The Hunger Games Film Whitens its Warrior

Like many connoisseurs of young adult lit, I've been excited and wary about the upcoming film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. On Friday, I greeted the news that Jennifer Lawrence had nabbed the part of protagonist Katniss with nothing but dismay. Now, I didn't like Winter's Bone as much as many seemed to, but Lawrence's performance was powerful, and I'm sure she's capable of the emotion necessary to play the mockingjay.

Here's the thing, though: In the books, Katniss is clearly not white.

Jennifer Lawrence, via Inland SoCal

Jennifer Lawrence; photo via Inland SoCal

Katniss' ethnic background is never spelled out in familiar terms in the story, which makes sense, given that it takes place in either an alternate universe or a distant-future Earth in which former countries' names have become obsolete. Still, she is indicated to be of mixed ancestry, and her dark, olive-colored skin is mentioned repeatedly. In fact, she describes not resembling her mother and sister, who have pale skin and hair and thus could pass for members of a higher class. If this sounds like commentary on the way society treats people of color, it is, as much as the war-ravaged Panem run by the despotic "Capital" speaks to modern politics. With Lawrence stepping into Katniss' boots, though, Collins' address of racial dynamics is likely to be lost.

Before you can say "color-blind casting," this story gets stranger. Casting director Debra Zane posted the call for potential Katnisses as follows: "Caucasian, between ages 15 and 20, who could portray someone 'underfed but strong,' and 'naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.'" As Jezebel points out, the demand for a female actor who looks "underfed" is apt to raise a few eyebrows, although this is the rare scenario in which that sort of makes sense. After all, Katniss and her family are living in poverty and near-starving at the beginning of the trilogy.

"Caucasian," though? Why on Earth/Panem would that be required of Katniss, let alone as the first mandatory quality? Reportedly, the other finalists for the role were Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld, both of whom are 14 to Lawrence's 20. Whether "ages 15 to 20" refers to actors' ages at the time of casting or filming, there appears to be wiggle room there, but not when it comes to the heroine's whiteness.

the hunger games trilogy, us coversthe hunger games, uk cover

The US covers opted not to show Katniss at all; the first book's artwork in the UK depicted an animated teenager who could be read as white or non-white.

I am sure that, like so many things in the media realm, this is related to marketing. Whitewashing is not a new phenomenon in the realms of YA or film and tends to spring from a misguided notion that people of color aren't relateable to (presumably white) kids. Newsflash, Hollywood: millions love Katniss. Hopefully, Hunger Games fans who flock to the cinema won't reconceptualize her as a white warrior, just as the introduction of Diego failed to discourage all gender-policed little boys from identifying with Dora the Explorer. Either way, a white Katniss is a missed opportunity.

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Comments

37 comments have been made. Post a comment.

well.

I also feel pretty strongly that J.L. is way too white to be Katniss, and I'm disappointed by the casting choice. I read an interview where the director said that Collins was involved in the casting process and that she felt like the spirit and ability of the actress was most important and that the physical description had room for flexibility. The director also said that they plan to dye her hair. I don't think anyone who's ever read the books would accept a blond Katniss. But are they going to give her a "bronzer" treatment to make her appear more 'olive'? That remains to be seen. i just wonder how much of the character will be compromised with this choice -- and how that affects the rest of the story.

Agreed, and...

WARNING: This comment contains potential subplot-related spoilers.

i just wonder how much of the character will be compromised with this choice -- and how that affects the rest of the story.

I'm pretty nervous about the depiction of the main love triangle, for reasons both related to and separate from this casting choice. Personally, I think the triangle is one of the least compelling elements of the books and like that it isn't the main story, but being a big-budget movie about a teenage girl, I won't be surprised if the romantic elements are amped up. To my knowledge, the rest of the film remains to be cast, but if underdog Gale remains an aggressive non-white character and main contender Peeta an endlessly loving and self-sacrificing white guy, Katniss also being white will be... problematic.

