All posts by Ian Pultz-Earle

A Game of Race

When it comes to the current state of the young adult fiction publishing world—a topic, granted, that does not occupy a significant position in the everyday thoughts of the average person—nothing has played a bigger role than the Harry Potter series, without which almost no one would be concerned with the genre. JK Rowling’s astronomical commercial success signaled to other writers that YA fiction promised the most eminence and wealth. As a result, the genre includes many more authors and novels worthy of critical attention than it did in the BHP[1] era. The Hunger Games series, by Suzanne Collins, comes along as another iteration of the so-called Harry Potter Effect, but is a more direct descendent of the Twilight saga, which is on the “adult” end of “young adult.” The commercial success of the series is hardly surprising given its components: a post-apocalyptic United States called Panem, a strong female protagonist, and an annual festivity—known as the Hunger Games—in which two dozen teenage “tributes” fight to the death on national television. Any of those three aspects could be a springboard for critical analysis, but I am going to focus on the first one and what it means for racial issues in the series.

The Hunger Games has elicited contrasting responses on the issue of race. A writer for The Atlantic says that the it, like others of the science-fictions genre, pushes racial issues to the back burner,[2] and a response to that article in Christianity Today contends that The Hunger Games does in fact bring up issues issues.[3] I am going to argue that these statements are both true. The series, in a feat that is both amazing and horrifying, recreates a segregated United States, but passes it off as a post-racial society that appears utopian in its lack of racial issues. How does it do this, you ask? Very carefully.

Ursula Le Guin famously said that science fiction is “not predictive; it is descriptive,” and The Hunger Games is verifiably descriptive in most instances. Collins herself has said that the inspiration for the novel came when she was watching news coverage of the war in the Middle East[4] and that the harsh, authoritarian government is a more extreme representation of George Bush’s failure to respond to the needs of American citizens.[5] The novel also recognizes income inequality of the time and magnifies it so that the rich—the citizens of the Capitol—are legally superior in that they are not required to volunteer to enter the Games.

However, the descriptive nature of the novel abruptly stops at the issue of race, minimizing racial issues through its narrative focus. The story follows (in first-person) Katniss, a teenager from District 12—former Appalachia. The district is socioeconomically divided between the coal miners from “the Seam” and the merchants in the town. Katniss, being a part of the former group, is very poor and, though we hear very little about the conditions of other districts, we are told District 12 is definitively the poorest and probably the most oppressed.[6] In dystopian fiction, the things that are, for lack of a better term, bad are the objects of the author’s concern. As one writer puts it, by making the white Appalachian workers the lowest class, the novel is “essentially saying, “Things could get so bad that people who look like Liam Hemsworth are now at the bottom, too!””[7]

Based on Katniss’s understanding of the districts, it is explained that District 11—located in the South and in charge of food production—is slightly better off than District 12, at least in terms of nutrition. This difference is important with regard to the novel’s characterization as dystopian: a world where Mississippi is not the poorest state is a utopia from that state’s perspective. The novel’s utopian treatment of the South goes beyond economic issues. Although District 11 is shown to be primarily black, it is implied, again through Katniss’s understanding, that the district faces less harsh rule by the Peacekeepers[8] than does Katniss’s district. Even though District 11 appears to be the only one with any black citizens, race never figures prominently in the politics of of Panem.[9] As evidence, Katniss seems almost “colorblind,” describing Rue, the female tribute from District 11, as looking exactly like her younger sister other than having “dark brown skin and eyes,”[10] details that would halt such a comparison today. Collins is clearly imagining a post-racial society and has for that reason had to edit—remove the racial issues from—real world events as she fictionalizes them. It’s hard to imagine that, in an authoritarian society based on the imperialist and discriminatory tendendcies of George Bush, whose inadequate response to hurricane Katrina led Kayne West to declare “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” racism could have magically vanished. In crafting a dystopian criticism of the woes of a mid-2000 America, Collins left racial issues out of consideration, sending the message that those issues are not important.

