The new trailer for the film adaptation of The Hunger Games has come out, and I’ve already watched it about five or six times in a row. I am SO excited for this film!
Now, the issue of Jennifer Lawrence being cast as Katniss Everdeen sparked controversy before the project even started filming. Katniss is described as having “olive” skin. And so, naturally, “olive” translates to “woman of color.” I mean, it’s obvious, right?
I am a “woman of color”. I am Puerto Rican, and have an olive complexion. My parents are both from Puerto Rico and are descended from both the Taino natives on PR, Spaniards, and possibly Italians, as the last name “Jusino” has Italian origins. Or Spanish. Depends who you ask, actually. Yet I don’t claim Katniss Everdeen as a character of color, nor do I think she is one.
1) “Character of Color” is a ridiculous label to begin with.
What the hell does that even mean? People are getting up in arms about the casting of Katniss Everdeen based solely on the fact that she’s kinda sorta brownish. How sad is that? We don’t even know what kind of brown she is, yet she’s supposed to be a beacon of hope for anyone who is…um…any color. Do Asians count as “of color” even if they’re not brown? And is Katniss supposed to represent them, too?
2) People have latched onto the idea that Katniss is “Melungeon” for no good reason.
The fictional nation of Panem is actually North America risen from the ashes of a global war. It is divided into 13 districts, and Katniss is from District 12, which is located where current-day Appalachian Mountains are. Because of her olive skin, many people assume that Katniss is Melungeon:
Melungeons are defined as having racially mixed ancestry; they do not exhibit characteristics that can be classified as of a single racial phenotype. Most modern-day descendants of Appalachian families traditionally regarded as Melungeon are generally European American in appearance, often, though not always, with dark hair and eyes, and a swarthy or olive complexion. Descriptions of Melungeons have varied widely over time; in the 19th and early 20th century, they were sometimes called “Portuguese,” “Native American,” or “light-skinned African American.” Other Melungeon individuals and families are accepted as white, particularly since the mid-20th century. – from Wikipedia
So even if she is Melungeon, she could still be “European American” in appearance. But the book doesn’t say she’s Melungeon. All we have to go on is “olive complexion.” Here’s some other info about the racial make-up of Appalachia:
An estimated 90% of Appalachia’s earliest European settlers originated from the Anglo-Scottish border country— namely the English counties of Cumberland, Westmoreland, Northumberland, Durham, Lancashire, and Yorkshire, and the Lowland Scottish counties of Ayrshire, Dumfriesshire, Roxburghshire, Berwickshire, and Wigtownshire. Most of these were from families who had been resettled in the Ulster Plantation in northern Ireland in the 17th century, but some came directly from the Anglo-Scottish border region. In America, these people are often grouped under the single name “Scotch-Irish” or “Scots-Irish”. While various 20th-century writers tried to associate Appalachia with Scottish highlanders, Highland Scots were a relatively insignificant percentage of the region’s early European immigrants.
Germans were a major pioneer group to migrate to Appalachia, settling mainly in the northern part of the region in western Pennsylvania, although some were part of the initial wave of migrants to the southern mountains. In the 19th century, Welsh immigrants were brought into the region for their mining and metallurgical expertise, and by 1900 over 100,000 Welsh immigrants were living in western Pennsylvania alone. Thousands of German-speaking Swiss migrated to Appalachia in the second half of the 19th century, and their descendants remain in places such as East Bernstadt, Kentucky, and Gruetli-Laager, Tennessee. The coal mining and manufacturing boom in the late-19th and early-20th centuries brought large numbers of Italians and Eastern Europeans to Appalachia, although most of these families left the region when the Great Depression shattered the economy in the 1930s. African-Americans have been present in the region since the 18th century, and currently make up 8% of the ARC-designated region, mostly concentrated in urban areas and former mining and manufacturing towns. Native Americans, the region’s original inhabitants, are only a small percentage of the region’s present population, their most notable concentration being the reservation of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians in North Carolina. The Melungeons, a group of mixed African, European, and Native American ancestry, are scattered across northeastern Tennessee, eastern Kentucky, and southwestern Virginia.
So, 90% of the settlers in this area were from Europe and even the Melungeons, the mixed race group in the region, usually look European, which makes sense considering that even with intermarriage, color would be bred out with every generation because people “of color” would still be so few in number in the area. Whereas Melungeons may have started out as much darker, in the 20th Century, as it says above, most pass for Caucasian. Now extrapolate that a couple of hundred years in the future when The Hunger Games takes place. It is highly likely that, despite her olive complexion, Katniss is still – for all intents and purposes – considered white.
3) “Of Color” is an experience. One that Katniss doesn’t have in the book.