Not that there's nothing potentially problematic race- or class-wise in the books. Hooo golly, there is, but it all gets more troubling if The Hunger Games becomes about a white girl's choice between a gentle white boy and a dangerous non-white boy. (You can probably tell that I don't care for Peeta, who strikes me as either a Christ figure or a physical manifestation of Katniss' conscience. That's a topic for another time!)

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But seriously.... why

But seriously.... why "Caucasian"? I'm not an actress, so I just don't know - is this common? So disappointing.

While she may be "too white"

While she may be "too white" to play Katniss (I think with makeup and tanning shell be fine", I would like to clarify that "Panem" is NOT Earth as a whole. Panem is what is left of the United States. And based on that, it is safe to assume that Katniss will most likely be Caucasian.

Yeah. I mean, it says she

Yeah. I mean, it says she has grey eyes. I think it's really important that they dye her hair and hopefully bronze her skin or something--and I was hoping for maybe Nina Dobrev as Katniss, but I never got the impression that she was Black or anything. Swarthy, yes, mixed race, possibly--it is the way future, but she lives in Appalachia and has grey eyes. Olive skin is just swarthy. Mr Rochester and Blanche Ingram both have olive skin, for example. (I'm sorry, both my examples are from the same book, but they hold for showing that olive has a historical precedent of being a shade of white.)

Also, I feel really strongly

Also, I feel really strongly about her being darker skinned (even though I don't think it necessarily makes her non-white) but I feel even more strongly that she should be a teenager. Maybe it's watching all seasons of Skins this winter but there's something about watching teenagers playing teenagers that makes it so much more real and heartfelt and hormonal.

@ Kate

@ Kate: Why is it safe to assume she'd be caucasian? In case you don't know, the U.S. will be hispanic majority very, very soon. So, in a distant future, it would be more likely that she would be of either mixed or non-white heritage. Besides, I don't think such an assumption reeks of an ethnocentrism.

hi, panem is actually what's

hi, panem is actually what's left of NORTH AMERICA, not just the united states.

Whiteness

Actually, white Americans make up only 53%, which, as you I'm sure can surmise, is only slightly more than half. So, in fact, she is only about 50% "likely" to be Caucasian, and, since Collins spells it out for us several times that she has features that are predominantly NOT Caucasian, I think that likelihood falls slightly.

It says in the first few

It says in the first few pages that she is olive skinned. Read the facts- as an olive skinned person white dark hair, I feel like my mixed ethnicity has been lost again to hollywood's whitewashing.

pg8 of The Hunger Games I

pg8 of The Hunger Games

I watch as Gale pulls out his knife and slices the bread. He could be my brother. Straight blck hair, olive skin, we even have the same gray eyes. But we're not related, at least not closely. Most of the families who work the mines resemble one another this way.

Katniss is not "explicitly of mixed ancestry", it is implied but not explicit. Nor was she as far as I can recall ever described as dark. If I am wrong please someone post which book it is stated in along with a page number.

There is enough wrong with the casting call 'explicitly' calling for a caucasion (which generally means WASP) when she could clealy be played by someone with hispanic, eastern european, mediterian, middle eastern, native american or mixed ansestry. You don't need to exaggerate and stretch her physical description to make your point.

I agree. Collin's does

I agree. Collin's does mention race explicitly with some of the other characters, but Katniss isn't specified. I don't think they should have specifically called for a caucasion actress, but I don't think it's necessarily wrong that the actress cast is white. Collin's description of her audition and her approval of the actress has far more weight with me than what color she is.

Yeah, I'm with you here, I

Yeah, I'm with you here, I was never clear on her ethnicity. I've never understood the term "olive skin," I have no idea what that means or what color it is supposed to suggest. I've seen it used to describe "exotic" White women (e.g. with dark hair), and found it equally confusing in those situations. That's always the meaning I've associated it with, some vague way to say someone is "exotic"-looking without saying that they're non-White.

