07/09/2012 05:50 pm ET | Updated Sep 08, 2012

Popular Culture and "The System"

It is hard to miss the fact that vampire and apocalyptic trends are hugely popular, not just among teens but adults as well. From Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games to Seth Graham-Smith's Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, and before them, that tremendously popular book and film series by J.K Rowling, all have featured serious violence and revenge themes. Good battles evil with fantastical or demonic creatures on either side, all hallmarks of fantasy. Film critics and commentators have speculated that the popularity of these books and films demonstrates that, with the global economic recession continuing, we are in desperate need for heroes. And these all provide that -- in particular, the classic white savior hero.

But what is also important about these vampire and apocalyptic films and books is that the heroes are not just battling a solo evil character and his or her clan. Rather, all of these offer a critique of "the system." In The Hunger Games, it is the system, the Capitol, that is the problem. It is oppressive and militaristic. Led by President Snow (Donald Sutherland in the film), the Capital will stop at nothing to control the citizens of Panem through deprivation, manipulation and outright violence. Like Karl Marx cautioned, these proletariats accept their fate, sending their kids to the annual Reaping to fight in the Hunger Games, because of the hegemonic power of the Capitol. That is, until Katniss Everdeen, the white hero of the book and film, offers a glimmer of resistance. It is Everdeen who ends up sparking the revolution against the Capitol.

In Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, the government was inept to control the institution of slavery, which was crafted by and for vampires as an easy food source while they sought greater influence in the U.S. Not until one heroic white man -- Abe Lincoln -- conjoins his hunt for vampires with his political activism and ends up becoming the 16th president is the system capable of driving out evil.

The Harry Potter series shows a government -- the Ministry -- that at first is of limited utility in defending the people against the evil of Lord Voldemort. As the series progresses, though, we see that the Ministry is also part of the evil. It employs characters like Dolores Umbridge, whose zest to rid the wizarding world of all half-bloods or mud-bloods (persons with one wizard parent and one non-wizard, or Muggle, parent) seems to be boundless. Still later, we learn that the incapable Ministry has been taken over by Voldemort and his followers, and Harry and friends must battle not just Voldemort but the system as well.

This focus on government as part of, if not all of, the problem is important in that it can engage viewers and readers in essential dialogue about real issues. For instance, The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series can be used to highlight the ways that militarism and seemingly benign bureaucracy do damage to us all. One concern is that people will read or view these as a call for individual heroism or a drive to posse up and take matters into our own hands, using violence to fight violence.

We should use these films and books, however, as reminders of the power of community organizing. Although Katniss and Abe don't necessarily try to organize others, they both inspire followers and end up developing critical alliances in their fight against the system. Harry has Hermoine Granger, Ron Weasley and others who help him take on the Ministry and Voldemort.

And, these forms of popular culture should prompt us to question why it is the "good" side has to use the same forms of violence to "fight" the "bad" side. Perhaps these discussions can lead us to examine the many powerful means of civil resistance and forms of nonviolent protest that have been effective in changing laws, policies, and even toppling governments.