The Casting Controversy
I loved The Hunger Games when I devoured the trilogy in a week (the first book, in a day). As a woman of color (brown, not olive skinned) who grew up in a third world country, the idea of being a revolutionary hero in the world of YA seemed to speak to my childish self. When I found out it was going to be made into a movie, I was so excited to see who would be cast to play my black-haired, olive-skinned heroine. This week, Jezebel reported that Jennifer Lawrence may be cast in the lead: she is most decidedly not the black-haired, olive-skinned woman of color I imagined kicking butt as the Girl on Fire. Jezebel bases its argument that casting should include non-Caucasians on explicit descriptions of characters in the book, and not on the omissions or the overall metaphor that I found to be the most compelling argument for why Katniss is not white. In short, the entire metaphor that runs through the book about oppression, hunger, and excess is meaningless if none of the main characters are people of color.
Katniss in the books
"Straight black hair, olive skin, we even have the same gray eyes. But we’re not related, at least not closely. Most of the families who work the mines resemble one another this way."
In the books, our heroine Katniss Everdeen is invariably described as having “olive” skin, grey eyes and black hair. She tells us through narration that this is how people from District 12, “the Seam”, look – including her best friend Gale, and her now deceased father. She contrasts this against her mother’s appearance – a blonde, blue eyed woman from the small merchant class, her little sister who resembles her mother, and the other tribute from District 12 – Peeta, a baker’s son.
A divide has arisen between readers regarding whether Katniss’ “olive” skin means she is white, and those who believe she is a biracial woman of color (and that “olive”, therefore, connotes something “other” than white). The best argument for Katniss’ whiteness that I have seen is that readers tend to associate “olive” skin with Italian, French or Greek peoples; or that she has to be “at least part white” because her mom is. But none of these arguments seem to address the fact that the overall metaphor that makes the book work requires that the heroine be a woman of color.
Omission: How are “white” characters described
To determine if Katniss is “white”, we should consider how other characters’ races are depicted.
I find the argument that Katniss’ mother is “white” the most telling about the biases we hold. Katniss’ mother and sister, Prim, are described by their hair ("light", presumably blonde) and eye color (blue). Unlike Katniss and Gale, there is no mention of their skin tones when we meet them. But Collins doesn’t say they are white. In light of that omission, I find it interesting that readers assume they are white rather than ethnically ambiguous. Even if you buy into the logic that most people with light/blonde hair and blue eyes we see in western media are white, then isn’t it fair to say that most “olive” people we see in western media are people of color?
Let’s assume that, as in much other literature, the “default” is white. The incredibly important flipside of this omission is that people of color tend to be described by their skin tone. This seems to be true in The Hunger Games, since the characters whose skin tones are noted are not marked as white. Characters of color like Rue and Thresh are described by their skin tone (Rue - "bright, dark, eyes and satiny brown skin"; Thresh - "the same dark skin as Rue"). Even the odd colors that people of the Capitol dye themselves are described. Therefore, the inclusion of a descriptor for Katniss’ skin tone seems to mark her place in the book as “other” than white. In other words, since all white characters are white until deemed otherwise, it seems logical to conclude that Katniss is not white since she was deemed “olive”.
I haven’t seen any compelling arguments to refute this analysis of the literature. If Katniss’ whiteness is notable due to its olive-ness, why are none of the other white characters’ skin tones noticeable for other shades or tinges?
The only exception (sort of) is Peeta. When we meet him, we assume he is white because of his "ashy blond hair" and blue eyes. Only much later in the book, when his life is endangered, does Katniss remark on the possibility of him being "bled white", or looking "paper white". However, instead of overturning my conclusionabout the omission, this seems to confirm that characters who are not racialized when we meet them, are probably supposed to be white.
Maybe she has a tan
I can’t take this argument seriously since a) I don't think District 12 has a climate where people of the "Seam" who work in mines could tan to a nice "olive" while the merchant class remain non-"olive"; and b) this could quickly deteriorate into "white people can have brown skin" under the same logic. Which, ultimately, gets us nowhere. On a sidenote, people of color can have blue eyes and light hair, but no one is up in arms demanding Prim is a POC.
But people of color don’t have grey eyes/white parents; and white people (like Prim) don’t have fathers of color.
Yes, many can and do.
The Revolution Metaphor
The main reason I loved the trilogy was exactly that it was bubbling over with revolution – with images and ideas that were easy to analogize to the current world economic order and power structure. The Hunger Games is all about hunger, deprivation, oppression and revolution, survival, and democracy/equality and human rights. The people in most of the districts are literally starving. They have nothing (including no political power), and struggle to survive within the confines of rules imposed from elsewhere (the Capitol) where they have so much food they throw up at parties so they can eat more. The rule the book centers around is the obligation to sacrifice two of their children in the Hunger Games where they must compete for to the death until there is only one tribute left standing. To be allowed to live, they have to sacrifice their children.
