Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

The Hunger Games Brings Out All the Bigots (and Many Are Teens)!

Posted by Dhonielle Clayton On March - 27 - 2012

 The Hunger Games Brings Out All the Bigots (and Many Are Teens)!The Hunger Games made a dynamic showing this past weekend and most fans seem to be generally pleased with the adaptation of the book to the big screen. They’ve praised the director and those involved with the film for its adherence to many pivotal elements of the book. But in the midst of excitement and great press for YA books, a nasty cloud looms.

A friend sent me an article from Jezebel about all of the racist posts and tweets about the characters of Rue and Thresh from District 11 (Read about these idiot racists more here). The tweets aren’t for the faint of heart and sound like they are snippets taken from some backwoods, Jim Crow bar before a Klan rally. I am horrified and disgusted and, frankly, PISSED!

These particular fans claim that neither Rue nor Thresh were written as black characters. They hated the movie because of it. They don’t believe black actors and actresses should have these dynamic, pivotal, and heart-breaking roles (especially Rue). Maybe they can use this argument with the character of Cinna, who isn’t completely racialized by Collins. But if these fans paid attention to Suzanne Collins’ text, they would discover that she did, indeed, write them as black characters. She was even quoted as saying that Rue and Thresh were African-American.

But I have to admit that even some of my like-minded, YA-savvy friends emailed me after the casting for The Hunger Games came out and said, “Was Rue really BLACK?” And then I had to re-think the plot and characters and remember this fact. I, myself, had forgotten. This is a huge problem that I will return to.

In my copy of the book, Rue is first mentioned when Katniss is watching recaps of The Reapings in other Districts. Rue is described as, “… a twelve-year-old girl from District 11. She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she’s very like Prim in size and demeanor” (45). And the other tribute is described as “the boy from District 11, Thresh, has the same dark skin as Rue, but the resemblance stops there. He’s one of the giants, probably six and a half feet tall …” (126).

Gale and Rue from THE HUNGER GAMES movie The Hunger Games Brings Out All the Bigots (and Many Are Teens)!Perhaps this line is missing from the racists’ books. Perhaps I am wrong and can’t read very well. Perhaps the millions of fans who’ve come to defense of Rue and Thresh and the actor and actress who play them are somehow delusional.

I was so happy that Suzanne Collins created characters that looked like me with hair just like mine. I was so happy that Suzanne Collins populated her world with all types of human beings so that each teen reader could find their “future” self on the page. She could’ve made them all-white and no one would’ve blinked.

But I can’t help thinking: Did Suzanne Collins drop the ball with her minority characters by not reminding readers that they were minorities or non-white?

Should writers remind readers of what characters look like, even if it’s not pertinent to the narrative?

Crazy questions, right?

Rue doesn’t really come back “on-stage” in the narrative until page 184, when she saves Katniss while she’s in the tree by pointing the the nasty wasp nest. She isn’t described physically anymore for the entire book. We are supposed to remember the sweet, little brown girl who was mentioned as looking similar to Prim during The Reaping. We are supposed to remember that she is brown. Even when Rue chomps on leaves to make a paste for Katniss’s knee and they help each other survive for a little while, there isn’t another mention of her color. Not even when she died.

Did Suzanne Collins stumble?

Should she have continued to remind us through slight-of-hand ways that Rue was a little brown kid? Would these reminders have kept Rue as an “outsider”?

Did Katniss’ relationship with Rue progress as most human relationships do — beyond race?

Did we forget Rue was brown because Katniss forgot and it became irrelevant?

Did Rue’s race become obsolete as they were both trying to survive?

 The Hunger Games Brings Out All the Bigots (and Many Are Teens)!After subjecting myself to reading through the racist tweets and vile rhetoric lodged at the two characters, I found myself wondering more deeply why do “we” (people living in a Eurocentric culture) assume that if a character is not described in detail and/or racialized as an “other” that he or she is white? Last year, Teen Writers Bloc surveyed a smorgasbord of black writers about this very question. But I still can’t figure it out.

I have no answers.

I just know that I don’t want anyone to forget the color of my characters. I don’t want their color to be overlooked. I just want their particular color to not be held against them.

