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The E-Racing of The Hunger Games : Race & Cultures in Fiction

March 30, 2012 By: Hiromi Category: Blog, Books & Films, Craft, Thoughts on Writing

I didn’t want to add to The Hunger Games hype but the recent swell of responses to matters tied with race compelled me to share some thoughts.

For those who haven’t been following the situation, the film, The Hunger Games adapted from a novel of the same title, is currently wildly popular (Please note I haven’t watched the film yet. I’ve read the trilogy some time ago.). After the release of the film many of the fans of the books have taken to social media to air their disappointment, dismay, unhappiness, indignation, etc. that some of the key characters were cast as black when they had thought them white instead. Some of the comments are overtly racist. Some mildly so. Though it’s disheartening to see so many people respond this way I can’t say that I’m terribly surprised. I do think if there’s one good thing about this situation it’s an opportunity to talk about race, representation, systemic racism, expectation, and diversity. As teachers say, it’s become a “teachable moment”. There’s a lot out there where you can view and evaluate for yourself. An excellent  article in The New Yorker and on tumblr, Hunger Game Tweets where racist commentary on the race of characters in the film are being compiled and reposted.

I feel less intellectually and emotionally involved with the amount of racism that’s made itself visible in this situation than people might first imagine. As a Japanese Canadian who’s grown up in Canada I’ve personally experienced a wide range of racially charged interactions from the weirdly mildly polite racist to outright hatred. That racism is there, beneath the surface, and springs forth at different times is not news to me, nor to a great many other people. It’s troubling, of course, but what is made visible is easier to address. Clearly there’s a lot more work for everyone to do.

As a writer who is keenly aware of the importance of race and representation and diversity in fiction I’m very much interested in:

1) How the readers read the characters as white in the novel in the first place. (Thereby leading them to feel “disappointment” when they see how the characters are cast on film.) 

2) How writers write about race and represent race in fiction. 

1) I’m actually not surprised that a great many people read characters like Rue as white in the novel because aside from a mention of dark eyes and brown skin there is nothing mentioned in terms of race. As far as I can recall (sorry, no longer have copies of the novels), The Hunger Games future dystopic is post-racial; people are only identified by skin tone and eye colour and/or as a group via their District.

Brown eyes and brown skin does not automatically assign race if you are not seeking to see it. For instance, Rue’s district was a grower of orchards. Her brown skin could have been a result of working outdoors all of the time. Brown eyes does not necessarily signal racial background. One physical trait, however, that would have signalled Rue’s racial identity/ies as Black would have been a description of her hair. If Collins had described her hair as kinky, or wiry, or perhaps in numerous tight plaits the reader would have made a more solid connection to Rue’s race(s) of origin. But Collins did not include (or the editor advised her to delete it?) this distinctive detail. I noted this absence when I read The Hunger Games. I noticed that Katniss has “olive skin”, black hair and grey eyes– that there are some traits, but no links and ties to more concrete clues that point directly to race.

Why?

Critically, I’m inclined to think that it was a conscious choice by the author and publisher to take a kind of beige-browny “generic” race approach. I call this effect on characters as being  cosmetically brown or melaninated. Vague-races do not have the power to unsettle and disturb any one person’s world views. Nothing is twigged in terms of learned and systemically sustained bigotries. And it also magically erases current racial realities and legacies we’ve still not dealt with. Leaving the racial topography vague also means that readers can insert their own world vision in terms of demographics. Appeal to everyone, discomfort no one (Well, except for me, and others like me…. >__< ). Vague-races also means that the author does not have “to worry about race” in her story. I would have loved to have seen actual descriptions of different races in the Districts. It would have taken the stories to a totally different level.

This racial vagueness in The Hunger Games has led to readers placing their own racial selections onto the characters and when they watched the film for the first time their worldview was disrupted. It does not surprise me that they felt disappointment upon seeing a race different from what they had imagined from the cues they decoded from the story– textual representation and filmic representation are experienced in different ways by the eyes, our minds and bodies. I’m not saying that it’s okay for readers to be bigots– I’m turning my focus toward the responsibility of the writer to be specific and concrete on something that’s so important, fraught, and potentially a matter of life and death (as pointed out by Anna Holmes in The New Yorker article).

2) Race and racial and cultural identities can be written about in many different ways. There are never any absolutes; racial identity is complex and widely varied. As writers we often must resort to some kinds of shorthand methods. How much the plot centres around race can range from next to nothing to central to the text. But in terms of realistic depictions of humans, race is one of the biggest concerns in our lived lives. It’s careless and problematic to ignore it in our stories.

