Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
On March 17th, Lionsgate Entertainment confirmed that the production of The Hunger Games (2012) has cast Academy Award nominated actress Jennifer Lawrence (Winter’s Bone) in the lead role of Katniss Everdeen.
In an official press release from the production, The Hunger Games creator author Suzanne Collins and film adaptation director Gary Ross praise Lawrence:
“Jennifer’s just an incredible actress. So powerful, vulnerable, beautiful, unforgiving and brave,” Collins said. “I never thought we’d find somebody this perfect for the role. And I can’t wait for everyone to see her play it.”
“I’m so excited work with Jen and see her bring this character to life,” added Ross. “Katniss requires a young actress with strength, depth, complexity, tenderness, and power. There are very few people alive who can bring that to a role. Jen brings it in spades. She’s going to be an amazing Katniss.”
Earlier this month, several fans and media outlets expressed concerns that a casting call for a character described as having “dark hair” and “olive skin” only requested Caucasian actors to audition, even though non-Caucasian actors and multiethnic actors also possess Katniss’s physical characteristics. Given The Hunger Games stories takes place hundreds of years into the future, many fans felt Katniss was almost definitely of mixed ethnicity–making her one of very few protagonists in young adult fiction who would be considered biracial or multi-ethnic by “real world” standards.
On March 17th, Entertainment Weekly interviewed director Gary Ross about the casting, asking him point blank whether he and Collins discussed the implications of casting a blonde, Caucasian girl in the role of Katniss.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: In the books, Katniss is described as being olive-skinned, dark-haired, possibly biracial. Did you discuss with Suzanne the implications of casting a blonde, caucasian girl?
GARY ROSS: Suzanne and I talked about that as well. There are certain things that are very clear in the book. Rue is African-American. Thresh is African-American. Suzanne had no issues with Jen playing the role. And she thought there was a tremendous amount of flexibility. It wasn’t doctrine to her. Jen will have dark hair in the role, but that’s something movies can easily achieve. [Laughs] I promise all the avid fans of The Hunger Games that we can easily deal with Jennifer’s hair color.
In the interview, Ross redirects fans concerns about racial discrimination as something easily resolved by a bottle of hair dye. At the same time, Ross also states in the interview that Collins felt there was a tremendous amount of “flexibility” casting Katniss. Unfortunately, that “flexibility” was not extended to non-white actors in the casting breakdown distributed by the production.
A Moveline.com editorial characterized Ross’s response as “slightly unsatisfying.”
Below are some of our thoughts on current discussions circulating around this controversial casting decision. We hope the following information will help fans thoughtfully debate the casting choices made by the production.
Katniss as an Appalachian heroine
We believe it’s notable that an actress from Louisville, Kentucky was cast to play a character from Appalachia, particularly considering the negative stereotypes and stigmas that have surrounded that region of the United States. Katniss in The Hunger Games remains one of very few young adult novel protagonists who are from Appalachia and speaks with an Appalachian accent. [Click here for a list of books set in Appalachia.] Whether or not the character will speak with an Appalachian accent in the film is unknown. (We hope so!)
Positive representation of this underrepresented region of the United States is very important. However, we also want to stress that despite prevailing stereotypes that the Appalachia is only comprised of lower income white Americans, the Appalachia is diverse and many different cultural groups have influenced Appalachian culture. For example, the earliest settlers of Appalachia were ancestors to the Cherokee and Iroquois nations; several different Native American tribes would live in the Appalchian region for thousands of years before their forced removal by President Andrew Jackson–The Trail of Tears that resulted in the deaths of thousands of people. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians resisted removal and still live in Appalachia today. Generations of African Americans have worked in the coal mines, directly inspiring and influencing bluegrass and folk music. Appalachian clog dancing was inspired by a blend of traditional Scotch-Irish, Native American, and African American dances. A group of “tri-racial” people known (sometimes pejoratively) as the Melungeons are unique to the Appalachia region. They are believed to be of mixed European, African, and Native American descent, have dark hair and olive skin, and have historically faced discrimination.
