May the Love Triangle be Ever in Your Favour
SPOILER WARNING: Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
There are so many reasons that I love the Hunger Games and believe it is an incredible series. It's action-packed, has relatable characters, and captures the readers' attention right from the first page. Moreover, the book shows incredibly accurate depictions of mental health, propaganda, poverty, and systemic inequality. Above all, I genuinely believe this book serves as a brilliant "Baby's First Introduction to Political Science."
I did my Bachelor's Degree in Political Science, so I am no stranger to reading analyses of how dynamics of power manifest and influence systems in our society. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins has taken political theory to a whole new level, making basic political concepts not only palatable to a general youth audience but also making them entertaining.
When we talk about politics in this sense, we are not talking about Government per se, but the actual study of societies, power dynamics, what groups of people experience rights or power and why, and how these constructions and systems impact the day-to-day life of people. In this way, the personal is inherently political because our political reality frames the choices that are available to us to make.
Suzanne Collins does an exceptional job of highlighting this point. If you take the time to read the Hunger Games from an analytical lens, we start noticing that every detail Suzanne Collins included was intended to communicate a specific message within the political structure of Panem. She also allows us to see through Katniss's eyes exactly why she has to, say, hunt in the woods or play the games in a certain way, allowing us to logically trace the protagonist's choices back to the political reality that informs them.
Considering this, I want to take a deep dive into an aspect of the series that is less commonly viewed through a political lens: the love triangle.
One ugly reality of the Hunger Games is that in the promotion of the books and films, our media ended up mirroring that of the Capitol. I remember when the films first came out, there were all sorts of merchandise available - makeup, Mockingjay jewelry, tote bags, and my local bookstore had these massive cardboard cutouts of the characters with the caption "Team Peeta" or "Team Gale" noted along the bottom. The marketing team followed the Capitol's playbook to a tee, making the romance and showmanship the centre of a story about inequality, poverty, and the abuse of power.
Since then, general audiences have done well recognizing the parallel strategies of Snow and Coin, the role Katniss's clothing played in selling a particular story, and how she eventually marketed herself to start or quell the revolution. But, we have yet to reclaim the love triangle.
In my analysis, I see the "love triangle" as acting as a metaphor for Katniss's own struggle to determine her worldview and ideology within the context of the greater inter-district conflict she was forced into. In this assessment, we would see Katniss as starting the trilogy favouring Gale, and by extension, his state-level utilitarian and militaristic ideologies that emphasize individual security and power using no-holds-barred methods. Within the arena, Katniss is introduced to wider Panem, the concept of revolution, and Peeta with his personal ideology that advocates for individual agency towards collective action. His actions, as the boy with the bread and as repeatedly acting to protect Katniss, also reveal an ideology that presumes it is the responsibility of individuals and states to protect and support other nations in their sphere in as pacifist a movement as possible with the end goal of collective welfare.
Through Catching Fire, Katniss is in the thick of the "Love Triangle," but she is also in the thick of determining how she will respond to the revolution: to run away or play along and ensure personal security or to become the Mockingjay and use her individual agency to incite collective action for the betterment wider society. By the third book, she sees both Gale and Peeta's ideologies in action and lands on her own ideology, becoming the Mockingjay and using violence sparingly to topple not one but two dictatorial regimes. Her new ideology most closely aligns with the things she learns from Peeta through the series; hence him being her final choice for love interest by the end of Mockingjay. From this view, the inclusion of the "Love Triangle" serves less as teenage-heartthrob fodder and more as a metaphor that allows a young audience to better conceptualize a shifting worldview in a conflict setting. This is not a brilliant new theory. I have seen similar ideas floating around online that address this theory. What I want to do here is dive a little deeper into how we can conceptualize this theory using terminology from political science.
First, I want to establish the connections between the political systems Suzanne Collins builds in Panem and those present in our own international system. The nation of Panem is described to feature 13 Districts ringing the affluent Capitol. Each of these districts hosts a different industry and offer discrepant opportunities for welfare, wealth, and advancement. Katniss's home is in District 12, where the primary sector is coal-mining, and much of the population is starving and without basic necessities. In steep contrast, the people of the Capitol want for nothing, live in luxury, and spend their days advancing fashion and gossip. The setting is generally acknowledged to represent a fictional post-apocalyptic United States. However, this political system of certain neighbourhoods, cities, or countries having less overall economic opportunity is reproduced globally at municipal, provincial, federal, and international levels. At this current stage of capitalism and its intersections with colonialism and capitalism, the global economy is predicated on advancing opportunities for certain groups of people while systematically barring others from this. This is the exact system we see reproduced within the world of the Hunger Games.
For the purposes of this article, we will be limiting our comparison to the international political system. In the Hunger Games, the Capitol is our stand-in for our most affluent centres. The Districts of the Careers - 1, 2, and 4 are our emerging economies, while the other Districts represent those at a subsistence level. In the global sphere, we commonly refer to these dynamics as First and Third World Nations, however, it is more accurate to use the terms Global North and Global South or Core Nation, Semi-Periphery, and Periphery system. No matter what term you choose to use, those nations in the Core/Global North/First World are those that have historically benefitted from unequal colonial and slave relations with other countries, allowing them to advance their own economies at the detriment of others. The Third World/Periphery/Global South countries are those that, through these same colonial relationships, have been exploited or stripped of their natural resources or industries, cultural practices, people, or political systems and have further been systematically barred from gaining power or wealth in the global economy. Periphery nations hold the smallest share of the global economy, where the core nations hold the largest. When we differentiate the semi-periphery, we are referring to those nations that have historically been colonies or held a smaller share of global wealth, but in modern times have been gaining in power and wealth, sometimes referred to as the "BRICS" countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). We sometimes also include core nations touched by war (such as Ukraine) or colonies that still host large numbers of colonizers (such as Canada or Australia) in the semi-periphery.
