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You are not who I thought you were: race and The Hunger Games

In high school my English teacher gave advanced reading to students who were keen, and the first novel was To Kill A Mockingbird. Harper Lee’s book is a story of racism in the American South, as everyone knows, but it also included a salutary lesson about gender for me.

Lee’s narrator is Scout, the daughter of an Alabama lawyer defending a black man wrongfully accused of raping a white woman. For quite some time, as I eagerly turned the pages, I assumed that Scout was a he. Whether this is because Scout’s gender was deliberately hidden, or because I was skimming (which I’m sadly only known to do with fiction I impatiently adore), I’m not sure. But when I realised ‘he’ was really a Jean Louise and a ‘she’, I found myself fixated on my own sexist supposition as I was, after all, a feminist-in-training at 14.

It appears that some readers of the young adult novel The Hunger Games (THG) are having a similar experience upon seeing the recently released movie version. The novel is based in a post-apocalyptic world, where children from 12 districts are randomly chosen to fight to the death in a televised reality game.

Two of the best-loved characters of the trilogy, Rue and Thresh, were ‘revealed’ in the movie to be black. While the author of THG, Suzanne Collins, may not have said specifically the characters were ‘black’, she had been overt about their appearance. Twelve-year-old Rue is introduced on page 45 of the book as having ‘dark brown skin and eyes’, and when Thresh is seen by another character later on he is described as having the ‘same dark skin’ as her. Yet many readers read whiteness into the characters, presumably thinking Collins simply meant they had tans. Or maybe, like me, they had been skimming.

In the last few weeks I’ve read numerous commentaries on the reaction of readers – racist and anti-racist – to the movie’s race ‘revelation’ (see ‘Racist Hunger Games fans are very disappointed’, ‘Rue is black and racism is still an issue’, ‘Why wasn’t The Hunger Games cast as I imagined in my racist reading?!’ and the vlog, ‘Racist Hunger Games fans flee internet!!’). There was also a particularly good article by Anna Holmes in the New Yorker, noting that many readers reacted with hostility when suddenly aware they had read whiteness into the narrative. She discusses how racist outrage of fans on Twitter prompted one Canadian lover of the book to set up hungergamestweets.tumblr. His Tumblr documents the racist comments and subsequent commentary on the issue, including the following tweets:

‘I was pumped about the Hunger Games. Until I learned that a black girl was playing Rue’

‘Sense (sic) when has Rue been a nigger’

‘Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture’

‘Kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad. #ihatemyself’

‘Why is Rue a little black girl #sticktothebookdude’

‘some ugly little girl with nappy … hair’

The Tumblr went viral, and many of those who wrote such comments have since made their Twitter accounts private or deleted them.

But in her article, it appears Holmes was not only trying to detail the racism of the original tweets (largely sent by teenagers and those in their early twenties) but also trying to demonstrate that even those who read the New Yorker are likely to read whiteness in as well. Holmes crafted her article to not mention the ethnicity of the creator of hungergamestweets, and gave him the pseudonym Adam – with all its white and Christian overtones. She appears to have wanted to highlight how the older and highly educated readers of something like the New Yorker might also illustrate her article title, ‘White Until Proven Black’.

Despite my experience with Scout when I was 14, I also imagined Adam was white until he was ‘revealed’ as ‘of Caribbean descent’ in the penultimate sentence. Similarly was fodderforfantisies, who notes of her reading:

[T]his article just proved to me that I do it. We all do it. This article profiles someone of the pseudonym Adam, the person who created the Hunger Games Tweets Tumblr site. It talks about interviewing him in his office in Toronto. I imagined in the interview in my head. Adam was white. … I defaulted him as white, because I had no indicators to the contrary. It makes me so mad at myself and society that we do these things. I imagined Rue as black because it says she has dark skin in the books, but in this article, with skin color not described, I did not. GUH.

I can only hope for every racist reaction there was another young reader who had the experience I’d had with To Kill A Mockingbird. Where a ‘revelation’ of Rue as black will allow them a window into how racism can work at the most personal level – and even amongst those who consider themselves to be anti-racists.

As Nicole Paulhus says on her blog Hello Giggles:

It is easy to say that people are racist for thinking in this way, but I think the issue is bigger than individual thought process. I think this speaks volumes about where we are in terms of diversity representation in media.

While white faces do dominate much of our media, is this reaction only about the representation of community diversity? In all the coverage I’ve read of THG reactions, little has dealt with racism as more than about the ideas in people’s heads. As Sherry Wolf says, when discussing reaction to the killing of Trayvon Martin, many have:

a politically confused way of talking about race as if it were simply about bad ideas in people’s heads and not conscious structures of oppression kept in place by the 1% in the interests of the 1%.

It seems to me it is only by thinking through the connections of the racism of individuals, overt and covert, to the broader socioeconomic context that we can start to work out how things might change.

