The Hunger Games, the movie based on the young-adult sci-fi novel by Suzanne Collins, broke all kinds of box office records last weekend. And, as Jorge Rivas reported at Colorlines.com/Now earlier this week, it also gained some pretty unpleasant detractors: fans of the books who were offended that black actors were cast in the roles of, um, black characters. (Not everyone reads books closely.)
In a way, it was to be expected. The cast of characters in the Hunger Games books are anything but whitewashed; racial categories don’t quite exist in Collins’ dystopian Panem (i.e. North America), but her treatment of race is still honest and nuanced. Some folks were bound to have problems with it.
But! This same smart approach to race and class have won Collins and her series some devoted fans in the social justice sector. Political bloggers Jamelle Bouie and Julian Sanchez each took a break from covering voting rights to talk about the series’ themes of race and class, as did ThinkProgress’ cultural critic Alyssa Rosenberg. And back when news of the movie broke, my Facebook feed exploded with debates between friends who’d apparently long been intimately familiar with the books (which I had never heard of, making me feel old and out of the loop. But that’s another trend piece.)
So, to move the conversation away from ‘racist Hunger Games fans’ and towards ‘Hunger Games fans for racial justice,’ I asked a few of my friends and colleagues to tell us what’s putting Collins’ trilogy in the hands of socially conscious non-kids. Here’s what they told us.
Update: spoilers below.
Diana Harper, senior at the University of Chicago:
The main character, Katniss, is a wonderful combination of acerbic, sarcastic, and even a tiny bit antisocial, but she also manages to be an amazing caregiver and literal breadwinner for her tiny family after the death of her father. Now that I think about it, it’s a setup that a lot of non-privileged youth could identify with. Daddy is gone, for some reason or another but definitely linked to state neglect/mistreatment (insert long rant about blatant racial and socioeconomic disparity in long-term incarceration and how that alters the entire societal structure of nonwhite communities); there isn’t enough food, Mom has gone into a downward spiral of a depression, and so the eldest kid has to pick up the pieces to ensure the family’s survival.
Katniss is also a girl. A huge number of YA books have female protagonists, but they’re usually wrapped up in under-the-radar abusive relationships with themselves or those around them (see: Twilight, Gossip Girl, Blue Bloods, etc). Katniss, on the other hand, is physically capable, mentally independent, and precociously confident. At 16, her chief concern is feeding her mom and little sister, and thoughts of boys [omg] aren’t at the forefront of her consciousness. Then she gets all caught up in the Hunger Games of Panem, where she displays ruthless tenacity and strongwilled fuck-you-ness towards the oppressing regime. Then, while struggling with extreme psychological trauma, she stops at nothing to take down the system responsible for the unforgivable situation in Panem, all while maintaining an exemplary sense of self. And yeah, then she gets married and has some kids, but instead of it being presented as “happily ever after,” it’s more like “as sane as possible given the circumstances, which were damn shitty.”
It’s essential to recognize that pretty much every single character in the books could be as multiracial as Brangelina’s brat pack. … This point about non-defined race is important when you consider the uprisings and eventual overthrow of the regime in Catching Fire and Mockingjay. The point of unification here is NOT by race or creed or gender or what have you, but by unsustainable, unacceptable oppression and poverty. In other words, it’s the Occupy movement on steroids.
… As the child of a German-descended white woman and a slave-descended black man, my history with race starts at conception, but I didn’t really become aware of it until I was 9. I grew up in Cape Girardeau, MO, hometown of the one and only Rush Limbaugh. I think that probably tells you everything you need to know. I used to read books as an escape mechanism. I’m really not an activist, but I suppose that I’m making the world a better place by actively questioning my own and others’ views when it comes to race and stereotypes. I engage in conversations on the topic with a variety of people, from veterans of the discourse to newbies who are shocked to learn about the disproportionate disadvantages bestowed upon nonwhites in our country.
Lately, I’ve been more concerned with women’s rights than racial issues, but as the Hunger Games subtly emphasizes, it’s about battling oppression of any kind. Also, I VOTE.
Mou Khan, former program and communications associate for South Asian Americans Leading Together, Washington, D.C.:
I can still remember sitting on the Metro, forgetting to be embarrassed by the prominent YA labels all over the book, because I was so caught up in the story. Susan Collins made two very crucial decisions, in my opinion: look unblinking at ordinary human callousness and cruelty, and use a complicated, somewhat unreadable protagonist. I read an interview with Collins before I started the first book where she indicated that part of the inspiration came from our society’s fascination with reality television, as well as the nature of war and conflict in the modern world.
