Like many connoisseurs of young adult lit, I've been excited and wary about the upcoming film adaptation of Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. On Friday, I greeted the news that Jennifer Lawrence had nabbed the part of protagonist Katniss with nothing but dismay. Now, I didn't like Winter's Bone as much as many seemed to, but Lawrence's performance was powerful, and I'm sure she's capable of the emotion necessary to play the mockingjay.
Here's the thing, though: In the books, Katniss is clearly not white.
Jennifer Lawrence; photo via Inland SoCal
Katniss' ethnic background is never spelled out in familiar terms in the story, which makes sense, given that it takes place in either an alternate universe or a distant-future Earth in which former countries' names have become obsolete. Still, she is indicated to be of mixed ancestry, and her dark, olive-colored skin is mentioned repeatedly. In fact, she describes not resembling her mother and sister, who have pale skin and hair and thus could pass for members of a higher class. If this sounds like commentary on the way society treats people of color, it is, as much as the war-ravaged Panem run by the despotic "Capital" speaks to modern politics. With Lawrence stepping into Katniss' boots, though, Collins' address of racial dynamics is likely to be lost.
Before you can say "color-blind casting," this story gets stranger. Casting director Debra Zane posted the call for potential Katnisses as follows: "Caucasian, between ages 15 and 20, who could portray someone 'underfed but strong,' and 'naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.'" As Jezebel points out, the demand for a female actor who looks "underfed" is apt to raise a few eyebrows, although this is the rare scenario in which that sort of makes sense. After all, Katniss and her family are living in poverty and near-starving at the beginning of the trilogy.
"Caucasian," though? Why on Earth/Panem would that be required of Katniss, let alone as the first mandatory quality? Reportedly, the other finalists for the role were Abigail Breslin and Hailee Steinfeld, both of whom are 14 to Lawrence's 20. Whether "ages 15 to 20" refers to actors' ages at the time of casting or filming, there appears to be wiggle room there, but not when it comes to the heroine's whiteness.
The US covers opted not to show Katniss at all; the first book's artwork in the UK depicted an animated teenager who could be read as white or non-white.
I am sure that, like so many things in the media realm, this is related to marketing. Whitewashing is not a new phenomenon in the realms of YA or film and tends to spring from a misguided notion that people of color aren't relateable to (presumably white) kids. Newsflash, Hollywood: millions love Katniss. Hopefully, Hunger Games fans who flock to the cinema won't reconceptualize her as a white warrior, just as the introduction of Diego failed to discourage all gender-policed little boys from identifying with Dora the Explorer. Either way, a white Katniss is a missed opportunity.