Thursday, June 11, 2009

Race, Caste, and Class in HUNGER GAMES

Yesterday I asked you how you pictured the characters in Suzanne Collins' bestselling novel THE HUNGER GAMES. Well, here's what I gleaned about race, culture, and class in this enthralling story.

Early on we're informed that families in the Seam who work the mines have olive skin, dark hair, and gray eyes. Notice that their eyes aren't brown, which means they aren't Middle Eastern, Hispanic, or South Asian.

Right after that sentence, Collins writes that Katniss' mother and Prim have light hair and blue eyes, physical characteristics that are out of place next to the mine workers in the Seam. She tells us that Katniss' maternal grandparents were part of a small merchant class of pharmacists. Katniss' parents, then, crossed some borders to marry.

Peeta, too, is blond, and is part of a clan of bakers, definitely more prosperous than the mining families.

We start to see a connection between race, class, and occupation. Is this a society organized along the lines of India's ancient caste system?

Hunger Games contestants Rue, with her "bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin," and Thresh, also dark-skinned, are from District 11. This is the place where crops are grown for all of Panem. The community is impoverished, they're whipped if they disobey, love music, and send Katniss a gift of baked bread.


Also, when you're writing a dystopian novel, what do you do with our global diversity of languages? Collins, who has some international experience herself, didn't write different dialect or jargon for each character, so I assume everybody in Panem speaks the same language in the same way.

I appreciate how smoothly Collins included and described different races, but wonder if she was purposeful about the interesting connections between physical appearance (i.e., race), occupation, and class in her story. Did her conscious mind invent those classifications or was her unconscious mind in charge?

I trust the movie makers at Lionsgate will cast the movie carefully. Will they pick actors with a range of accents? Will they represent the same distinctions between race and class as in the novel? If not, why not? It's going to be fascinating to watch them decide, especially as Collins herself is adapting the book into a screenplay.

Oh, and if producer Nina Jacobson needs a consultant, tell her I'm available to fly from Boston to Hollywood, will you? Especially in the dead of winter.


Color Online said...

And how many readers are going to respond that they are colorblind, made no connection to race whatsoever? ((sigh))

Kate Messner said...

I loved your question yesterday & went back to the book to think about how race & class were portrayed. Your posts - this one and so many others - have made me a more mindful writer when it comes to race. Thanks for that, Mitali!

Little Willow said...

Let's go! I'll play Kat, you consult, and we'll make everything spot-on to match the book AND make readers/viewers more aware. :)

stacy said...

I haven't read it yet (I know! It sits on my shelf, taunting me), but I have little faith in film makers when it comes to casting. Remember SciFi channel's recent remake of A Wizard of Earthsea? And the casting of Avatar: The Last Airbender just infuriates me. Here we have an awesome, popular cartoon that kids all over the nation (and in other countries) love, with an Inuit-looking brother and sister, an Asian-looking firebending family, and I'm not sure what Aang's background might correlate to--and all the kids cast as the four main characters are white. One kid (the one playing Zuko) said he'll "have to get a tan." I was really looking forward to the live-action movie; guess I'll just rewatch the anime.

But all this talk of the Hunger Games movie and Catching Fire has got me thinking maybe that should move to the top of the TBR pile!

quiller77 said...

Interesting. I read it quite a while ago and didn't remember specific descriptions of character (and the book is ALWAYS out of the library so no hope of re-reading), though vaguely remember liking that Katniss wasn't pale & blond. I'm wondering how Collins described the powerful people in the capital region? Were they homogeonous or a mix? Gah. My memory has completely failed me.

moonrat said...

this is SO fascinating. i haven't read HUNGER GAMES, so i'm not commenting on that specific book. but one of my biggest problems with mainstream YA right now is how fall-back white it is, and i think it's really important that authors (and editors!!!!) think a little bit more about innocently intended coloring decisions.

Liz B said...

I would love a map of Panem and the districts. My reading is that this is the US way, way in the future so the question arises, which districts are which parts of the US? Katniss's district is coal, so that could be Apppalachia. Where is the capital? And then how does that affect the questions you raise?

Mitali Perkins said...

Appreciate your comments. We could have an entirely different discussion about gender, romance, and sex in fantasy and dystopian novels. Don't get me started.

Color Online said...


Have you read any Octavia Butler? She's does an excellent job of tossing gender, sex and races and moral on their heads. She wrote speculative fiction/science fiction. Adult but her Parable series is read by many YA readers.

The issues you raise are obvious to you when you read because they are important to you as they are too me. I think many readers have no sense of what it means to be marginalized and invisible to the society-at-large.

This may ruffle a few feathers but there's the saying, "When you're white, you don't think about it. When you're black, you never forget it."

I never watched the show Friends. How the heck do you have a show set in New York, the mostly densely, multi-ethnic city in the US and not have any brown people? As a diversity advocate, I can't not be aware of the absence of color in literature, film or media- any public medium that is suppose to reflect society as a whole.

MotherReader said...

I didn't pick up on the race cues as much as the area cues. Liz, the books says specifically it's Appalacia. So my daughter and I started thinking of the different districts and where they might fall - and then how would that effect race. I thought of District 11 in the South, with maybe an African American heritage. We know that the train ride to the Capital took a long time, so I'm thinking Califonia? (Fits in with the weird changing looks thing.) I didn't think about it being divided by race.

proseandkahn said...