With dystopian class relations and utopian race relations, the focus is the plight of the poor whites. As Mary C. Burke and Maura Kelly write, “the dominant narrative of The Hunger Games tells us that class and nation are the central axes of power and oppression.”[11] If we accept this series, being a critique of the Bush presidency, as having at least a slight liberal slant, then the emphasis on class complies with the liberal tendency to reduce “class to inequality in order to deflect attention from racial disparities,” as Touré F. Reed writes in Jacobin.[12] Despite her poverty, Katniss’s privilege—being white—means she is never responsible for her actions. After Rue dies in the Games, Katniss raises three fingers, a symbol of rebellion, to the cameras, prompting the viewers of the Games in District 11 to do the same and then break out into a riot.[13] The Peacekeepers respond with riot shields, clubs, and high-powered hoses in a crackdown that strongly resembles Bloody Sunday. Similarly, in the sequel, Catching Fire, Katniss gives a speech about Rue in District 11 and the residents put up the three-finger sign, leading to one of them being shot on the spot by the Peacekeepers. In both cases, Katniss is the heroic figure and the District 11 residents—the ones who bring her ideas of rebellion to fruition—receive the brutal retaliation of the government. Later, Katniss’s own district is nuked out of existence, but the attack happens outside the narrative focus and seems to spare most people that Katniss knows. Yet the novel (or film) does not criticize the disparity in treatment but instead seems to say that no matter which side you are on, the whites will be the leaders and the blacks will bear the physical burden. The narrative focus indicates a conscious choice to show the destruction of black bodies but merely mention the same fate for whites. These decisions indicate that racism is very much present, but on a representational level.

It is at this point that I should stop and address the contradiction that The Hunger Games both is and isn’t about race. Race, being a product of society and culture, is often riddled with contradictions, as Richard Dyer notes in “The Matter of Whiteness.”[14] In The Hunger Games, the plot pushes the idea of a post-racial society while the minute details—likely to be skipped or forgotten by the YA target audience—reveal that the society is actually closer to a more racially segregated past. In the words of Burke and Kelly, “there is contrast between what The Hunger Games tells us about inequality and what it shows us.”[15] During the Games, Rue tells Katniss that the District 11 citizens are all forced to work on the farms for the harvest and are whipped for resisting or stealing the food. Katniss realizes that perhaps there are benefits to being the poorest district, since the Capitol ignores most of what goes on in District 12. What she has stumbled onto is white privilege: she may be poor, but her skin color gets here more freedom than Rue gets. This important detail, however, receives almost no attention in the book and is completely left out of the film.

The film adaptations commit even more strongly to racial differences than the do the novels. In an interview, Collins said that she envisioned the world of the novels as having experienced ethnic mixing over hundreds of years, making the average person’s skin “olive” colored.[16] In writing a novel, she was inherently free from the burden of describing every member of a crowd, a burden that the film, on the other hand, must meet. And even though Collins helped to adapt the screenplay, the film uses white actors for nearly every scene outside of District 11. In a strong evocation of slavery, scenes of District 11 in Catching Fire shows black workers hunched over crops in the fields, under the gaze of Peacekeepers who patrol the area. Many viewers criticized the use of a white actress, Jennifer Lawrence, in the role of Katniss, a choice that ignored her “olive” complexion. Whitewashing—making nonwhite characters white with casting—is very common in the film industry as a supposed means to improve commercial success. As Sonya C. Brown writes, any attempt in the novel to lessen racial divisions is undone by a “casting call that deferred to an apparent preference for a white/Caucasian heroine in an era of racial and ethic division.”[17] This film adaptation, then, is a good metric of the prevailing racial attitudes in the country.

The casting of Rue also generated a strong backlash, but for the exact opposite reasons. Many readers apparently missed the part about Rue having dark skin and released a storm of profane, angry social media posts when they saw her played by an African-American actress in the trailer.[18] As one writer points out, these reactions indicate that certainly do not live in a post-racial society despite proclamations of such after the 2008 election.[19] But the reactions also indicate that Collins managed to convince her readers—or at least the less observant ones—of the fictional post-racial society she fabricated.

The film, however, is obviously confused about and conscious of its racial image. On the film poster, Katniss appears much darker in skin tone than the pale Lawrence who plays her, and the District 12 residents appear dark by contrast when seen alongside Capitol workers who are all either dressed in white or powdered to near-literal whiteness. In this sense, the people with whom we are meant to identify are victims of the phenomenon Dyer has observed in which whiteness is an unachievable perfection.[20] The Hunger Games, alas, demonstrates the messiness of cultural representations of race, delivering conflicting messages at various levels of analysis. And from the series, we learn the novels and films can hide racial messages, with the effect that, through our emotional investment, we fantasize about a world we don’t actually want.

