Jennifer Lawrence is tiny — even before Lenny Kravitz, playing stylist Cinna to her post-apocalyptic teen reality contestant Katniss Everdeen, cinches her into a corset to put her on display before the decadent residents of the Capitol — so why did critics and fans alike start discussing whether she looks famished-enough to play the lead role in The Hunger Games? Rue and Thresh, the Tributes from District 11 who face off against Katniss in the 74th Hunger Games, are clearly described as dark-skinned in Suzanne Collins novels, on which the movie is based, so why did fans react to the casting of black actors in those roles with racist outbursts and claims the casting “ruined the movie”? Along with making an enormous amount of money, The Hunger Games seems to have brought out the worst in a whole bunch of people.
Julian Sanchez has a great post on why, even beyond the reading comprehension issues involved, it’s so disturbing that readers would assume all the characters depicted in the franchise are white:
The book doesn’t dwell on this, though, and a reader skimming along at a fast clip could be forgiven for missing the two quick references. The deeper stupidity here is the assumption that the default race of any character is Caucasian when it’s not stated explicitly, and that casting a person of color in this case would represent some kind of deviation from the book’s implicit characterization. This would be wrongheaded for an adaptation of a book set in the present, but at least quasi-understandable: The social realities of people of color in contemporary America are different in a variety of ways, enough so that we do generally expect authors to make at least passing reference to a major character’s minority status.
It makes no sense at all, however, in a dystopian sci-fi novel (implicitly) set two or three centuries in the future. First, we have no real idea what the racial dynamics of Panem are like, so there’s no particular reason to think Suzanne Collins would need to make note of it if Katniss were of (say) Korean or Chicana descent. Second, and maybe more to the point, non-Hispanic whites are already projected to constitute less than half of the U.S. population in 2050, long before the earliest possible date for the events of the book.
The weird bodysnarking of Lawrence, exemplified by Manohla Dargis, of all people (she wrote “A few years ago Ms. Lawrence might have looked hungry enough to play Katniss, but now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission.”) reveals both ignorance of the text and another kind of problematic default. Katniss is better-fed than her District 12 peers in part because of her ability to hunt, and she gorges herself during her time in the Capitol so she’ll have energy to burn in the arena. But more importantly, Dargis and the other folks who questioned whether Lawrence who was too thin to play Katniss forget how dramatically Hollywood actresses restrict their diets in order to look the way they do. Lawrence and company may not be starving, but their bodies aren’t exactly a naturally-occurring default, either.
It’s frightening to think we’re still stuck in a place where white is the default for characters and that choosing otherwise provokes such extreme anger, and that even an actress’s carefully maintained, tiny body isn’t starved enough to satisfy some people: she has to look like death, and still be a powerful huntress, too.