Katniss: More Than Just Skin Deep

Finally weighing-in on the whole Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss thing and while really intelligent folks are debating the casting pros and cons (including literary smart ladies that I respect and admire like Malinda Lo and Sarah "JJ" Jones), I will admit my bias by saying what I first thought upon seeing a photo of the actress chosen to play the Hunger Games MC, all I could think was:

"Isn't she a bit...white?"

The obvious reference was that she was pale and blond. Katniss was described as having dark hair, olive skin and gray eyes. Now all of these things can be changed with contacts, hair dye/wigs and a lot of makeup or digital coloration, but the image that first popped to mind when I was reading Suzanne Collins' description was more like the famous "Afghan Girl" from National Geographic:

Incredibly piercing photo by Steve McCurry

Now if this girl was staring at me while reading a drawn bow in my direction, my last thought would have been: "That's it, I'm dead." And I don't care how hold she was, she would have made me believe she could lead a revolution simply by giving a look of determination with those eyes. But the underlying key for me of this image isn't that she was dark-skinned, dark-haired and gray-eyed, but that she was dirty, tired, and being recorded by a privileged outsider so unlike herself.

THAT is Katniss.

My real want for a match for Katniss is less about race and more about class. (Not something I worry about in terms of an actress chosen, although I'm not amused that casting was closed to actresses of color, but has more to do with the interpretive eye behind the camera. I'm looking at you, Gary Ross.) In America, race and class are often tied together by almost invisible strings, in most of the rest of the world, that's not the case. It is class and caste that determine who lives and dies with access to things like food, education, medicine and human rights far moreso than the color of the skin; regionalism, language, and less tangible divides cut between the Haves and the Have Nots no matter how small a country or how large a nation. But we notice race. It's easy to spot and point to and say "There! That's the reason for unfairness!" but in the dystopian future of The Hunger Games, I don't think it's race that has anything at all to do with it. These were the scrapings of humanity left over from the folly of almost total annihilation and it was merely where you lived vis-a-vis the Capitol that segregated one person from another. Railing against the system caused the leveling of District 13 and the establishment of the gruesome Hunger Games. It wasn't based on hair color, eye color, genetics or beliefs, it was all about where you were born: in the Capitol or in a District. Period.

And it's not easy to write about class or caste, so I give Suzanne Collins real credit; it's a minefield of potential misreadings and implied "-isms" that bother people with (let's call it) "Westerner's Guilt" to live off almost unconsciously off of the unfair labor of others. I think Paolo Bacigalupi did a great job of it in SHIP BREAKER and Cory Doctorow collapsed the real and surreal economic divides in FOR THE WIN. I messed with it a little myself, not realizing until people remarked on it that my Mexican-American main character was not a recent immigrant or lived in a "lower/working class" family; she was a third-generation American living in an upper-middle-class suburb of Illinois. She had her own bathroom suite, a bath pillow, her own credit card, and a pile of college applications, and evidently that made her an unusual depiction of a latina teen. (My first thought was, "Really?" Because I was a third-generation American from an upper-middle-class suburb of Illinois and knew these girls myself.) But it was an invisible barrier that I'd crossed without realizing because I have the biased advantage of not realizing that there was a barrier to be crossed. And therein lies the difference.

So for me the role of Katniss is less about the genetic makeup of the skin and more a question of perspective: will the young woman playing Katniss be able to gaze out from her layers of dirt and sweat and ground-in degradation of her District and inspire me to topple a corrupt system of government? Or is this more a willowy blond "Femme Nikita" type trope as is seemingly the case with the new film, Hannah? That is what's at stake for me with Ms. Lawrence and Mr. Ross: a matter that's more than just skin deep.

I hope that they do it justice.


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