[1] Before Harry Potter.

[2] Imran Siddiquee, “The Topics Dystopian Films Won’t Touch,” The Atlantic, November 19, 2014, accessed December 12, 2017.

[3] Alissa Wilkinson, “Why ‘The Hunger Games’ Is About Racism,” Christianity Today, November 24, 2014, accessed December 12, 2017.

[4] She was also watching reality TV, which, combined with the war coverage, created the Survivor-esque nature of the Games. That these two elements fused so easily is perhaps a cause for concern.

[5] “Team ‘Hunger Games’ talks: Author Suzanne Collins and director Gary Ross on their allegiance to each other, and their actors,” interview by Karen Valby, Entertainment Weekly, April 7, 2011.

[6] Reinforcing the narrative of the relative levels of poverty and freedom is the numbering system of the districts. In a novel meant for younger readers, hearing that District 1 is the wealthiest and that 12 is the last number since District 13 was wiped out creates a straightforward ranking.

[7] Siddiquee, “The Topics Dystopian Films Won’t Touch,”

[8] The Peacekeepers are the agents of oppression and order for the Capitol. The name may indeed be a jab at the UN.

[9] But, as I will later examine, racial issues linger but are kept away from the plot and more importantly, critical commentary.

[10] Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games (New York: Scholastic, 2008), 45.

[11] Mary C. Burke and Maura Kelly, “The Visibility and Invisibility of Class, Race, Gender, and Sexuality in The Hunger Games,” in Race, Gender, and Sexuality in Post-Apocalyptic TV and Film (New York: Palgrave Macmillan), 60.

[12] Touré F. Reed, “Why Liberals Separate Race from Class,” Jacobin, August 22, 2015, accessed December 12, 2017.

[13] In the novel, these events in District 11, obviously beyond Katniss’s knowledge at the time, are only vaguely hinted at once she leaves the Games. The film then, which otherwise stays very true to the novel, takes some liberties in showing this conflict.

[14] Richard Dyer, “The Matter of Whiteness,” in White: Essays on Race and Culture (New York: Routledge, 1997).

[15] Burke and Kelly, “Class, Race, Gender, and Sexuality in The Hunger Games.”

[16] “Team ‘Hunger Games’ talks,” interview by Karen Valby.

[17] Sonya C. Brown, “The Hunger Games, Race and Social Class in Obama’s America,” in Movies in the Age of Obama: The Era of Post-Racial and Neo-racial Cinema (Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015).

[18] The casting of Thresh, the other tribute from District 11, generated far less controversy, possibly because readers picked up on the stereotypical black descriptions— “giant” and “ox”—that Collins uses

[19] Ellen E. Moore and Catherine Coleman, “Starving for Diversity: Ideological Implications of Race Representations inThe Hunger Games,” The Journal of Popular Culture 48, no. 5 (October 19, 2015).

[20] Dyer, “The Matter of Whiteness.”

O Culture, Where Art Thou?

As long as popular culture has existed, so have those who seek alternatives to popular culture. These theorists tend to worry about the mass-produced culture that comes from an elite minority. In the search for an alternative, traditional American music has come to hold an important place in the world of cultural theory. It’s an exciting prospect; any one of us can become culturally enlightened just by buying some bluegrass records and maybe making a trip to a music festival in the Appalachians. Unfortunately, that those sort of supposed engagement miss the mark, because folk music is not always what it seems to be, and there are a lot of conflicting perceptions and misperceptions. The soundtrack to the Coen Brothers film O Brother Where Art Thou? thus comes into focus as one of the more notable and recent segments of a long line of thought about traditional American music.

