This fascinating article on racebending.com has me thinking more seriously about the role of race in The Hunger Games (current YA lit obsession for me and a lot of other people). Author Marissa Lee raises interesting points in response to the casting of Jennifer Lawrence (left) as Katniss, and most importantly, calls out Lionsgate — the studio behind the forthcoming film version of the first book — for restricting their search for Katniss to caucasian women.
When I initially read the books, I’ll admit that I always envisioned Katniss as a kind of post-racial person; that is, I never saw a particular racial or ethnic group when I thought about her. I pictured a teenage girl who probably had a variety of racial and ethnic identities, none of which particularly defined her. One of the beautiful aspects of The Hunger Games is how race and gender are not too important in the stratification of society. There are the “haves” in the Capitol and the “have nots” in the districts; their shared poverty and oppression unites the people beyond the boundaries of racial or ethnic identity. Yes, the segregation within district 12 between people from the Seam and the Town is described as something one can observe by appearances, but I don’t recall Collins portraying that line as oppressive to the society.
To me, Katniss’ world always seemed post-racial, but maybe it isn’t that simple. The film will certainly add another dimension to this debate.
This is Marissa (hi!) and thank you for the shout-out to my article. What I’ve been mulling over the past few days is The Hunger Games and it’s post-apocalyptic world. Does it have verisimilitude? Is it believable? Or does it invalidate real world realities, does it lack self awareness?
Understandably, a story about an evil tyrannical Capitol that runs reality television deathmatches for sport to teach its oppressed population a Very Important Lesson (yet expects no rebellions or retaliation) isn’t going to be the most “realistic.” And clearly it is important to separate the ideals and beliefs of the evil Capitol from the ideas and beliefs of the author who created this far-from-ideal, oppressive entity. But again, just thinking about The Hunger Games, a couple of things come to mind.
1. Readers view Katniss as not being defined by her gender (?) She’s competent, athletic, resourceful, intelligent, and inspiring. And as OP points out, the book is interpreted as presenting “race and gender” as “not too important in the stratification of society.” Yet, the wording used to describe her external from the book often betrays this belief (“strong female character,” “action movie staring a woman” etc.)
The book doesn’t deviate from this either. From the presentation of the Seam miners as primarily men, to the clear and distinct gender roles as depicted in the Games themselves (one boy and one girl, presumably cisgender, decked out in tuxes and prom dresses.) The driving sentiment behind the PeeNiss dynamic during the Games is their heteronormative love story—first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in a baby carriage.
This could simply be read as “the Capitol” reinforcing gender norms, but at the same time, if that is the case, the narrative displays a lack of insight on this dimension of oppression. Was that the author’s goal—for the narrative to lack this insight? Where do people who are LGBTQ or violate rigid gender norms exist in this world? Are they rendered invisible? Is it possible for the world of The Hunger Games to be post-gender when the world it exists in clearly is not?
2. Katniss is viewed as post-racial and not defined by ethnicity (?) This is perplexing to me for a number of reasons…one of which is that Katniss in the film clearly is defined by a race or ethnicity. Perhaps not “in-universe” but certainly as a fictional character in our world—she is depicted on screen by an actress who has a real-world ethnicity that affects her job opportunities, privilege, etc. Reader reactions to Rue and Thresh and District 11 are impacted by their race; the metaphor to the Antebellum South clicks because USAmerican readers are aware of our own racial hitsory… Just as Amanda Steinberg’s race had a context for (scary, scary) audience members, so does Jennifer Lawerence’s—and so many of the other actors who play a lead in the story (the overwhelming majority of whom are white.)
The fandom backlash also demonstrates that to many readers, characters are white until proven otherwise. In that sense, the lack of racial subtext for many of The Hunger Games characters results in them being read as white and cast as white. What does it say when people of color in The Hunger Games are not the power players in the Capitol or the Rebellion?
It makes me think about Star Wars books…I’ve been reading them since I was ten and I have hundreds and hundreds of them. Most of them are about the continued adventures of Han, Luke, and Leia. In the books, they make a lot of new friends—most of these friends are human and in the real world, would be considered to be white. Luke takes in a bunch of students to train to be Jedi. Most of them, again, are human and “white.” Even though this replicates the same oppressive power structure exhibited by the same Empire the trio overthrew (notice in the film the leaders of the Empire are all white human males), and the xenophobia and sexism of the Empire is continually looked upon by the characters as oppressive, no one in-universe ever comments on the within-human racism/colorism of the Empire. And no one ever calls out Luke’s Jedi Academy—it is presumed that the students he enrolls got there on meritocracy alone (and did not benefit from human privilege or any established power structures in the galaxy, nor the authors’ desire to create more white human male characters.) It’s really weird, because if Luke’s Jedi Academy were a real-world institution, people—well, people like me, anyway—would be saying something.
I guess what has really been gnawing at me is that there are clearly racial caste lines in The Hunger Games. Yet, these racial caste lines are not directly acknowledged in the narrative.
Those in District 12 who have “the Seam” look and olive skin are more likely to work in mining jobs and fare more poorly than their blonde, blue eyed Merchant Class counterparts. The people of District 11, with their dark brown skin, who farm in the heat, are whipped, etc. are acknowledged as experiencing harsher treatment from the Capitol than the other Districts—none of which are described as containing people who have the same physical appearance as District 11’s people.
Whether intentionally or not, the book clearly depicts people of color as treated differently from their “white” counterparts. It may not be strictly because of their skin color or due to ‘old school’ racism, but there remains a clear differential racialization and clear differential impact that falls along those lines.
In real life, even kindergartners are prescient enough pick up that people are treated different because of their racial appearance. They may not understand why, but they notice it. Katniss never seems to notice or comment on this in an explicit way. And readers seem to argue that race couldn’t possibly have anything to do with it…the Capitol put the PoC in District 11 not because they are racist and evil, but simply because they are evil. The Merchants in District 12 have it better off and benefit from classism, but surely do not also benefit from being differentially racialized from the people of the Seam.
The characters don’t need to be insightful, necessarily, about the norms imposed upon them by society—although I would argue it is less believable when they are not. Whether or not the author is insightful, on the other hand…when we read The Hunger Games as raceless and genderless and simply frame the story about class castes and hunger, are we invalidating real-world or fictional racial and gender realities?