As a writer, this whole uproar scares me about the potential of non-white YA characters to soar on the big screen or on the page in a big, splashy way. Can brown and yellow and red and black kids go to outer space or through the wardrobe or to a magical school or any other cool place and bring in money to the box office like The Hunger Games and Harry Potter? Or move books off the shelves in such quantities?

Do my characters stand a chance? Or will there always be racial epitaphs lodged at them?

What do you think? Did Suzanne Collins drop the ball? Should she address the controversy?

Get educated on the characters of the Hunger Games. Check out this article!

Photo Credit: Lionsgate

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7 Responses to “The Hunger Games Brings Out All the Bigots (and Many Are Teens)!”

  1. Interesting questions. It's sad to think that authors might have to continually repeat a character's skin tone so readers remember they're a minority. I don't want to have to do that in my books…but it's something to consider I suppose.

  2. Jess Verdi says:

    Great post, Dhonielle! Thank you!

    I saw the Jezebel article as well yesterday and was so outraged that I simultaneously wanted to share it with everyone I know and click the little red X to get it off my computer screen as soon as humanly possible. I chose the latter. I just couldn't bare to think about this level of blatant racism a second more.

    Here's my take on this whole issue: When I first read The Hunger Games, I didn't realize Rue was black, either. But I don't think that's the fault of Suzanne Collins — I think it's because I was so RIVETED by the story I was reading that I tended to gloss over descriptions just so I could find out what was going to happen next in the story. I didn't pay much attention to what ANY of the characters looked like — expect Peeta, of course. Because, well, I have a crush on him. But I actually think Collins handled her characters' descriptions perfectly — she described them in very specific ways, but didn't dwell on their races. I think she probably felt it would be okay if a reader forgot (or never knew) a character was a particular race because this isn't a story about race. This is a story about many human travesties — but luckily racism isn't one of them.

    That being said, I have to comment on what these racist a-holes have been saying on Twitter. It's a BIG problem. Not because they don't have good reading comprehension or because they pictured a character a different way from how they were portrayed on screen, but because when they found out Rue and Thresh were black, they felt LESS SAD about their deaths. This is a problem that goes FAR beyond The Hunger Games or any story at all. Forget Panem — this is a problem that is deeply rooted in OUR world. These are not the tweets of crazy, rambling, mentally unstable headcases. (We already knew the internet is full of THEM.) No, these are the tweets of seemingly normal, educated, well-read people. The fact that it's THESE very people who are so open about not being sad that Rue dies since they've found out she's black is shocking. She is a beautiful, innocent, eleven year old girl. And she's MURDERED. What the hell does the color of her skin have to do with it? It's sad. It's heartbreaking. It's very, very troubling. Not for the character or Collins' book, but for the world at large.

    It's people like these with thoughts like these that make a future where children fight to the death in the name of entertainment not so far-fetched after all.

  3. Mary G. Thompson says:

    If I noticed that Rue was black while I was reading the book, that fact didn't make any impact on me, and it shouldn't, since it was all about a little girl who died, and race didn't really seem to matter apart from the circumstances in her district. I would hate to have the character's appearance repeated over and over again, so I think Suzanne Collins did it right. I'm surprised that you haven't commented on the fact that they made Katniss more white in the movie, whereas I think the book describes her as being somewhat darker in coloring than the actress. That actually bothers me enough that I still haven't seen the movie. I've heard that Jennifer Lawrence is really good, but she just doesn't look like Katniss to me.

  4. Mary Leaphart says:

    Dhonielle – I certainly hope (and personally believe quite strongly) that all the characters you develop will soar right alongside the best of them. I believe they will be able to go anywhere and do anything that you imagine for them. And I can only hope that the rest of the world will travel right along with them.

  5. Karen Strong says:

    I think that some readers usually just assume that characters are "white by default" so even though both Thresh and Rue were described, it was only briefly, and I think most people — specifically with Rue what they remember most that she reminded Katniss of Prim (although Suzanne Collins meant in her stature and demeanor).

    Of course, this isn't saying that these people were right in their protest — they were kinda "dense" to put their frustrations out on Twitter. It still disturbs me that they were so "offended" that Rue was black.

