So apparently there’s all this brouhaha over the fact that some people–some messed up INSANE IN THE MEMBRANE people–are kinda upset (or perhaps confused, to use a euphemism) about something in the movie adaptation of The Hunger Games.
They’re confused over the fact that Rue (and several other characters, but I’m specifically talking Rue) was played by an African American girl.
I suppose I could go on and on and on over how TERRIBLE it is that there are still people who think such RACIST things and blah blah blah, but I don’t want to talk about that.
I want to talk about how, honestly? I’m totally not surprised.
As readers, we’re conditioned, to an extent, to imagine characters in books based on the aesthetic standards we know and often cling to for dear life. Unless the author says otherwise, then readers don’t bother having the presence of mind to imagine the character as anything other than “white.”
If you don’t tell your readers, they don’t imagine it on their own. So perhaps readers who saw the movie were caught off guard?
But here’s the thing: Suzanne Collins made it perfectly clear. In the book she wrote: “…And most hauntingly, a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that’s she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor…”
So. Everyone knows what’s up, so nobody’s going to get mad, right?
I believe that people got so angry because we are so used to seeing “white” at the center of pretty much every movie/TV show/book (think about it before you yell at me…see what I mean?) that we’re just used to it. Our imaginations got lazy, even when the words were right there, in print.
Now let’s consider Katniss Everdeen, the main character and narrator of the trilogy. Imagine if they’d cast Keke Palmer (a young African American actress) as Katniss. People would have been up in arms, because no one imagined Katniss to be a not-white girl. No one imagined a Polynesian Peeta. Or a Peruvian Gale. Or a Japanese Effie Trinket. Or an Italian President Snow. I’m sure that pretty much no readers of The Hunger Games–even African American, Hispanic, or Asian readers–ever imagined the characters to be anything other than “white” unless directly specified by Collins in the text–and even then, it clearly still didn’t get through!
So with all that in mind, why are we so surprised that people are angry about the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue? Of course people are going to be confused, upset, whatever the hell: they’ve never had a default other than “white”, and when reality doesn’t match the default in their imagination (even if that default does not match the author’s intended vision in any way), unpleasantness ensues.
Yes, it’s wrong. Of course it shouldn’t be that way. But it’s not really going to change until we start writing about characters who just happen to be African American, or just happen to be Muslim, or just happen to be transgender; books where the story is not directly tethered to the traits of the characters.
I know of writers who aren’t white who, in their own work, imagine their characters as white because it’s easier, because it doesn’t step on anyone’s toes, because it’s safe. Because it doesn’t open a can of Social Issue worms. Isn’t that sad? I would argue that this happens because what we see is “white.” And we see white because that’s what most people in America are. But that’s changed! As a country, we haven’t looked like a Norman Rockwell painting in ages, and the art we enjoy (and create!) needs to become a respectful reflection of that fact.