Some ways race is conveyed in fiction:

a) Specific physical traits in a social and cultural context. Certainly skin colour, but also hair. Shape of eyes. Height. Body type. We must be careful to avoid tired cliched and stereotypical shorthand ways of description, however. We’re writers– we’re a creative bunch. In what kinds of new ways can we detail physical traits? (If I have to read one more description of a girl of Asian background as having “almond eyes” I’m going to dig out my eye with a pen!)

b) Languages. Of course languages speak across race and cultures and we should not be reductive in our treatment of the their connections. I.e. The statement, “She’s Japanese so she only speaks Japanese”, is clearly reductive and problematic. People can speak numerous languages completely separate from race. However, there can be a strong correlation. In a far future, how would have languages shifted/altered. Wouldn’t there be greater blending of diverse languages for certain communities?

c) Tied to language are character names. Names can also signal racial diversity. I found it notable that the names used in The Hunger Games were again disconnected with any kinds of cultures of origin other than English-speaking. Katniss is a type of plant. As is her younger sister’s name. Gale is, of course, a storm. Rue is also a plant-based name. The names provide no links to our known references of racial identities or connections to the practice of being named after ancestors, etc.

d) Cultural practices. Again, like language, cultural practices aren’t absolute and there’s a great deal of crossover and complexity. However, there are cultural practices that have passed down through hundreds (if not over a thousand) of years that we can identify as having racial and cultural connections. The Hunger Games do not detail any cultural practices that we can identify with in our current lives. It may be said that the survival situation in the Districts are so dire that there’s not space or room for any kinds of cultural practices. I remain unconvinced.

e) Religions. Like cultural practices religions also move across races, but there are also correlations. I don’t remember any kind of religious practice being described in the world of The Hunger Games.

f) Food and preparation of. I can’t recall any food descriptors that depicted food connections to diverse races. Food is very much identified with cultures and races. For a narrative that focussed upon the lack of it for many, and the abundance of it for the elite few, I think Collins was again very generic in terms of actually detailing any kind of racial specificity to the foodstuffs. In a key scene Katniss receives a gift of a bun or loaf from Rue’s District  (and presumably her peoples). This could have been a moment when Collins could have signalled more specificity re: race/culture via choice of food item. The bun/loaf was very generically Western/Euro. Different cultures have different variations of breads, ie. injera, roti, mantou, naan, tortilla, etc. Her selection of a food item again locates a racial subjectivity that gestures mostly toward a whiteness.

I found The Hunger Games to be well-plotted and a page-turner– I enjoyed what it did well despite noticeable elisions in the narrative. It was entertaining and it was also commendable that the hero was a girl with some measure of agency. But the handling of (or lack of) specific races and sexualities meant that it toed a very “safe” line insomuch that the narrative did not disturb generic normative readings. Maybe Collins did not want to make the story “about race”. This is her prerogative, of course. However, that does not mean that the novel is exempt from criticism over how it’s been rendered. Fiction has an impact upon how we see the world, how we see ourselves in this world, how we imagine ourselves, and how others imagine us. We need to be able to speak to that, the relational between fiction and reality.

Note: I didn’t have a copy of the novel in front of me while I wrote what’s turned out to be a much longer post than I originally intended. So potential for mis-rememberings of the text– I read the novel last summer, I think. Please let me know if I’ve screwed up!

 

15 Comments to “The E-Racing of The Hunger Games : Race & Cultures in Fiction”


  1. As my SF stories currently deal with a race of space-faring supergardeners, I do not have that problem. But I do try to render this society (and its various factions, rites, traditions) as non-monolithic.
    Your reflection on the e-race is food for thought. In a current manuscript set in a more contemporary time, adding a new character in my tigh plot requests at least 500-1000 more words.

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  2. Sins of omission are harder to critique, since it is always the author’s prerogative to argue that those were not the issues that she wished to address, and reducing the number of variables addressed in the text allowed her to focus on the book’s central themes, particularly given targeting to younger readers.

    But I am also sympathetic to the complaint that avoiding issues of race and gender (and class) is particularly an issue in a book about a oppressive society as depicted in Hunger Games. The differences between the capital and the outlining areas are the driving divisions of the narrative, but it is perhaps worth noting that in such situations, race and gender and class divisions are usually exaggerated rather than diminished: the oppressed, being frustrated, try to find someone they can look down upon in turn. The more the districts are oppressed, the more the citizens within those districts would emphasize the smaller divisions within their own communities…. Glossing over this pattern does then remove a certain depth from the novels.

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  3. We make a variety of choices on what to include, what to exclude, and sometimes without really seeing all possible ways of how our selected words might be read. Sometimes when I read a review or critique of something I wrote I learn something new about what I’ve written. This is bemusing and humbling. I’m honoured to have shared with you some food for thought. Best wishes with your writing practice!

