Q&A: Bloodsport Isn’t Soldiering, It’s Entertainment

When it comes to child soldiers, how realistic do you think the “Careers” kids are in The Hunger Games and the participants as a whole? Honestly, I think they suffer from the “writing children like mini adults” problem that most bad writing has. That, and it ignores emotion and trauma. They react and fight like emotionless drones or trained fully adult soldiers instead of scared, bumbling children.

I want you to understand something exceedingly crucial before we get into this. Starke and I both technically qualify as Careers. I started doing martial arts when I was five years old, I knew how to kill another human being when I was twelve, I could perform disarms when I was fourteen, and before I was eighteen I was working to teach other kids the same age as myself when I started.  Starke is an Eagle Scout, and that should really say it all.

What I am essentially telling you is that I grew up around other kids, children to teens and young adults who spent their life doing martial arts, some of whom competed on a professional, national to worldwide competitive level and in the care of adults who grew up doing martial arts, some of whom competed on a worldwide competitive level. I’ve seen all sorts of kids do all sorts of things, and what a child can do is heavily dependent on the child we’re talking about. Yes, the average child might be bumbling, but the lifer? The one picked out early and heavily trained? Like these kids? Like Jade Xu? Ernie Reyes Jr? Jet Li? Then, there’s the seven year olds in Thailand who compete in Muay Thai bouts. There’s these kids. And these kids.  And these kids.

Did you know this is a worldwide industry that utilizes children’s performance art for the entertainment of the masses? You just participated in it by watching these videos.

Congratulations.

If there’s an aspect of The Hunger Games that’s incredibly unrealistic, it’s the fact that the novel ignores all of the above. This is not some far flung future, this is now, and its a billion dollar industry worldwide. When you’re looking at a character who is a Career, this is what you should be thinking of. We call this phenomenon: sports.

The Hunger Games is YA, which provides a mistaken impression that kids wouldn’t be able to compete in arena style gladiator death matches. That’s untrue. They already do. The fights aren’t to the death, for the most part, because adults intervene but the ability is there. Children are actually a lot better at bloodsport when pitted against other children than The Hunger Games gives them credit for. You’ve seen child athletes. Add the fact that it’s mentally easier for children to kill because the concept of death and the permanence of it doesn’t really register for them, you have a situation where bloodsport games would be very easy. Condition them an environment where this type of killing is okay, even acceptable, where they’re rewarded for their success, and they’ll be perfectly happy to keep at it. They’ll even be perfectly sane and mentally well-adjusted without any abuse or forcing necessary.

This is the one criticism I’m going to really level at The Hunger Games. The Hunger Games does not understand the mentality of violence, specifically the mentality behind bloodsport, and what draws people to it both as participants and as a form of entertainment. The novel really can’t grasp what draws people to it, what makes bloodsport a billion dollar industry, and why someone would want to participate. The Careers are gladiators, they’re not child soldiers. They’re professional athletes in the Olympic level category, which is the sort of competition they’re training for. They won’t have the same hangups an ordinary child would in regards to violence because this event is not just what they trained their whole lives for, but the competition they competed fiercely to gain access to.

They’re not going to have the kind of trauma you might expect because they’ve spent their lives preparing for this. We’re talking someone age sixteen and seventeen who has been training for around twelve to thirteen years.

What should really disturb you about gladiators is they’re entertainers. They exemplify the commodification of violence and of human beings as vehicles of violence for entertainment. They’re putting on a show, putting on a spectacle, and, yes, there may be death at the end of the experience but that’s part of the experience. The crowd came to watch the bloodsport for the enjoyment of it, and your success in the arena is decided by how well you can put on that show. How well you entertain the audience while you beat the living shit out of someone else. It’s disingenuous to say one would ever need to force people to watch bloodsport because they don’t, they don’t need to force them to participate either. Humanity’s appetite for violence as entertainment is about as old as humanity, and its a cornerstone in many cultures around the world.

The Careers are not child soldiers, which is a very specific term identifying very specific circumstances. They don’t fall under that category. They’re children raised to violence. From a mental outlook perspective, they should have more in common with Olympic athletes, competitive martial artists, and those children in the real world who are raised for bloodsport. You want to find a decent comparison to a “Career” type character, you’re going to be looking at the kids participating in competitive sports martial arts.

Twelve year olds who participate in scheduled Muay Thai bouts against other twelve year olds for the enjoyment of the masses do exist. In Thailand, they participate as young as seven. Olympic boxers, Olympic athletes competing in Judo, Taekwondo, Fencing, Greco-Roman Wrestling, Free-Style Wrestling, you’ll find most of these combatants were training from a young age and competing from a young age in appropriate age group categories in order to get their foot in the door. Martial artists like Jackie Chan and Jet Li technically qualify under the Career title. Jet Li won his first wushu changquan champion when he was fourteen years old. This is before we get into backyard wrestling, where we have kids imitating what they see on the TV on friends or family members in their own homes. However, none of these children are child soldiers.  Child soldiers aren’t really trained, they’re children stolen from their families, brainwashed, and hopped up on drugs then sent out to kill. They’re competitive athletes which, when you really stop and think about it, is another can of worms all on its own.