Comments

  1. Interesting post.
    Can I just say how good it is, for a start, that the Hunger Games franchise, which seems to me a fairly overt metaphor for the Iraq war, has supplanted the Twilight franchise, which was a fairly overt metaphor for Mormonism.
    The whole issue relates to the article in the latest Overland in which Tariro Mavondo talks about being a black actor in a very white industry.
    http://overland.org.au/previous-issues/issue-206/feature-tariro-mavondo/
    Anyway, she mentions colour blind casting, a process that many theatre groups have embraced, and I wondered what people thought about it.
    Obviously, I can see the appeal of the system, as a way of allowing those not normally represented in the Australian theatre to make their way through the casting process.
    But then I wondered whether being colour blind was actually a good thing, in a context where casting choices would quite obviously have political implications. For instance, I saw The Histrionic last night, the Malthouse’s version of Thomas Bernhard’s der Theatermacher. It’s set in a provincial town, and is structured around the response of an egotistical actor to the backwardness of his surrounds. If the representative of the locals had been played by a black actor, the political dynamic would have been quite different, since a white actor berating yokels for their support for Hitler has different connotations to a white actor berating a black actor.
    Anyway, I’m not totally sure what I think. But it did occur to me that, rather than supporting colour blind casting, it might make more sense for the Left to advocate an anti-racist theatre, in which an opposition to racism would manifest in a variety of different ways.
    Anyway,

    • Interesting points. I thoughts of Tariro’s article as well, and actually wondered if Australians read THG more racistly, because the diversity in representation in adult television and film here is nonexistent, unlike the States or the UK.

  2. Thanks for the post, E. Personally, I always read Rue and Thresh as black. They were described as having ‘dark brown skin’ and ‘dark thick hair’. (They also came from a farming district that was impoverished, where labourers were managed through whipping – is Collins simply acknowledging history there? Not sure.)

    As to whether we read whiteness into characters and texts, I think it largely depends on context. Why would people of colour read all characters as white? Why would anyone?

    One of the major things that frustrated me about these two characters is the function they served in the book: that of the ‘magical negro’ who is only there to serve the protagonist. It’s a prevalent racist trope in the States, which positions an oppressed person – almost always an African American in the US context – in a pseudo-privileged position. They whisper in the ear of the white lead character, they teach them about humanity, they almost always save the lead protagonists from their almost-fate. (Joamette Gil has an excellent dissection of its role in the Hunger Games, and Roxane Gay has an analysis of the history of the trope.) Rue can move silently, unseen; she communicates with fauna, reads flora; her entire purpose is to help Katniss advance through the games, and as a person. To quote Gil:

    The way hear death was handled was perhaps the most upsetting thing to me about her treatment: she was killed the instant the plot no longer needed her, not a moment later. To be fair, every character died the moment the plot didn’t need them anymore; however, only Rue’s death was used to develop Katniss’s character. Every other death comes off as incidental.

    I imagine the ‘magical negro’ is the first position a liberal writes when they write race.

    The thing I find appealing about the Hunger Games is that they’re kind of complex texts, with a whole lot of readings, some kind of political, and many falling into stereotype. One of the things I’m embarrassed to have missed in my reading is the use of queerness: how the debauchery and decadence of The City is juxtaposed with the integrity and morality of rural classes and workers.

    Btw, do you think Scout was, in many ways, simply less gendered? In the photo above, she looks like my mum did when she was a kid – the overalls, the ‘tomboyishness’ (which is meant to imply what – a pre-sexual pre-‘womanhood’ state, before which girls and boys were indistinguishable?)?

  3. This makes me think of a Canadian tv adaptation of the Wizard of Earthsea a few years ago, in which the producers cast a blond, blue eyed actor as Ged. Le Guin’s character has copper skin (she is very explicit about skin colour in her books). She was angry enough to make a public statement protesting the casting. There’s a whole culture out there reinforcing default white reading.

    Re cross-racial casting: we’re really backward here. Sometimes colour blind works – Peter Brook did a great colour blind version of Hamlet with Adrian Lester as Hamlet. I saw a wonderful black Elektra in Melbourne a couple of years ago. Etc. But, as you point out, it can’t be carelessly done, because race will often be read by audiences, and in some (not all) cases it will feed into meaning. For those interested, Lee Lewis did an excellent Platform Paper for Currency House on Cross Racial Casting a few years ago which is well worth reading. You can buy the book on the website: http://www.currencyhouse.org.au/node/117

    • Thank you for mentioning Earthsea. I think it’s one of the most classic examples of “reading race” in this way.

      When I read those books as a child, it wasn’t until the sequel The Tombs of Atuan that I became fully aware Ged wasn’t white – and that was really in the context of his quasi-romance with the pale white “barbarian” Tenar.