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  4. Yes– if we look to history and the social/cultural present when resources are scarce or groups of people are fighting over land/power/oil, etc. noticeable or identifiable “markers of difference” such as race, gender, class, sexuality, becomes the frames by which “that group” is othered and oppressed. I agree with you that in terms of the model of scarcity being described in The Hunger Games these differences would be absolutely heightened. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

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  5. I agree that Collins missed (or omitted, or was told to omit) several opportunities to convey more about each individual race. I’m going to try and remember those when I’m writing. It seems like no matter how well-meaning I am, without a “shopping list” of opportunities in front of me, I’ll not even notice they’re missing in my work.

    Regarding the movie, though, in my perception the only person they made the wrong race was Katniss! I almost didn’t see the movie when I found out, but the trailer convinced me that Jennifer Lawrence was pulling off the personality well enough that I should give the movie a chance. I’m glad I did. (And I feel like if they were going to whitewash a character that I’d imagined as Latina or Native American, at least they gave us hot Lenny Kravitz in bomb eyeshadow to make up for it! Meow!)

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  6. Lovely article, thanks. (Followed you over from Twitter. Hi.)

    a very “safe” line insomuch that the narrative did not disturb generic normative reading

    And that’s having your cake and eating it, isn’t it? The writer does force bigots to confront their bigotry, or risk losing their business; and at the same time they’re able to say ‘but I included group x (or I say off the record that Dumbledore is gay) so you can’t say I’m guilty of erasure’ And while that’s better than writing about a modern-day New York in which everybody apart from the cleaner is explicitly white, I’d say it still comes down on the side of ‘the problem’ rather than ‘the solution’.

    In what kinds of new ways can we detail physical traits?

    That’s an interesting question. It’s the thing I’m struggling with right now – I have made a firm comittment to describing diversity because it’s absence annoys me, but I find that I am lacking the vocabulary *to* describe people respectfully. I’m a very non-visual person (and have problems with facial recognition, so this really *is* a thing for me) – I can fake white people (hair colour, eye colour, and that’s the vocabulary I am exposed to all the time) but I’m less certain about POC, because all too often I see a white gaze where characters are described in terms of how they aren’t Barbie rather than as themselves.

    As I’m writing mostly second-world fantasy I’m trying to ask ‘how would this culture distinguish people and why’? Is facial hair a status symbol? Is a particular facial shape associated with class/ethic origin? What does the ‘ideal person’ look like? Are there ‘lucky features’ favoured by a deity? And what about scars, tattoos, and other modifications?

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  7. It may be that when we experience race in socially mixed spaces we’re not all experiencing it on an intellectual or conscious level. This may be particularly so for those who have white privilege. I know I’m not perpetually thinking about my own race although my eyes see what I decode as race in others. So when we try to write race into text it feels contrived or constructed probably because of the experience of race/not race in our experiential lives. Not to mention worries about being cliched, insensitive or subconsciously falling into stereotypes, etc. It’s a challenge to integrate it into fiction, isn’t it!

    I’m curious about what they’ve done with the film and about seeing the dynamics of racialized bodies interacting (when it was left so vague in the novels). I do admire Jennifer Lawrence as an actor, particularly in Winter’s Bone. And Lenny Kravitz in bomb eyeshadow sounds glorious! Will likely go see it when the theatres have emptied out a bit. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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  8. Thank you, green-knight! Yah– I was not impressed with the off-screen btw disclosure that Dumbledore is gay. Why couldn’t he have been gay within the narrative (i.e. photos of him and his lover in his study, seen holding hands on a date, etc.)? We know why.

    Writers/creators may say their plot is “not about race” or “not about sexuality”, etc. but that’s not the point! These details and identities are not issues-based identities unless it is made so. Having diverse races and sexualities and body types and abilities, etc. is about depicting a world in its wonderfully complexity and richness. It needn’t take an extra 300 pages to do this. We’re writers!

    I love the track you’re on for how to imagine the integrated workings of race/culture for your second-world fantasy! Yes– face shapes! What kinds of “looks” are valued within a culture vs. another culture’s dislike of that same shape, etc. Awesome! Can’t wait to see what you come up with in your story/novel!

    We use analogy so much to describe things– depending on the type of habitat/culture a given peoples call home a system of analogies could arise from the confluence of this system. I.e. People who live in the desert could use the varying shades of sand colour to be found. I.e. sand with high copper content, or white/goldy shades, or mixed with basalt, etc. Fun! ^__^

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  9. I’m not up to speed on the books or the movie (which isn’t out here in Korea yet anyway, AFAIK, though I do kind of feel like picking up the book, or would if I had more time right now).

    However, I wanted to add to green-knight’s thoughts a little, though since I write SF (mostly near-ish future) I don’t have to agonize over developing non-Earth-analogue races for my stories.

