One of the biggest recent movie franchises in the country is “The Hunger Games,” in which the ostentatiously wealthy people of Panem’s capital rule over the poorer districts from which tributes are selected each year to kill each other in a violent media spectacle. It’s a grotesque display in which the lives of the impoverished are offered up as entertainment for the comfortable.
It’s hard to see the film and not think of the way TV news has covered Black Friday. Consider the jocular hosts’ grinning affect as they relate news of brawls throughout the country in this clip from Fox & Friends First today, for example, or how numerous Web sites will round up the best brawl videos. As Yahoo News writes on the spread of Black Friday violence to Britain this year, “That means even more grown adults fighting over discounted underwear, and more opportunities to for us to gawk at them.” Or take this video of a fight inside of a Houston Wal-Mart. You’ll notice producers from a variety of television programs — “Good Morning America,” Fox News, CNN — all asking for permission to use the video on their broadcasts, because they know this type of shopper-on-shopper violence is a huge draw. Mixed in with those, perhaps unsurprisingly, are a bevy of comments comparing the shoppers to animals, or savages, or making horrifically offensive racist comments.
Granted that’s par for the course on any YouTube video, but on broadcast TV, this kind of gawking shows how our lurid interest in these stories is connected to issues of class and race in America. In a telling bit of irony, the former clip comes complete with a pre-roll ad for Black Friday deals. In other words, videos of the type of violence that takes place on Black Friday are being used to sell the shopping holiday back to us, the capitalist serpent swallowing its own tail.
It’s hard to avoid the message of those ads. We’ve been bombarded with them for weeks now, from corporations eager to entice shoppers with so-called “door-buster” deals. And then, once the shopping public falls for them, a privileged segment of the population sits back and dehumanizes them for its collective amusement. Look at these hilarious poor people, struggling to take advantage of a deal on something they might not otherwise be able to afford on items that we take for granted, we joke on Twitter. The message is the same: this is shameful, materialistic behavior. And by pointing it out, we differentiate ourselves, reaffirm our class status as being above the fray of the lowly and desperate.
The exact demography of shoppers on Thanksgiving and Black Friday isn’t clear, with the former being too new a trend to track, and it seems to have been changing over recent years, with a higher percentage of millennials taking part of late, but studies have shown the shoppers are more likely to be non-white, or single mothers. There’s no denying the demographics that seem to show up again in the type of videos we all find so hilarious, however.
As we’ve seen of late in the Ferguson-related unrest, the physical struggles of non-white America writ large make for great television. I’ve seen dozens of variations on the obvious and racist pun in the name of the day itself already today. But one thing we can say for sure is that it isn’t the wealthy or the comfortable who are standing in line in the cold, or wrestling with one another over a slightly discounted Xbox.
None of which is to say that resorting to violence over a discounted television or video game console is admirable, but it’s worthwhile to stop and consider just what it is that inspires such desperation in the first place. As in the world of Panem, an artificial scarcity is imposed from the top down — Wal-Mart, Target and so on — in order to whip the public into a frenzy of aspiration. The affluent media corporations are then complicit in the con, gorging themselves on advertising from the very stores raking in the sales revenue. And we, the advantaged, sit at home in front of our computers and tablets and phones, all of which we’ve already purchased at non-bargain prices, and delight in the spectacle.