To be “of color” is an experience, not just a matter of appearance. I have biracial friends who look Caucasian, and therefore don’t deal with matters of race day to day the way someone might who is darker. Hell, I’m Latina and there are Latinos/as in my family who are white and also don’t have to deal with matters of race or ethnicity day to day. This isn’t to say that their experience of race is non-existent – in fact, I was talking to one of my biracial friends the other day, and she was telling me how annoyed she gets when people don’t believe her when she says she’s half Black (her mother is Jamaican), because it’s only her Irish half that shows (she cosplays Snow White, if that tells you anything) – merely that it’s different, and usually not what’s meant or included when people discuss issues concerning people “of color.” If Barack Obama had been born with his mother’s skin instead of his father’s, would he still be considered our first Black President? I’m not so sure. I’m not saying that way of thinking is right. In fact, quite the opposite. Which is why I believe “of color” is a term so broad as to be useless, because race and ethnicity are complicated. “Of color” is a category that doesn’t really exist.
But getting back to Katniss – even if we could all agree on one definition for “of color,” Katniss doesn’t have an “of color” experience in the books. Hers are issues of class and status, not race, and they are shared by those who are lighter than she is. Peeta, who is described as blonde and clearly white, deals with the same issues she does, being from District 12. While the merchant class in District 12 does generally look like Peeta, and the blue-collar miner class looks like Katniss and Gale, it is never this that’s pointed out. She is not discriminated against, nor does she experience any difference in treatment within her district. And any negative attitudes she does experience are because of where she’s from and/or what her father did for a living (he was a miner). It was a big change for her mother to marry her father, not because he had an olive complexion, but because he was a miner. Her hardships are because of her poverty, not because of her color, and everyone in District 12 – despite their shade – is poor; some are less poor than others, but it is a generally poor district, and all the districts are poor when compared to The Capitol.
The fact that the wealthy people of the Capitol dye their skin all sorts of colors as a matter of fashion and status means that, in this world, color is not the thing that defines a person at all. What does define a person is how much money they have, and how fashionable they are.
The broader struggle in Panem has to do with distribution of wealth, not issues of race. It has more in common with the Occupy Wall Street movement than with the Civil Rights movement.
So, if Katniss doesn’t have the experience of a character “of color,” and her olive skin can just as easily be found on a person who is considered Caucasian, what is it, exactly, that people are trying to claim? To claim her as a character “of color” is to deny what being a person “of color” actually means. If it means anything.
4) There are different shades of white.
Several writers on the internet seem to think that because the casting notice for Katniss called for a Caucasian that biracial people were kept from auditioning. Now, I used to be an actor, and I went in for roles that called for Caucasians to varying degrees of success. Some casting directors recognized that someone with my features and coloring could be considered white depending on where they were from. Others held true to the standard pale=white/dark=minority dichotomy that limits so much of casting. Now, I wasn’t in the room when this film was being cast, but if I were an actress of the right age, and knew the book well enough to know that Katniss is described as having an olive complexion, nothing would’ve kept me out of that room. I would’ve insisted my agent submit me for it. And they probably would’ve seen me.
Now, the other side of that is – that there’s an assumption made by people criticizing the casting notice, that biracial people or people “of color” didn’t audition. I would love to ask those people something. Would you cast this actress as Katniss Everdeen? (I’m asking solely based on looks)
That’s Alexis Bledel. She’s got naturally dark hair, so you wouldn’t even have to dye it. She’s got blue eyes instead of grey…but I don’t think I’ve ever MET anyone with naturally grey eyes. No, I wouldn’t cast her! She’s white! I hear you exclaim. Actually, she’s Latina. Her mother is Mexican and her father is Argentinian. She was born in Texas, but Spanish is her first language, and she didn’t learn English until she started school. But yes, she also is white. However, Latina is usually equated with “of color” so technically… Do you see how this can get confusing?
Now, for an actor with an olive complexion:
That’s Sasha Roiz. He’s of Russian-Jewish descent, born in Israel and raised in Canada. Yet he was cast to play Esai Morales’ brother on Caprica, and it was believable. Morales, like me, is Puerto Rican. Roiz is pretty much only a shade or two lighter than me, and we’d probably even out if he spent more time in the sun and I stayed out of it. Yet I don’t think anyone would call him anything other than Caucasian, despite his olive complexion.
“Olive” can be anything. So can “white.” So, “of color” means nothing. And as far as casting The Hunger Games, all we have to go on – other than the adjective “olive” – is the world and setting of the book. In that world – where the protagonist is from a future Appalachia in a society where money is everything – it is more likely than not that Katniss Everdeen is white.
I know how frustrating it is to not see yourself represented in literature, but that doesn’t mean I’m going to latch on to anything even remotely close just because that’s all there is. I love Katniss Everdeen. I think she’s one of the best female characters to come along in a long time. She’s a role model to me, and I’m thirty-two years old! She’s an extremely positive asset not just to YA literature, but to literature in general. It is because she is a young woman who doesn’t let her relationships with boys derail her focus from what’s important. It’s because she is willing to stand up in the face of injustice. It’s because she is flawed, and nuanced, which is so often not the case with female characters in fiction. It is because she cares about others more than she cares about herself. It is not because she is a character “of color.”
While I was rooting for Hailee Steinfeld to win the role, I’m very much looking forward to seeing Jennifer Lawrence in the film. From the looks of the trailer above, I think she’s gonna do a hell of a job as Katniss.
And by the way, Lawrence is originally from Louisville, Kentucky, which isn’t a part of the Appalachian Region, but it’s close. 🙂