Hunger Games and Race

ckenward's picture

Last weekend (opening weekend) I went to see The Hunger Games in the theater.  I had read the books while I was in India and my friends and I had long been awaiting the release of the film.  However, this isn't really a post about the Hunger Games... I'm more interested in the dialogue on the internet about race in the Hunger Games and thinking about how well it connects with some of the themes we've talked about in class.  

For those who haven't read the Hunger Games, or have no idea what I'm talking about when I say "race in the Hunger Games," I'll try to briefly summarize the issue.  The Hunger Games is the first book in a trilogy and tells the story of a dystopian future where the government forces each of twelve districts to give up two of its children (a boy and girl) to fight to the death.  Not a great description, but that's the basic plot.  So in the movie, three of the characters were cast by black actors and apparently this is an issue for some people which they have chosen to express freely on the internet.  In the book, two of those three characters was described as having "dark skin" and the third was not described racially at all.  

But how does this issue relate to our class?  I think the biggest issue for me in questioning whether or not three characters should have been portrayed by black actors is actually asking why were only three characters cast by black actors?  The author does not describe every character's race, so why does the discourse assume that unless otherwise stated (and not even then, in some cases) the characters in this dystopian future are all white.  

The New Yorker had an article on the issue, and specifically on the issue of assuming race.  “People very often talk about literacy with words, but there’s such a thing as visual and thematic literacy,” says Deborah Pope, the executive director of the Ezra Jack Keats Foundation, which encourages diversity in kids’ books... Pope tells me that data analyzed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Children’s Book Center in 2010 found that only nine per cent of the three thousand four hundred children’s books published that year contained significant cultural or ethnic diversity. She points out that the white default—in books, as in other forms of mass media—is learned and internalized early, including by children of color. It takes vigilance—and self-awareness—to overcome. “I picked up on the [character and racial] descriptions in “The Hunger Games” immediately,” says Adam, who is of Caribbean descent. “But then again, whenever I read something, I wonder, ‘where can I find the character who represents ME?’ ” (Anna Holmes). 

Read more http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/books/2012/03/hunger-games-and-trayvon-martin.html#ixzz1qhrmZGf2

There are several parts of this quote which interest me.  First, I'm glad that Pope is talking about multi-literacies.  When I read a book, I always try to picture the characters and I think that that is a form of literacy.  Who we are, and how we identify, be it racially or otherwise, informs how we imagine the characters we read about.  Second, I thought the part about internalizing a white default really spoke to the TED talk on a single story.  When I started mentoring in Philadelphia I asked my parents to bring me some age appropriate books from my childhood when they came to visit so that I could share those books with the student I was mentoring.  When I brought in a book where the protagonist was black, my mentee responded much more enthusiastically to the book than other books where the protagonists were white.  Like Adam, she was finding the character who represented her and responding to that.  

Comments

nmofokeng's picture

Back to cultural relevance

The same way we raised it for our Ghana Study project, it rears its head hear again. The twitter comments have been most revelatory of the pervasiveness of the white default and the embedded racial stigmas. Some people flat out questioned how two of the most beloved and good characters could be cast as black. The implications of this statement reflect what kind of associations and prejudices are internalized by the dearth of images of non-white people.

Suzanne Collins, the author, is quoted as saying that she was not trying to be revolutionary or anything in her racial descriptions but rather that she assumed that in a far off future there may have been lots of racial mixing and as a result people would look a variety of different ways. Regardless of how intentional she was, it appears her characterizations have challenged what people expect.

alesnick's picture

Racist Tweets re: Hunger Games: interest in opening conversation

The racist, ignorant Twitter comments (compiled and discussed in this helpful resource:http://jezebel.com/5896408/racist-hunger-games-fans-dont-care-how-much-money-the-movie-made) are ugly.  I would like to better understand this ugliness -- where it comes from, how to respond to it -- and talk with others about it.  

alesnick's picture

connections

Thank you for so many here!  The idea of the "white default" is useful to thinking about how dominant discourse works on people . . . often tacitly or unconsciously.  And the example of Adam suggests that he does a kind of "world-travel" (Lugones) as a reader, sensitive to identity and power issues in representation.  

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