Have to disagree, but that's fair.

Hi nikokiki; thanks for commenting. I do think that Katniss' ethnic heritage is conveyed as mixed, being that Katniss and her late father have darker skin and hair like most citizens of the Seam and her mother and sister have paler skin and hair like the envied merchant class. While there are no ethnicities named, I interpret Panem as a land in which such terms are no longer used but racial tensions and divides still very much exist; otherwise, I don't know what purpose all the references to classes categorically having different skin colors serve. You're right that Katniss never says she has mixed ancestry in those words, so I'll change the wording accordingly.

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huh.

I guess I never really spent a lot of time thinking about exactly what race Katniss is. I'm an olive skinned white girl with dark hair (and coincidentally a younger sister with light hair who looks a lot like the description of Prim), so I suppose I sort of pictured her looking like me while I was reading.

Appalachian

I understand your point, but I think you're wrong to think that she is definitely not white. She's meant to be from West Virginia, which is populated by short white people who are mostly dark haired (think Starling in Silence of the Lambs). She certainly could have been played by someone who wasn't Caucasian, so long as they could have passed for someone who looks like they are the people who traditionally work in coal mines in the US (poor white people). I imagine part of the reason Lawrence was chosen was because we already know she can convincingly play that sort of person.

It's a key part of the character's history and a way of connecting the future to current times, I don't think it's so ridiculous to be looking for someone who looks West Virginian. Maybe as someone from the South that resonated more with me than it does to others, but it felt important.

West Virginia

Hm, while I am not from West Virginia and can't speak to its demographics per se, I think it's problematic to say that all West Virginians look alike, or that all coal miners have similar features. Of course there are short white people with dark hair who live in West Virginia, but I'm sure there are people there who don't fit that description as well.

That being said, I for one didn't realize that Katniss was supposed to be from that region of the U.S., so even though Hunger Games takes place in a fictional future, Lawrence's performance in Winter's Bone could definitely have tipped the scales in her favor.

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collins purposely obscures

collins purposely obscures the exact locations of each of the districts, and while she does mention specifically that 12 was in what used to be called appalachia, she never specifically says west virginia. where do you get katniss specifically being in the are of this state from?

Well, if she is from

Well, if she is from Appalachia and there is coal mining as it states, she would have to be from West Virginia, Kentucky, Virginia, or Pennsylvania. Of those four, West Virgina produces the most coal by far. It's an assumption, sure, but it's a safe assumption.

Katniss is not "explicitly of

Katniss is not "explicitly of mixed ancestry." You read that in, along with "dark olive," words which don't appear together in the book.

Whiteness is a political alliance, not an ethnicity, and in this country at this time it includes people of southern/Mediterranean and eastern European ancestry, like my Italian grandfather, who was routinely mistaken for African-American in the summer. Half of my siblings have blue eyes, reddish hair and freckles; half are olive-skinned with brown eyes and dark hair. Prim, Katniss's full sister, is pale and blond.

This woman is a likely model for the Seam people; olive skin, dark hair, drawn and starved:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Lange-MigrantMother02.jpg

And you can *sort of* see why Katniss needs to be underfed? Overcoming starvation is integral to her development and motivation. This is the prime physical issue for Lawrence, whose hair and skin color can be changed and who is demonstrably able to act the role.

As for the overall ethnic diversity of Panem, it's impossible to tell. Only two characters are explicitly of color, although several could be read as nonwhite and several more are completely open, which could prompt some diversity in casting. Collins provides a lot of hints, but no maps; the most carefully constructed map of Panem I could find leaves out the bulk of the South and Southwest, along with much of the current coasts. Laid over current demographic maps of the US, the remainder corresponds pretty neatly with the Central and Midwest regions, plus a little New England. Major nonwhite population centers almost disappear.

