Remember when Twilight was all the rave and there wasn’t a thing we could do without being ambushed by commercials, billboards, posters and T-shirts displaying skinny, pallid, blood sucking, sparkling “vampires”? Stories romanticizing rape culture and portraying female protagonists that were as weak as they were uninteresting? Remember that? Yup, don’t miss it either. You can therefore imagine my relief when that vampire trend finally passed, giving way to the genre of dystopia. My enthusiasm knew no boundaries when I realized that the tables finally seemed to turn, going from dependent protagonists (more like no-tagonist) such as Bella Swan or Elena Gilbert whose whole lives revolve around sickly 200 year old vampires, to a strong Katniss Everdeen fighting for her freedom and that of others.
The trend was finally to showcase girls, young women, having agency, making their own decisions, being strong and downright badass. Nothing could go wrong, right? Right?
Wrong. While I will applaud mainstream dystopia, and by extension Hollywood, for portraying strong female characters who are smart, brave and strong, still having the ability to be human beings with their own sets of flaws, I have to say that one thing does bother me and that is the underlying hypocrisy of these stories. In order to explain my meaning, I have chosen two examples: The Hunger Games (HG) and Divergent, arguably the most successful dystopian stories both as far as book sales and box office.
Both are very similar and sound really great on paper: a girl fighting an oppressive regime to secure both her freedom and that of others. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, in fact, those are the kind of stories that tend to catch my attention straight away. After all, who isn’t about “giving power to the people”? Those kind of stories need to be told as often as possible, not to mention that they’re generally pretty riveting interesting, inspiring and empowering. The real problem here is that the whole narrative is about rebelling, fighting for freedom, making sacrifices for the greater good, being noble and basically questioning the status quo… Yet the whole subtext is in fact about supporting that same status quo. It is sly, it is subtle and it is diabolically genius.
One simply has to take a good look at the protagonists to understand my meaning: pretty white girls leading revolutions. Indeed, both main roles went to two white very successful actresses, who by no means needed those roles to put food on the table, and who are already starring in just about EVERY single major movie: Shailene Woodley (Fault in our Stars, The Descendants, White Bird in a Blizzard) plays Tris, the heroine of Divergent, and Academy Award winner Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle, Serena, X-Men) plays Katniss, the heroine of HG. What is peculiar in mainstream dystopia is how race is completely erased, yet oppression and poverty remain. That convenient erasure of color is there for a reason: to enable most of the people oppressed to be white without it raising many if any questions. Who cares? It’s just fiction right? It is no big deal that most of the “poor oppressed people” in these stories are white when in real life it couldn’t be further away from the truth; because the only thing that really matters is to keep on perpetrating the image of white people as the heroes, all that while the rest of humanity is shown as incapable of helping themselves without the white man’s ill-advised assistance (see below Rue in the HG). This is what I take issue with: the fact that the most privileged, most represented group in all of media also gets to be a symbol of revolution, and fighting oppression. In mainstream dystopia, the cover girls for rebellion are white. Not African, not South Asian, not East Asian, not Hispanic, not Native. WHITE. And not just any white girls; white girls that fit into society’s destructive ideal of beauty and worth; an ideal that is already and constantly being forced down our throats and minds all day every day. That my friends, is the status quo hiding itself behind the idea of revolution. How’s that for propaganda?
Another thing that proves to me that these stories support the status quo is the presence of token [insert under-represented group] characters. If you look well, tokens are everywhere, in every story, always whipped out in order for it to seem inclusive. Tokens are side characters that have little or no story line, and aren’t actually characters. Sure they might have a name, a few lines here and there, but in the end they’re nothing but plot devices. Both stories have their very own lot of tokens. However, I will only discuss the main ones: Rue in the HG and Christina in Divergent.
Just like everyone else, I was disgusted by the racist comments some HG fans made on social media about being disappointed that an African American actress was cast to play a character that they imagined to be white because she was described as cute and innocent; all that despite the fact that the author states as clear as day that Rue is black. All those comments are actually very telling of what we’ve been conditioned to think, and has been proven time and time again with the tragic deaths (or should I say ruthless killings) of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and the countless black men and women that have been killed for no reason. Media conditions our subconscious minds to believe that white equals gentleness and innocence, while black equals roughness and guilt. It is vile, it is disgusting, and a lot of people who feel that way don’t even realize that they do.
