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And May the Demographic Odds Be Ever in Your Favor. Or Not.

March 26th, 2012 · 17 Comments

The weekend, a depressing number of supposed Hunger Games fans expressed attitudes ranging from surprise to undisguised racist hostility at the discovery that black actors had been cast to play the characters Rue and Thresh in the movie. As more attentive fans were quick to point out, these reactions were not only ugly but obtuse: The characters are pretty clearly described in the book as having dark brown skin, and it’s strongly intimated that the agrarian District 11 from which they hail overlaps with the contemporary American South.  (True, the author doesn’t describe them as “African American” because… what’s an American? We’re in Panem, remember?)

The book doesn’t dwell on this, though, and a reader skimming along at a fast clip could be forgiven for missing the two quick references. The deeper stupidity here is the assumption that the default race of any character is Caucasian when it’s not stated explicitly, and that casting a person of color in this case would represent some kind of deviation from the book’s implicit characterization. This would be wrongheaded for an adaptation of a book set in the present, but at least quasi-understandable:  The social realities of people of color in contemporary America are different in a variety of ways, enough so that we do generally expect authors to make at least passing reference to a major character’s minority status.

It makes no sense at all, however, in a dystopian sci-fi novel (implicitly) set two or three centuries in the future. First, we have no real idea what the racial dynamics of Panem are like, so there’s no particular reason to think Suzanne Collins would need to make note of it if Katniss were of (say) Korean or Chicana descent. Second, and maybe more to the point, non-Hispanic whites are already projected to constitute less than half of the U.S. population in 2050, long before the earliest possible date for the events of the book. (Incidentally, reactions to the unfolding Trayvon Martin story reveal a surprising number of Americans struggling with the notion that the adjectives “white” and “Hispanic” might apply to the very same person. Kindly refer to the photo atop this blog if you’re among them.) Unless the war—and possibly other apocalyptic events—that precede the events of the book had some kind of wildly skewed demographic effects, you’d think our default expectation would be that a randomly chosen character of unspecified race won’t match your basic Anglo phenotype. If anything, then, the filmmakers probably should have gone a good deal heavier on the non-white actors—though I shudder to think how vile the Twitter reaction would have been if they had.

Tags: Art & Culture · Sociology


       

 

17 responses so far ↓

  • 1 K. Chen // Mar 26, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    The references are a brush pass (one that I missed) but the general allusion to an especially oppressed agrarian people in a novel about a dystopian successor nation to [North] America? It was a choice between Blacks and Mexicans.

  • 2 Julian Sanchez // Mar 26, 2012 at 3:10 pm

    True. But with the Capital explicitly located in the Rockies and “outlying” Districts 11 and 12 presumably (a) relatively close to each other, and (b) on the far side of the continent from the Capital, it makes sense that if the forested coal-mining district District 12 is in Appalachia, District 11 is the South, which makes black seem a little more likely, without ruling out Latino.

    All that aside, Suzanne Collins did co-write the screenplay and seems to have been involved enough in the process that I’d assume she was on hand to settle the question if the director wasn’t sure.

  • 3 Dain (@PolitixDain) // Mar 26, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    If this was supposed to be based on North America, and Katniss is from Appalachia, I’m curious where the Capital is located. It took the kids 2 days on a 200mph train to reach it…

  • 4 K. Chen // Mar 26, 2012 at 3:33 pm

    I seem to recall that it was definitively located in Denver

  • 5 Julian Sanchez // Mar 26, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Rocky Mountains; it’s one of the few landmarks we get with its explicit 21st century name.

  • 6 K. Chen // Mar 26, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    Oh, sorry, one nitpick, the capital of Panem is the Capitol.

  • 7 Liberty60 // Mar 26, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    As a new reader of this blog, I looked at the photo atop;
    I see a line of white (or possibly hispanic) columns, and a tiny figure whose face is smaller than my fingernail. So I will take your word for it.
    But the comment is perceptive, in that our racial designations were fixed by 19th Century Americans as tribal signifiers and don’t really reflect anything about ethnicity.
    Within the Spanish-speaking world there are as many tribal, class and ethnic divisions as there are here. The notion that any group outside of WASP is somehow a happy harmonious uniform block is almost as absurd as the notion that white is the “default” tribe.

  • 8 Julian Sanchez // Mar 26, 2012 at 7:21 pm

    D’oh, right! There’s a closer photo on the “about” tab…

  • 9 Ben // Mar 27, 2012 at 12:55 am

    A possible explanation would be that when North America goes into the crapper some ethnic groups might have an easier time emigrating than others. Particularly ones that are generally located in urban areas on the borders, as well as those who might have better connections abroad than whites and blacks, whose roots tend to extend back into the nineteenth century or earlier.

