Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Why is Rue Black?--Character Descriptions Vrs Reader Interpetation

(Note: This post contains spoilers for THE HUNGER GAMES)

When I read THE HUNGER GAMES last year, I was absolutely emotionally drained by the time I finished and could not wait to read the next two books in the series.  There were several scenes in the book that had my flipping pages as fast as I could, but one scene made me stop reading so I could weep.

It was the death of Rue.  The thought of this sweet little girl dying so horribly in the hunger games just ripped my heart out.  I had hoped that Katniss would find some way to save her, but Rue died a terribly sad death.  When I saw this scene in the movie, I cried again.  It matched my imagination almost perfectly. Amandla Stenberg as Rue was the essence of the character in appearance and aura.  Her sweet, delicate, innocent face just tugged at my heart strings the second I saw her.  Out of all the casting in the movie, I felt Rue's was the absolute best.

Just look at that beautiful sweet face...

I was completely floored when I became aware of the Twitterverse exploding with angry, racist comments about Rue.

My immediate thought was basically "WHAT THE FUCK? Are you fucking kidding me?"

I was floored.  I just couldn't wrap my mind around this comment and the many more like it.  (check out Hunger Games Tweets on Tumber by clicking here.)  

In the movie Rue is the epitome of sweetness, innocence and beauty.  And yes, she's black.  Though it can be argued there was some racial ambiguity in Katniss' description of long black hair, gray eyes, and olive skin (she sounds dark Irish to me), Rue was clearly described as having dark brown skin, dark eyes, and dark hair.  She's from a district where most of the inhabitants have dark brown skin, dark hair, and eyes and work in the fields.  This was obviously a nod to the slavery in the south much as the Latin names in the capitol are a nod to ancient Rome.

Yet, it appears many people were incensed over Rue being accurately portrayed in the movie by a young girl of black heritage.

Does Rue not being white suddenly make her death less powerful?

Of course not!

A fan film portrayed Rue as blond and blue eyed.
Maybe some of these disgruntled readers skipped over the character descriptions. Maybe they latched onto how Katniss was reminded of her little sister Primrose (who had blue eyes and blond hair) when she sees Rue.  It was Rue's small stature and innocence that reminded Katniss of her sister, but maybe the reader missed that point and painted Rue with Prim's description.

Or maybe they just assumed that every character in the book was white.

As a writer, I often feel the need to clarify the ethnicity or race of a character and make it CLEAR  in their descriptions.  The reason for this is because I slowly became aware of internal white-washing of characters by readers. While reading the forums of popular series, I stumbled across some arguments over certain characters appearances. Did so and so's dark brown skin and curly hair mean they were black?  Did their pale skin, straight black hair and slightly tilted eyes mean they were Asian?  I was bothered by some posters who said if one particular male character was black, they no longer were interested in the series.  I was also just as bothered by characters who were supposedly people of color or an ethnicity other than Anglo-Saxon, that were painted with the worst of stereotypes.  It was just as worrisome when authors went out of their way not to state the race of a character and ended up describing people in very offensive manners. I remember one woman in a novel being described as having a big round face, always smiling, and wearing cornrows in her hair. She also talked like she was a slave in Gone With The Wind.

"Why do you always mention if someone is black or Hispanic?" I've been asked on more than one occasion by editors and copyeditors.

My answer. "Because a lot of times readers assume everyone is white."

 I live in a world with people of many different cultures, religions, races and ethnicity and it is only natural that the worlds I write about be just as diverse.

In the light of the Rue controversy, I feel strongly that I have been doing the right thing by stating specifically the race and ethnicity of my various characters.

The only character in my books that is continuously "white-washed" is Jenni Blakely from AS THE WORLD DIES.  She is half Mexican, half Irish.  She speaks fluent Spanish and never "hides" her background.  Jenni looks a lot like many of the Mexi-Irish people I have known in my life.  Pale skin, dark eyes, dark hair. Jenni is a complicated character, but the one spot in her life where she has no conflicts is her heritage.

Yet, dream-casting for Jenni consistently has people choosing actresses that aren't half Latina like Jenni. They concentrate on the Irish part of her heritage and suggest people like Summer Glau.  As I have stated before, I am certain that there is a part Latina actress in Hollywood that would play Jenni to perfection. The producer of the potential TV show and I are agreed on this.  Jenni will not be whitewashed.

But this makes me wonder...

Will someone go on Twitter and wonder why their beloved Jenni is suddenly speaking Spanish?

(Note:  I will follow up this post with another about Characters vrs Stereotypes this week)


  1. I am constantly amazed by ignorance.

    I think the actress who is playing Rue is beautiful and I can't wait to see the movie.