      I suspect it’s mainly a good thing if young white kids reading the Hunger Games are being surprised the same way.

  4. I thought the Hunger Games was a comment on the barbarism that is reality TV shows like Big Brother – an exaggerated Truman Show, rather than a metaphor about the Iraq War.

    From this report on ABC, it seems Suzanne Collins meant to meld the two. Both reality TV and real life have figures of authority who make decisions that Collins wants readers to think critically about.
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fmFzAs1jSR4
    Great book and great post Liz.

    • Yes, reality tv.
      But kids from impoverished rural areas being forced to fight in meaningless wars that only benefit the elite has an obvious resonance with Iraq.

      the American dead come disproportionately from the most forgotten, least attended to parts of our country, from places that often have lost their job bases; consider that many of them were under or unemployed as well as undereducated, that they generally come from struggling, low-income, low-skills areas. Given that we have an all-volunteer military (so that not even the threat of a draft touches other young Americans), you could certainly say that the President’s war in Iraq — and its harm — has been disproportionately felt. If you live in a rural area, you are simply far more likely to know a casualty of the war than in most major metropolitan areas of the country.

  5. I had exactly the same experience with Scout in Mockingbird. I distinctly remember being at page 50-something, suddenly realising Scout was a girl and having to read the whole first section again.

    I haven’t read the Hunger Games but I have had a few discussions recently about colour-blind and/or race-conscious casting. It’s a tricky thing because it seems simultaneously token and crucial. I think you’re right – whatever response we make to this stuff (i.e. organisational policies such as casting models or, like Jeff suggested, advocating anti-racist performance) has to be in dialogue with that broader socioeconomic context, otherwise it is just lip service.

    Aside, I actually think it’s often impossible to be colour blind in principal casting. I understand why it’s a first-issue policy, and I think that it’s probably a “this is the best we have at the moment” thing, but it’s so dependent on the text, the issues examined within it, and the interpretation of the primary creatives, that it really does seem rather flaccid in a lot of ways. I don’t know – colour blind where colour doesn’t matter is fine. But sometimes it *does* matter, because of the political implications race brings with it in different narrative contexts as well as performance contexts. It would be interesting to see a casting framework that articulated a progressive response to this, that spoke to that broader socioeconomic context.

  6. Ta for the HG post. Haven’t read the books but viewed the film because I was wondering what could possibly be replacing Twilight in the teen imagination and why.
    There are some resonances with the Iraq war I guess for those living in rural USA, but HG seems to me to feed into a whole slew of western adolescent anxieties about what you might become as an adult, about the scary rapacious neoliberal world you will have to compete in and so on.I also noted the salt of the earth country folk and the New Romantic Queer city folk. I don’t think any of this is conscious either on the part of the writer/s.
    It’s too chaotic, and the sadism of the adolescents chopping pieces out of each other is relished just a little too much.
    I can’t see how it is an ‘improvement’ on Twilight really. HG is less misogynist but not much. I have no idea how the rest of the series unfolds but on the evidence of HG1 it looked to me like a love triangle, marriages and a lot of salt of the earth babies are in the offing.

    • I don’t know, we, societally speaking, kind of relish war. Why are we only offended when it’s children hacking each other up?

  7. Sorry, I’m not clear what you’re saying Jack. Any violence on screen bothers me usually according to the sadism of it. That’s always the marker for me that something very disturbing is happening. There’s been a bit of history lately of Hollywood portraying sadistic child killers( ie: Hanna etc) and they always seem to be young women and girls. I suspect HG will try and have things both ways – make a half-hearted social critique and valorise marriage and babies as well, just as it has its racism both ways too.

    • I guess I just meant that violence is ubiquitous in media and in reality. Much of the criticism surrounding THG has been about the violence, and there has been a disgust in some of the commentary that audiences – particularly young audiences – could be entertained by something based on the premise of a battle to the death between children. As if war among adults were a more acceptable past-time.

      I haven’t seen the films, but have read the books. The heteronormativity is a problem, but the societal expectations – the killing, the conventional romance – are, I think, critiques. That said, it can be a fine line between questioning and glorifying.

      Btw, spoiler: no babies.

      • Thanks for that. I didn’t realise there’d been the ‘its too violent’ argument circulating. I take your point.
        There’ll be babies for sure. The script was flagging it like mad.

  8. The issue for me is not so much the book or movie per se, but the way the discussion about race and THG is taking place. As if racism is something found only inside of the person mentioned above who dropped the ‘N bomb’, or kids who say racist things on Twitter, and the rest of us are somewhat outside it. When are we going to get past discussing race as is if it is only about ideas in people’s heads, or most particularly in other people’s heads? It seems far to easy for progressive and anti-racist commentary to arrive at that conclusion at the moment – that there are a bunch of racists ‘out there’, rather than racism is embedded in the social, political and economic structures of society.