What you’re missing about these kids in this specific mold is the part where they’re professional athletes, they’re not soldiers. Soldier is the wrong skillset for a gladiator. It’s a good starting skill set, but you need more than that in order to succeed in the entertainment industry. What’s easy to forget when you’re looking at novels like The Hunger Games is we already have a billion dollar industry in bloodsport, and watching humans beat up other humans for audiences everywhere is, at this point, a staple in entertainment. Careers are gladiators, they’re professional athletes, and that’s pretty much where they land on the spectrum. They’re somewhere in the collegiate to Olympic levels of serious with a lowball at Friday Night Lights.

Have you ever spent much time around professional athletes? If they’re good at what they do, they have the potential to be worth a lot of money. If they’re at the top of their game, they know it. They’ve beaten out a lot of people to get where they are, and, in the case of bloodsport athletes, those beatings are literal. No, they don’t kill anyone but the reasoning behind that is there’s no money in it. There’s a lot of resources invested in training a gladiator and, whether they’re successful or not, you can make your money back off them over the course of their career. Even in the Roman arenas, the professional gladiators rarely died. They had fans, they were worth a lot of money, and it’s better to have them around to fight next weekend than bury them.

The Hunger Games has the same problem a lot of YA has which is formula. The Careers aren’t emotionless drones, they’re the popular kids in your high school cafeteria. They’re the jocks and the cheerleaders with a touch more homicide rather than the ones who can never show up to any functions or hang out with friends because they’re training from six to eight and then three thirty to eight with eight hours left in the middle of the day for school.

The problem with this set up is that professional athletes and kids training to become professional athletes aren’t “normal” kids. The Best is a competition, the closer you get to that pinnacle the rougher the competition gets. If you want to be the best, you’ve got to put in the effort. To be the best requires a lot of work, a lot of dedication, a lot of sacrifice. You can throw in blood, sweat, and tears but that still won’t be enough. Talent can pave your way, but it isn’t enough to be a winner. You have to be all in, you’ve got to want it, and be willing to sacrifice everything to win.

The formula for The Hunger Games is wrong because you need to be using the formula from your average sports film about the kid trying to make it big. The kids in the new Karate Kid movie with Jackie Chan, for example. That’s the expected level of competency you’d be getting out of a thirteen year old training for high level sports competition. You ever gone ahead and watched high level gymnastics? That shit is fierce, and the behind the scenes competition for top spots on national teams is about as fierce. This is before we get to other countries like China where the prospective child candidates are scouted early and taken into custody of the state to be trained.

The Careers are gladiators, which means (under normal circumstances) they’d be trained to be one part killing machine, one part actor, and one part stuntman. The training part here is key, and that’s what would keep them emotionally and physically stable. Gladiators are showmen. They’re bloodsport, and bloodsport is honest-to-god entertainment. This is an industry which makes billions every single year worldwide, and there are kids the same age as the Careers preparing for their debut UFC bouts out there right now in the United States.

Reality TV isn’t real, it’s entertainment. The WWE is entertainment some people do believe is real. Bloodsport is real… ish, but to be successful at it you need to be more than just good at fighting. Fighting another human being for the enjoyment of the masses is a different skill set. Gladiators are the one place where I’ll say, yes, the flashy additions to their fighting style suits a real purpose. They can kill their opponent or beat them to a bloody pulp and they’ll look good doing it. With someone who is very good, you’ll find yourself enjoying the bout even when you didn’t want to.

When we’re talking about “Careers”, we aren’t discussing kids most middle class Americans would consider “normal” teenagers, not by any stretch of the imagination. They’re trained for a very specific utility, and working the arena is their job. They’re like every other sort of young professional from child models to child actors.

The key component to understand with professional bloodsport is poverty.  Like professional sports, this is a route people choose when they have limited options. They often don’t come from privileged backgrounds, and for most of these kids in the real world this is a way out. There aren’t better options for them to choose, and by the point they’re seventeen or eighteen they wouldn’t choose another path. They fought for this, they’re invested in this, and this part of their life is an important aspect of who they are. However, to really delve into the dystopic aspect of this part of society we’d end up in Lord of the Flies territory.

