I’m sure by now many of you have already heard about the Tumblr page “Hunger Games Tweets.” It’s a collection of tweets by people griping about the casting of a character named Rue. You see, the film cast 13-year old actress Amandla Stenberg (see above). The tweeters targeted by the Tumblr page bemoaned the fact that the film version of Rue just had to be black. Which is confusing, because in the book she is black, in no uncertain terms. She’s described as having “dark brown skin and eyes,” and later, when the reader is introduced to another character named Thresh, we’re told that he “has the same dark skin as Rue.”
Plenty of whatever the online equivalent of ink is has been spent on this story — what it says about race in America, connecting it to Trayvon Martin’s tragic murder, etc. — but I want to focus a little bit more on what the Tumblr creator’s intent was. His blog has said, essentially, that the main problem is not poor reading comprehension. Rather, it’s that readers naturally assume that Rue, a portrait of doe-eyed innocence, must have pale white skin.
For the sake of this column, we’re going to ignore the insane, aggressively racist tweets. That bigoted nonsense isn’t worth anyone’s time. The more interesting ones are subtler. A number of the tweets say that Rue “should have” looked like some other literary characters, like Harry Potter’s Luna Lovegood or The Lovely Bones’ Susie Salmon. Notice the theme? Characters who represent sweetness, naiveté, and innocence (or innocent victimhood) are automatically assigned long blonde hair, big blue eyes, and very pale skin.
If you deconstruct this story even further, it asks interesting questions about how we read and how we imagine. When we’re not prompted with details, how do we fill in the blanks? If a story just begins in media res, with no description of the narrator, what do you assume he or she looks like? Do you picture yourself? Do you picture an “average” person? What does “average” mean? Is it, as this Destructoid article pointed out while criticizing modern video games, a middle-aged white man with brown hair and stubble? Or do just keep you mind blank about the specifics until some details can paint a fuller picture?
I’m not suggesting that defaulting to a white male protagonist is racist and sexist. But I do think it’s worth reflecting upon where our mental casting assumptions come from. It’s the classic chicken-or-the-egg question. Are fictional characters assigned certain racial archetypes because that’s what the audience assumes, or does the audience assume certain racial archetypes because that’s what their fictional characters have always looked like?