BTW, Collins reads Katniss with a mild Southern accent. That suggests WVa/southern Ohio/northern KY over PA or further south.

I don't think it's

I don't think it's unjustified to think of Appalachia and coal mining as former West Virginia. That's where I figured District 12 was, too. I wonder about the limitations of "white," "non-white," and "Caucasian" in having this conversation and others about ethnicity. For me, the loss here isn't about what the casting call asked for—Katniss could be Caucasian, given the author's descriptions—but about the indications so far that Hollywood isn't interested in continuing to portray this character as an ethnic minority, thus depriving young audiences from the experience of seeing that on screen, and warping their relationship to the books by superseding their memories with this depiction. Who sees Harry Potter as someone other than Daniel Radcliffe anymore? The problem here, as already indicated in the blog post, is the racial erasure with the choice of actor, and the entertainment industry's willingness to do this. Apparently characters can only have race and ethnicity if they:
A. Are blue, 8 feet tall, and with tails
B. Are in a movie specifically about race
C. Are made specifically for a minority audience

Though I'm very sensitive to

Though I'm very sensitive to the possibility of white washing, in this case I think they're banking on Jennifer Lawrence's up & coming status. Same reason Hailee Steinfeld was under consideration. Unfortunately I'd have to say looks-wise Hailee's casting would have made more sense, and she's an equally fine actress.

Hmm...

She could possibly be Black Irish? Supposedly, they're the descendants of Spanish sailors who mixed with the local Celts. And they're described as being dark-featured with light eyes. I'm actually one of them. Dark brown hair, green eyes, and in the summer I get mistaken for a Hawaiian native.

Black Irish

That's actually not correct. The term "black Irish" has referred to several things over the years, but there is little evidence of Spanish heritage in modern-day Irish or Irish-descended people. Anyway. I know this because members of my own family have been described with that terminology. There's a Wikipedia article about it, though it's problematic for some missing citations.

http://latimesblogs.latimes.c

http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/jacketcopy/2011/03/suzanne-collins-on-je...

The author appears to be quite happy with the casting, saying "I never thought we’d find somebody this perfect for the role. And I can't wait for everyone to see her play it." While I would normally have an issue with the casting, the fact that the author approves does make me pause and consider. Also, I would seriously take a look at the actor's performance in the Winter's Bone trailer: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HQ8kqytI_oA I think she has the chops to play Katniss.

That said, I do think that specifying Caucasian in the casting call is problematic at best. They should have looked at actors from a wider range of backgrounds. I don't, however, think that Lawrence is the wrong person for the role.

Exactly, the AUTHOR, Suzanne

Exactly, the AUTHOR, Suzanne Collins has given her stamp of approval because you know, she ultimately knows best. I find the whole whitewashing claim ridiculous because it was never made clear in the first place so how can these fans, these Annie(Mister Man!) Wilkes type fans, say without a doubt that it's whitewashing?!. I have always respected racebending and the progress they have achieved but I cannot get behind them on this one...it's selfserving, they are going after what will most likely be an enormous franchise because of a detail that was vague at best and get publicity in the process. How unbelievably arrogant and ignorant of those fans to assume that they know better than the AUTHOR of the goddamn book!. Well, I am very pleased with Jennifer Lawrence being cast as Katniss and look forward to the film.

hmmm

Interesting that people keep thinking that just because Collins thinks Lawrence will do a good job (I have no doubt that she will), it means Collins doesn't think Katniss is anything but white. The casting call precluded Collins' seeing anything BUT white actresses (and it's pretty rare that an author gets to be in on casting in the first place), so it's not like she had the opportunity to see what she had written realized as anything else. And it's certainly not the first time a white author writing a possibly mixed character has avoided talking about the subsequent whitewashing.