  2. The movie is great. I enjoyed it immensely. Little Rue is perfection in the movie and I cried when she died. Broke my heart all over again.

  3. I loved the books so much, was so swept away and emotionally exhausted after them. When I saw Rue's death played out in the movie I cried the whole way through.
    How anyone can think a person is any less because of shade of skin or a different accent, a different anything is unfathomable to me, especially now in 2012. We are all human, we all love and make mistakes.
    How more amazing the world could be if people would get that and get rid of their small mindedness.

  4. When people post stuff like that it makes me wonder if they were reading the same book I was. Rue is very clearly described as having dark features several times. As is her family in the follow up books. If a person's skin color effects them so much in books and movies I would hate to see how they react when they walk out thier front door in the morning.

  5. Beautiful post. I love that you clarify characters' ethnicities your books. The mixture of cultures and languages personally resonated with me and it is refreshing to read.

    The irony in the instance with the racist comments about the casting if Hunger Games is that the ignorant commentators seemed to not absorb or somehow miss the trilogy's critique of oppression.

  6. I was shocked to read your post. I thought Rue's casting was perfect. Wow, just wow.

  7. Many years ago, I read one of Robert Heinlein's novels in which the race of the character is revealed very far into the book, thereby making the reader examine their own internal narrative, up to that point. Made you think, he did.

    Go ahead and Google "Describing Characters of Color" and you will find discussions of this subject on the web.

    This sort of dust-up makes one think about how ground-breaking Gene Roddenberry was, casting Nichelle Nichols as Uhura on Star Trek, over 40 years ago. I thought back then that we'd finally be over this by now. Sad.

  8. @Anon,

    I have actually read a lot of the discussions and articles about writing characters of color. Some writers insist you should never reveal the race or ethnicity of a character right away, or not at all.

    Once I became aware that most people just default to "white" when reading a book, I made the conscious choice to always reveal the race/ethnicity of a character. I want my imaginary worlds to reflect the real world.

    Of course, this is my personal choice and some could argue I'm wrong.


  9. Beautiful post and thank you so much for addressing it. I wrote a major rant myself on my blog. Personally, I am not one of the readers who freaks out over the description of a character not meeting my imagined counterpart. Everyone's imaginations are different, and besides, when translating book to film, I'm sure changing some characters' appearance is done for various reasons. In the instance of Rue, however, they were DEAD ON and I cannot imagine anyone else depicting this adorable, innocent, meek child who made us all weep like babies.

    I hope Jenni is cast by an actress who is just as kick as she is! ♥

  10. @Fiona,

    I'm still boggled by the reality that race is still an issue in this country. Just floored by it.


    I just don't understand how they did not understand that dark brown skin translated into being black. Also, the description of Rue's district makes it pretty clear it is the deep south and is reflective of the slave days.

    Of course, there are plenty of sick-minded people who probably hate that their world isn't perfectly "white."


    I, too, was floored that the people making the racist comments didn't catch the gist of The Hunger Games. It blew my mind.

    I'm so glad that the mix of ethnicities/cultures/language are something you enjoy about my novels. That means a lot to me.


    I know! I was shocked as well. I had been so pleased with her casting I never imagined other people would be pissed off about it.

    @Smash Attack,

    I read your rant today! Bravo!

    The producer and I are very aware of how important the casting of Jenni is should we get the greenlight for the project. Considering how many roles immediately exclude Latina or mixed actresses, we're looking forward to seeing all that untapped talent and finding our girl. I'm very adamant that we don't default to "white."

  11. Brilliant post! I also thought Rue was awesome in the movie. I cried during her death scene, it was so sad. It broke my heart.

    I just can't believe how many ignorant people there are out there. I really wish people would stop being biased towards others. It makes me angry when they are. And I was also outraged when I heard about the inconsiderate, idiotic tweets.

  12. If Jenni doesn't speak Spanish I'm going to be upset!!!

    Hubs and I are going to see HG tomorrow!!!!

  13. I appreciate this post. I read a lot of genre fiction (UF/PNR mostly) and as a woman of color, African-American and Italian (and proud of it), I rarely read about characters who look like me. I appreciate that you make it a point to have your fictional world reflect the diversity around you. And I find it absolutely disgusting that so many people have spread racist BS about the casting of the Hunger Games. I think Hollywood needs to step it up and have more mainstream films with mulitcultural casts because whether people want to recognize it or not, this is America and if this country is anything, it is diverse. Ok, stepping down from the soapbox. :)

    Thanks for the post!

  14. @Lee,

    I'm on the soapbox constantly nowadays! I can't get off it. I feel passionately that the media as a whole (TV, film, books, etc)should show true diversity.

    We are an increasingly multi-racial, multi-ethnic society and I would love to see this reflected across the board.



Thanks for commenting!