By Emma Di Bernardo
The Hunger Games series and film franchise have been blockbuster, to say the least. The protagonist Katniss Everdeen has been welcomed with open arms by feminist critics and bookworms alike for being quite the opposite of the equally popular modern heroine, Bella Swan from Twilight: a gutsy girl fighting to get out of a oligarchical, media-obsessed hell that is Suzanne Collins’ imagined post-America world ‘Panem’. As the first novel The Hunger Games was announced to be turned into a film two years ago, the casting of Katniss was a hot topic among fans and Hollywood types. The bankability of the Hunger Games fandom (as assured by previous book-to-film franchises Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the Twilight Saga) made the casting even more so.
So when Jennifer Lawrence, a white up-and-coming actress, was announced to play the fiercely protective Katniss, why did a number of fans not cheer? Lawrence is a formidable actress who had been recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress at the time of her casting. But formidability wasn’t – and still isn’t – the issue. It’s ethnicity.
Katniss Everdeen, along with characters who come from the “Seam” section of her District, are described in the series as having dark skin colour, eyes and hair. Katniss, who resembles her deceased father, contrasts herself against her mother and sister, who favour the townspeople’s colouring as fair: blonde with blue eyes, just like Peeta Mellark.
Many readers like myself read Katniss, her friend Gale Hawthorne and fellow Seam people as having an ‘olive’ skin tone. I presumed her to look like someone who is of Native American or even Italian descent. Her skin colour, which is different to my white skin colour, didn’t stop me identifying with her as a character. Like all readers, I empathised and saw myself in Katniss’s mannerisms and reactions to the chaos around her during the Games and the future rebellion.
But apparently using a Native American actress to play Katniss wasn’t going to fly in the movie-making business. Reactions to ethnicity and race to the actors playing Rue and Thresh, both African American actors with dark skin, shows just how whitewashed some people’s brains are. Despite the first film’s director’s quite lovely dedication to the source material and his progressive other works (see: Pleasantville), it’s clear that whoever was pulling the strings wanted a white Katniss.
The first film’s soaring success saw Lionsgate turn it into a franchise. It’s bankability and popularity knows no bounds, with everything from mockingjay pins to cosmetic lines being used to sell Collins’ story: a story which I perceive to be, at the heart, to be about a young woman’s struggle to keep herself and her family alive amidst a world full of people who will turn a blind eye to her suffering for a look at a shiny new hairdo.
The film lost a wonderful chance to show the diversity of the American nation and to have their nation’s first people recognised as one who could produce an actress worthy of playing the inspiring Katniss Everdeen. There would have been media attention (some of it racist and ignorant, yes) that the producers could have totally capitalised on to make a point that people of colour in Hollywood are just as good as the white blonde girl who’ll never hear the words, “oh, you’re too [insert race] for the part.”
I spoke to V Arrow, author both in the real world and in the fandom, who first introduced me to the disturbing cultural repercussions of casting a white actress to play a character who is a person of colour a couple of years ago.
E: Firstly, how would you describe yourself and your role in the Hunger Games fandom?
V: I am a pop culture analyst and intersectional feminist media critic interested in the role that media representation plays in the way that people interpret, and develop, public policy. Since that is a big part of the underlying theme of The Hunger Games, it’s a series I really enjoy and joined the fandom for, even outside of my academic interest. While in The Hunger Games fandom, I wrote a great deal of fanfiction taking place in lesser-mentioned Districts of Panem and wrote a lot of “meta” exploration of the different Districts’ isolated nation-state cultures, which led to a book deal from Smart Pop Books. The Panem Companion (2012) looks at the fictional nation of Panem as its own unique landscape and attempts to determine how it views race, gender, sex, and economics to develop and maintain its public policy, and why the Mockingjay Revolution took hold.
E: How important do you feel Katniss’ ethnicity and skin colour was in the books – to the plot, to readers at large, and to yourself personally?
V: I feel strongly that her ethnicity and race were integral to the plot of the books, and I think that there is a growing number of readers who notice and understand that Katniss’ experience as a Seam girl is emblematic of a racialized experience. I also think that it’s important for Katniss to be understood as a woman of color because otherwise, the stereotypical pastiche of “Native American” tropes that Collins used to create her would be… stereotypical, and a harmful appropriation.
E: What was your reaction to Jennifer Lawrence being cast as Katniss?
