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Friday, April 27, 2012

The Hunger Games...and Fan Racism? Part 2

[Image Source:]
Update: 2017-12-22 to remove a direct name mention of a Twitter user.

Part II: Fan Racism

Any decent literary venture is bound to challenge the conventions of the society in which the work was created and/or consumed. Michael Moore forced us to examine news media's objectivity towards the Bush Administration, 9/11 and the lead-up to the Iraq Invasion. Hustler Magazine asked us (and the Supreme Court) to define protected speech. Over a hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair went up against wage slavery and the influential meatpacking barons in his novel The Jungle.

More recently Suzanne Collins' young adult series, The Hunger Games, added itself to that list. There are a myriad of things in the trilogy that could be considered controversial, the movie only added a visual dynamic to the mix and expanded the discussion outside the fan base to those who will only know the series from the movie. But amid the discussions into the "inanity" of the MPAA's rating system [1] and whether actress Jennifer Lawrence's healthy figure took away from the film [2], the most glaring and disturbing controversy to come to light has to do with racist reactions some fans had over the casting of black actors for the beloved parts of Rue (Amandla Stenberg), Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi), and Cinna (Lenny Kravitz). The Twitter-sphere exploded with commentary like the one featured above. These tweets went beyond fans bemoaning loose re-imagining of established lore, they were full of vitriol and were peppered with racial epithets. [3].


It is not uncommon for established characters to change races—and even gender—between mediums or over the generations as different writers make the characters their own, especially when movie adaptations are made [4][5][6]. And by no means do such changes go unassailed—or un-championed—by all manner of purists and fanboys. Every time it is announced that a new actor will take over the role of The Doctor or of 007, there are always enthusiastic speculations (not to mention, outcry) about which black and/or female actor [7][8] will finally take the lead. But, in the case of the The Hunger Games, complaints from fans about their favorite characters being portrayed in the movies as black takes a peculiar twist in that these characters are actually black—or at the very least not Caucasian.

[Image Source: @HG_Tweets]

As one Twitter user tweeted, she "didn't picture any [my emphasis] be African American." Yet as the passage above shows, Collins describes the character of Rue (and later on, Thresh) as dark-skinned with dark eyes. Further, in an April 2011 interview with Entertainment Weekly, the author and director Gary Ross discussed the issue of race, clarifying any ambiguities regarding the ethnicity of the characters:

EW: Some readers have expressed real frustration that white actors were cast in the roles of Katniss and Gale, who they felt were clearly described as biracial in the book. Do you understand or share any of that dismay Suzanne?
SC: They were not particularly intended to be biracial. It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing. But I think I describe them as having dark hair, grey eyes, and sort of olive skin. You know, we have hair and makeup. But then there are some characters in the book who are more specifically described.
GR: Thresh and Rue.
SC: They’re African-American.
EW: So will those roles go to black actors?
GR: Thresh and Rue will be African-American. It’s a multi-racial culture and the film will reflect that. But I think Suzanne didn’t see a particular ethnicity to Gale and Katniss when she wrote it, and that’s something we’ve talked about a lot. She was very specific about the qualities that these characters have and who they are as people. Having seen Josh and Liam and Jen perform these roles, that’s really the most important thing. They’re very much the characters to us.

Surprisingly, however, the issue resurfaced a year later when a Canadian fan created Hunger Games Tweets on Tumblr, a blog dedicated to "expos[ing] the Hunger Games fans on Twitter who dare to call themselves fans yet don't know a damn thing about the books." Many of the tweets featured on the site have since been removed from Twitter and many of the posters have since abandoned their account.

[Image Source: HungerGamesTweets]
[Image Source: HungerGamesTweets]

It behooves to me to point out, just as the site's creator has done, that many of the tweets he's featured are not necessarily racist, rather they run along the lines of "reading comprehension fail." It could be argued that, perhaps, Collins was too vague in her description, that maybe, as Anna Holmes has suggested, Collins "overestimated" her readers. But is it really necessary to explicitly and more plainly point out that a characters is not Caucasian?

[Image Source: HungerGamesTweets]
In her piece in The New Yorker, Maria Tatar posits that our association of innocence with little blonde white girls has more to do with generations of conditioning by the media. Even classic literature like Uncle Tom's Cabin and the works of Charles Dickens are guilty of this portrayal of whiteness' saving grace. "The deaths of blonde girls and women," Tatar writes, "have a way of monopolizing the media limelight...[t]heir murders are emphasized far more than the deaths of 'some black girl' (that 'some' packs a dehumanizing punch) or, for that matter, anyone living below the poverty line without a halo of blonde hair."

Even George Takei has weighted in, reminding us of the need to keep things in perspective, after all what does it matter what color skin a child has when she is about to be ritualistically murder?

The best response to all this, I think, comes from Cate Matthews, whose well-spoken wit and perspective punctuates this blog post better than anything else I might be able to add.

BTW, you can follow Ms. Matthews on Twitter, on Tumblr, and on YouTube. And, really, should.