By Jay Hansen
I’ve seen and heard many stories online recently about the political message in The Hunger Games. I’ve never read the books, nor seen the movie, so I will wait to pass significant judgment on them. One story about the movie, however, caught my eye. The author claimed that the movie fed into both liberal and conservative ideology. What little I do know of the story leaves me very puzzled about how it could be a conservative movie, given that the general plot is that the wealthy have gained absolute control of the government and force the poor to fight each other to the death for their own entertainment, and to give the poor just the tiniest sliver of hope of being able to be wealthy too, because the winner gets to live among the rich. Supposedly, conservatives claim that the movie is some sort of testament to “run away, big government,” completely ignoring any aspects of class the movie has, which seems to be the primary focus. Again, I’m yet to read them or see the movie, so I still have an open mind about it. For now, let me just say that this conservative reading of the movie, at absolute best, is very shallow.
All this thinking about political messaging in movies, however, reminded me of one of my favorite movies of all time; Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. This movie acted somewhat of a speculated sequel to the Aesop Fable The Ant and the Grasshopper, which is one of the most diverse of all Aesop’s in terms of how many times it has been re-written by different cultures and re-interpreted with different meanings. The nearest I can tell is that the following is the original story as found on AesopFables.com:
In a field one summer’s day a Grasshopper was hopping about, chirping and singing to its heart’s content. An Ant passed by, bearing along with great toil an ear of corn he was taking to the nest.
“Why not come and chat with me,” said the Grasshopper,
“instead of toiling and moiling in that way?”
“I am helping to lay up food for the winter,” said the Ant,
“and recommend you to do the same.”
“Why bother about winter?” said the Grasshopper; we have got plenty of food at present.” But the Ant went on its way and continued its toil. When the winter came the Grasshopper had no food and found itself dying of hunger, while it saw the ants distributing every day corn and grain from the stores they had collected in the summer. Then the Grasshopper knew:
It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.
In modern politics this story is often used by conservatives to criticize social safety nets and welfare programs because they believe such programs promote laze and irresponsibility, like the grasshopper, and turn the United States into the frequently demonized “nanny state.” Obviously though, simply having welfare programs does not equate a nanny state. Social Security and Medicare, the largest of such programs, were created as safety nets primarily for our senior citizens, disabled, and those that have fallen on hard times to prevent them from falling into poverty. When Social Security was created, half of all seniors lived in poverty. Today, the poverty rate among seniors is only about 10%, and not a single one of them ever has to worry about not having health insurance because of these inarguably successful programs. This is the primary flaw with the conservative arguments to drastically reform, cut, or privatize the program; just because a minority people using welfare are abusing their right to it doesn’t mean we should scrap the whole system. People abuse their right to freedom of speech every day with violent, hateful, misleading rhetoric in the media; should we get rid of the freedom of speech? Absolutely not, because that right of ours is fundamental to the success and vitality of our nation. If we have a system or a right that is being exploited or showing flaws, you don’t eliminate or severely eviscerate the program; you make very minor amenities to compensate with changing times. Social Security and Medicare are inarguably among if not are the most successful programs and undertakings of the United States. To completely overhaul the systems by privatizing or voucherizing them is a patently bad idea.
With that addressed, it’s worth noting that The Ant and the Grasshopper has had many different versions, interpretations, and morals over the centuries. Some of these variations are minor, such as instead of focusing on the vice of the grasshopper the moral is more about the virtues of the ant. Others take the opposite lesson from the story, wherein the ant is the workaholic villain and the grasshopper the hero (you know, all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy). Others still completely flip the rolls around, yet maintain the same moral of personal irresponsibility, depicting the ant as a farmer unsatisfied with his own work, constantly toiling and grumbling about it. For this he is cursed and turned into an ant, where he is forced to steal the food from other farmers (using the negative imagery of an ant infestation on a farm) and survive off their hard work for the rest of his life.
I first heard this fable was when I was a little kid watching a PBS children’s show. It was essentially the same as the original, with the grasshopper loafing about each season of the year while the ant toiled, but there was one primary difference at the end; the ant took the poor, impoverished grasshopper into his home and helped him survive the harsh winter out of nothing more than the kindness in his heart. The writers made sure to include two morals in this version of the story; always be responsible and plan ahead, as well as always show kindness to the downtrodden. This way the two primary, historical lessons of the story were included, and all audiences could be pleased.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one that saw this version of the story though, because the guys at Pixar essentially made A Bug’s Life a sequel to this particular version (or at least they were inspired by it). The movie tells the story of a colony of ants on Ant Island. Every year the ants have to gather food for both themselves and a merciless gang of grasshoppers who don’t do any physical work themselves. The grasshoppers live largely a life of luxury, and are led by the very intelligent “Hopper,” who has mastered this system of oppressing the ants and manipulating them into doing all the labor of their miniature society. By the end of the movie, the ants realize that they are more numerous, intelligent, and powerful than the grasshoppers and they revolt, throwing the lazy, do-nothing grasshoppers out of town.
From that very brief summary, one could make the argument for either side of the political spectrum. Conservatives may claim that the grasshoppers represent either the irresponsible “welfare queens,” as they call them, just the same as the grasshopper of the original fable did. They could also make the argument that the grasshoppers represent “career politicians,” as they also call them, in a “big government run amuck” scenario that do nothing but collect big paychecks brought to them by the taxpayer and oppress the average hard-working American into doing everything. Both of these interpretations, however, are highly flawed, so let’s take a look as to why.