A career is a job. You can take a child of five and train them for eleven to twelve years, by the time they’re sixteen to seventeen they’d be perfectly capable of doing much more than we see from the Careers in The Hunger Games. In fact, the entire problem with the Careers approach to the Hunger Games is that they don’t treat it like a job. We have hyper specialized characters who’ve trained their whole lives to compete in bloodsport, perform, and win the heart of the crowd. They’d be capable of taking someone like Katniss, who was competent in their own right but not prepared for the Games, and incorporate them into their performance. Like in any good reality TV show, you use your actor plants to stoke drama and create entertainment. There’s a real aspect to preliminaries in sports where you use them as an opportunity to size up the competition, which is why you should always be carrying around more than one routine.

In the Roman arena, the thumbs up symbolized the gladiator performing well enough to kill their opponent. The thumbs down indicated they hadn’t performed well enough. The right to kill another warrior was one that had to be earned, and this was difficult to do. These rules were put into place because gladiators are valuable commodities, they are worth more alive than they are dead. At least, until they reach the point where they’re no longer useful.

Looking at a Career would be similar to the feelings inspired when you look at a gif with some martial artist performing martial arts that seem to be outside the laws of nature. Whether that’s climbing up a willing partner to use their legs in a scissor to bring them swinging to the ground or a gun disarm that involves kicking someone’s legs out from under them from a kneeling position. It’s the Clarke quote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” This was the aspect of the Roman arena that was so demoralizing. You can’t figure out how they did what they just did, they seem so incredibly superior, and now your entire culture is ripped apart into bits for the titillation and tantalization of the masses, but goddamn if some part of you doesn’t enjoy it. (See: the Roman treatment of Sparta.)

The trick to understanding any violence is understanding the kind of training they receive, the purpose of the role they’re preparing to serve. All violence is not the same.

If you’ve never spent any time around children who participate in high end sports or martial arts, you’re not really fit to judge what they are and aren’t capable of. The truth is that children are much more capable than you might think, especially when you train and prepare them for what they’re going to experience. There’s an assumption they’ve suffered abuse, be it mental, emotional, or physical, but that’s actually unlikely. You get more out of a willing participant than you do from one that’s been forced, and bloodsport has never in human history had a shortage of individuals willing to sign up. Modern bloodsport is all volunteers, and many of them began training as children in one form or another.

We can debate the nature of traumatized children, how young is too young, but it is important to remember that in sports like gymnastics you’re often looking at children who are sixteen to eighteen years old. These kids train from four in the morning to eight in the evening, and, for the high fliers, their entire education is probably home schooled. Ballet requires a lifetime of preparation in order to achieve professional status. We have child actors. And, of course, there are the Muay Thai kids I mentioned earlier. They get into the ring and give each other injuries that make their brains look like they’ve been in car accidents. But, if you ask them, most would be happy to keep doing it. The rewards outweigh everything else.

Don’t think of these kids as props. They’re very real, and they have very real desires, real wants, and real goals. You can’t become good at something if you don’t love it.  If you want to write these kinds of characters, you need to try thinking from the perspective of the kids who actually want to be there. Who want to do this. Who looked at the glamour, and the blood, and the cheers of the crowd, and said, “YES! I WANT TO BE THAT!” Not as a passing fancy, not in a way that discounts their experiences or chides them for being childish or naive, but the ones who understood what they were getting into. The ones who were raised in the environment and never wanted anything else, and nothing anyone can offer will ever make them feel quite as good. The harder one works to be good at something, the more invested they become. You can be proud of your skill, how hard you worked, and how you struggled without being proud of your ability to kill. This is who they are.

You can cringe from it, you can be terrified by it, you can feel sorry for them, but while you’re doing all that pearl clutching you can’t write genuine stories about their experiences. You can’t write them if you don’t understand. At best, your writing is patronizing. At worst, it ignores the real dark side of their experiences, their struggles, their sacrifices, and the cost of their dream. You also ignore the good that comes from their actions, like the Muay Thai children who are so successful in the ring they can buy their parents houses, the family bonding with parents and siblings who also fight. The friendships, the families, the community, the support, and what its like to be around people who want the same as you. The ones who truly understand your experiences.

Honestly, if you want to be doing anything gladiator, you need to be looking at sports and the influence sports has on our culture. If you want to discuss the evils of bloodsport or violence as entertainment, then you need to understand the cultures we’re talking about. You need to grasp why people like it in the first place, what draws them to watching children beat the shit out of each other, and why they enjoy it without just outright initially dismissing them as psychos. You also need to grasp performance and sports martial arts as their own skill set, with one not completely rejecting your ability to kill people.

In those videos, you’re watching some kids who are twelve and thirteen years old with enough physical control to perform the same sort of stunt fighting you see in a Hollywood film. That’s forgetting Ernie Reyes Jr, who could do the same when he was about five.

What I’m saying is: The Hunger Games doesn’t give children enough credit.

-Michi

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