The quest for an ideal form of culture starts with Matthew Arnold, who agues that Great Books are the form of culture that make people better and improve society.[1] Drawing on the work of ballad-hunter Cecil Sharp, F.R. Leavis proposes Appalachian society as an example of people who, mostly outside the evil influence of the Industrial Revolution, are masters of the “art of social living”[2] without needing literature to achieve perfection. But for those not in the Appalachian region, Leavis says, preindustrial literature is the only way to achieve perfection. Raymond Williams dismisses Leavis’s emphasis on literature as “an emphasis on minority culture” but extends Leavis’s praise of Appalachian society to all working working-class people around the world.[3] As he continues to write that “culture is ordinary,”[4] Williams means that the it is not studios in Hollywood, the publishers in New York, or the record labels in Los Angeles who create culture, but instead the farmer in the rural South and the worker in Appalachia who create shared meanings and values. Relating back to Arnold, Williams believes that culture in the correct form builds a better society, and that form is a democratic culture in which “all of its members are engaged in creating in the act of living.”[5] This is where traditional American music comes in, as the most obvious form of democratic culture. The explicit link between democracy and folk music comes not from Williams but from a rather unlikely source: The Communist Party.

The political use of folk music started in Russia with Lenin using Russian folk music to energize what became the Communist Party. As the party moved to America, its leaders, who were very much out of touch with the working class base of the party, needed a strong cultural symbol to the mobilize and unite the party.[6] The party deemed folk music to be the most American form of music and therefore the best way to link American democracy and communist ideals. The lack of commercialization in folk music was also beneficial for a party opposed to capitalism. As the Red Scare and McCarthyism came into effect, the Communist Party lost any hope of being a part of American politics, but the music had created a subculture that took off after the Cold War ended. For example, The Weavers, a group that started as a musical act for the party, toned down their liberal views and got into the commercial scene after backlash against groups with Communist affiliation had died down.[7]

It is worth pausing here to discuss the definition and authenticity of folk music. This is a discussion not a declaration because a standard definition does not exist and authenticity is impossible to determine. The most basic method is to define folk music by what it is not, and that is popular music. By this definition, folk music has no clear title or writer and also no professional musicians. The International Folk Music Council in 1954 adopted the standard of oral transmittance, with emphasis on the changes that occur as a part of this process.[8] The council accepted that the music could be the product of an individual as long as oral tradition led to or resulted from the product. Ironically, the Council then changed its name to the International Council for Traditional Music, in part because of the difficulty of defining “folk music.” For lack of a better term, I will use “folk music” to refer to traditional music from the Appalachian and Southern regions of the United States. As folk music relates to Williams’s ideas, the most important factor is that the music originates from ordinary people, not the elite minority. Authenticity of recorded folk music becomes tricky under the oral transmittance definition because once it is recorded, it has been forced into a final form. For this reason, autochthonous—meaning arising naturally from the native people—is the best standard in that it focuses on organic creation of music by the people.

It would seem, based on Leavis, Williams, and the Communist Party, that the way to promote a democratic culture is to let working-class people share their culture so it can take over the nation. By extension, it would seem that the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack is the perfect way to do so, and many people believed that it accomplished this. The reviews describe the soundtrack in a similar fashion to the way the Communist Party had described folk music 40 years ago, reflecting the romanticized notion that the Appalachian sound is the authentic American sound. One critic praised the album’s ability to “accurately reproduce… country music’s roots,”[9] while another gave the soundtrack credit for the “power and authenticity” of the film itself.[10] One review even attempted to link Appalachian music to preindustrial England by noting the use of banjos on the album and then erroneously claiming that the instrument has British origins when it is in fact African.[11] This disregard of African American influences on Appalachian music is a very common misconception, according to Appalachian Studies professor Ted Olson.[12] The fact that the album was very popular despite receiving virtually no radio airplay helped fuel the narrative—one that newspapers loved to cover—of a class conflict in which ordinary people flocked to this music despite, or maybe even because, the radio executives tried to keep it away from them.

What these reactions fail to perceive is that the music they are describing is not the folk music of the left-wing politics. When folk singers were performing traditional folk songs at Communist rallies, the music was still, more or less, in the hands of the people. It’s hard to know exactly what Williams would say about such use of traditional folk culture, but based on his connection between working class culture and democratic socialism, it is reasonable to infer that the use would fall in line with his ideas. Once the folk revival came around, the music was no longer rooted in masses in the same way, with professional singers and commercial recording becoming the norm.