The Districts live under the thumb of a dictator who resides in the Capitol. Locally, the majority of people living under dictatorships in the world are people of color. The welfare of children is also often sacrificed by our own governments in the South for the “greater good” (often under the rhetoric of the “right to development”) – for example, in sweat shops – even though it ultimately only benefits a select few (in ways disproportionate to suffering). Not to mention child soldiers in the Global South who are forced to fight for their survival coming out of oppressive conditions every day – kind of like Katniss.
Globally, the Capitol exerts its power from “abroad” to affect the conditions in the Districts so the people in the Capitol can continue their relatively luxurious lifestyles. Generally speaking, countries of the global North often extend their power to force countries in the Global South (predominantly populated by people of color) to operate under oppressive rules either imposed by or ignored by powerful countries (IMF, World Bank, conditionalities tied to loans). Or, they turn a blind eye to human rights abuses when it suits their needs.
Particularly when you know that Collins was inspired by footage of the war in Iraq, it seems a very obvious metaphor to make. Katniss Everdeen – coming out of impoverished, desperate conditions to unwittingly end up in a revolution to overthrow the regime that keeps her people down – could be any one of the many people of color coming out of analogous situations who frequently lack the power to overthrow an entire government or economic world order. Every day, we see people standing up to dictatorships and demanding political power – just as characters in the Hunger Games eventually do. Even the options she subtly displays for an ultimate leader all seem to embody different types of leaders we see throughout history: dictators who have been in power forever, leaders who do not espouse the ideals they run on, and people who grow into leaders from their roles in the struggle for freedom.
Either as a localized revolution against a dictator in the Global South, or as a global analogy related to the wealth and power of the North, the Hunger Games is one large metaphor for people of color rising up against oppression.
Why does this metaphor mean Katniss is not white?
It is too easy a metaphor – too easy social commentary that is relevant and related to Collins’ inspiration and personal history – to not be deliberate. If Collins intended this metaphor to Third World struggles and wars, and Katniss is a woman of color – then I love this trilogy, because it is the kind of book that would allow women and YA of color (olive or otherwise) to envision their struggles differently. They could see themselves as heroes, as agents for change, as people who can resist instead of merely struggling to exist (to reference K’naan).
If Collins intended this metaphor, and Katniss is a white girl with skin somewhat darker than her mother, then I hate this book: because then Collins is deliberately appropriating the struggles of millions and placing white protagonists in places where people of color should be (and in reality, are).
Why would the latter possibility upset me enough to hate the books? Because it disallows compassion and empathy. Instead of Northern readers seeing themselves as in the position of the Capitol, they see themselves as the oppressed, hungry girl from District 12 striving against whatever form their oppressions individually take. This would be a tragedy. Additionally, as a woman who grew up in a third world country, this is offensive: it feels like media from a culture that contributes to oppression throughout the world is re-writing a history to feed to children that writes me (and people who look like me) right out of it. The potential for using media and fiction to draw analogies to real life and potentially garner support for real, living people was lost. For example, in our eagerness to “be” N’avi, we forget the indigenous peoples whose oppressions we contribute to or are complicit in every day. In our eagerness to “be” Katniss, are audiences going to forget the Katnisses that actually exist – that actual hunger, and rebel?
Collins is telling us: people will rebel against oppression; brown-skinned people do want political power; it is wrong for rich, excessive cultures to benefit from the desperate, oppressive conditions of “others”. These are all messages that are lost by turning Katniss into the same girl I see all over the place in YA fiction-turned-movies (Narnia, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson): a white “girl next door”.
If this metaphor doesn’t exist, and I completely made it up, then I’ll admit it: I have no idea what the Hunger Games could possibly be about besides sensationalism and reality TV with some glorified child-soldiering thrown in. Because of Collins’ inspiration and personal history (her father fought in the Vietnam war), it seems unlikely to me that she would be wilfully blind to this obvious social commentary.
In other words, if Katniss is white, the metaphor that makes the trilogy meaningful social commentary and inspirational to the would-be revolutionaries of color in the world is lost. It’s just an appropriation of struggles. It is a re-writing of history that erases us, erases our struggles and our victories. I have to believe Collins didn’t mean this: so I have to believe, to love these books, that Katniss is a WOC.
EDITED 03/13/12 to add: I've added a "hunger games" tag to all posts about the Hunger Games, including links to other blogs. Please click for more perspectives on this issue!