main character and her friends are explicitly outraged and disgusted with the injustice of the system. The games have been created as a way of continuously humiliating and oppressing her people after they were defeated in war. The heroine herself is terrified and trying to survive while also protecting her family and her friends.

Share

It’s too late to “protect your daughter’s innocence,” but sharing these stories with her can give you an extraordinary opportunity to influence and develop her good sense. As long as you don’t seem to patronize or preach, you may find yourself sharing some fascinating conversations:

• Which character is your favorite? Could you imagine being friends with her/him? I wonder what it would be like to know them?
• Do you ever imagine what it would be like to live in a world like this? How do you suppose you would deal with it?
• That scene seemed so unjust/horrible/shocking to me—did it seem that way to you, too? What would you have done if you were there?

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: www.emorylucebaldwin.com