[27 September 2010]
Picking an actor to play the film version of a much loved literary figure is hard work. Finding the perfect match isn’t solely about matching a book, but matching the zeitgeist a wildly popular book creates. Generally speaking, though, to clearly buck the physical description of a character is to enter dangerous waters, particularly in light of last year’s whitewashing scandal.
Although it may sound like little more than a cheap paint job, whitewashing is a real—and insidious—problem in the publishing world. Driven by the perception that covers with black, Hispanic, or Asian (read: non-white) faces don’t sell books, several publishers, most notably Bloomsbury USA, have released covers with white models representing non-white protagonists. Worse, the majority of the whitewashed covers are on young adult books, targeting a demographic already sensitive to issues of identity and belonging.
Yet despite the blogosphere’s very vocal and public backlash against Bloomsbury, Hollywood may be getting in on the mixed up melting pot action. Recently, USA Today reported that 13-year-old Kick-Ass star Chloe Moretz is the most likely pick to play Katniss Everdeen, the much loved heroine of Suzanne Collins’ wildly popular The Hunger Games trilogy. There’s just one problem: Moretz is white.
If you’ve missed out on The Hunger Games furor, here are the deets: Set an unidentified amount of time in the future, Panem is a post-apocalyptic America ruled by a Romanesque decadent (it even has vomitoria) yet authoritarian Capitol. In an attempt to keep the districts in check, the Capitol runs an annual reality-TV style fight to the death, the Hunger Games. Contestants, or tributes, are children aged from 12 through 18, and are picked via lottery at the eerily named Reaping, unless someone volunteers to enter the arena. When Katniss’ sister is Prim is picked, Katniss steps up to take her place.
Described as having “straight black hair, olive skin [and]... gray eyes,” Katniss is an accomplished hunter who keeps meat on the family table and trades excess on the black market to keep her family in necessities such as oil and grain. She’s also,in large part, a positive role model (okay, she has some issues, but it’s still a valid point). Although physical description is, generally speaking, a less-significant detail, Katniss’ status as a non-white heroine is important because she’s that rare commodity: a big time, mainstream non-white heroine.
Ethnic Girls Like Boys, Too
It may seem obvious that those of us who aren’t white (I’m half Indian, and have the tan to show it) do more than sit around and muse about the color of our skin. Yet, as anyone who’s ever hit the YA shelves in search of an “ethnic” book knows, popular (read: high selling) books about non-white characters are few and far between. When a novel does have a strong, believable heroine, such as Shana Burg’s Addie Ann Pickett (“A Thousand Never Evers”), the plot usually revolves around issues of race and identity. Even novels which, like Justine Larbalestier’s “Liar”, the seed that grew into The Great Whitewashing Scandal of the Noughties, take on the uncertainty of race and belonging in an unconventional way, come back to the same thing: race, race, race.
Books that address issues of race are a wonderful thing. They help give context to the world, and ourselves. However, ethnic books are somewhat segregated—and I’m not using that word lightly. Instead of presenting young adult fiction as a whole, the publishing industry splits it into “mainstream” and “multicultural”, with multicultural covering mostly the afore-mentioned race books. Mainstream books about Black/Asian/Hispanic etc. kids doing everyday things are almost non-existent. Sound a bit far-fetched? Run down to the YA section of your bookstore, and look at the models pictured on most of the covers on the display tables and racked on general shelves.
Katniss may not be an everyday girl—it’s highly unlikely that CBS, despite their atrocious prime time programming, is going to run a Survivor: Fight to the Death any time soon. In some ways, though, she hits up The Big Three of the YA world, with nary a mention of race or skin color:
- Boy trouble
- Mom trouble
- Fashion trouble
This isn’t the first time whitewashing has touched The Hunger Games. The US cover, black with a gold mockingjay pin (a reference to the rebellion) is striking but not controversial. Perhaps Hollywood has picked up its pale-skinned impression of Katniss from the book’s foreign rights covers.
- UK - pale-skinned Katniss with brown hair (there’s also a Peeta version, with a blue-eyed, blond-haired hero)
- Germany - white-faced Katniss with startling green eyes
- Romania - pale face with red hair and blue-green-grey eyes
- Sweden - pale skinned, light-eyed, dark-haired Katniss
Why Whitewashing is as Insidious as President Snow
When I told a friend (a dedicated Hispanic YA reader and bookseller) about the likelihood of Moretz being classed as Katniss, her immediate reaction was “No! But Katniss is supposed to look like us!”
Film adaptations of a book’s characters are rarely spot on. It’s hard to find the perfect space between an author’s vision, a reader’s vision, and a real life actor (though Daniel Radcliffe is proof it’s possible). Some changes are inevitable. Changing a Katniss’ skin color, however, is crossing a line, because it implies that brown may be all right, but is not good enough.
True, Hollywood has an abundance of white teenage starlets, and there’s probably some horrifying statistic showing just how unbalanced the acting pool is. Why aren’t there as many non-white actresses out there? A variety of reasons, though it’s likely whitewashing is a strong contributing factor.
Skin color is not the be all and end all. I am greater than the color of my skin, just as I am greater than my sex or my shoe size. To know me—to know anyone—is to recognize that we are all greater than the sum of our parts. Yet casting a white Katniss sends the message that color matters, in the most negative of ways. In an adult film it would be a travesty; in a young adult film, a film aimed at a demographic that’s already vulnerable, it’s unforgivable.
Will Moretz get the role? I don’t know. I hope not.