On top of economic power, we can also align Panem with our global political system in terms of militaristic power. In our real-life political systems, we often refer to the distribution of military power as forming a multi-lateral, bi-lateral, or unilateral system. Before the first and second World Wars, the global political system was a multi-lateral system where many nations held military prowess and alliances that made them fierce contenders in war. After the end of World War II and the creation of the United Nations, we saw a shift to a bi-lateral system that saw military power equally split between the United States and Russia, eventually leading to the tensions seen in the Cold War. It has been argued that following the Cold War we entered a unilateral system with the United States forming the single most substantial military power in the world; however, this stance hotly contested by political scientists. In Panem, we see the militaristic order shift inversely to our own. At the outset of the series, the Capitol is the only military power in Panem. By the end of Catching Fire, District 13 has risen in challenge to the Capitol, forming a bilateral system. By the end of Mockingjay, Katniss has worked to remove both President Coin and President Snow, allowing us to infer that her safe haven is one in a multi-lateral system with power shared across the Districts.
If you follow the above logic to conclude that based on the power, economic, and militaristic balance of Panem we can reasonably compare our International Political system to the one outlined in the Hunger Games; then we can connect Peeta and Gale to Realism and Liberalism, the critical ideologies of International Relations.
First up is Gale and his connections to realism. In the field of International Relations, realism refers to a style of foreign affairs management that prioritizes the survival and self-help of the state over idealistic ideology or morals. This model encourages countries to prioritize their own self-interests by limitlessly amassing economic and military power under the assumption that all other states are also steadily accumulating their own power. In relations with other countries, a state using a Realist model of International Relations will take any and all appropriate steps to ensure their own security with little, if any, consideration for morals or ethics of the action. This model effectively sets out that there are different moral codes for individuals within a country versus how a country should treat other nations, with the latter permitting any means of violence in the pursuit of the greater good. The sovereignty of an individual state is emphasized, with alliances only being considered in the case that a nation is too weak to be secure by its own power alone. In this context, security refers to the ability of the country to maintain its own nationhood and internal control by exercising its political, economic, and militaristic power. This model presumes that each individual state must act in the spirit of "self-help," looking only to their own internal ability to provide security or opportunity. Most notably, this model of international relations has been most predominant in unilateral political systems.
I believe the model of realism offers a clear parallel to Gale's ideology throughout the series and Katniss's political ideology at the outset of The Hunger Games. At the beginning of the series, we find ourselves in a unilateral system. Both Katniss and Gale hunt because they believe that there is no higher power that is capable of helping them, meaning that they must rely solely on their own self-help to ensure their family's security and welfare. Their plans for defying the Capitol focus on their own safety and are within their personal power, such as running away. When we finally see Gale in full combat mode in Mockingjay, we see that his day-to-day ethics do not apply in battle and that he is willing to use all means necessary to secure the power of his side. These methods include trapping civilians in The Nut and potentially being responsible for the trap that leads to Prim's death.
As a foil to Gale, we have Peeta, who models the ideology of liberalism. Within the study of International Relations, liberalism refers to a model of foreign affairs that views all citizens of all nations as being deserving of fundamental rights and to the expression of their own individualistic agency within the higher systems. It sees global power politics as an alterable construct in which war is caused by undemocratic regimes and a failure to balance power in the system. This model emphasizes collective over personal security, though there are disputes by proponents of liberalism as to whether states have a responsibility to protect other nations from corrupt regimes within their borders or responsibility to non-intervention in sovereign affairs.
The model of liberalism is clearly demonstrated by Peeta throughout the series and by Katniss at the end of Mockingjay. Peeta recognizes the undemocratic processes that have lead to the Hunger Games. His primary objectives within the games are to maintain some semblance of his own ethical code and to cooperate with other players for their collective security. Outside of the games, we see him repeatedly work to support those in his sphere of influence, such as accepting personal punishment to give Katniss bread or donating some of his funds to Thresh and Rue. By Mockingjay, Peeta is the one calling for a ceasefire and working for the most peaceful possible solution to the war. What Gale is to realism, Peeta, is to liberalism.
Throughout the series, Katniss's ideology shifts in the same breaths as we see her romantic affiliations shift. She starts the series with Gale and with an emphasis on her personal security. In the games, her affections swing to Peeta, and with it, she finds herself seeking ways to maintain her ethical code in war and to work together with other players for their survival. In Catching Fire, we see her interest turn back to Gale as she works primarily for the security of her and her family. When she decides that joining with other Districts in a revolution is a possibility, we also see her love for Peeta flourish. In Mockingjay, we see her swing back to Gale momentarily as she launches attacks on the Capitol. After firmly rejecting him and his plans for the Nut in favour of a non-violent approach, we see her align most closely with Peeta and his ideology through to the end of the book where she topples two undemocratic systems to help ensure power is evenly balanced throughout the Districts.
If we look closely at The Hunger Games, every element of the book is perfectly designed to introduce YA readers to the fundamentals of Political Science. Based on these observations, I believe this applies to the "Love Triangle," too.
If you are interested in a more complete analysis of the entire series, The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games Trilogy edited by Leah Wilson, is a must-read as it addresses the deeper political, fashion, entertainment, and mental health themes of the Hunger Games. I first read this book immediately after finishing Mockingjay all the way back when I was in Junior High. I found the work better contextualized and added encouraged me to think deeper about the book, giving me a better understanding of why Suzanne Collins may have included some of the elements she did. Now, I think it is an excellent read in line with what we are doing here on Deep Dive Wednesdays!
Until next time: think critically, reflect, and keep reading!