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The Odds were Never in Their Favor – ISA and RSA in The Hunger Games

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In the movie The Hunger Games, Panem is divided among twelve (formerly thirteen) “districts,” with the Capitol being the metropolis, the center of political power and economic exuberance. The annual Hunger Games is supposedly held in commemoration and as a consequence for the rebellion of the districts sometime in the past. Two representatives from each district are selected to compete to death. The Hunger Games (i.e. the competition itself), and the culture that revolves around it, can be seen as a Repressive and Ideological State Apparatus, respectively.

The concepts of the Ideological State Apparatus and the Repressive State Apparatus were coined by Louis Althusser. They are means to secure the “political conditions of the reproduction of relations of production…relations of exploitation” (Althusser 1970). In simpler terms, they are used to perpetuate the ruling class ideology and the capitalist system (in Althusser’s original meaning); the RSAs and ISAs are instruments that perpetuate the dominance of a certain class. He characterized the ISA to include the institutions of family, religion, education, legal, political (i.e. political system), communications (i.e. media) and culture. These institutions:

“function massively and predominantly by ideology, but they also function secondarily by repression…[but] this is very attenuated and concealed, even symbolic” (Althusser 1970).

The ISAs mainly function through socializing certain systems of values (e.g. the modern media socializes the Western notions of beauty into its listeners/viewers). On the other hand, RSAs function conversely: predominantly by repression through violence (e.g. the Police uses force to stop political protests), but also secondarily functions by ideology . RSAs include “the Government, the Administration, the Army, the Police, the Courts, the Prisons, etc.” (Althusser 1970).

In the Hunger Games (the competition), the last one alive shall be the victor, and he or she will bring glory to his/her district. Despite the formation of factions in the 74th Games, divisive and murderous competition still existed later among the tributes (and among the citizens of districts) since there would supposedly be only one winner. The Hunger Games is a divisive and violent construct of the Capitol. With the use of violence, the Hunger Games creates dissonance among the districts, thus preventing the possibility of the districts’ unity and eventual revolution against the Capitol. The Games is a Repressive State Apparatus used by the Capitol to maintain the class system and social order, where the residents of the Capitol are the elites, being politically and economically supreme over the twelve districts.

The culture built around the Hunger Games is typical of an Ideological State Apparatus. The tributes’ act of “participating” (which includes murder, by the way) in the Games is branded with seemingly noble virtues such as “courage” and “sacrifice” by Caesar Flickerman (the blue-haired host of the Games). Such positive-sounding notions are equated with being in the Games despite the fact that some tributes did not even want to be in the bloody competition but had no choice. The positive impression of the Hunger Games in Capitol media and culture is also apparent in the greeting “Happy Hunger Games” — which masks the Games as a celebration, a time of commemoration — instead of being an institution of the Capitol to perpetuate its rule. With such Apparatuses established by the Capitol, nobody questions the implication of the annual Hunger Games: the continued disunity of the districts, which reduces the possibility of a revolution, and the eventual security of the Capitol’s domination. In that sense, the media and culture of the Capitol (the Ideological State Apparatuses) shield the Hunger Games (the Repressive State Apparatus) from scrutiny.

In the context of The Hunger Games movie, the odds were never in the districts’ favour. The odds were in the favor of the Capitol, who uses the Games to maintain its rule and prevent uprisings. Will this be true for the second movie, Catching Fire? Only time and those who have read the novels (which is perhaps everybody except me) can tell.


Althusser, Louis. 1970. “Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses.” ‘Lenin and Philosophy’ and Other Essays.  (Accessed January 6, 2012).

Rodolfo Lahoy Jr., or Jay-Jay is currently taking BA Political Science in the University of the Philippines, and is a member of UP Political Society. Like most people, he would like to believe that agents can change the structures that they exist in.