By Crystal Ogar
There are a number of issues when it comes to the casting of The Hunger Games. When we first meet Katniss, the main character in the books, she is described as having straight black hair, usually in a braid down her back, olive skin, and gray eyes. Funnily enough, Gale (her best friend) is also described the same way – “I watch as Gale pulls out his knife and slices the bread. He could be my brother. 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. That’s why my mother and Prim, with their light hair and blue eyes, always look out of place. They are.”
Yet when it came to the casting of this film, the casting call asked for white actresses only. Women of color were excluded for a role that reads as a woman of color! Olive skinned is a broad term: it can describe the skin color of a range of people, from the Mediterranean and some other parts of Europe, to the Middle East, to regions of South Asia, Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Latin America. The playing field for Katniss was so broad, but what do the casting directors and directors decide to do? Choose to tan up a white woman and actively exclude anyone who doesn’t fit into the white actresses category.
Regardless of how Katniss’s sister and mother looked, I personally still read her as a woman of color. Skin color can vary in families; white twins can be born to a black mother, twins can be born who are black AND white, the possibilities are endless. And if you’re so inclined here’s a bit of science on that.
This is not about Jennifer Lawrence’s acting abilities at all. She’s a fantastic actress and did a wonderful job. What it is about is the sad fact that the casting pool was so narrowed and discriminatory. Whitewashing is a really dangerous thing that occurs not only in Hollywood, but in every form of media. White people do NOT have to worry about seeing themselves represented in the media, it’s commonplace. But what about the fact that many children always see people who don’t look like them? That isn’t fair and it isn’t right.
Having strong characters of color is so important for EVERYONE–not just people of color, but for white people as well. What white people need to think about is this: what if your favorite book series made sure that everyone had dark brown skin and kinky black hair? What if the only actors/musicians/tv stars that were getting accolades for their characters looked nothing like you? What if the world was flipped around on it’s head? We all know common and accurate representations of women are important, and just as important are common and accurate representations of people of color. It’s vital.
I know from personal experience that I have internalized racism in that if a character’s race isn’t mentioned in a book, I automatically read them as white. For white to be the default and for everyone else to be the “other” is unacceptable. The Hunger Games takes place in a distant future, yet when it comes to the film, even most of the Districts are whitewashed. For me, it felt like the decision was made because “if we market a heroine who is a woman of color and market it to an audience of teens and young adults? No one would see that film!” In fact, it’s just the opposite. The filmmakers had and wasted an amazing opportunity. The opportunity to give young black girls, American Indian girls, Hispanic, and Asian girls a heroine that they could relate to in more ways than one. Someone they could see themselves as.
And then there’s the story of Rue. Precious 12-year-old Rue who reminded Katniss of her sister Prim. She and her fellow tribute from District 12 are both described multiple times as having dark skin and brown hair–they are, unambiguously, black. What happened after the film was released with a young black actress playing Rue was incredibly horrifying. I have to warn you that these tweets are very racist and personally made my stomach churn. Many of these people said they didn’t care about what happened to her as much because of her race. Racism and dehumanization 101.
All we can do right now is to keep talking about it and keep on hoping that someday soon, the big wigs will see that whitewashing is harmful. Until then at least, I have tumblr to dream up amazing recasts like these:
The Seam Recast
The Hunger Games Raceswap