Last Friday night, like everyone else in their mid-twenties (right?) I walked home from The Hunger Games with my boyfriend. After clearing up the important plot points, I was filling him in on some salient text-only details. He interrupted my nuanced description of poverty politics in Panem with one question: “Where is this supposed to take place?”
“Future dystopian North America, I guess.”
“So where are all the Asian people?”
It’s a good question, and one I’ve been thinking of a lot in the wake of the recent Hunger Games racial ridiculousness. (Really, people? REALLY?) The reaction of some fans to the true-to-the-book casting of Rue and Thresh as African American (African-Panemerican?) is disturbing to the core, and especially so on the heels of the brutal hate-crime murder of Trayvon Martin. This fan reaction, like the senseless racism that led to Martin’s death, seems, to many, dated and almost unbelievable, but these recent well-publicized events remind us that these attitudes are far from extinct. To those who think it trivializes the death of Martin to compare it to a cultural response to a Hollywood blockbuster, I say this: The same culture creates both responses. And, the same desire to pretend everything is okay, and that we’ve moved beyond racism, allows these destructive attitudes to fester. Whether they’re expressed on the internet or with a weapon on a public street in broad daylight, at the root, they are equally harmful, especially if those with more sense turn a blind eye and dismiss or trivialize these tweets as juvenile.
Kids who are tweeting that Rue’s race ruined the movie for them today, if their views remain unchallenged and unchecked, won’t know better when they’re old enough to enact physical harm. With the internet there to witness, it’s easy to see just how many disturbingly uneducated stances on race relations still remain, and how pervasive they are. That we live in a world where people can freely tweet about feeling less empathy for a character because they are black is unacceptable. That, despite the inclusion of these characters in Collins’s book, the racial (and sexual) landscape of Panem is still sorely limited should also enter into the discussion.
As a white girl with brown hair, I can watch the Hunger Games and see a visual version of myself on-screen. (Okay, okay, a bad-ass archery-ninja SIGNIFICANTLY YOUNGER BUT GET OFF MY BACK version of myself, but regardless). Young men and women who are South Asian, Latin American, Mexican, Asian, or gay don’t have the same luxury. And, of course, we live in a complex and diverse world (YOU HEAR THAT, IGNORANT TWEETERS EVERYWHERE?) and can’t expect, from every work of literature or every film, a representation of that scope. As my boyfriend pointed out, maybe in Collins’ creative process, there was some reason that the world of Panem seems somewhat racially narrow and ambiguous (characters are described with skin tones, not distinct racial descriptions, that seem to denote their district, leaving room for interpretation).
I can’t help but think that the lesson in the wake of all of this is that the importance of representing the scope of society as diversely as possible is still as important as ever. Given the influential nature of these books and films, it would be fantastic if authors and directors felt compelled to create a diverse world. Young Adult writers already tailor their content based on their audience—why not ensure a diverse representation that reflects the multicultural reality of today’s society? Here’s hoping that The Hunger Games casting folks (as Jezebel suggests here) continue trying to widen that lens, as they did with the casting of Cinna and Portia, by choosing, for example, a South Asian or Latina actress to play Johanna in the next film, and take the opportunity to flesh out a predominantly white cast.
Sometimes, the Hail-Mary pass is all you can hope for (“Oh, you guys didn’t notice? DUMBLEDORE IS TOTES GAY!”), and it’s important to remember that the fight for inclusion is still a challenge (just look at the dominant race and sexuality of characters in the oft-compared Twilight and Harry Potter novels.) I’m not saying YA fiction is going to change the world (OR AM I?), I’m just saying that when you’re packing the theatres (and, let me say one giant HOORAH for the fact that all these young (ahem) girls are out there watching a truly feminist character crafted by a female author), you’ve got a chance to remind audiences of the lesson Trayvon Martin should never have had to die for some to learn: Heroes and villains come in all colours and stripes, and the world is simply too big and too accessible for anyone to continue to think otherwise. When it comes to hate, there is no such thing as childish triviality, and there are no excuses.
~ Haley Cullingham