With fandom in an uproar over the SPN big bang race wank, my roommate and I got into a discussion about race in Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games books. I have always been uncomfortable with the way race is treated in the books, and the SPN discussions have encouraged me to speak up. I'd post this to a community, but I don't really know any appropriate THG ones.
Here are my main points:
1. Diversity. I can think of only 3 named people of color in the books, even though Panem is built out of a country that is at least 35% POC. Now, given that the coasts of
2. Rue. Rue is the POC who gets the most page-time. She is smart and sweet and has a great personality, and when Katniss looks at her, she sees her little sister. But Rue is also the only person in the games, besides the love interest, that Katniss makes an emotional connection with. And then, of course, she dies. Ever heard of fridging?
Or how about Black Dude Dies First? As Liz Lemon says, “if the will says you need to spend the night in a haunted house you better hope everybody else there is black guys and sluts."
Rue is the only character who is introduced by Suzanne Collins with the express purpose of making a connection with Katniss and then dying. She serves no other role in the story, and her fate is a given. The rules of the Hunger Games are not bent in order to save her life, no. That’s a privilege only meant for the two white protagonists.
ETA: Rue's first physical description: "She has dark brown skin and eyes, but other than that, she's very like Prim in size and demeanor." (p. 45 THG)
3. Thresh. Thresh is your typical dehumanized black male. Enormous, scary, silent. He hides out of sight in a field of tall crops that everyone is too terrified to approach, as if some wild, beastly animal lives there. When he finally appears in a scene, he bashes in Clove’s head with a rock--a rock--after—oh, hell, let me just quote the whole damn passage to show how failtastic it is:
I let out a gasp, seeing him like that, towering over me, holding Clove like a rag doll. I remember him as big, but he seems more massive, more powerful than I even recall. If anything, he seems to have gained weight in the arena. He flips Clove around and flings her onto the ground.
When he shouts, I jump, never having heard him speak above a mutter. “What’d you do to that little girl? You kill her?... You cut her up like you were going to cut up this girl here?”
After Thresh kills Clove and turns to Katniss, she gives up and asks him to kill her quickly. It’s the only time we ever see Katniss give up. Because obviously there’s no use in fighting such a monstrous brute.
Some other choice dialogue from Thresh?
”Just this one time, I let you go. For the little girl…. You better run now, Fire Girl.”
There is so much wrong here I don’t even know where to begin. The horribly stereotyped image of the enormous black man “towering” over the girls, holding the delicate white girl up in the air “like a rag doll.” The fact that Katniss was surprised he could talk. The fact that, for some reason, he is the only character in the books who doesn’t speak in grammatically correct sentences. The way he, alone, has gotten healthier in the savage environment of the hunger games. And it’s even weird that he gets so up-in-arms about Rue’s death, as if he doesn’t understand that this is the hunger games and everyone dies.
ETA: Thresh's first physical description: "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 and built like an ox....Instead he's been very solitary, speaking to no one, showing little interest in training. Even so, he scored a ten and it's not hard to imagine he impressed the Gamemakers. He ignores Caesar's attempts at banter and answers with a yes or no or just remains silent." (p. 126, THG) (I included more than his physical description because it's relevant to this discussion.)
4. Chaff. Chaff is the only POC introduced in Catching Fire. We got like 30 new characters, and only one of them is brown. And yes, in case you don’t remember, Chaff dies. Like Thresh, he dies off-screen.
Chaff is presented as Haymitch’s best friend among the victors. But does Haymitch set up an alliance between Chaff and Katniss? Nope. Haymitch gets the street cred of having a black friend without any of the bother of us actually having to read about him.
Chaff’s only interaction with Katniss, in fact, is sexually violating her.
Chaff throws his good arm around me and gives me a big kiss right on the mouth.
Other victors mess with Katniss: Johanna strips naked in front of her and Finnick flirts with her outrageously. But the only black character in the book is the one who physically molests her.
ETA: Chaff's first physical description: "He's dark skinned, about six feet tall, and one of his arms ends in a stump because he lost his hand in the Games he won thirty years ago." (CF, p. 213)
As my roommate put it, Collins really just ran through a list of black stereotypes. Sympathetic sidekick character who dies to play on our emotions? Check. Black man as violent, subhuman, and terrifying? Check. Black man as sexual aggressor? Check.
I love The Hunger Games. Intensely. But then, I’m used to tolerating crap like this, due to my love for classic movies and Victorian literature.
That said, this is contemporary writing from a woman who has lived or does live in NYC, so it pisses me off. She should know better.