I will be the first to admit that when I first read The Hunger Games, I pictured Rue as a little white girl. Then, when the movie was being cast and they were looking for a young black actress for the role, I went back. Yep, sure enough, on page 45, Rue is described as having “dark brown skin and eyes”. Embarrassingly, I had somehow managed to overlook this extremely clear description. However, this was a character I had fallen in love with, rooted for and sobbed over. Did the fact that she had a different skin color than I had imagined change my feelings toward her? Absolutely not. Did I cry my eyes out in the theater when little Amandla Stenberg stuttered out her final words? You betcha. Therefore, I found it really disturbing this week when a wave of Hunger Games fans began tweeting in outrage at the fact that Rue was played by a black actress.
The first issue here is that so many fans, including myself, imagined this girl to be white despite a very obvious physical description to the contrary. It is easy to say that people are racist for thinking in this way, but I think the issue is bigger than individual thought process. I think this speaks volumes about where we are in terms of diversity representation in media. As our brains develop, we learn to fill in certain blanks based on patterns and past experiences. We grow up seeing that the majority of characters we are exposed to in books and on TV are white. Therefore, when we create a mental picture of characters and their race is not clearly stated (even in this case when it was), we tend to fill in the blank and assume they are white. This is called whitewashing and it’s a big thing.
The things we read, the shows we watch and the movies we go to – in addition to our experiences – shape our view of the world. I think if there were more diversity in mainstream literature, television and movies, we would learn not to assume whiteness so quickly. We assume that characters are white because… most of the time, they are. I was recently reading an article about the upcoming show Scandal starring Kerry Washington. The article mentions, “It will be the first time in 30 years that a single African-American woman leads a primetime show on network TV.” That is mind-blowing to me. While cable channels seem to be much farther ahead in regards to diversity, they also aren’t as mainstream and accessible. Network TV shows have the highest ratings and largest audiences, yet the least diversity. This is where the problem lies.
In terms of writing, I generally think the way in which we choose to describe characters needs to be more balanced. Most non-white characters in books and scripts are explicitly described as such, but how often are white characters described as being white? When we read “cute 12-year-old boy”, many of us immediately picture a white 12-year-old boy, because if the boy is black, we’re used to it saying “black 12-year-old boy.” We either need to choose not to identify any characters racially and allow readers and casting directors to use their imaginations or identify them all equally. If writers are going to specify one character is black, Asian or Latino, they should conversely specify that another character is white. Treating one race as an adjective and another as an unstated assumption only furthers this form of whitewashed thinking.
Okay, now back to the issue of little Rue. I have already admitted to incorrectly assuming she was white and do not fault anyone else for thinking in a similar manner. However, I find the hateful responses of some fans when finding out that Rue was black to be very disturbing. First off, if you are such a big Hunger Games fan, where were you a year ago when they cast Amandla Stenberg as Rue? Also, why didn’t you go back to your book and check the character description before sticking your foot in your mouth? We need to learn to think before we broadcast our thoughts to the world.
Much more important than the poor research behind the tweets, however, were the hateful messages they contained. Some stated that the character’s death wasn’t as sad once they found out she was black. Others included racial slurs when referring to the character. Some claimed that Rue’s race had ruined the entire movie for them. While, I am by no means blind to the fact that racism still exists and is a major issue in our society, it blows my mind that in the year 2012 young people find it acceptable to post these things on a public forum. It makes me question if we, as a society, are actually starting to regress very much like that of Panem.
After taking a step back and reading many well-written and intelligent responses to these racist fans, I started to feel much better about the state of the world. I think the issue isn’t so much that we are regressing, but that more and more ignorant and hateful people have access to public forums. Anyone can open a Twitter account, Facebook page or Tumblr blog and broadcast their thoughts to the world. This, unfortunately, includes messages of racism, sexism, violence and hate. My hope is that these harmful posts don’t result in equally hateful responses, but in open discussions about race and representation. This is a great opportunity for all of us to open up a dialogue, become more aware and start to change the way we think about the world. How often does a blockbuster film give us the opportunity to discuss such an important issue? We need to take advantage of the hate and use it to create change. I think in terms of racism, we tend to focus on how much progress has been made and forget how far we still have to go. If these responses to Rue can teach us anything, it is how far we still have to go.
Feature Image from Lionsgate’s The Hunger Games via mrsgrapevine.com