Capitol News. With their omnipresent coverage and their saucy slogan, "If you didn't see it here, it didn't happen."
Oh, it was happening. To him. Now.
He could feel his image going live all over the Capitol. (Collins 48.)
Sure, that slogan sounds salacious with the surface-level implication that Capitol News is always going to be where the action is. But it hides a more sinister meaning when you dig below the surface: The powerful shape reality and you disagree at your own peril. Additionally, it shapes the reality into the form that it would go on to take for the following decades: The Capitol has a monopoly on violence.
In an era where media's influence permeates every facet of our lives, understanding its impact on both society and the individual psyche is paramount. Suzanne Collins' The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes provides a compelling narrative to explore these very dynamics. Set in a dystopian future, the novel is not just a tale of survival and power but also a profound commentary on the role of media in shaping societal narratives.
Summary of the ballad
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, a prequel to the acclaimed Hunger Games trilogy, offers a compelling glimpse into the early days of Panem and the evolution of its brutal Hunger Games. The narrative follows young Coriolanus Snow, who grapples with his fading family's legacy and his burgeoning ambition. Tasked with mentoring a tribute from the underprivileged District 12, Snow's journey intertwines with the Capitol's burgeoning use of the Hunger Games as a media spectacle and a tool for control.
This novel not only serves as an origin story for the future president but also delves into themes of power, media manipulation, and societal disparity. As Snow navigates the treacherous political landscape, his actions and choices are shaped by the media-driven society, highlighting the potent influence of media in shaping both individual destiny and collective consciousness. The book culminates in Snow's decisive steps toward his eventual ruthless leadership, underpinned by a deep understanding of media's role in societal control.
Propaganda: a monopoly on violence
In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, the Capitol's orchestration of the Hunger Games serves as a stark example of media's role in societal control, a concept deeply rooted in Propaganda research. By broadcasting the games, the Capitol uses media not just for entertainment but as a tool to instill fear and obedience. This aligns with historical uses of propaganda, where powerful regimes have employed media to manipulate public perception and reinforce their authority.
The Capitol employs the Hunger Games as a formidable propaganda tool, exerting control over the population of Panem. This propaganda is multifaceted and insidious, propagating a specific truth about Panem's reality: The Capitol has a monopoly on violence.
The Capitol's narrative suggests it alone has the right to exercise force, emphasizing its ability to crush any rebellion or insurrection completely and disproportionately. It uses Peacekeepers for military and police duties that it alone operates both in the Capitol itself and in the districts, and it maintains the state-sanctioned violence of the Hunger Games, which only takes children from the districts and never from the Capitol. In addition, any violence perpetrated by the Districts against the Capitol is punished by the Capitol by crushing the rebellion with disproportionate force, but also by humiliating the districts in media.
To illustrate this, we can examine a scene from the novel that sees the Capitol using Arachne's funeral as propaganda. Not only was the event that should have been solemn televised (which is not wrong in and of itself and is a common practice even in our world for public figures), but it was leveraged by Capitol officials to make a point. However, before we go into the funeral scene itself, a little background might be helpful:
During a televised visit by Capitol mentors to the zoo where the tributes were being kept, Arachne Crane brought food for her starving tribute (Brandy, District 10, who was kept in the animal pen behind bars). Arachne would never give Brandy the sandwich she prepared directly. Instead, Arachne taunted her with it, pulling the sandwich back when Brandy grabbed for it and drawing laughter from the crowd by humiliating Brandy. When Arachne turned her head to face the crowd she was entertaining, Brandy picked up the unattended knife through the bars and slit Arachne’s throat. During the sudden uproar and confusion of the crowd, Peacekeepers took aim and shot Brandy with multiple bullets in retaliation (Collins 98-101).
Now that you have the necessary background, here is the funeral scene:
“Two days ago, Arachne Crane’s young and precious life was ended, and so we mourn another victim of the criminal rebellion that yet besieges us,” the president intoned. “Her death was as valiant as any on the battlefield, her loss more profound as we claim to be at peace. But no peace will exist while this disease eats away at all that is good and noble in our country. Today we honor her sacrifice with a reminder that while evil exists it does not prevail. And once again we bear witness as our great Capitol brings justice to Panem” (Collins 129). [Emphasis mine.]
Firstly, that the President himself is giving remarks at the funeral of a high schooler (albeit a wealthy one) demonstrates how the event is being used as an opportunity to further the Capitol’s purposes. President Ravensill uses the bully pulpit (a conspicuous position that provides an opportunity to speak out and be listened to) to lionize the Capitol and demonize the districts. He uses his power to reinforce that anyone who rebels against the Capitol is a criminal. He finishes by reaffirming that only the Capitol can right the wrong.
