This is a teen-written article from The Communicator, the student-run print and online newspaper of Community High School in Ann Arbor, Michigan.
Nearly six months have passed since the final installment of the Harry Potter movies was released, and the Twilight saga will be coming to an end sometime in 2012. With the two highest-grossing film series in history wrapping up, Hollywood started searching for the next money-making franchise that could be brought to the big screen. Thankfully, Hollywood found its next profitable series with nearly no trouble when, in 2009, Lionsgate Entertainment acquired the rights to worldwide distribution of Suzanne Collins' script for The Hunger Games. Filming began in May 2011 and was finished in September. Shortly afterwards, the Internet exploded in a Hunger Games frenzy. With Harry Potter and Twilight already moldering away on the shelves, people began counting down the days until March 23, the official U.S. release date for “The Hunger Games.”
The movie is based on Suzanne Collin’s book by the same name, which is the first book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Set in a generically dystopian future, where the government is all-knowing and all controlling, the books focus on Katniss Everdeen. She’s a bright, brave young woman whose archery skills could put Robin Hood to shame, and whose ability to start a rebellion probably has our own government feeling thankful that she’s nothing more than a fictional character. True, she does come off as a bit of a poster child for feminist readers, but since it’s been a while since a book featuring a female lead character has gotten this big, she’s likable enough. Readers can’t help but cheer her on while she kicks butt, saves her sister’s life, starts a rebellion, gets in touch with her own inner sense of ruthless justice, and, yes, falls in love.
But Katniss had more going for her in terms of appeal than just what she said and did. Many readers fell in love with Katniss for the way she looked, because she was one of the very rare cases of an ambiguously raced character. Fan theories flourished as people speculated on Ms. Everdeen’s nationality, because the only hints Suzanne Collins gave us were dark hair, olive skin, and gray eyes. Was she black? Hispanic? Native American? Indian? Greek? No one knew for certain, although the two most readily accepted fan theories of Katniss’s race label her as either biracial or of Native American descent. However, that was the truly wonderful part. No one knew anything about Katniss’s racial heritage, so the possibilities for her ethnicity were endless.
By leaving Katniss’s race vague and open to interpretation, Mrs. Collins did a beautiful thing. Katniss wasn’t just another token black character, but neither was she one of the countless white females who overrun teen fiction. Katniss was someone that everyone could relate to, regardless of race. Whether Caucasian or Hispanic or Indian or biracial, this was a character to whom people could relate. With dark hair, olive skin and gray eyes, Katniss fit the appearance of various different people.
Gary Ross, director of the Hunger Games films, blatantly ignored the chance he was given to put a minority actress up on the big screen. Like many people involved in the media world, Mr. Ross fell prey to a terrible sickness, a disease that has been affecting the film industry since day one. Known as whitewashing, this affliction can be seen when movie producers and directors change the race or ethnicity of a character. Although it can be used to describe situations where a white or Caucasian character has been changed to represent a minority, whitewashing usually refers to instances where a character of color has been recreated to represent the white “majority” of America. The casting call that went out for Katniss left no wiggle room or space for questions. The actress trying out for the lead role of the trilogy “should be Caucasian, between ages 15 and 20, who could portray someone ‘underfed but strong,’ and ‘naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.’”
Never mind the fact that Suzanne Collins never stated what race her character was or that the term “olive skin” is nearly always used to describe people of color. According to Mr. Ross’s vision for The Hunger Games, Katniss couldn’t be anything other than white. Jennifer Lawrence, a natural blond, was told to dye her hair brown to better portray Katniss.
At first, it can be difficult to see why casting Katniss as white is such a damaging decision. Many people ask “Apart from being unfair to minority actresses, what’s wrong making Katniss white?” Well, a lot of things are wrong with making Katniss white. Most importantly, this decision says, loud and clear, that unless explicitly stated to be a person of color, a character is white. Unless a character says to the readers “I’m Native American,” or “I’m black,” that character is white. Regardless of what that character may look like, or what color that character’s skin may be, if that character is not stated plainly to be something else, a then he or she is white.
But what’s more, young women of color who read this book rejoiced at finally finding a book with a main character to whom they could relate, especially readers of biracial or Native American descent, who have a particularly hard time finding characters of a similar background. The Hunger Games were a step in a right direction, a step forward for young adult books, a glimpse into a future where characters of books are universally relatable.
The movie, on the other hand, were a step backwards, a slip back into the old mentality that white people cannot relate to anyone other than a white characters on the big screen (despite the fact that Hollywood asks people of color to do this with nearly every single movie). And when journalists expressed concern over casting Jennifer Lawrence (a naturally blond-haired and blue-eyed actress) as someone with dark skin and black hair, Gary Ross waved worries away with “I promise all the avid fans of The Hunger Games that we can easily deal with Jennifer’s hair color.”
Racial discrimination, apparently, can now be fixed with a bottle of hair dye. And when a similar question was posed to Mrs. Collins herself, the answer she gave was insulting and ignorant, to the point of where one wonders if she knew of the possibilities she created with a racially ambiguous character. “They (Katniss, Peeta and Gale) were not particularly intended to be biracial. It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing. But I think I describe them as having dark hair, grey eyes, and sort of olive skin. You know, we have hair and makeup.”
These sentences are eerily close to what Hollywood was saying during the 1930s and 1940s, when white actresses and actors taped the corners of their eyes into slants to portray Asian characters. It’s all well and good to say that race doesn’t matter, and that everyone is the same deep down, but in this case, makeup cannot and should not be used to give white actors the “appearance” of colored characters.
In this case, race does matter.