Just to show that we’re not crazy, here’s another case of Hollywood whitewashing, this time for the imminent adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy. If you haven’t heard of these books, climb out from under your rock and pick up the hottest thing in hey-look-kids-are-reading since Harry Potter. They tell the story of a dystopian, post apocalyptic future where an oppressive, elite government chooses one boy and one girl from each district it governs to fight to the death for the televised entertainment of the rich—the annual, titular Hunger Games. The books’ main character, Katniss Everdeen, is a 16-year-old resident of District 12 who volunteers to enter the games to save her sister.
The current frontrunner for the role is Jennifer Lawrence, the Oscar-nominated star of Winter’s Bone. The outcry? Well Collins describes Katniss as olive skinned, with long dark hair. Lawrence is…the opposite of that. Furthermore, according to Jezebel, the casting notice for the character read, “She should be Caucasian, between ages 15 and 20, who could portray someone ‘underfed but strong,’ and ‘naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.’”
Now, before we get an outcry of reverse racism from the peanut gallery, understand that we know that there are plenty of olive-skinned, dark-featured Caucausians, and we’re not saying that an ambiguous description means that a white actress shouldn’t play the role. What’s more, we’re not accusing Lionsgate of intentional, overt racism. What we are saying is that, since Katniss’ ethnicity is ambiguous—Aishwarya Rai, Natalie Portman, Catherine Zeta Jones, Michelle Rodriguez, Aubrey Plaza, and Marisa Tomei are all examples of people with olive skin and dark hair—the casting notice should have been more open, and that even if it’s going to specify Caucasian, it’s not okay to make Katniss blonde. Collins’ “districts” are distinct culturally and, yes, phenotypically—the author chose to make her world diverse, and diversity is a rare commodity, particularly in media aimed at young adults.
Hollywood has a bad habit in adaptations of deciding that, unless a story is explicitly about ethnicity and culture, then race is not important, and if race is not important, then everyone should just default to white. This is how a cartoon called Avatar: The Last Airbender, which took place in a fantasy world based on East Asian mythology and culture, became a poorly received 3D movie about white kids fighting evil brown people; how a book called Bringing Down the House about a group of Asian American MIT students scamming a casino became a movie called 21 about a group of white kids that scam a casino; how the television adaptation of Ursula K. Leguin’s The Wizard of Earthsea cast a white actor as a character originally written to appear Native American; how the main character of Starship Troopers could be Filipino in the novel and white in the film. Hollywood mistakes universality with whiteness, and disappoints again and again in satisfying the hunger in minorities to see themselves represented in media, and in contexts that do not depend on their ethnicities. Brown and yellow people, Hollywood seems to say, are not interesting to watch unless they’re doing brown and yellow things. Otherwise, they should just be blonde.
We’re sure Lawrence will be great in the role. This is, of course, not her fault, but when Caucasian brunettes can’t even trust Hollywood, what hope do the rest of us have?