First let’s look at the classic moral often used as an argument against welfare. I’ve already presented one argument as to why eliminating or drastically reforming such social programs is a terrible idea, which would in turn make for a terrible moral to the story, but within the context of the movie there’s an important element missing that causes the stereotype of the “welfare leech” to simply not work. Hopper and his gang got their way through intimidation and manipulation. Apparently, initially the grasshoppers promised to protect Ant Island from bigger, nastier bugs that would try to take advantage of them, when in reality that’s exactly what the grasshoppers wanted to do. As villainous as it may be, it is a rather ingenious plan. So already, we’ve established the grasshoppers as intelligent (well, at least intelligently led), and more importantly powerful and threatening. This does not match the conservative idea of a welfare queen at all. The grasshoppers have direct, unquestioned control over the ants and even induce fear in them. Welfare queens are treated horribly, and we are raised in our society to think lowly of them. From there is where many uneducated conservatives make the false assumption that anyone on welfare, then, must be a “welfare queen,” or leech on the system. The fact that the grasshoppers have established such a perfect system of control and fear makes it impossible for them, in this particular story, to represent the irresponsible and lazy. If you honestly think that the extremely poor in this country have that kind of power over our political system, you clearly have no idea how the government, or even human nature, works.
At the same time though, this exact evidence that disproves the first version of a conservative reading seems to feed directly into the second; the grasshoppers represent big, government fat cats that don’t do any work. This is where I drew my initial connection to The Hunger Games. Conservative critics have said that the movie is about the dangers of a big, corrupt government, with the words “big” and “corrupt” often being synonymous in most of conservative ideology. As I said at the beginning, this reading of the movie is, at best, shallow, because yes, there is a corrupt system controlling society (the government in The Hunger Games and the grasshoppers in A Bug’s Life), but the question such conservative interpretations fail to ask is how and why the system of control became corrupted.
In The Hunger Games, the wealthy capture the government entirely, to the point where it represents and works for them exclusively. For their insolence, the poor are punished by being forced into battles to the death with each other for the amusement of the upper class and, more importantly, as a means of keeping them in line and not revolting against the aristocracy again, because whoever wins the battle to the death is allowed to join the upper class. This, in essence, is the American Dream; the promise of making it rich. Conservatives constantly use propaganda, such as referring to the wealthy as “job creators,” to disincentives the poor from taking political or electoral action against the wealthy that oppress them, because there’s a chance (a tiny, tiny chance) that they too could be millionaires one day, and wouldn’t want to do anything to in any way disturb the comfortable lifestyle that someday will be theirs (in their own minds). In doing so, the poor are often pitted against one another; unionized worker vs. non-union, public employee vs. private employee, immigrant worker vs. native born, and so on. That is why The Hunger Games is so symbolically liberal; the poor are pitted in battle against one another in hopes of being rich as orchestrated by the wealthy.
To find the same conservative message in A Bug’s Life, we have to ask the same questions. How did the “government,” or system of control, become corrupt? Why is it corrupt? Instead of using hope to soothe the working classes into submission, the grasshoppers used fear and convinced the ants that they weren’t strong enough to stop the grasshoppers, and that the ants needed the grasshoppers for protection because of this same weakness. The ants depended upon the generosity of the grasshoppers, just like Republicans constantly defend the “job creators” and the wealthy in our society today because they claim we need them. That’s why we must do all the work and pay all the taxes, while the “job creators” have their taxes cut so low some corporations are paying a zero percent (or lower) tax rate. That’s why we have to continue to cut taxes for the wealthy that are already paying record low taxes and simultaneously cut spending to programs that benefit the working class, raising their cost of living, taking the food off their tables. God forbid we actually tax the rich, or at least, Republicans forbid.
In the end, it’s hard to even make this argument without making the case against government as a whole, which sadly many ultra-right wingers are doing by saying there should be no or almost no taxes or regulation whatsoever. They believe the very concepts of government to be fundamentally wrong, which is simply untrue. We need taxes for a government to run. We need regulations to protect citizens. We need law and order to prevent people from devouring each other like wild animals. By saying that the grasshoppers and ants represent the government and the people respectively, the conservative view of the movie is that the people (the ants) should overthrow the entire government immediately.
The only alternative to this reading is to say that the current government is broken, and that we need a political revolution in this nation to make sure the government works for the people, and not the 1%. This moral, though, isn’t just conservative, but progressive as well. Americans are much smarter than we often give them credit, because both liberals and conservatives can at least agree to that; the current system does not work.
This is why I believe A Bug’s Life is a much more progressive movie than it could be conservative. The grasshoppers are symbolic of the wealthy that control our government and how things work by way of political bribery. Politicians do what the wealthy want because whoever does so the best gets the most money during their election campaigns. Whoever has the most money almost always wins because of influence they have in the media from said money. Therefore, we have a system where our representatives are incentivized to not represent us, but only the wealthy. This is how the government becomes of the wealthy, by the wealthy, and for the wealthy, as opposed to the people. In A Bug’s Life, the ants are disincentivized from overthrowing the current power structure because they’re tricked into thinking they are weak and need them. Americans are tricked every day of their lives into supporting policies that do nothing but give more and more to the wealthy while cutting into the livelihoods and wallets of the working class, and how? Because we have to protect the “job creators,” and that it’s “class warfare” to expect the rich to pay their fair share in taxes, and class warfare is just petty and shameful.
In this clip from the movie, Hopper addresses his fellow grasshoppers, who are considering leaving their rigged system on Ant Island behind because many of the… less intelligent grasshoppers have convinced themselves they don’t need the ants any more, similar to how the wealthy will sometimes arrogantly forget that they need the poor in order to survive. This is one of the most telling, prominent, meaningful scenes in the movie, and ever since I first saw it when I was eleven years old I’ve never forgotten it.