Yet another firestorm is brewing over casting and race in Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. You may recall that, on the opening weekend of the hit teen franchise, certain “fans” of the series took to Twitter to berate the casting of actress Amandla Stenberg as Rue, citing that they didn’t see Rue as black, even if the author described her as having “dark brown skin.” They also derided the casting of the characters of Thresh and Cinna, both played by black actors.
Well now, another race storm is brewing over the casting of Finnick Odair, a character from book 2, Catching Fire. In the book, Collins describes Finnick Odair as having “tanned skin” “golden skin” and “sea-green eyes”. Not exactly race-specific features in a future state where the majority of people will be brown-skinned,mixed race; yet, for some in the present, those features are race-specific and worth fighting over.
But, what’s the problem if Finnick is played by a mixed-race American man (Jesse Williams of Gray’s Anatomy) in a futuristic society? He’s not white as white readers envision him to be. And multi-racial doesn’t work for many whites. Many white Americans have struggled to accept the truth of America’s new multi-ethnic reality and a backlash has been created. White Americans, justified or not, feel they’re being put upon to the point of extinction by governments and non-whites; they “whiten” their world as a form of protectionism. In the real world, this protectionism may result in whites moving out of neighborhoods when non-whites move in. In literature, whites often whiten characters who are not necessarily white, and ignore signifiers of race pertaining to “the other” unless the author specifically calls the character “the other.”
Along with white protectionism, the racial backlash is also a consequence of the White As Default paradigm. It simply means that unless a character is specifically stated to be black or Asian, the character must be assumed white. A stick figure is white unless it’s specifically stated or drawn black or Asian, for example. Often, white authors identify the other through stereotypes. Collins doesn’t do this, but white readers assume it anyway. For them, Rue is not black because she is not described as “black” or “African-American” specifically. On the other hand, while other ethnicities and races are confined to pigeonholed racial stereotypes, a wide-range of characteristics are allowed for whites. Rue’s “dark brown skin” and “dark eyes” are seen as white, and Katniss Everdeen’s olive-tanned skin and black hair are seen as “white” features, too. Likewise, Finnick Odair’s sea-green eyes and tanned golden skin is also white.
But here’s the problem.
The White as Default belief is being thrown off course by a social trend that aims to “exoticize” white people. I remember reading a Vogue magazine article in which editor Anna Wintour famously described the German-Brazilian model Gisele Bundchen as exotic with deep, golden tan skin among other “ethnically ambiguous” characteristics. Of course, if you’ve ever seen Gisele you’ll know she looks unmistakably, stereotypically German. And when people think of “exotic” Brazil, Gisele is not what comes to mind. I am also reading Anne Rice’s The Wolf Gift, in which a woman, described as having blond hair and fair skin, shows a picture of her “dark-skinned” with “dark hair” uncle. Is he white or not? It’s unclear. The trend of “ethnifying” whites isn’t disappearing, likely because the future belongs to mixed race/brown people–the natural trend currently happening.
This brings me back to Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games. Her novel is set in a future society and reflects the natural trend of racial ambiguity. Like I mentioned. In 50 years, the U.S.A will be filled with brown/mixed race people, and, as it’s stated on many Hunger Games message boards, it’s likely Katniss’ ambiguity is a consequence of mixed heritage–chiefly Native American and European; the author doesn’t have to say it specifically in the same way she doesn’t have to call Rue African American; in her futuristic state, racial descriptors are insignificant since most people are mixed race. Her characters have no race, but rather descriptors of coloring. Many white readers don’t care.They’re busy waging a psycho-social and geo-political war against multiculturalism, and by extension, multi-racialism. The backlash against the suggested casting of Jesse Williams as Finnick suggests that many white readers cling to race-specific stereotypes where there is none as a form of “keeping their world white”–white protectionism and White as Default in a world where it is becoming the norm for people to be brown/mixed race.