    (I did in one so-far unpublished story, and found myself relying on skin tone, body shape, and eye color, but also, very much, on norms of clothing between the two societies, which of course was also affected by the fact one society’s women were invading the other’s country…)

    But anyway, from real life experience, one thing I noticed early on as an outsider here in Korea was the kinds of subjective or imagined differences that groups tend to be attributed to different “races” sometimes are a bigger deal than any “objective” differences you might describe from a neutral, 3rd person point of view.

    Easy examples include stereotypes like Westerners all having big noses or blue eyes (mine seem to shift from blue to green to grey depending on what I’m wearing, and other conditions), or the mythology (like Korean guys craning to check the white/black/other guy’s junk in the public baths, to see if the myths are true).

    But the more interesting examples (to me) seem to connect to defining Koreanness versus Chineseness or Japaneseness — to differentiating one’s group from neighboring groups, with whom one’s group likely intermixed extensively in the past, though that’s sort of not up for discussion following contemporary historiography.

    My partner is ethnically Korean, but her face supposedly unstereotypically round for a Korean, and having spent a good chunk of her life abroad, she doesn’t dress or walk/talk like the average Korean woman, so she gets asked whether she’s some other race (usually Chinese, occasionally Japanese) surprisingly often. Though she doesn’t dress outrageously differently, the subtle differences (and lack of makeup, surely) seem to be enough to get her odd looks even when she’s out and about without me.

    These kinds of stereotypes, norms, misperceptions will be present in imagined societies too. I tend, as an outside in Northeast Asia, to be about as accurate as a local in distinguishing Japanese, Chinese, and Korean people (ie. those who grew up in those places) on sight; I managed this essentially by learning to go by fashion, hairstyle, and makeup, and pushing out of my memory all the the stuff many Koreans suggested to me about face shapes when I first got here. It’s far from foolproof (and useless on people from these ethnicities who grew up elsewhere, obviously), but over on this side of the world, it’s a *lot* more reliable than guessing based on face shape. And yet, the idea that Chinese reliably have round faces, Koreans have oval ones, and Japanese have long faces seems to persist here.

    (Readers can test this for themselves using the quiz on this site: http://alllooksame.com/ … I sometimes give it to my (Korean) students when they are over-confident about this index…)

    And that’s to say nothing of perceptions and misperceptions of cultural standards of behaviour… another can of worms, though, and one I don’t have time to serve at the moment.

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  10. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and experiences. I always find it very interesting and curious how a shared race like the Jpnse, Chinese and Korean, will perceive themselves as distinguishable from each other. And, yes, an excellent way to see in practice the ways we see as culturally informed rather than physically accurate.

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  11. Hiromi, great article, thanks very much for intelligent commentary on the issue.

    As a writer, I wanted to offer some tips about how I manage gender and race descriptions in my stories. It all begins in character creation; if you fully realize the character, whatever their background is will seep naturally into the narrative.

    For example, I have a character of Afghan descent in my current work-in-progress. He’s a first-generation immigrant to a colonized world in space; as a result, he and his wife occasionally reminisce about their lives back on Earth in Jalalabad. These (brief) discussions about their old lives add character traits, cultural flavor, and distinct ethnic diversity to the narrative.

    The idea being, that if the character is well formed, these unique signifiers come out naturally in conversation and thought. A lot of that comes down to planning–and of course, progressive authors, editors, and publishers.

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  12. Thanks, Sam! Great tips. Yes– complexity (doesn’t have to mean “complicated) and depth of character do sooo much! And in the end it only makes a story better. Win win! Daikachi! ^__^

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  13. Hi Hiromi,

    I wanted to thank you for your thoughtful article, which I found through Charles Tan. I loved the books and did some researching afterward. I read somewhere that Collins envisioned it as a kind of post-racial world, so I was kind of disappointed that the movie was still very white to me (check out District 12!), although overall, I thought it was well-acted, visually interesting, and conveyed the main lines of the story

    I agree that the vagueness about Rue and other’s physical characteristics meant that it was unclear she was black and that the challenge for us, as writers, is to convey physical characteristics and culture without resorting to stereotypes. One of my friends said not to compare black skin to coffee or chocolate, for example, and I was stymied.

    Thanks again.
    P.S. For the movie, I’m with Puss in Boots. Team Cinna all the way!

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  14. Hi Melissa,

    Thank you for your response! I haven’t watched the film yet but plan to after the dust settles a little more.

    I think you’re on the SF Canada listserv? I’m there too! I mostly lurk and pipe up now and then with two bits. Loose change.

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  15. I’m curious about what they’ve done with the film and about seeing the dynamics of racialized bodies interacting

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