  • 10 John Thacker // Mar 27, 2012 at 9:33 am

    I’ve seen personally more wry commentary claiming that the New York Times has used the phrase “white Hispanic” more times in this story than in years of articles, according to Lexis-Nexis search.

    This factoid (which I cannot verify) seems to have been added to Wikipedia recently: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Hispanic_and_Latino_Americans#Representation_in_the_media

    I haven’t seen that many people struggling with the notion of “white Hispanic.” After all, many of the more race and immigration obsessed figures on the Right have already been more than willing to distinguish between types of Hispanics (from Steve Sailer to Mark Krikorian here discussing the very case: http://www.nationalreview.com/corner/294279/white-vs-non-white-or-black-vs-non-black-mark-krikorian )

    However, presumably there are people who are confused.

  • 11 John Thacker // Mar 27, 2012 at 9:34 am

    I’ve seen personally more wry commentary claiming that the New York Times has used the phrase “white Hispanic” more times in this story than in years of articles, according to Lexis-Nexis search.

    This factoid (which I cannot verify) seems to have been added to Wikipedia recently: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/White_Hispanic_and_Latino_Americans#Representation_in_the_media

    However, presumably there are confused people somewhere. (Though, actually not as much as among the people most obsessed with immigration like Steve Sailer or Mark Krikorian.)

  • 12 Racist Hunger Games fans illustrate all that is wrong in the world // Mar 27, 2012 at 11:10 am

    […] other characters in Panem are Caucasian. In fact, the film was significantly white-washed as it is. As Julian Sanchez points out, the Hunger Games is set in the distant-future and in the not-to-distant future, non-Hispanic […]

  • 13 Sigivald // Mar 27, 2012 at 2:58 pm

    The deeper stupidity here is the assumption that the default race of any character is Caucasian when it’s not stated explicitly, and that casting a person of color in this case would represent some kind of deviation from the book’s implicit characterization.

    I’m not sure it’s stupid in context.

    Many people (I’m not one of them, but I hear them talk about it) have more or less a “movie of the book” running in their heads while reading, I’m told – and that means an almost literal mental picture of the characters, as in Some Idea Of Their Looks.

    If one misses any particular description or reason to believe it’s set Someplace Not Like Where The Reader Lives, it makes reasonable sense to assume that the (human, on Earth, “almost now”) character looks like the reader – it’s basic empathy, isn’t it?

    In any case, for people with the “mental movie” model of reading, characters have to look like something, so what are they supposed to pick as a “default”?

    No answer seems generally sound, if they miss, as you suggest, the descriptors.

    (I suppose my point is that the explanation might not be so much “the characters have to be white by default [because only white people are interesting]”, as much as “the characters are like the reader by default”.

    Nothing seems more natural than that – no matter the reader’s skin color.)

  • 14 Hunger Games & Racism « shigekuni. // Mar 28, 2012 at 4:32 am

    […] described as “olive skinned” (which is, in fact, upsetting (cf. Bitch Media and Julian Sanchez)- the outrage was directed at the director correctly casting a black actress for a black character. […]

  • 15 Racheal // Mar 28, 2012 at 10:37 pm

    This comment is in reference to the comment made by Sigivald. I also play a mental movie in my head when I read a book, but I don’t instantly assume that the characters look like me. I read the descriptions of the characters and form their appearances as I go along. I guess I usually make assumptions of race based on where the story is set or based on the race of the author since when people make stories, they usually imagine themselves.
    I’m black, so while reading the Hunger Games I didn’t assume Katniss looked like me because that’s not what it said.
    You said that it was basic empathy to assume that a character looks like you, I think basic empathy is to care about others because of their character and not their appearance.

  • 16 Adrian Ratnapala // Mar 29, 2012 at 6:29 pm

    “””it makes reasonable sense to assume that the (human, on Earth, “almost now”) character looks like the reader – it’s basic empathy, isn’t it?”””

    Nope. I read a lot of fantasy, and I almost never assume the characters look like me. That’s because I usually assume theat they are all white. Even when the book explicitly says otherwise.

    Go figure.

  • 17 A Three-Thousand Word Unedited Ramble About “The Hunger Games” Trilogy « squarelyrooted // Apr 4, 2012 at 3:42 pm

    […] to the consternation of racist fans) but doesn’t ever get addressed explicitly as being an issue. Julian Sanchez makes some astute points about that, and I would note that his logic implies that if Panem is mostly white outside of District 11 then […]

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