    As a writer who writes about characters who look like me (black), I can't let this ignorance deter me. When we write about our characters although they may be different races, it all comes down to empathy and the human condition.

    My hope that some of these teens who were outed maybe can think about the reasons they "Rue is Black" bothered them. Some of them have already, I can only hope for the rest of them.

    But keep writing Dhonielle. All readers need your story. :)

  6. Jon says:

    One of the articles I was cruising, or some interview I read, was about how the author felt good at sort of "slipping" in a line about the darkness of his/her character's skin color. I'm not sure that's exactly a cause for celebration, to have race slipped in some it's technically there but nobody notices.

  7. First off: Found this quite randomly and quite late in life.

    Second: I rant sometimes.

    As a writer of YA, this was a really interesting read. There is definitely a diversity problem in the genre – not just racial, but sexuality-wise, too – and I do think it’s one that needs addressing. If not in the books themselves, then at least on blogs (in the hopes that maybe, just maybe, it may spill over into the books at some point). That said, I don’t believe in adding for the sake of adding, and if Jon (above) is in fact correct, that she has added for the sake of just that, then I must admit I’m a bit bummed out about it. Admitted, I read the books quite a while back, but I seem to recall really liking Rue. Whilst the add-to-add hasn’t exactly detracted from the character, I still wish she would’ve kept quiet about it. Don’t know if that’s just me? Obviously don’t know how she phrased it, but there’s something ‘pat my shoulder’-y about voicing it.

    Diversity is an issue that initially came to my attention due to the lack of sexual diversity in YA novels (am following a gay writer on twitter. I’m sure he’s the one that first got me thinking about it). From there, reading blogs and what have you (I’m quite interested in the YA criticism), anything that google would find for me, really, the race issue was brought to my attention (unlike LGBTQs, I had diversity on this front). Another important one, and I think what makes them even more important is the intended demographic – young adults. Yes, these novels are read by x-upwards, too, but they are, technically, meant for the teens, aren’t they? And if ever there was a time where you’d maybe want someone to relate to, I’d say those years were it. Hence the importance of representation.

    I can’t imagine what it must be like to have to search so high and wide for someone who does that – represents ‘you’. I do wonder, though, if part of the problem is that the majority of those authors are, like myself, white, and straight whites at that. I don’t necessarily believe in the term ‘write what you know’, it *is* fiction after all, but I do believe some things must be dealt with in a timelier manner than others. To me, race and sexuality are amongst them, and I admit that I am somewhat scared of both. Mostly because you will want to do them justice – do those people, who may *need* that character just then, justice – and there’s not really a way to know whether or not you’ve done that (not a 100% anyway. I suppose a good place to start would be to let someone who’s actually, say, gay read it and allow them to smack you over the head with something heavy if you’ve done too poorly a job). Another thing that’s scary, too, is questions like the ones you’ve voiced above – the cursive ones. Because I carry those kinds of questions with me as soon as someone who isn’t a straight, white person enters my story. Even if they’re just minor ones. It’s undoubtedly a mix of not wanting to step on anyone’s toes by getting it *completely* wrong and knowing that you really, really *shouldn’t* get it wrong because these are characters that need to kick ass, regardless of hero or villain status, regardless of their being a major or minor character, because there aren’t many *of* them. Which, as far as I’m concerned, brings us back to the issue of importance. No, no character should be a shit character – in an ideal world, all characters in all novels would be eligible for the honour of ‘most beautifully written character ever’, but because these characters are outside of my (is it alright if I say) comfort zone (?), I feel the pressure much more when it comes to them. And more so when it comes to race (just because some part of me believes that, surely, at the end of the day, love is love no matter which genders are involved).

    Do I think every writer out there has this in mind when they write? Probably not. Do I think some do? Probably, yes. Do I think some might go the easy route and go all white because it saves them some worries and some research? I wouldn’t be surprised. Do I think that’s cool? Not necessarily, no. And I’m really happy that diversity has found it’s way into my novel (and organically at that), even if I still suffer from Straight-White-Female-Main-Character Syndrome :>

    (Poster truly hopes she didn’t phrase something too badly. She is foreign and will call English as a Second Language if anyone says anything <3)

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