Selling Revolution: The HungerMerch Problem

I’ve been thinking about merchandising and whether it rots your brain-teeth. Or more specifically how it creeps into your reading of a text.

Backtrack a little. I’ve been watching the buildup, online, of merch releases for the impending release of the Hunger Games movie. And it’s been … interesting.

The Hunger Games trilogy is, on one level, a story about the power of capitalist consumerism and corporate agendas to influence personal narratives. It’s as much about branding, and how to sell revolution, as it is about teenagers and love triangles. It stands in neat opposition to Twilight, which has a central love triangle which powers a war between supernatural forces, because its central love triangle wrestles, regularly, with the fear that the political situation they are in is powering and motivating them. Its love story, so often viewed through a public performative TV lens, is laced with a cynical paranoia on all sides. It is a demonstration, in graphic terms, of the ways in which the personal is political.

So it’s a bitter pill, I guess, to see it being homogenised like this without even the slightest regard for its key themes. Mattel have reputedly said, and I am still hoping this is a hoax, because I have yet to see a direct announcement, that they’re contemplating the release of a Katniss Everdeen Barbie, with the marketing copy “With this Barbie Hunger Games Doll you can style Barbie just like Katniss”. The source of this much-reblogged grenade to the irony-glands is Entertainment Earth, and the lack of proper images has me clutching the hope-straw that maybe their work experience kid is having a laugh, or something.

But even if this isn’t, in the end, true, I’m still considering a prolonged exile from Forbidden Planet until the marketing push for this film dies down, because it really is like watching something eat itself.

But let’s talk design, because I do understand that films in this day and age must be merched, that Lionsgate needs to stay afloat, that this is a YA novel and that that merch must therefore be geared towards a Hot Topic-saleable model. Okay. I get that. But let’s look at some of the merch itself.

Here is a Hunger Games pillow with brooding hunk and general good-guy Peeta Mellark. He partners our heroine, Katniss, in the Games, which are a Theseus-and-the-Minotaur meets Battle Royale setup in which a boy and a girl from twelve districts in a future dystopian USA fight to the death for the amusement of the ruling classes.

Look at the DESIGN, with the face and the logo behind it and the high-contrast, okay?

And here is a Twilight throw with brooding hunk Jacob Black:

I don’t know about you, but I feel very much like the Twilight merch schema has set a certain kind of model and this has even bled into the design work. Horrible throws with posing beautiful teens in hi-contrast photoshoppy cutout, with big logos all over them. I get that it’s cool to have a Mockingjay pin, but some of this stuff boggles the mind – let’s not forget that in this story people are publically hanged and torn to pieces by government-genetically-engineered wild beasts, and that the ugliest aspects of this regime are consistently marketised and sold back to the public.

Katniss remarks, at numerous points throughout the books, on her own keen, bitter awareness that she’s being objectified constantly. Her relationship with her stylist, Cinna, enables her to put up with, and even nearly transcend – if not quite – the worst of this (“I am not pretty. I am not beautiful. I am as radiant as the sun”) but she observes partway through the second book that she’s realised, on returning to the arena, that the girls are being much more polished and shaved and waxed than the boys. The boys, however, don’t get off lightly – they’re dermatologically treated so that after a good while in the arena none of them grow beards. Essentially, the Games in which they are (in many cases quite literally) chewed up and spat out are murder and oppression packaged and primped and sold back to a weary public who have lost sight of any power they might still have. It is a leap from here to Barbie, and it is a leap I’m not quite sure what to make of; a leap that is selling itself as a hop, a skip and a jump, as it were.

I guess I feel a bit like it’d be a shame if people judged this thing on the merch. Even the word “Twilight” has become shorthand for “terrible tween franchise worthy only of disdainful shudder”, and while that’s also because Stephenie Meyer writes prose that is violently percussive in its clunkiness, I’m fundamentally quite uncomfy – to a level that’s surprised me! – with how the merch makes these books look. In the first book, Haymitch says it all when he snarks, “[Peeta] made you look desirable! And let’s face it, you can use all the help you can get in that department. You were about as romantic as dirt until he said he wanted you. Now they all do. You’re all they’re talking about.” Katniss has to willingly cosplay as a Barbie, almost, to get through the Games. So it’s – shall we say – a sore irony that we’ll all soon be able to buy a necklace based off the parachutes that bring her food each time she plays up to the image that’s been crafted for her for the cameras.

All this is nothing new, of course – in a way, this is just a larger-scale version of the way William Gibson heroine Cayce Pollard’s anti-consumerist mode of dressing in Pattern Recognition became, in and of itself, a kind of cosplay when this massively expensive jacket was manufactured – as this piece puts it, Cayce herself became “an education into how you could piece together a kind of anti-style, how to look at it, where to get it. And in the irony of ironies, the novel that is in some part about the virulence of marketing has definitely spawned its own cult.”

Gibson (who, hands up, I admit I’ve never read, and should read) puts it neatly himself in this interview, when he is asked about marketing as a force which “infects everything”:

Yeah. We all live in it. It often seems to be mainly what the culture does. And it seems to spin off higher and higher iterations of itself. Like now, the hottest entrepreneur would be offering marketing of marketing of marketing.

To get all Black Mirror for a moment, it’s probably a rite of passage for the success of any countercultural work of art that this happens; Banksy sells for thousands of pounds these days, Hot Topic is a one-stop-shop for punk trousers with all the safety pins pre-added, and if you shout loud enough about anything and get enough people listening to you, someone will send a marketing exec out to work out how to turn a profit off it. So to conclude, I think in that sense it probably does pay to be zen – Gibson himself reports being quite pleased he managed to write a jacket into existence.

It’s an unanswerable question: how do you sell an anti-capitalist cautionary sci-fi tale? I knew this’d happen, and you know, now I’ve had my rant, I can chill (I totally can. Watch me chill. WATCH ME CHILL) but it remains the case that however way you swing this, terrible pillowcases about the odds being ever in one’s kill-your-peers favour are still one hell of an aesthetic reach, and it’s all a bit like those comedy-postcard images of CCTV cameras eyeing the street by Orwell’s blue plaque.

Do it to Julia, and then tell your friends all you got was this lousy t-shirt. Or something.

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