The even greater fallacy of these reactions is the idealized notion of Appalachian culture that goes back to Leavis. In his book All That Is Native and Fine, David E. Whisnant argues that cultural missionaries—a group that includes Arnold and Leavis—have painted a romanticized picture of Appalachia for the purpose of “systematic cultural intervention,” which means using and changing parts of a culture, usually for monetary gain.[13] Whisnant calls into question Leavis’s idea of uncorrupted culture in Appalachia by criticizing ballad hunters—a key source in Leavis’s argument—for promoting the “ironies and confusions that have characterized most organized cultural work in the mountains.”[14] Another example is the White Top Folk Festival, whose misguided display of Appalachian music resembles the approach of O Brother. The festival, held in Virginia, was meant to highlight local music, but the organizers decided to make it a competition, and as a result, many Appalachian musicians performed songs that were handed to them minutes before they went on stage.[15] With this point, Whisnant supports the standard of oral transmittance and observes that Appalachian people were singing what someone thought was Appalachian music is clearly not a true representation of that culture. The perception of an Appalachian society where people make music all day stands in contrast to the harsh reality of a neglected population that works in coal mines.

The album’s success is unusual in the music world but falls into the broader theme of Appalachian culture becoming popular. In an article from the same time, Appalachian novelist Lee Smith calls attention to successful novels and films that highlight Appalachia.[16] In a more recent example, the video game BioShock Infinite won the award for Best Song in a Game with a new recording of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.”[17] Smith says that “mainstream American culture is becoming “Appalachianized,””[18] but a more accurate statement would be that Appalachian culture is being Americanized, and by Americanized I mean commercialized. T Bone Burnett, the producer of the O Brother soundtrack, engages in cultural intervention as he successfully commercializes the music. Writing for Rolling Stone, music critic Robert Christgau draws contrast between O Brother, where songs are “concocted in the studio,” and Inside Llewyn Davis, another Coen brothers film, where Burnett has the actors performing on set.[19] While actors are obviously not common people, one could argue that in this case, they are closer to Williams’s idea of the common person than are the professional bluegrass and folk singers on O Brother.

The creators of the album also have misconceptions in regard to its so-called authenticity. Ethan Coen, one of the film’s creators, attributes the album’s success to its evocation of an era “when music was a part of every day [sic] life and not something performed by celebrities.”[20] What is ironic is that the songs on the soundtrack are performed by celebrities of the folk music world. Dan Tyminski, who provided the Grammy-winning vocals in “Man of Constant Sorrow,” has vaguely Appalachian roots but now has “one of the most recognizable voices in acoustic music,”[21] which is to say, he is a celebrity. After being featured on EDM artist Avicii’s hit song “Hey Brother,” one would be hard pressed to call him a “common” person.

The alternative to the O Brother soundtrack is an album like American Epic, a soundtrack that uses original recordings of similar songs. These recordings come from the 1920s when ethnomusicologists like Alan Lomax traveled Appalachia and the south, making recordings of rural and working class people who knew songs from the oral tradition.[22] The music in these recordings is autochthonous because it originated in oral tradition and is being performed by ordinary people. The recording technicians called it “catching lightning in a bottle,” which reflected both the one-take method mandated by the equipment and the nature of the music.[23] Just as lightning is a powerful force of nature, folk music is a force of the democratic culture. By using commercial recording methods—multiple takes, editing—O Brother fails to achieve the characteristics of live recordings. That American Epic has received only moderate attention and sales in the six months it has been out while O Brother had gone platinum by that time would suggest that people actually do want to hear celebrities or professionals performing.

It is also important to distinguish music that comes from Appalachian culture and music that is influenced by Appalachian culture. Gillian Welch, who performs on the O Brother soundtrack, released two albums of her own around the same time. Her use of Appalachian music styles created controversy as critics thought Welch, who was essentially born into the music industry, had no credibility in the realm of folk music. Music writer Tom Piazza argues that this criticism is unfounded because “Gillian Welch is not playing, or claiming to play, “traditional music,” any more than Bob Dylan was.”[24] When singing her own songs influenced by Appalachian music, Welch avoids the cultural intervention in which she participates in O Brother. From Piazza’s argument, one can also make a distinction in intention between O Brother—modern recordings of traditional songs—and the folk revival—modern music in the traditional style. The folk music used by the Communist Party falls somewhere between these two, with groups like the Almanac Singers performing both folk standards and their own folk-influenced creations.