The scene continues:
Coriolanus had wondered about the strategy of telling the districts about a tribute killing a capital girl, but now he saw the point. Behind the peacekeepers came a long flatbed truck with a crane affixed to it. High in the air, the bullet-ridden body of the District 10 girl, Brandy, dangled from its hook. Shackled to the truck bed, looking utterly filthy and defeated, toward the remaining 23 tributes. The length of their restraints made it impossible to stand so they either crouched or sat on the bare metal floor. This was just another chance to remind the districts that they were inferior and that there would be repercussions for their resistance.
[Coriolanus] could see Lucy Gray trying to hold on to a shred of dignity, sitting as upright as the chains would allow and gazing straight ahead, ignoring the corpse swinging gently over her head. But it was no use. The dirt, the shackles, the public display—it was too much to overcome. He tried to imagine conducting himself under those circumstances, until he realized this was undoubtedly what Sejanus was doing, and snapped out of it.
Another battalion of peacekeepers followed the tributes, paving the way for a quartet of horses. They were decked in garlands and pulled an ornate wagon with a pure white coffin draped in flowers. Behind the coffin came the Cranes, riding in a horse-drawn chariot. At least her family had the decency to look uncomfortable. The procession halted when the coffin drew up in front of the podium.
Dr. Gaul, who had been sitting next to the president, approached the mic. Coriolanus thought it was a mistake to let her speak at such a moment, but she must have left the crazy lady and her pink snake bracelets at home, because she spoke with a stern and intelligent clarity. “Arachne Crane, we, your fellow citizens of Panem, vowed that your death will not be in vain. When one of ours is hit, we hit back twice as hard. The Hunger Games will go forward, with more energy and commitment than ever before, as we add your name to the long list of the innocent who died defending a righteous and just land. Your friends, family, and fellow citizens salute you and dedicate the Tenth Hunger Games to your memory.” (Collins 130).
Here (as throughout the novel) we are made privy to Coriolanus’s perspective by way of internal monologue. Through this, we see the Capitol using media spectacle to promote the point that it alone has the monopoly on force. How is this?
Brandy is a human being, but she’s district, so she is not afforded the full scope of humanity that a Capitol citizen is. To illustrate this, her body is literally displayed hanging from a crane where it is not beautified by morticians to show her humanity, but kept in the state in which she was killed: dirty, ragged, starved, and riddled with bullets. It is a warning to the districts that even death won't grant them mercy.
By contrast, Arachne’s body is hidden in an expensive and ostentatious coffin in a horse-drawn chariot where she’s surrounded by her family. And while we are not made privy to the details of the ceremony (open vs. closed casket), we can assume with our knowledge of her upper-class Capitol status that she has had proper funeral preparations done to her body. We see the reality that the Capitol uses propaganda to promote: In any conflict, the Capitol always wins.
We also see that during the journey from the zoo scene to the funeral scene, the main takeaway is that violence done against the Capitol cannot be tolerated. Additionally, because it was a live televised event, humiliation of the Capitol will also not be tolerated. While we do not know that if the events at the zoo weren’t televised the funeral would not have been as spectacular as it was made to be, we can say with certainty that the Capitol’s media offensive was due in large part to fact that there was concrete evidence of district violence done in such a public manner (despite what Capitol wrongs may have led up to that point).
Essentially, the districts’ tit was due for the Capitol’s tat—Capitol retaliation that is meant to destroy any district continuation of the conflict via the Capitol’s monopoly on violence. There is also another propaganda theme at play, which is the Capitol’s “innate superiority” (which I ought to cover later).
In conclusion, Suzanne Collins' The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes serves as a profound exploration of the relationship between media and societal control. Through its compelling narrative, the novel vividly demonstrates the power of media as a tool for propaganda and the shaping of public consciousness. The Capitol's strategic use of the Hunger Games as a spectacle of fear and obedience, coupled with its manipulation of public attention, underscores the potency of media in influencing both individual perceptions and collective behavior.
The novel's themes extend beyond the dystopian world of Panem, offering critical insights into our own reality, where media pervades every aspect of life. It compels readers to reflect on the impact of media in shaping socio-political narratives and controlling public discourse. The stark dichotomy between the portrayal of Capitol and District citizens, specifically highlighted in the context of Arachne Crane's funeral and the brutal display of Brandy's death, emphasizes the deep-seated inequalities and the role of media in perpetuating societal disparities.
Collins' narrative is a reminder of the power dynamics at play in our own world, where media can both inform and misinform, empower and oppress, reveal truths and propagate biases. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is not just a story about a dystopian future; it is a mirror reflecting the complexities of our relationship with media, challenging us to remain vigilant about how media shapes our understanding of the world and our place within it. In this era of information overload, the novel stands as a testament to the need for critical engagement with media, urging us to discern the realities that lie beneath the surface of the spectacle.
Art credit for the assets in the banner: Leif Heanzo.