I'm disappointed about this choice but not shocked in any way. I'm 22, so I'm used to the way I grew up, which was seeing essentially no one who looked like me on television or in the movies. If you're not white, you're all black or all something, never mixed. So I almost didn't notice it. In a way, what bothers me more is the vast amount of comments of people who either refuse to understand or think it's irrelevant that this is a missed opportunity, as you say.

"Some readers have expressed

"Some readers have expressed real frustration that white actors were cast in the roles of Katniss and Gale, who they felt were clearly described as biracial in the book. Do you understand or share any of that dismay Suzanne?

SC: They were not particularly intended to be biracial. 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. But then there are some characters in the book who are more specifically described."

http://insidemovies.ew.com/2011/04/07/hunger-games-suzanne-collins-gary-...

"There’s been a lot of ethnic

"There’s been a lot of ethnic mixing."

So basically, they ARE mixed. They weren't particularly intended to be so, but they live in a time where so much mixing has gone on that by our standards they are. So it's still bullshit to cast this actress and definitely to call for a white actress only.

Really?

You may be in a VERY select minority of people who think she is black. I read the olive skin to be tanned due her spending so much time hunting. Regardless, she is not "clearly" black. As for those using stats to say the country is 53% white (which I think might be low but not sure), district 12 is either western Kentucky or southern West Virginia. The white population is even higher there than the rest of the country. Frankly, I don't give a damn what color she is but it is ridiculous to Mamet a political argument over this.

Vacuum

So much of these comments are missing the point, partially from looking at this casting in a vacuum. It doesn't matter if Katniss' race in the story was specifically stated, the problem is that the casting was limited to white in this instant, whereas in the case of the casting for other films when the lead's race was known to be nonwhite-- Avatar, Akira, Runaways, and a crap load of historical films--the casting was left open or white actors/actresses were again called for. That's what makes it white-washing.

I really read Katniss as Aboriginal/possibly part Mexican/white

I'm Canadian and I think that many American readers will think this is first set in the Appalachians re: coal mines etc. But I saw olive skin, dark eyes, dark hair as indigenous Indian/Mexican and or American/Canadian First Nations---and I was SO excited...until white white Peeta. And i also worried about the gentle white christ figure. I'm just so tired of that storyline/character.
But I have to say this: I do think we are getting closer in YA writing toward strong female characters who aren't mooning over boys throughout the whole damn story. Let's keep going. And more LGBT, ethnicities, progressive ideas for the reading youth of our future.

Katniss' ethnicity

I'm sorry but I have the same coloring as Katniss, dark olive skin and dark hair, and I'm white. I don't think that having dark skin and hair is an indicator of being non-white. There isn't a single family member (that I know of) in my family that isn't white. I also look nothing like my brother and sister, who are tall with red hair. Yes, you read that right: They're both redheads. And no one thinks we're related. I take after my mother's side, with Swedish and Czech ancestry. My grandmother had darker skin and dark hair, despite being Swedish, and my mother has darker olive skin with green eyes and lighter brown hair. her father, who was Czech, had black hair and was light.

So by saying that Katniss can't be white because she has olive skin and darker coloring is kind of, well, ignorant coming from a white person with olive skin and darker coloring.

and for the record, it really

and for the record, it really upsets me when people assume that I'm mixed simply because I'm so dark. I had one woman ask me if I was Mexican and when I said that I was white, she gasped and said "But you're so dark!" SMH. I am so sick of this idea that dark = nonwhite and/or mixed.

Shes white in the books for

Shes white in the books for sure. Her sister and mother are blonde with pale skin. Blonde women don't produce ethnic children. And jennifer looks exotic almost native American or Asian. And olive skin doesn't necessarily mean not white. People are mad thresh and rue are black and now that katniss is white. What is wrong with everyone

Of course blonde women can

Of course blonde women can produce ethnic children if the father is ethnic! The actress Paula Patton is an excellent example of a olive-skin dark-haired woman with light eyes whose mother is Caucasian and very blond.
http://www.aoltv.com/tag/paula+patton/

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