If we are to believe Leavis’s assessment of the problem, then we are facing the end of Western civilization due to the industrialization of society and promoting democratic culture is of the utmost importance. As we have seen, projects like O Brother fail to achieve democracy despite popular reaction, but there is still a chance for other forms of culture to blossom. Dissemination of original content, like American Epic, is a possible solution, but it needs an update. Perhaps the answer is more projects of recording technicians traveling the mountains and the South collecting recordings in the spirit of Alan Lomax. Or maybe schools should teach all students to square dance. If we take one lesson from the songs of O Brother, it is that, in the pursuit of a democratic culture, we must “keep on the sunny side.”



[1]. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 5-16.

[2]. F.R. Leavis, “Literature in Society,” in The Common Pursuit (London: Faber and Faber, 2011), 190-191.

[3]. Raymond Williams, “The Idea of a Common Culture,” in Raymond Williams on Culture & Society: Essential Writings (London: Sage, 2014), 34.

[4]. Raymond Williams, “Culture is Ordinary,” in Resources of Hope: Culture, Democracy, Socialism (London: Verso, 2007), 4-7.

[5]. Williams, “The Idea of a Common Culture,” 34.

[6]. R. Serge Denisoff, Great Day Coming: Folk Music and the American Left (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971).

[7]. Richard A. Reuss, American Folk Music and Left-Wing Politics, 1927-1957 (Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, 2000).

[8]. James R. Cowdery, “Kategorie or Wertidee? The early years of the International Folk Music Council,” in Music’s Intellectual History (New York: Répertoire International de la Littérature Musicale), 808-811.

[9]. Jim Caligiuri, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The Austin Chronicle, January 19, 2001, accessed November 14, 2017,

[10]. Evan Cater, “O Brother, Where Art Thou? [Original Soundtrack],” AllMusic, 2001, accessed November 14, 2017,

[11]. Ted Olson and Ajay Kalra, “Appalachian Music: Examining Popular Assumptions,” in A Handbook to Appalachia: An Introduction to the Region (University of Tennessee Press, 2006), 164-165.

[12]. Ibid.

[13]. David E. Whisnant, All That is Native & Fine: The Politics of Culture in an American Region (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009), 13.

[14]. Ibid

[15]. Ibid., 183-261

[16]. Lee Smith, “Mountain Music’s Moment in the Sun,” The Washington Post, August 12, 2001, Final Edition ed., Sunday Arts, G01 sec.

[17]. Elton Jones, “VGX 2013: The Full List of Video Game Award Winners,”, December 07, 2013, accessed November 14, 2017,

[18]. Smith, “Mountain Music’s Moment in the Sun”

[19]. Robert Christgau, “The Lost World of ‘Llewyn Davis’: Christgau on the Coen Brothers,” Rolling Stone, December 4, 2013, accessed November 14, 2017,

[20]. BBC News Online, “O Brother, Why Art Thou So Popular?” BBC, February 28, 2002, accessed November 14, 2017,

[21]. Jewly Hight, writer, “Dan Tyminski On Mixing Electronic Dance And ‘Southern Gothic’,” in All Things Considered, transcript, National Public Radio, October 19, 2017.

[22]. Legacy Recordings, “American Epic: The Collection & The Soundtrack Out May 12th,” news release, April 28, 2017, Legacy Recordings, accessed November 14, 2017,

[23]. Ibid.

[24]. Tom Piazza, “Trust the Song,” in Da Capo Best Music Writing 2000 (Boston: Da Capo Press), 301.