V: I think it is a completely inappropriate casting job. I don’t blame Lawrence for being cast, but I do think that she had very ignorant and insensitive things to say regarding the racial controversy, and Lionsgate’s tacit approval of her casual racism by continuing to whitewash other characters in Panem’s world, and casting largely either villainous or dead/dying characters with actors of color, is extremely problematic. The fact that the casting call for Katniss specified “Caucasian” actresses for the role of a heroine of color is only one example of Hollywood’s perpetuation of racism in media, but I think it does somehow feel particularly poignant with Katniss Everdeen, whose story is literally about a woman of color causing a social revolution by defying expectations of people of her race, ethnicity, and culture on television and demonstrating that she, and people like her, have innate power…
E: Do you feel like your reaction was reflected by the rest of the fandom?
V: I feel that there were sectors of both fandom and critical analysis that agreed, and others who did not and seem unlikely or unwilling to reconsider their view of Katniss’ role.
E: Do you believe the movies are a good adaptation of the books if such important changes are made?
V: No, I do not, because the underlying theme is gone, and Katniss’ character motivations, as well as the motivations behind the entire Panem political system, have been changed.
E: Consider the racist social media backlash against the casting of an African American actress to play Rue, a character who is described as black in the books. What do you think would have happened if Katniss had been played by a Native American actress?
V: To be honest, I think that what would have happened would have been an important turning point and touchstone for the movie industry. That is, frankly, what should have happened with the casting of Katniss, since that’s literally what The Hunger Games is ultimately about, particularly in Catching Fire. There would have been an immense amount of initial backlash and rabblerousing, but also an immense amount of discussion that is sorely, sorely needed. I also don’t think that there would have been a significant effect on the box office take; The Hunger Games was a phenomenon even before the films and casting an appropriate actress as the lead would not have changed *most rational* people’s love for the series.
E: What does a “white” Katniss say about female role models and the film industry?
V: Nothing new, that’s for sure. The fact that Lawrence’s Katniss being white shifts the roles and archetypes that the other characters, especially those of color, function as in The Hunger Games‘ story further plays into this aggressive media oppression. To have made Katniss white places a story about oppression and class struggle based on ethnic markers — because she is still Seam in the film, but the Seam has been made white — onto the shoulders of both a character, and an actress, who cannot actually identify with or be a meaningful part of that discussion. She is, of course, still a female role model, and that is admirable, but to have made Katniss white is to continue in the harmful “tradition” of asserting that only those who already hold societal privilege can challenge the government or institution in a positive way, that only white people are worthy of attention and love and of literal survival, in the case of The Hunger Games. While it’s always a good thing to have a female role model in a story and especially to see one carry such a huge franchise, Lawrence’s Katniss is just yet another extension of the toxic Hollywood practice of only allowing thin, fair-skinned, able-bodied, sexually-marketed white women be those heroines. She is just another part of the parade of Emma Watson (Harry Potter), Lily Collins (The Mortal Instruments), Shailene Woodley (Divergent), Alice Englert (Beautiful Creatures), Anne Hathaway (The Princess Diaries)… there has been no variation in the actresses chosen to play characters who are, genuinely, incredibly diverse and rich as written by their authors (which also shows a disrespect and intentional derailment of fiction written by women about women — but that’s another question.) The pinpoint sameness of these actresses and the way their characters are marketed sets up and consistently perpetuates the cultural narrative that only this one type of woman is valid, lovable, and heroic. That to have been born one type of person is the only way to create change or be the leader of your own story or the leader of anyone, anything. Making Katniss white plays into — essentially — the Capitol’s aim with The Hunger Games: showing that only the Capitol itself, and those who fit into its ideal, can win.
In the end, we can only hope that the next YA/fantasy book Hollywood spins into a film will take a more progressive turn by using some of the most successful lit out there with people of colour and staying true to the source material. (Malinda Lo’s novels, anyone?)
The Hunger Games is a story that, in the end, doesn’t shy away from the horrors and reality of war, politics, and trauma and the way people are used by governments and the people they trust as a means to an entertainment-fueled ends. Frankly, it is sad that a story with so much truth in it has been whitewashed and made guilty of falling into the trap that Collins warns young girls to see first and jump over.
And then shoot with an arrow, just in case.
A Final Note: I’d like to acknowledge my white privilege in writing on this subject. While I am writing from an intersectional, allied feminist perspective, my views should always be put in retrospect to a person of colours’ beliefs on the matter who have more experience in the repercussions of the dismissal of Katniss’ ethnicity.
~ Emma Di Bernardo