Like almost everyone I know, I saw The Hunger Games on opening weekend. I sat in a packed theatre, sandwiched between my friends and an opinionated preteen girl who read a massive fantasy novel until the lights dimmed. She wasn’t the only one; it was the first time in a while that I saw so many young people avidly reading in a movie theatre, and I’ve been to many midnight showings of Harry Potter. From my limited observations, and from the film’s massive box office sales, it’s clear that the Hunger Games franchise has really resonated with many people, both young and old, who gravitated towards the strong female protagonist, interesting social commentary, and gripping action sequences of the story.
In the days following the film’s release, I was also one of many who saw the racist tweets compiled on sites like Buzzfeed and Tumblr. (The comments appeared to come mostly from young people, who expressed outrage and confusion over the casting of black actors in the roles of Cinna (Lenny Kravitz), Thresh (Dayo Okeniyi) and Rue (Amandla Stenberg). Some of the commenters accused the film’s producers of not “staying true” to the character descriptions in the novels, when in fact, Rue and Thresh are described as having “brown” skin and Cinna’s race is not described in any detail. Others confessed that they did not feel as “sad” about the death of Rue because she was black, with one tweeter adding “#ihatemyself.”
At first, I was shocked and angry to read these hateful and disturbing tweets, especially because I had spent a lot of time sniffling through Rue’s death scene when reading the books and watching the film. I was furious with the commenters for questioning their own feelings of loss and sadness when Rue died, purely based on the fact that they weren’t expecting her to look a certain way. But after reading through the comments a few times, and reading an exchange between the moderator of the Hunger Games Tweets Tumblr and one of the racist tweeters, I started to focus more on the theme of confusion present in many of the tweets in an attempt to make sense of the events.
According to Anna Holmes’s New Yorker article on the phenomenon, “the tweeters’ profile pictures suggests that most of the missives were written by people in their teens and early twenties.” The casually racist attitudes of these young people who did not expect to feel bad for the death of a black person, combined with the common theme of “surprise” and “confusion,” speaks to a number of interesting and disturbing trends in popular culture discourse.
The confusion and anger experienced by these Hunger Games viewers is evidence that too many cultural products (movies, TV shows, books, etc.) are segregated and/or whitewashed to the point that people are surprised to even see characters of different races interact in a positive way onscreen. Instead, we see white heroes and “foreign” villains, usually people of colour, who represent everything alien and dangerous to us. This is especially true for films aimed at younger audiences—Harry Potter, Twilight, and other franchises feature almost exclusively white casts in both the books and the films. A more controversial casting move was made when producing the 2010 film The Last Airbender, based on a television series that featured racially diverse characters and societies. The film version features white actors in the protagonist roles, in a move that many critics saw as whitewashing .
So, when the formula of white vs. non-white, or the elimination of people of colour from youth-oriented films altogether, is challenged to some extent, as it is in The Hunger Games, these reactions are not surprising. They illuminate the institutionalized racism that goes unchallenged in popular culture (and everyday life), as well as the fact that the young people in question have not yet learned to couch their racism using less explicit language often used by adults to describe the same kinds of feelings (ie. “that person wasn’t right for the role”).
In the past few weeks, as more has been written on this phenomenon, the blog Hunger Games Tweets has reported finding fewer of these tweets online. The blog’s moderator, a Toronto man known pseudonymously as “Adam” also published a response by one of the commenters, Alana Paul, who asked that her tweet, “Awkward moment when Rue is some black girl and not the little blonde innocent girl you picture,” be removed from the site. Adam wrote in response: “I needed to post it so that others who saw it and recognized the ugly reflections of themselves in those words would start to question their values and principles. The hope is that this will result in a positive change and shift in attitudes.”
I think (and hope) that it’s working, and that Paul’s realization of the impact of her actions is an indication of another trend among young people: gaining more critical insight into how they have been taught to see and understand each other. Perhaps holding young people accountable for their actions within the forum of social media is part of a wider process of media literacy and critical inquiry into popular culture.
The Hunger Games world imagined by Suzanne Collins is a chance for actors of a wide range of ethnic and racial backgrounds to participate in a global phenomenon based on the multi-ethnic makeup of the fictional world of Panem. And while the film is not without its own colour-based casting issues, it is possible that the swell of support for the movie’s black actors in the wake of these events may lead to some progress in widening the field for actors of colour in the next instalments of the series. Hollywood often takes much longer to act on such hopes, but perhaps by 2013, any comments featured on Hunger Games Tweets will have at least taken a turn for the positive.
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite is a Master’s student in the Ryerson-York Joint Programme in Communication and Culture. She also blogs about pop culture for Snap! magazine and spends a lot of time knitting.