The Content of Their Characters

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.

16 thoughts on “The Content of Their Characters

  1. Eric Zawadzki

    I didn’t follow the casting process, but after all the whitewashing we’ve seen in the media lately – including some high profile examples in fantasy cover art – I found it refreshing that some folks in Hollywood gave a nod to the characters-as-described-by-the-author instead of just assuming “if Rue is black no one will care about her, so we’d better cast a white actress.” Compare this to the whitewashing the live action version of Avatar: the Last Airbender got and take heart.

    This kind of media racism (and sexism) is based on assumptions about the audience. There’s so much “marketing wisdom” out there about how no one will pay to watch a movie with a female protagonist, for example, or a black actress is somehow less sympathetic than a white one would have been, or no one will buy a fantasy novel with a Chinese woman on the cover. In essence, they assume that nothing can overcome the prejudices of the audience so there is no point in trying, and that makes them complicit in the racism/sexism.

    I really do hope that you are right. Maybe the courage these movie makers showed in casting The Hunger Games will help tear down some of these assumptions that actors of *this* race can only play characters in *these* kinds of roles. Because we could really do with a shake-up of those insulting and profoundly depressing assumptions.

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      I’d find this more compelling if they hadn’t arguably whitewashed Katniss.

      1. Eric Zawadzki

        Yeah. That was a bit of a disappointment. Some progress is better than none, though. I’d like to see more, of course, but when I see stupid ads that actually say “this diet soda isn’t for women,” even a small victory against this nonsense still seems like a victory to me.

        1. Rose Fox Post author

          You’re far more of an optimist than I am! I see those ads and figure some marketing exec realized they could double their market share if they could get both women and men to have eating disorders.

          1. Eric Zawadzki

            *laughs* Oh that’s just wonderful – equal opportunity eating disorders. Those ads are just so dumb and sexist. :-P

            Yeah, I’m an optimist. Doesn’t mean I’m blind to the injustices and failings of humanity. But it means when I see even the tiniest hint that maybe we’re sucking slightly *less* as a species (such as perhaps figuring out that most of us are far more racist than we like to admit, so maybe we can stop ignoring that problem and work toward fixing it), I take notice and celebrate that. Maybe I’m hoping that humanity is like a toddler who craves attention, and I’d rather give it attention when it does good than when it does bad. *smirk*

  2. [dave]

    Hello! Love reading your blog and your musings on Twitter.

    RE: “So I’m surprised that anyone’s surprised about the latest round of complaints.” You shouldn’t be, but I get why you might have… I feel like we can get blinded by the Honest! Self-Aware! Cognizant-of-My-Invisible-Knapsack! sections of the web that we spend our time in …

    I like that the Hunger Games’ famesplosion has brought racism-centered dialogues to the masses, whereas the folks who tune into Racebending/Racialicious et al are clued in and looking for it. (The syntax for this preceding sentence is sloppy, I hope it makes sense).

    I reposted the Jezebel link to my Facebook wall, and got a two paragraph comment from my (admittedly naive) younger cousin who was aghast that people say these things and wanted to know who raised them. She lives in rural white PA. I like that this situation is bringing this sort of mindless racism to the attention of folks who might otherwise think racism “isn’t a big deal any more.” (Does that make sense?)

    1. Rose Fox Post author

      It definitely makes sense. My concern is that such “enlightenment” tends not to stick. After the latest shocking story blows over, it’s very easy for those who don’t have daily experiences of racism to go back to thinking it’s not such a big deal, until the next shocking story comes along and they get that experience of temporary enlightenment all over again.

      If I were in your shoes, I would encourage your cousin to read up more on race issues and racism, and to get involved with anti-racist efforts. Even joining the mailing list of Color of Change or another anti-racist organization would help, because those emails hitting your inbox help to keep you from believing or pretending that everyone lives in harmony. It’s hard and tiring and stressful to confront bigotry every day–but that’s what the targets of bigotry do, so anyone who intends to be an ally needs to at the very least acknowledge that reality.

  3. Barbara

    When my son read the casting, he too mentioned to me that he was at first surprised to see Rue being played by a black person yet I told him to reread the section as I saw she was “dark” skinned so why he was surprised me. At some point, we discussed the possibility that District 11 might be in the south (somewhere warm and good for growing year round) since it’s considered the Harvest District.

    But then again, I missed that Katniss was “olive skinned”. I just picked up the dark hair. That’s nothing new, in the Stephanie Plum series, I completely missed Ranger as being Cuban with a pony tail. I always pictured Michael Duncan Clark as Ranger while reading the books. I only focused on the fact that he always had a wicked smile that he flashed to Stephanie and Michael Duncan Clark has a killer smile.

  4. Elle Carroll

    You make a good point with your link to Todd Alcott’s discussion of the difficulty of getting films made with female action heroes.

    One factor is that movies are visual. We can see the race and sex of the main character. In books (as Barbara pointed out) we’re free to imagine the main character. We may even ignore the writer’s descriptions and clues as to how characters look and dress and choose to think of the characters the way we want to.

    So sexism and racism work more strongly in movies. Or, being a writer, I prefer to say that in books sexism and racism work more weakly!

  5. Laer_Carroll

    It makes sense to be concerned that a “blonde fair-skinned actress” was chosen for the book’s Mediterranean-appearing Katniss. But in the film Jennifer Lawrence wore her natural hair color (brown), her natural eye-color (dark-brown), and has prominent cheekbones. When I saw her on various magazine covers in costume the first time I thought she looked as if she were part American Indian. Definitely not a Nordic goddess!

    The over-riding concern for the film-makers, however, was that Lawrence is an outstandingly good actress. She was nominated for an Oscar for her role as Ree Dolly, a seventeen-year-old living in the Ozarks, in the movie “Winter’s Bone.” Critics that year raved about her performance, and they are raving about her Katniss portrayal this year. It would be hard to find a young actress today of any ethnicity with equal credentials, someone who could portray a character who is not only tough and woods- and weapons-wise, but canny enough to THINK her way to victory.

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  7. Andrew Porter

    Tons of SF novels over the decades have featured Black characters, but, funny thing, when the book comes out, they’re invariably White on the cover. How about “The Martian Child” by David Gerrold, a gay man, but when the movie came out he’s been turned into a heterosexual guy?

  8. dogunderwater

    I think part of the shock is how /openly expressed/ these opinions are. Normally I have to be part of some kind of perceived white-only group (I pass most of the time) to hear people really get their racist on, but Twitter is like shouting racist things in an enormous crowd — anyone could hear you.

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