racial representation in postracial fiction and the banality of ultra-violence

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I don’t see what all the HUNGER GAMES hubbub is about. I mean, Jennifer Lawrence has experience playing a person of color. That isn’t good enough for you people? (What do I mean, “you people”?)

Strike that, start again. I don’t get what all the HUNGER GAMES hubbub is about. The black characters in the book exist to be killed. From Page 1 it is clear they will be killed—that any black contestant will be killed, or any other contestant not from District 12—because our axioms are (a) this is for some reason a YA novel, (b) there are sequels, (c) there can be only one. Likewise, you can predict that no contestant will say “fuck,” despite the fact that they are in the most fucked-up situation ever invented (and yet this is a YA novel). People have made much, or at least a little, of Katniss’s nonwhite looks in the source material, as they did Aang’s before her, and decried the casting as improper. This is a little bit hilarious to me, not because hey racist casting is OK, but because in both cases people are trying to put their preferred racial stamp on a world that white people created to be postracial.* Or did you not notice that Sokka and Katara could pass for Fire Nation with less effort than Superman passing for a 98-pound nerd? You want to do hermeneutics on the characters’ descriptions in the book, or their largely non-obviously-ethnic rendering** in the cartoon, to conform to your vision of diversity (a vision I support, BTW, unless you are a white supremacist or from Camazotz), but you’re not a bit put off by the fact that 75 years of Panem, a horrific despotry that clearly stints at nothing to divide its populace against itself for social control, has somehow accidentally instilled the sort of racial egalitarianism that the American quarter-millennium has still failed to achieve? Not to go meta here, but you do realize that that is exactly what Collins and Di Martino and Konietzko*** want you to do—to impute all the good karmic freight of the concept of “diversity” to their work without actually confronting the issues surrounding that concept?

(I am guilty of this “dark brown”/”light brown” thing in my own fiction, by the way, and in a post-apocalyptic setting, no less. I have no excuses except that it’s far-future, and that I haven’t figured out how to extrapolate the relevant issues rather than just importing them.)

And the other other thing (i.e. not the race thing) that no one seems fussed about is that it’s this book, in which children brutally murder other children, that has taken the YA (YA!) world, and now Hollywood, by storm. I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, I love me some Knights Who Say “Fuck”, and I was reading stuff that was at least nearly as messed up as THE HUNGER GAMES by seventh grade or so. I remember someone grabbing the book I was reading before a seventh- or eighth-grade history class just to see what was in it, and getting grossed out when they read about someone’s savaged arm being covered in blood up to the elbow (I think it was one of the MEMORY, SORROW, & THORN books, but I’m not quite sure, it definitely could have been a Dragonlance book). And I definitely got shit for reading the then-new Xanth novel, THE COLOR OF HER PANTIES — look, I was not the most self-aware kid, all right? My point is that I’m not opposed to violence in literature, or to kids reading what they’re ready for, or even not quite ready for. What I’m opposed to is sanctifying a “genre” for kids by policing it for swears and sex but leaving in the ultra-violence. By all means, let your kids read THE HUNGER GAMES; but when they’re done, don’t get shocked if you find them watching a bit of the old Dothraki slap-and-tickle on GAME OF THRONES. Hey, at least there’s love in that, eventually. (I haven’t seen the HUNGER GAMES movie, so I can’t compare it to the book, but a friend of mine has an interesting argument claiming that the movie has become what the book criticizes. I’m not sure the book doesn’t fall prey to its own critique as well, but I can’t say I read it all that carefully.)

But it is not fair to suggest that this casting business and the Internet response to it is not important. I understand why people think it is important, even if other issues take precedence in my mind. So here is what I do understand about all the HUNGER GAMES hubbub: I do understand that these Internet afterbirths who can’t read English have only provided grist for further racism in Hollywood casting. There is now, in black and white, obligingly aggregated by the outraged, all the evidence that a Hollywood casting director needs to say “We have to cast white actors because business demands it.”

Which, to those of us who revile that sort of sentiment, is a bit of a humiliation, isn’t it? That they were, even a little bit, right—that we were, even a little bit, just as base and mean as their equations said we were? Because if they weren’t right, if their equations are as wrong as they’ve ever been, then why is anyone surprised that the Twitterverse can’t mourn a “n*****”?

* AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER is one of my absolute favorite TV shows of all time, and I dump on no one for liking it. But people seem to get exercised over much subtler political stuff than this. Continue reading.

** I get that the various tribes are meant to evoke various nonwhite cultures, and that anime has traditions of rendering Asian people in ways that non-initiates, especially white ones, read as ambiguously ethnic or actually white. Two things. One: AVATAR: TLA is American. It is not anime, or at least it is coming from a very different place than anime. I have learned that AVATAR’s creators were quite insistent about the non-whiteness of the characters, the authenticity of the Chinese writing, &c. Anime, of course, is Japanese. Two: No, I am not so stupid as to be unaware that Water Tribesmen evoke Inuit and Air Nomads evoke Tibetans, but I also know that Inuit are not tall and skinny with blue eyes, nor are Tibetans tall and fair. Nor do the Inuit have traditions of Chinese martial arts, and if the Tibetans do it’s not by choice.

To be clear, this isn’t a defense of TLA’s casting practices, which are obviously bullshit, and still less of the Internet morons who think it’s not sad when black people die. What I’m resistant to/curious about is people’s preoccupation with racial representation in these works at the apparent expense of realizing that race there doesn’t mean what it means here—that not only are the races not the same (a less important and more widely noticed point), but the fictional worlds that host them have been constructed to minimize the importance of race. Continue reading.

*** There’s diversity for you—an Irishman, an Italian and a Pole walk into a bar… Continue reading.

**** To be fair, Suki and Sokka seem destined for one another as well, and there are plenty of girl Water Tribesmen. Continue reading. 

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About pulchrifex

Postdoctoral researcher in cognitive neuroscience.

One Response to racial representation in postracial fiction and the banality of ultra-violence

  1. johnnycoconut says:

    Good points, even though I’ve never seen those productions and so don’t know exactly what this post is about.