Why I Will Not be Watching the Hunger GamesWhitewashing and the Perpetuation of a White America in Hollywood
Wen Hao Wang
There is a controversy surrounding the casting of white actress Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss Evergreen in Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games. Characters like Katniss are described as having “straight black hair,” “olive skin,” and “gray eyes.” From the description and the ethnic mixing that occurs in the novel’s post-apocalyptic future, Katniss is not necessarily white.
For readers like Aliya, a Guyanese blogger and student from Canada, she identified with the black-haired, olive- skinned heroine. She said in her blog, “As a woman of color (brown, not olive skinned) who grew up in a third world country, the idea of being a revolutionary hero in the world of Young Adult [fiction] seemed to speak to my childish self.”
People were eager to see which woman of color would star as the protagonist. It could have been anyone who fit the description, particularly actors of color who would have a chance to star in a leading role. Yet, when casting calls went out, they specifically asked for someone “Caucasian.” They purposely skewed the character towards whiteness, thereby whitewashing Katniss.
Readers were, not surprisingly, frustrated. Collins responded half- heartedly, not realizing the importance of Katniss’ color to readers. “They [Katniss and Gale] were not particularly intended to be biracial,” she said. “It is a time period where hundreds of years have passed from now. There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing. But I think I describe them as having dark hair, grey eyes, and sort of olive skin. You know, we have hair and makeup.”
The fact that Collins, as well as director Gary Ross, felt makeup and hair dye can easily make an actor appear more ethnically mixed does a disservice to actors of color that could have played the part.
Yet whitewashing is not new to The Hunger Games. Hollywood has had a long history of changing the ethnicity of characters. Although the stories behind movies like The Last Airbender, Prince of Persia, and 21 are explicitly about people of color, the leading roles were all played by white actors. When there are characters of other ethnicities in these films, they are either relegated to forgettable roles or play antagonists to their heroic white counterparts.
All of these movies provided Hollywood with a chance to reflect the diversity of America. According to latest census data, nonwhites, minorities and mixed- race people are the fastest-growing population—so why not show them? Instead, Hollywood chooses to effectively erase these voices from American consciousness.
As any indication of the dominance of the wrong people misrepresenting the stories of others, in February, a Los Angeles Times survey of Oscar Academy voters revealed that members were 94% Caucasian and 77% male.
This explains why movies like The Help were so well received during the Academy Awards, but criticized by organizations like Association of Black Women Americans. In an open statement, they pointed out the inaccurate and stereotypical portrayal of black men and women at the time. In the end they said, “The Help is not a story about the millions of hardworking and dignified black women who labored in white homes to support their families and communities. Rather, it is the coming-of-age story of a white protagonist, who uses myths about the lives of black women to make sense of her own.”
For every outcry against misrepresentations, there is an opposing backlash. With The Hunger Games, some fans objected to Rue being black. Even though the book clearly describes her as having “dark brown skin and eyes,” they wanted to whitewash her.
Tumblr blog “Hunger Game Tweets,” collected these responses in tweets that ranged from angry to outright disgust. They include, “why does rue have to be black not gonna lie kinda ruined the movie,” and “kk call me racist but when I found out rue was black her death wasn’t as sad.”
These tweets and the whitewashing of Katniss demonstrate the racist images we are used to. It is also not helped by the fact that Hollywood harmfully perpetuates whiteness to be dominant in America. White becomes the default for a character like Rue, who is supposed to be innocent. In their eyes, they played it safe. But for Hollywood to blatantly deny another interpretation is to disregard readers who do not necessarily have to believe in a white protagonist.
To some readers, casting should have included non-whites based not only on the physical descriptions, but also the very core issue of race held in the novel.
“In short, the entire metaphor that runs through the book about oppression, hunger, and excess is meaningless if none of the characters are people of color,” said Aliya. Her comments speak to Hollywood’s institutionalized racism and the larger extent of structural discrimination based on skin color.
Hollywood’s long history of whitewashing characters is part of white, often male, reproduction of their ideologies. People of color remain stock characters readily manipulated in their self-satisfying images. These groups become caricatures, while whiteness becomes the default image of good. As the myths of marginalized groups are perpetuated through this media, the true stories of these people are cast aside.