NOTE: If you’re already up on racism and The Hunger Games and kind of exhausted by the thought of reading another post about it, you may be interested in reading about sexism and The Hunger Games instead.
Everyone’s buzzing about Hunger Games Tweets, a Tumblr that collects and discusses tweets from people who are shocked and upset that Rue, a character described in Suzanne Collins’s book The Hunger Games as having dark skin, is played by an African-American actress in the film. The link started making the rounds a couple of days ago, and after Jezebel picked it up, the hits went through the roof. Cue a great deal of head-shaking.
But why is everyone so surprised that some of Collins’s fans are having indisputably racist reactions to her books? When the movies were first cast, the excellent Racebending site covered the controversy over white, blonde Jennifer Lawrence being cast as olive-skinned, dark-haired Katniss. That led to a pointed question in an Entertainment Weekly interview with Collins and director Gary Ross, and an interesting response:
EW: In the books, Katniss is described as being olive-skinned, dark-haired, possibly biracial. Did you discuss with Suzanne the implications of casting a blond, caucasian girl?
GR: Suzanne and I talked about that as well. There are certain things that are very clear in the book. Rue is African-American. Thresh is African-American.
“Very clear” to Ross and Collins, perhaps, but not to all of their fans. A blog post that went up on EW about six months before the interview took place asked whether Rue was black, and–as a separate question–whether she should be played by a black actress. The comments immediately, inevitably, filled up with exclamations like “RUE IS NOT BLACK NEATER IS THRESH READ THE BOOK AGAIN!” and the slightly more considered “I feel like a jerk for not noticing she was black in the book”. And when African-American actors were cast for the parts of Rue, Thresh, and Cinna, Racialicious reported that the Hunger Games Facebook page was inundated with exclamations of surprise and dismay; those comments sound exactly like the recent tweets about the movie.
So I’m surprised that anyone’s surprised about the latest round of complaints. Sure, not everyone reads Racialicious and Racebending, but Jezebel covered the casting controversy back in 2011 too. More broadly, I’m trying to figure out how insulated one has to be from the wider world to be shocked! shocked! that racism is pervasive in American culture, and among American teens. Those wide-eyed tweets about Rue’s death being less sad because she’s black clearly come straight from the brains of adolescents (nearly all of them white, presumably) who have bathed in subtly and overtly racist culture since birth, absorbed far too much of it, and not yet learned to second-guess or even censor themselves when they parrot its tenets. They’re surprising only if you haven’t noticed that when real people of color are killed, there’s always an immediate attempt to justify or downplay the deaths. Art imitates life; reactions to art likewise imitate life.
On the bright side–and I am trying mightily to find a bright side here–this many surprised people might mean that more of those people are starting to pay attention, and will keep paying attention even after the latest furor dies down.