Whitewashing Katniss Everdeen: One Woman Project Lecture
This is the transcript of a talk I gave earlier in the year as a guest speaker for the One Woman Project lecture. It is an expanded version of a piece I wrote late last year on racism and the Hunger Games. The One Woman Project is an amazing opportunity - if you live in Brisbane, I encourage you to join now for its second semester.
Disclaimer: I would just like to acknowledge that I am a woman who is white. If at any time what I’ve written reeks of ignorance due to my white privilege, please point it out to me. I’ll be happy to discuss it and figure out where I’ve gone wrong. It is worth noting that a few of my sources are written by people of colour, and ultimately I’m just hoping to give their words some more space as an ally.
To begin: you know something’s wrong when a white woman realises something is racist.
The Hunger Games series and film franchise have been blockbuster, to say the least. The protagonist Katniss Everdeen has been welcomed with open arms by feminist critics and bookworms alike for being quite the opposite of the equally popular modern heroine, Bella Swan from Twilight: a gutsy girl fighting to get out of an oligarchical, media-obsessed hell that is Suzanne Collins’ post-American world ‘Panem’. As the first novel The Hunger Games was announced to be turned into a film two years ago, the casting of Katniss was a hot topic among fans and Hollywood types. The bankability of the Hunger Games fandom (as assured by previous book-to-film franchises Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings and the Twilight Saga) made the casting even more so.
So when Jennifer Lawrence, a white up-and-coming actress, was announced to play the fiercely protective Katniss, why did a number of fans not cheer? Lawrence is a formidable actress who had been recently nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress at the time of her casting. But formidability wasn’t - and still isn’t - the issue. It’s ethnicity.
Katniss Everdeen, along with characters who come from the ‘Seam’ section of her District, are described in the series as having dark skin colour, eyes and hair. Katniss, who resembles her deceased father, contrasts herself against her mother and sister, who favour the townspeople’s colouring as fair: blonde with blue eyes, just like Peeta Mellark.
Many readers like myself read Katniss, her friend Gale Hawthorne and fellow Seam people as having an ‘olive’ skin tone. Collins has stated that her story world is “…a multi-racial culture…I describe them as having dark hair, grey eyes, and sort of olive skin.”
I, like many others, presumed Katniss to look like someone who is biracial; of Native American or even Italian descent.
But apparently using a Native American actress to play Katniss wasn’t going to fly in the movie-making business. Reactions to ethnicity and race to the actors playing Rue and Thresh, both African American actors with dark skin, shows just how whitewashed some people’s brains are.
Some people will say that the backlash against actors who played Rue and Thresh shows that it was a good decision to have Katniss be white. This backlash was a storm of tweets sent by white, teenage fans of the books who never read these characters as black, even though they were described as such in the books. Maybe people wouldn’t have watched the movie, otherwise, if Katniss hadn’t been white. These stupid people are probably the white hipsters who claim “they don’t see colour”, or the annoying racist people who “don’t need those people in my favourite movies.”
You may wonder whether this criticism of race in a dystopian young adult adaptation is justified.Hunger Games passes the Bechdel test. Jennifer Lawrence is known for her refreshing stance on body image and expectations in Hollywood. Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins has said that the characters of Katniss and Gale “were not particularly intended to be biracial”, and that the casting of Lawrence and Hemsworth was due to the qualities they portrayed.
Katniss being portrayed by a Native American actress would not stop white people such as myself from empathising, understanding and loving her as a film character. While reading the series, Katniss’s skin colour, which is different to my white skin colour, didn’t stop me identifying with her. Like all readers, I empathised and saw myself in Katniss’ mannerisms and reactions to the chaos around her during the Games and the future rebellion. These are presumably the qualities that director Gary Ross and Suzanne Collins saw in Jennifer Lawrence. The question is: why didn’t they search for these qualities in a Native American actress? Would anyone like to have a guess?
This question might seem a little like affirmative action on the outset. But if the filmmakers wanted to show a true, progressive film adaptation of Katniss Everdeen, why wouldn’t they search for someone who would fit in a “multi-racial” world? Native American people and their skin colour come in all shades. Possibly, this isn’t even a question of whether an actresses’ skin was dark enough, or olive enough; it’s the fact that a person of colour, a person with a biracial background, was not sought to be cast. The casting call specifically asked for “Caucasian” actresses to audition. Here are some photos of actresses who auditioned for the part of Katniss:
From left to right: Emma Roberts, Hailee Steinfeld, Kaya Scodelario, Emily Browning, Chloe Moretz and Lyndsy Fonseca.
And to contrast, here are some Native American and biracial actresses who were (and still are) wanted by fans to play Katniss.
From left to right: Hafsia Herzi, Malese Jow, Julia Jones, Mandeep Dhillon and Q’orianka Kilcher.