In all honesty, I hadn’t read the HG books before seeing the trailer for the first movie, and when I first saw Rue I thought: “Let me guess, she’s the token black girl. Figures!” I wasn’t surprised or impressed. If anything, I was bored with it. Yet another pointless movie with a pointless token black girl, who isn’t even Lupita N’Yongo black, because Hollywood is so racist that it wouldn’t even bother to cast an actor with beautiful ebony skin to play even a minor role (remember what I was saying last time about media’s obsession with mixed race actor’s “better half“). Just what the doctor ordered I thought! But then I realized that maybe I was being too judgmental. After all, I hadn’t seen the movie or even read the books, so I decided to do both, and unfortunately, both were unsurprising. Rue isn’t a character, she’s nothing but a plot device, a means to an end. Rue is what made Katniss the Mockingjay. She is what made Katniss remotely likeable. While Rue has very little story line and virtually no back story, SHE is what gave Katniss – that cold, grumpy, one dimensional, unlikable character- a certain amount of depth and heart. Rue was a means to making Katniss a hero. Not to mention the fact that all of it was yet another instance of the white girl saving (or in this case trying to save) the black girl. Rue, just like every other token in HIStory is nothing but a pedestal for the white protagonist. That my friends, is the status quo in all it’s glory. Bet Katniss’ rebellion sounds a lot less cool all of a sudden…
Divergent is no different unfortunately, Christina – played by another not “too black” Zoë Kravitz – is nothing but Tris’ sidekick. She has very little lines and no back story (at least in the movie). We just know that she was formally part of the Candor faction and that’s it. In the books, she does have a relationship with Will though, which is something that isn’t even mentioned in the movie, perpetrating once again that whole idea that when black women/ women of color aren’t portrayed as Jezebels, they’re just asexual. White girls date, have romance, hot guys fighting each other for their affections, and worshiping the ground they walk on, and girls of color, well, just don’t. Christina is no different and it’s almost as if she wasn’t even in the movie. Not having read the books, I have no idea if she is to play an actual role in the second installment, but I’m not going to hold my breath for that.
Another problem is the casting in the movie adaptations. In HG, although Katniss’ ethnicity is open to discussion, the fact is that she is described in the books as having olive skin and dark hair. Despite that, it is pale skinned, blonde haired Jennifer Lawrence who got the part, and what makes it even worse is that the actual casting call was solely open to Caucasian actresses, proving once again Hollywood’s racism. Gale, Katniss’ love interest, is described as having dark hair, olive skin, and grey eyes, yet who was cast? Pale skinned, blue eyed, blonde haired Liam Hemsworth.
As for Divergent, Tobias aka Four is supposed to be biracial, his mother Evelyn being described in the book as having “(…) curly black hair and olive skin. Her features are stern, so angular they almost make her unattractive, but not quite. …At that moment I realize that he and the woman have the same nose— hooked, a little too big on her face but the right size on his. They also have the same strong jaw, distinct chin, spare upper lip, stick-out ears. Only her eyes are different— instead of blue, they are so dark they look black.” According to this description, Evelyn is clearly a POC, making her son biracial by extension. Yet white Theo James (though they tried to bank on his Greek heritage to somehow prove that casting him wasn’t too much of a stretch, which it is) was given the role of Four; and pale skinned, blonde, blue eyed Naomi Watts was cast as Evelyn!
When I complain about whitewashing, I often come across people rolling their eyes, telling me I’m overreacting, that it is the actors who best fit the role that were cast regardless of skin color, or that the movie wouldn’t have worked if unknown actors and actresses of color had been cast. See but those are nothing but lame excuses. The truth is that if a story is good, it will be successful whether you cast a famous actress like Jennifer Lawrence or someone unheard of like Q’orianka Kilcher. Look at Life of Pi for example, it was critically acclaimed though unknown Indian actors Suraj Sharma and Irrfan Khan were cast as the protagonist. Not only that, but there are a number of actors and actresses of color that not only do have the star power to attract audiences but are also talented enough to play the part. Scandal anyone?
Mainstream dystopia needs to be more diverse, and more than just that, we need to tell more stories and make more movies about the non-fictional oppression people of color have had to suffer and still suffer today. Movies starring actual actors of color instead of white actors that were simply asked to tan (like it has been the case in Ridley Scott’s Exodus movie, Rooney Mara playing Tiger Lily in the upcoming Pan movie, and the infinite amount of whitewashed movies ever made). Stories and movies about the colonization, slavery, the genocide of Native Americans, etc. are to this day extremely scarce and/or disgustingly sugar coated. Those stories need to be told truthfully because we need to hear them whether we are black, brown, white, yellow or green. It is only by hearing about all of these forgotten people past and present, and the challenges and injustices they have faced and still face today that we can all truly move forward, together in unity as one human race.
Do not get me wrong. HG and Divergent aren’t bad in themselves. In fact, I do think that they bring something great to the table in terms of empowering young girls and women. It is a wonderful advancement for the image of women in media and something that I hope will not just fade away once the trend of dystopia does finally disappear. However, when watching/reading these stories, one might want to put things back into perspective just a little. When you get blown away by Tris throwing punches here and there and Katniss taking down a plane with a single arrow before giving us a long heartfelt tirade about freedom, you might want to open your eyes wide enough to spot that same vile oppressive status quo dressed in the bedazzling cloak of rebellion. So when you see Katniss and Tris fighting injustice and oppression, ask yourself this: if there were to be real life cover girls for rebellion, what would they really look like? I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure they ain’t white.