    Similarly with Trayvon Martin, can the prosecution of the white man who shot him, without questioning the racist legal system of the US, get us very far? A legal system that not only results in racist actions (we all question whether a black man who shot a white child be free so soon after the killing took place?) but one that protects the wealth and property of largely white rich ruling class of the US against all others. One side of the coin is a black boy in a hoodie dead, the other is that there are more black men in jail now than were ever slaves.

    (Jack, on Scout and your comments about gender … it is possibly true of her character and the more limited gender difference pre puberty. Yet girls have always been told to be more lady like, and to mind their manners, hence the existence of a term like tomboy. So I’m not sure that is why I made that particular mistake, as I was pretty tomboyish myself. I was never really into dresses or dolls, more cricket, football, and my model train set.)

    • I agree that these are symptoms of a structurally racist and iniquitous system, and take your point that the people above are expressing that systemic racism.

      But in the States recently, besides Trayvon Martin, there’s been the death of Rekia Boyd, Kenneth Chamberlain shot dead in his home by police, the death of Shaima Alawadi in her home, the Tulsa shootings, the rumours of neo-Nazis patrolling Sanford, the executions of undocumented workers, plus the countless others we don’t know about. Obviously racism isn’t just happening in the States, but it’s easier to detect there, because of the size of the population, and because of the economic duress.

      Clearly, you can’t have racist cops without a racist system. But I think we have to also look at the quality and frequency of this racism, which has spilled out of the institutions and the established right-wing media.

      It’s a problem that people feel comfortable expressing this racism now, when they wouldn’t have 20, 30 years ago.

    • Re Scout, it’s kind of like what you said earlier – that is, it’s about systemic sexism. So it doesn’t matter how we experience the world as individuals, it’s about the expectations and assumptions.

  9. Just finished ‘Zone One’, a zombie apocalypse novel written by an African American. Fairly sure the race of the protagonist is only indirectly mentioned towards the end of the book. I was mildly surprised to discover the protagonist was also African American but up until then I hadn’t even thought about his race.

    I guess then the context is everything…

  10. Thought the point was not to get sucked into the moral quagmires posed by such infoentertainments as the news, hunger games etc. Never took scout to be anything other than female. Thought also, race was no longer a useful term, rooted as it is in biology; rather, different ethnicities, as a way out of an unnecessary quagmire.

    • But when millions of people are engaging with films like the Hunger Gsmes, the issues being raised matter, surely.
      And, yes, race is scientifically meaningless. But that doesn’t mean it has no political consequences. Being black mattered to that kid in the US if only cos of its meaning for the racist who shot him.

      • Ah, you almost had me there. Was tempted – have a good reply – then thought, uh-uh, I’m entering into the same moral quagmire twice.

  11. I must say, I had a similar experience when I was a young lad. After watching Predator 2, I initially thought it a little odd that a black person (Danny Glover) had the lead role. I’d obviously consumed far too much Hollywood junk in the childhood, but nevertheless it was still a racist thought.

    This episode in my life was quite confronting; I certainly learned a lot about myself that day.

    • Yeah, but who’s going to admit to being racist when contacted like that? Besides, the writer only spoke with two of the ‘offending’ tweeters. And ‘sighing’ because Rue’s black? That’s disappointment because Rue’s black, so I don’t see how that’s been taken out of context.

      The Slate piece then argues pretty much the same position as Liz – that is, that racism is systemic, and what’s going to change by shaming some teenagers?

  12. Sure but at the same time it’s pretty easy to compile out-of-context tweets to prove just about anything. I think that article mentions the much circulated list of tweeters purportedly showing surprise that the Titanic was real (and not just a movie). Someone pointed out that, in context, what many of the kids were talking about was whether or not the love story in the film actually happened.
    I’m not saying that there was no racism expressed about The Hunger Games. But I do think there was an element of ‘these damn kids today’ in the way those tweets were compiled.

  13. Which is why I was trying to point out it is not about ‘these damn kids’ and their racism, but reading in whiteness more generally. My and other people’s reading of the article in the New Yorker demonstrates that well.

    If you look through the many pages of the Tumblr I think you get a sense there were both horribly overt racist tweets, and ones where people were simply admitting they had read whiteness in. The third category, mentioned by you and the Slate article as potentially being taken out of context, seem to me an absolute minority.

  14. I wish I’d read the books because now I’ll never know whether I would have defaulted those characters to ‘white’ myself. Or perhaps I would have read my own sub-continental background into it and translated ‘dark-skinned’ to south Indian or similar.
    Never read Scout as a boy, but I spent most of Lloyd Jones’s Mr Pip wondering whether the narrator was male or female. She was female.

    Anyway, any discussion that brings attention to the this ‘white until proven black’ issue is alright by me. Good article, Elizabeth.

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