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How ‘The Hunger Games’ Showed Us Race is Still an Issue

by Elise Swanson | UW-Madison

F Posted in: News and Politics, Voices P Posted on: March 28, 2012
Elise-Swanson-238x200 Elise Swanson

So, the latest big thing has finally come out—The Hunger Games movie was released this past weekend, and probably everyone knows how well it did, grossing millions of dollars and all that. As someone who devoured the trilogy in an absurd amount of time, I was both indescribably excited for the movie and apprehensive—let’s just be real, not all book-to-movie adaptations are all that good.

But this was. Obviously, a movie cannot convey all that there is in a book, and there were things I wished had been left in, but overall it was a very solid adaptation, and I enjoyed it immensely. I cried during the Reaping—I know, it’s a bit pathetic—and I was positively bawling when Rue died (sorry for those of you who didn’t know this happened yet…). So when I read an article about how supposed “fans” of the Hunger Games were upset that Rue was played by Amandla Stenberg and weren’t emotional at her death in the movie as they had been in the book, all because Amandla Stenberg is a person of color, I was more than a little upset.

First of all, on page 98 of The Hunger Games, Rue is described as having “bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin.” So any argument that casting has no basis in the text is out, off the bat. But what’s more disturbing is a) that people think watching a young black girl die isn’t as sad as watching a young white girl die; b) that people can’t connect with a character just because of her race; c) that saying that on Twitter is okay, especially if you qualify it by saying that you’re “not a racist;” and d) that we live in a culture that validates those beliefs.

That’s a lot, and there’s probably more, but those are just a few of things bothering me right now. First, I want to own that I identify as a white person, and maybe that will affect how you read this. But just because I’m white doesn’t mean I can’t be upset about this and can’t say that it’s really messed up.

I want to start with the third point I mentioned above, about how it’s okay to say things like this, especially if you qualify it by saying you’re not  racist. You may not be a racist, and you probably don’t intend for this statement to be hurtful, but the message contained in it is racist. That may not be your intent, but it is your impact—even to me, as a white person—and you should own that. We need to recognize how our words can be interpreted by people who aren’t in our heads, because honestly, no one understands what all is going on in there besides you.

The idea that watching a black Rue die is less sad than imagining a white Rue die is emblematic of not being able to relate to a character or a person simply because of their race. This, in turn, is a product of our society, which is white-dominated and controlled. Think about the movies a lot of kids in our generation grew up with—Lion King, Beauty and the Beast, Jungle Book, Sandlot, Mary Poppins, Casper the Friendly Ghost, and so on.

How many of them have positive black characters in leading roles? None. Think about the shows that are on television right now, or the movies that are coming out for kids right now. How many of them have positive black characters in leading roles? Not many. The only show I can think of is Criminal Minds, and Shemar Moore is only one of seven main characters, and he’s the only one who’s identified as a person of color. Then think about the news—who are the reporters, the news anchors, who is featured in positive stories and negative stories? What’s the ratio of seeing black people in uplifting or positive stories to seeing black people talked about exclusively as criminals, or impoverished or whatever.

So with black people being portrayed negatively or not at all in so many aspects of our culture, is it really so shocking that some people in our generation have such a problem relating to them? If there’s been such an effort, conscious or unconscious, to “other” black people, is it really shocking that they’ve been “othered?” I’m not saying that this is all media’s fault, or that if we had more TV shows with black people as the main character all our problems would be solved. But what I am saying is that our society feeds the latent, hurtful, and hateful attitudes that have been exposed by the anger expressed at the casting in The Hunger Games.

There’s a lot more to be discussed about race in America today and how our generation fits into that discussion. Clearly, some progress has been made since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. But that doesn’t mean we’re done, or that we live in a “post-racial” society. There’s still a lot of work that needs to be done, as shown by the reaction to this movie, to the death of Trayvon Martin, discrepancies in unemployment rates, discrepancies in incarceration rates, and the countless microaggressions experienced by people of color every day. This article doesn’t do all of that justice, and probably no article can. But it’s a conversation that needs to be started.

Elise Swanson Elise Swanson Elise Swanson is a NGJ Voices Contributor. She is majoring in Political Science and English, and hopes to join the Foreign Service one day. A native of northern Wisconsin, she hopes one day to retire to Switzerland, and pursue various, yet-unknown ambitions.

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