My biggest beef with the casting of Katniss isn’t that she’s white (though I think it might have been truly amazing if they had cast a person of color… any color, in what would undoubtedly be one of the biggest blockbusters yet); it’s that she’s soft and blank. Katniss is hard. She doesn’t just observe, she plots without even realizing it. There’s a desperation to the character that the casting did not reflect. Katniss is the revolutionary that deprivation creates, not just some pretty girl who goes on camera.
I think the Hunger Games’ race aspect is interesting, but much less present/visible in the story than class. Perhaps it’s my read, but I was more intrigued by the class differentials/spectrum between the Capital/lower numbered districts and all the others. Connect that with the idea that work within the district is strongly determined to what primary resource they provide to the Capitol, and you have a really interesting vision of “making it in Panem.” To me, the most direct allegory is the view of Panem as an equally stratified society, the 1% blithely enjoying their gladiator battles in the Capital, the upper middle class still subject to the Reaping but gaming the system with their superior resource provision, the lower classes (rural, pastoral, contributing goods of lesser sophistication) helpfully culled to keep everyone in line. It’s always been the proletariat that had greatest reason to revolt, and the population the people in power are most interested in drugging into submission.
Now, the race aspect is a powerful shortcut for Americans, so I’m not surprised that it happens to be the element that people are picking up on. It’s frequently the process you see in contemporary social politics in the States: class and economics gets sublimated into a racial lens. It’s our kneejerk reaction, and it lets us stop the conversation before we get into a really serious critique of our ‘capitalist’ system.
… I grew up somewhere between Saudi Arabia, Baltimore and the Chicagoland suburbs. I’ve always been a person of color, so race has been, spoken or unspoken, woven into the texture of my reality. I remember passing a mirror when I was about 6 years old and being surprised, in a completely unguarded way, that I did not look like every single person I saw on television.
I will say that 9/11 was a turning point for me, like many other activists I know. I had been living in the United States for seven years, and despite the undercurrents of disorientation that run through the lives of many youth of color, I truly believed I ‘fit in.’ 9/11 showed me how wrong I was. Now, there is no Muslim liberal enough, no brown person secular enough. The option of ‘passing’ was suddenly off the table and it pretty much left me curling up in despair or getting much, much louder.
I think there’s a certain guileless honesty that’s allowed in YA that ends up drawing a lot of people to the stories. There is no pretense that the characters we care about most know what’s going to happen, or that they are prepared or qualified to navigate these problems successfully.
Leola Davis, artist and activist, Columbia, Missouri:
I personally love the Hunger Games trilogy because of its portrayal of insurrections and revolutions, and the path(s) that lead up them. I was initially attracted to the series because I had heard of the strong female lead, but I think it was the development of all the characters and their desire for freedom that kept me hooked.
I started reading the books last October… I think I spent the first week of my vacation reading them instead of exploring Ireland! I was blown away by the first book. I was not expecting something so seditionary, brutal, or raw. Especially for a YA novel! I had heard of them a lot through the book grapevine, but I shrugged them off and just assumed they were another Twilight-series breed. I guess I just sort of gave in to all of my friends’ incessant comments about how they were “the best books ever!” Almost everyone who suggested that I read these books is white, and has strong social justice/ radical mindsets.
My history with race and social justice is in my blood and roots. I am a black girl who cannot ignore race if I tried. I am reminded of the color of my skin and the sex of my body because of the injustices I face everyday. As long as I can remember I’ve been fighting in one way or another for equality on all levels. … I think YA novels are so popular with activists because more times than not, the main characters are fighting some kind of evil powers from harming others, and that’s easily relatable in our everyday lives and struggles. They’re also portals into other worlds—and everyone needs a breather from the current one we’re in.
I also just think that people who come from radical mindsets are generally young at heart.
Seth Freed Wessler, Colorlines.com investigative reporter, New York City:
The Hunger Games books tell a story that is in part about the possibilities for solidarity across distance, race and class, even as structures of power actively work to divide and conquer. The movie, as is to be expected, undeveloped this theme, though it nonetheless peeks through in flashing moments. Most notably in this regard, a collective consciousness of shared oppression emerges between the residents of District 11, a southern black region where residents harvest grain and cotton bound for the capitol, and District 12, the mostly white Appalachian coal mining district. Out of a moment of shared loss, when Katniss, the film’s District 12 protagonist, lays a wreath of flowers around the slain body of Rue, the child from 11, the two districts are narratively bound.
I read them while on vacation in December, all three of them, while on my mother’s couch and on a beach. I heard about them from my 30ish-year-old friends, who all read them because they have redeemable politics and are totally and completely engulfing. However, I took Book One off my twelve-year-old sister’s shelf. Reading them is like drinking a chocolate milkshake, but one made from organic milk and bittersweet sustainably-grown cacao.
Don’t quote me on that ;)
These interviews have been condensed and edited.