Note their diversity in skin colour. I should note that Julia Jones is of Choctaw, Chickasaw descent as well as African American descent, as well as Malese Jow, who is part Cherokee. Q’orianka is descended from a group of Peruvian Indigenous peoples. All of the auditioned actresses are of British or Western European descent, except for Hailee Steinfield, who is of Filipino, Jewish and African American descent.
This film franchise lost a wonderful chance to show the diversity of the American nation and to have their nation’s first people recognised as one who could produce an actress worthy of playing the inspiring Katniss Everdeen. There would have been media attention (some of it racist and ignorant, yes) that the producers could have totally capitalised on to make a point that people of colour in Hollywood are just as good as the white blonde girl who’ll never hear the words, “oh, you’re too [insert race] for the part.”
Further, the filmmakers could have had their Katniss who ‘presented’ as white at face value while staying true to the multiracial world and non-white description of Collins’ protagonist if they truly were so intent on having a ‘white’ person to carry this movie. It could have been a chance to have a biracial actress show the world that a person of colour doesn’t always look like a person from our history textbooks.
This type of diverse, inclusive, ground-breaking casting could have given a biracial actress a chance to give voice to the dismissal and erasure of cultural identity in the media in the bloody battle to be as white as President Snow. Katniss Everdeen as a new-age American heroine descended from the country’s first people surely would have marked a change for how women of colour, and in particular Native American women, are portrayed in film.
Scholar M. E. Marubbio cites that there are two prevailing stereotypes of Native American women in film: a squaw whose sexuality results in children for which she cannot provide, and a sexualised maiden who, like the first people of the United States, must be conquered and beaten and killed. Having a self-sacrificing young woman who fights for her family, her friends and her people and for whom sexual acts is not a high priority or apparent need would surely be breaking the mold.
Rightly, people of colour and white allies have spoken out about whitewashing Katniss Everdeen. If you type in “katniss recast” or “dream cast” into google, tens of sites and tumblrs pop up with fans who have found their dream Katniss in a biracial actress. If you go to art website deviantart, images of a non-white Katniss are some of the most beautiful and popular.
Imagine being a woman of colour. Imagine that you have to trawl through lists of your friends favourite films, only to find that women who look like you or sound like you or are from where you live are in less than 1/4 of films. Women of colour in films are dismissed. Silenced. Erased. Whitewashed for easier consumption. Watching TV has been shown to actually lower self-esteem of girls of colour because they can’t find a familiar face on the screen.
V. Arrow, a Hunger Games fandom author who I interviewed on the topic of whitewashing last year, sums up the consequences of continuing the trend of white heroines perfectly. “The pinpoint sameness of actresses and the way their characters are marketed sets up and consistently perpetuates the cultural narrative that only this one type of woman is valid, lovable, and heroic. That to have been born one type of person is the only way to create change or be the leader of your own story or the leader of anyone, anything. Making Katniss white plays into — essentially — the Capitol’s aim with The Hunger Games: showing that only the Capitol itself, and those who fit into its ideal, can win.”
To conclude: The Hunger Games is a story that, in the end, doesn’t shy away from the horrors and reality of war, politics, and trauma and the way people are used by governments and the people they trust as a means to an entertainment-fueled ends. It is a story which I perceive to be, at the heart, to be about a young woman’s struggle to keep herself and her family alive amidst a world full of people who will turn a blind eye to her suffering for a look at a shiny new hairdo.
Frankly, it is sad that a story with so much truth in it has been whitewashed and bleached clear of any stains of reality. We can only hope through voicing these opinions until someone listens that in future film adaptations, filmmakers will learn that you don’t need a dress that catches on fire to wow your sponsors and executive producers. A woman is not reaped from a lottery or casted in a movie and keeps her racial identity and its consequences sealed in a vacuum. The tributes we put up on our stage represent districts of women who deserve their stories to be heard. Thank you.
by Emma Di Bernardo
***Extra - handout given on the night****
A Whitewashed Media
- In 2011, only 11% of protagonists in films were female.
- Less than 1/4 of films throughout history have had lead actresses who are women of colour.
- University of Southern California scholars found that 11.6% of characters in films and TVs from 2007-2010 were of African American descent and 7.0% were of Asian descent.
- 1.9% of characters were of Hispanic descent - despite over 20% of film tickets being purchased by Hispanic people.
- Hispanic women have been found to be the demographic most likely to be shown nude or in sexy attire.
- What stereotypes of Native American women have you seen in films - or have you seen any films cast with Native American women?
- Do you believe it is easier for white audiences to watch actors of colour in lead roles if the film has a historical setting? Some films as food for thought are Disney’s Pocahontas, 12 Years A Slave, The Colour Purple, Rabbit Proof Fence, The Help.
- Why do you think African American characters kept their ethnicity in The Hunger Games film adaptation but not other multi-ethnical characters?
- Discuss the pros and cons of a young adult film adaptation specifically using the phrase “biracial women” in its casting call.
Women of Colour in Film
Issues of Ethnicity in The Hunger Games Films
Killing the Indian Maiden: Images of Native American Women in Film By M. Elise Marubbio