The Tricks of The Truman Show

Most avid moviegoers or chronically tardy people have likely had the experience of arriving late to a movie showing. They hustle to their seats while trying to determine if the previews are still going or the main feature has already started. The latter task can be challenging in an era where blockbuster films bear little difference from the initial previews and advertisements. After seeing explicit advertising for the theater’s concession stand and future films, we get a subtler plug for the next film in the franchise, a line of action figures, or a ride at the studio’s theme park. With strong dependability, you can expect every film to sell something. The Truman Show (1998), however, would seem to defy that expectation. Released amid the rise of reality television, it promises to critique such programming and the values and consumption it promotes. And the film strives so much towards this promise that the viewer can easily see it as a radical alternative to and attack on the usual propaganda of the film industry. Under this interpretation, it satirizes the use of product placement and the superficial perfection of suburban life, among other things. Fatally, this interpretation ignores the simple truth that The Truman Show is yet another product—a commercially successful one at that—of the film industry, and to think that the industry would ever criticize itself or change its ways is wonderfully naïve.

The film centers around the title character, Truman, who by all accounts holds the pieces a perfect American life: a tidy house with a picket fence in suburban community, a beautiful wife, and a job selling insurance. But, his life is all a 24-hour reality show, captured on thousands of hidden cameras within a massive dome that contains his whole world. Truman is the only one unaware of the reality, with the rest of people in his life being paid actors under the direction of Christof, the producer of the show. After several unusual events—a studio light falling from the sky, a voice on the radio tracking him—he begins to suspect that the world around him is not what it seems. The film ends with him sailing to the edge of the dome and walking out an exit door.

At first glance, it is perfectly reasonable to treat the film as a subversive critique of media. The writer, Andrew Niccol, had previously written Gattaca (1997), which questions the role of technology in our lives, and the director, Peter Weir is known for thought-provoking films. Many film critics fell into this trap, with Rita Kemply of the Washington Post calling it “subversively entertaining satire”[1] and Peter Travers of Rolling Stone perceiving a “penetrating meditation on the forces that control our existence.”[2] These reviewers confuse provocation with subversion: a film can make you think but limit that thinking to realms that fall well within the norms that the entertainment industry enforces. The Truman Show might make you wonder if you are actually the star of a reality show or even kindle a secret desire to be so, but it will not prompt any real thought about the conditions that actually confine us. The confusion regarding the film originates from the bold way it sets about reinforcing a common narrative. Normally, a work of popular culture simply outlines the values it seeks to reproduce. A sitcom, for example, will depict a typical American family and derive humor from occurrences that fall mostly within the usual realm of life. The viewer watches it and, as a result of absorbing the included ideological blueprint, learns to play his or her role in family life. But The Truman Show explores the idea that someone could be in a sitcom but think that it is real life. Ultimately, this twist has little impact of the views propagated in the film.

That the viewers might applaud the film industry for criticizing itself is in fact a goal of the film. Ronald Bishop, a professor of Communication at Drexel University, writes that “films like Truman are created and packaged by entertainment companies as a means to exploit, and at the same time dissipate, our desire to engage in genuine media criticism.”[3] You can walk away feeling that you watched something critical and cutting-edge, but that is only because the filmmakers want you to feel that way. In generally unfulfilling lives, people love the idea that they are engaging in a subversive action. The entertainment industry, being charged with enforcing normality through media, must give people a false, controlled outlet for subversion so that they do not engage in any real rebellion. On a more practical level, perception that the film industry has some self-awareness gives people hope that they can safely continue to consume the industry’s products with no risk of being subjected to propaganda.

Every film or story presents a real issue,[4] and to the best of my knowledge, no one today is actually stuck in a dome as the unwilling star of a reality show, so the real message is something else. The situation is the same but the agent is different; we are trapped in our lives, but by media, corporations, and everyday routines. The symbolism is striking: television controls Truman’s life just as media controls ours; Truman is adopted and owned by a corporation just as capitalism owns most aspects of us. Another guard against Truman’s escape is his fear of water, carefully crafted by the show’s creators through the maritime death of his father. In a place entirely surrounded by water, this fear represents a fear of the unknown, which advertising and entertainment has cultivated in us. Behind the intriguing show-within-a-movie setup are the conditions of real life, indeed exaggerated, but still hitting too close to home perhaps. In the film, the reality show uses product placement to avoid having to stop for ads, so Truman’s wife must regularly turn to the camera and pitch the latest product she has bought. Outside the film, such a situation exists only in an adverting executive’s wildest fantasies, but it echoes the advertising found in our music, art, and high school gymnasia. Truman’s routine is almost comically identical each day. On the way to work, he always wishes his neighbors “good afternoon, good evening, and good night” then gets stopped by two men who always push him into a billboard featuring a rotating advertisement. The only discrepancy between his world and ours is that his fellow people are happier while doing the same thing everyday, but we must remember that in the film they are paid to—or in Truman’s case, don’t know any better—whereas we are beaten into submission, which tends to produce less merry results.

