Mar 22, 2011
My thoughts on the casting of Jennifer Lawrence in “The Hunger Games”
I seem to get sucked into fascinating Twitter discussions while I’m eating breakfast all the time! Just today we were discussing the lack of gay girls in YA, which is something I’ve been thinking about for awhile, along with the assumption that it’s harder to publish a YA novel with a gay girl main character.
But! Last week I got sucked into an even more exciting and heated discussion centering on the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in the upcoming Hunger Games movie, and whether or not Katniss is white, and whether or not Suzanne Collins should have been more clear about it.
The discussion on Twitter veered all over the place, ending up in a debate about how exactly to be clear about race in speculative fiction novels that are not set on this here Earth right now. It was way too unwieldy of a topic to discuss on Twitter, I think, so I’m going to blog about my thoughts here. (And a disclaimer: THESE ARE MY OPINIONS. Sure, I think my opinions are right, but that doesn’t mean you have to.)
Let me set things up.
As you may have heard, Jennifer Lawrence, recently in the critically acclaimed Winter’s Bone, was cast as our heroine Katniss Everdeen in the film version of Suzanne Collins’ awesome Hunger Games. I haven’t seen Lawrence in Winter’s Bone, and I am a big fan of The Hunger Games (all three books!). A lot of fan reaction to the casting was negative, because Jennifer doesn’t look like Katniss, and she’s a few years older. These things don’t bother me — Hollywood rarely casts teens to play teens, and besides, she can change her hair color. But one objection did make me pause: Many readers believed that this was a case of whitewashing, because either (1) they believe Katniss is a person of color, and Jennifer Lawrence is white; or (2) the Hollywood casting calls requested a Caucasian actress, thereby eliminating people of color from contention.
Number 2 would be excused, to some degree, if Katniss herself were white, and I realized while reading these objections that I didn’t actually know if this was true. I didn’t remember anything in the books identifying her as one race or another. On many blog posts, including this one at Jezebel, Katniss’s “olive skin” is parsed in some detail, and it is suggested that she is biracial at least.
But then a couple of people on Twitter reminded me that Katniss’s sister, Prim, is fair-haired and blue-eyed, which pretty much sealed the deal for me. I think Katniss is white.
So: Why the confusion? Is it because Suzanne Collins wasn’t clear enough about Katniss’s racial background? Or have a lot of readers simply been misinterpreting her?
That may have been the case, because race is in many ways tangled up with class in The Hunger Games, and unfortunately there is a tendency among many people in the United States (and the predominantly white West) to associate poverty and oppression with being nonwhite. This may seem to be a clear parallel, but it is not. It provides a limiting perception (at best!) of both poverty and race.
If you’ve grown up in the West, where people of color have routinely been associated with the lower classes, it’s hard to avoid this assumption. You’ve probably been surrounded by popular culture in which most people of color are impoverished, live in the inner city, are essentially different from you, etc. This is why TV shows like The Cosby Show were so incredible in their time; they worked to explode that myth.
Anyway, I’m veering off-track here, but the point is: I understand why it would be assumed that Katniss is not white. She is darker than some of the wealthier characters; she is poor; she is oppressed.
But I think, considering the fact that her sister is white and Suzanne Collins approved the casting of Jennifer Lawrence, that whitewashing is not an issue here. I’ve only heard good things about Lawrence’s skill as an actress, and I’m kind of heartened by the fact that they cast such a critically acclaimed actress in the role. It gives me hope that the filmmakers are taking the book seriously and will attempt to do it justice.
A bigger question is: How clear does a writer have to be about the racial background of her characters? And that’s a question I will leave for another day, but if you have any opinions on it, opine away! (Just keep the discussion civil. I don’t tolerate author-bashing or racism.)
Edited 3/24/11: I’m closing comments now because I think we’ve talked this up enough, and I’m starting to get trolls. Thanks for the discussion!