When considering the ancestry of the (albeit fictional) District 12, it’s important to remember that Appalachia, like the rest of the United States, has been historically diverse and continues to diversify in the 21st century.
“Many Caucasian people have olive skin.”
We are seeing this comment being made by people who defend the casting call, which only requested Caucasian actors. While it is true that Caucasians can be described as having an olive skin tone (for example, it is a commonly used descriptor for people of Greek and Mediterranean descent), olive skin tone is also used to describe many people of color. (Recently, a House Republican from the Kansas State Legislature was criticized for characterizing a college student with “olive complexion” as an undocumented immigrant.)
It is not possible to conclude the “real-world” ethnicity of characters like Katniss, Haymitch, and Gale in The Hunger Games simply based on the “olive skin” descriptor in the books. Limiting casting calls to Caucasian actors–particularly when, in Hollywood the word Caucasian is used interchangeably with “white”–prevents talented actors of color from gaining access to auditions.
The casting office proceeded under the assumption that Katniss “should be Caucasian.” This preferential casting language closed off opportunities for actors of color, and reduced possibilities for Katniss to be depicted as multiethnic.
Metaphors and Messages
Aliya, a Guyanese blogger and law student from Toronto, Canada, wrote a compelling essay on why she feels Katniss Everdeen is a Woman of Color. She argues how Katniss is otherized in the text, how Suzanne Collins’ influences included people of color, and how contexts change in the story with different readings of the ethnicity of the protagonist. It’s an interesting perspective and worth a read.
“If Collins intended this metaphor to Third World struggles and wars, and Katniss is a woman of color – then I love this trilogy, because it is the kind of book that would allow women and YA of color (olive or otherwise) to envision their struggles differently. They could see themselves as heroes, as agents for change, as people who can resist instead of merely struggling to exist…
If Collins intended this metaphor, and Katniss is a white girl with skin somewhat darker than her mother, then I hate this book: because then Collins is deliberately appropriating the struggles of millions and placing white protagonists in places where people of color should be (and in reality, are).
Why would the latter possibility upset me enough to hate the books? Because it disallows compassion and empathy. Instead of Northern readers seeing themselves as in the position of the Capitol, they see themselves as the oppressed, hungry girl from District 12 striving against whatever form their oppressions individually take. This would be a tragedy. Additionally, as a woman who grew up in a third world country, this is offensive: it feels like media from a culture that contributes to oppression throughout the world is re-writing a history to feed to children that writes me (and people who look like me) right out of it. The potential for using media and fiction to draw analogies to real life and potentially garner support for real, living people was lost…. In our eagerness to “be” Katniss, are audiences going to forget the Katnisses that actually exist – that actual hunger, and rebel?”
Because the lead male character, Peeta Mellark, is described as having blonde hair and blue eyes in the novels, this means that the two main characters and heroes in the film will most likely both be played by white actors. Ostensibly, Katniss’s mother and sister will also be cast with light hair and blue eyes as described in the books. Lastly, because the production must cast someone who resembles Katniss to play Gale Hawthorne (in the story, many people believe the two are cousins,) the production must find someone who physically resembles Lawrence in appearance. This means that in the film, the characters closest to the main character will likely all be depicted with white actors.
In the interview, director Gary Ross indicates that the supporting characters of Rue and Thresh will be African American. Beyond these two roles, there are several characters in the novel whose ethnicities are not clearly delineated (Cinna, Haymitch, etc.) Will actors of color be actively recruited and given equal consideration for these roles? Will actors of color be represented or tokenized?
We do not deny that Lawrence is a talented actress–she was clearly favored by the director and author. We do believe the casting breakdown was a barrier to non-white actors. It was unfair that non-white actors with olive skin and dark hair were not recruited in the same way, influencing whether or not they had the same opportunities to audition as white actors had. We hope the production will become more open to recruiting and casting actors of color in their ongoing casting process.