So what’s the solution to all this, to a monotonous life under the control of capitalist media? According to the film, you can just leave. Truman overcomes his fear of water and starts sailing away from the island. Once the Christof locates him, the producer engineers a storm in attempt to capsize the boat and dissuade Truman from continuing his escape. Eventually Christof ends the storm and allows Truman to sail to the edge of the dome, where he finds a door and exits. But this ending is not a triumph of the ordinary person over those who control him or her. Once Christof accepts that Truman is going to leave, he lets him, and directs the camera angles to ensure that Truman looks heroic while doing so. And while Truman’s captivity easily relates to our own, his escape does not offer a real solution because there is no door marked with an exit sign. Baring life on a desert island, for most of the film’s audience, there is no feasible alternative to media and capitalism.

The fantasy that the film produces is not one of escape but of living in a world like Truman’s, that is, a perfect one. This seems counterintuitive, but that is just a product of the film’s masking of its ideological bent. Those arguing against me would point to Truman’s escape as an example for the viewer to follow. But his escape is meaningless both due to the previously mentioned lack of feasibility and his awareness. It’s hard to long for escape when you do not even realize you are trapped. Christof says in an interview that people accept their surroundings by default, and based on the story of Truman, a switch away from the default requires extremely odd events. The viewer is not meant to follow Truman as a leader but instead dream of having his perfect life at the beginning then be glad to avoid his fate at the end. After all, who wants to risk his or her life escaping the perfect place? The ending scene is the one place where the true goals of the film peek out boldly from behind the curtain of self criticism, as Cristof makes an impassioned plea for Truman to stay in the perfect, “real” world of Seahaven. The musical score during his speech, sappy end-of-movie music, accentuates his argument and creates a sense of finality. As the final plug for the film industry’s views, the Hollywood executives would have probably preferred to end the film there, but the plot mandates Truman’s escape.  The film still makes one last appeal for Seahaven life with the image of Truman leaving a celestial bed of clouds for a door into darkness.

The visuals throughout also further the fantasy. From the opening of the film, the most visually striking aspect is the setting. The white picket fences surrounding pastel-colored houses with cupolas and the brick streets filled with pedestrians and bicyclists all present the image of perfection. But this is not a perfection created in a studio in Hollywood; it is a real town in Florida. The filmmakers only had to fictionalize it slightly—changing the name from Seaside to Seahaven—and, voila, the set already existed. The irony is that in this film, a real place plays a studio whereas the opposite usually holds true. The use of this setting, however, goes beyond the location scouts doing an astute job; the fantasy that the film creates can actually be a reality. As long as films have been able to construct a world unlike our own, the viewers have wanted to go there. Places like Disneyland and Universal Studios exist to satisfy this desire, and based on the astronomical attendance at these destinations, the desire is quite strong. The Truman Show creates a desire for the suburban communities that are scattered thickly across the country and of which Seaside is the poster child.

The Truman Show teaches us that we have to be careful about how we watch films, especially when we think they might be questioning other media or the ideals that media enforces. We can let down our guard slightly at film festivals and art museums, but once money and big studios involved, caution is advised. Moreover, The Truman Show represents an especially clever packaging of its message in that the viewer can easily enjoy the film for its “edginess”—and superior quality—while also absorbing its ideology. In many ways, this cleverness is scary; the film is almost 20 years old, and, with the rapidly advancing strategies of advertising and messaging, one can only imagine what the film industry has been doing to us for the past two decades.



[1] Kemply, Rita, “‘Truman’: The Camera Never Sleeps,” The Washington Post (1998)

[2] Travers, Peter, “The Truman Show”, Rolling Stone (1998)

[3] Bishop, Ronald. “Good Afternoon, Good Evening, and Good Night: The Truman Show as Media Criticism.” Journal of Communication Inquiry 24, no. 1 (2000): 6-18.

[4] Jameson, Fredric. Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1982.