It has been awhile since I read Hunger Games, but I think the capitol is somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. I believe it was mentioned.

I was very aware of race and class while reading HG, I think Collins intensified the racial and class struggle in Catching Fire. It has been a long time since reading Gregor the Overlander, but I think she did something similar there in the struggles in the Underland and the relationship of the Overland and the Underland.

Casting for the movie will be very interesting, indeed.

Wendy said...

For some reason I was certain that the Capital was in Colorado, but I haven't got the book in front of me to see why.

When I was reading, I was sort of intrigued by my own frustration at being unable to place characters as being particular races. I don't know how I would have pictured them if there had been no physical descriptions. I think I felt like Collins might be giving me clues about the backgrounds of these characters that I wasn't quite picking up on. I also feel like my eventual reading of Thresh as African American might have influenced the way I responded to him. (I'd have to reread the book to expand on that.)

Along with my mild discomfort (which I think was good for me), I think I was intrigued about the race question because that has always been SUCH a big deal on reality TV, and I was sure Collins wouldn't leave out something so important. I'm just not sure yet what kind of commentary she might be making.

nisha said...

Mhm. I haven't read this one yet only because it gives me the heebie jeebies thinking about it, but now I might pick it up just to check out the references to race etc.

Thanks, Mitali!


Steph Su said...

Hi Mitali,

Great post. As an Asian American, I'm always interested in how race, caste, and class are explored and used in literature. I've recently been in discussion with several minority YA authors about wanting more minority characters in the still heavily white YA lit world whose race or ethnicity doesn't completely define them. We find many books about how minority characters try to overcome their difficult racial position, but why is it that we don't have more characters who simply have a race, have an ethnicity, or any other important characteristic, and whose story doesn't have to revolve around finding his or her identity?

One thing that comes to mind as an interesting use of race in a "non-issue" manner is Harry Potter. The Hogwarts students are of many different races and ethnicities, and yes, occasionally conflict occurs as a result of the color of the students' skin, but ultimately, Harry Potter is not about how these characters learn to carve an identity for themselves out of the minority and majority. I agree that racial diversity should be better integrated and, for lack of a better word, employed in YA literature. I'm hoping that the new wave of powerful authors will do so. After all, GLBT lit featuring GLBT protagonists are making a huge rise recently (Ash by Malinda Lo, Sprout by Dale Peck, The Vast Fields of Ordinary by Nick Burd, any of David Levithan's books), so I have hope for this yet.

zettaelliott said...

You've made me put Hunger Games on my TBR list! Thanks for this intriguing post, Mitali.

Claudia said...

Hi Mitali, this is my first visit to your lovely site and my first time hearing about Hunger Games. I'm very intrigued! Thank you for posting.

The Brain Lair (KB) said...

My daughter (Biracial but she wants to be called Black American she says) and I (Black) were just having a similar discussion today. She was mentioning how she pictures most characters as black and is always shocked when she finds out that they aren't!

We've been discussing how much responsibility teachers and librarians have to make the all school reading more multicultural. We also take Susan's stance - When you're black, you don't forget it...

Anonymous said...

Just read Catching Fire. Since it's been over a year since I read Hunger Games I forgot all about the characters' physical descriptions and just saw all of them as white in my head, even Rue. So it was really interesting reading Brain Lair's comment about how her daughter pictures most characters as black. It seems to be just a part of the human experience, that we project identities onto book characters that mirror our own cultural heritage.

Anonymous said...

It was stated in the book that the capitol is in Colorado, so most likely it's Denver.

Anne Ursu said...

We could have an entirely different discussion about gender, romance, and sex in fantasy and dystopian novels. Don't get me started.

I would actually really, really, really like to get you started on that.

Beth Kakuma-Depew said...

Being biracial myself, I've had people puzzle over how to fit me into the standard American racial catagories for decades. I love that Susan Collin's characters seem to be post-racial. Identity in the Hunger Games is about what district your from, not your hair or skin-color. Also, it's funny how the people from the Capitol have altered their skin and hair color beyond all race (ie. blue hair, green skin).

Anonymous said...

I actually thought that Collins used the same sort of racial stereotyping that she implicitly condemns in the Hunger Games trilogy. Why would the Capitol confine brown people to11, the agricultural district? Given the high number of Asian Americans in the technology and medical professions would they not be needed in the Capitol and other sections? Or have they just disappeared? Why would African Americans and Latinos be excluded from the Peacekeeper forces? Is all that Collins can envision for Americans of color is agriculturally based slavery. Perhaps the olive skinned gray eyed people of District 12 are racially mixed, but Collins confining brown folks to district 11 is akin to George Lucas' vision of a future with no black people in the first Star Wars movie.

RobinG said...

I did a post recently on the geography of the Hunger Games (my attempt at putting some of the districts on a map:, and like many of those here, thought of Thrush as African American as I was reading the Hunger Games. Like you, I hope they pay appropriate attention to such issue in casting the movie.

Christina said...

I remember thinking about this right after Catching Fire came out.

My roommate and I were talking about race in Panem-- whether everyone in the Hunger Games was white, biracial, polka dotted, etc.

On one hand, we said, it would make sense for our future selves to be much more diverse-- genetically speaking, it's not like the whole world is going to end up one muted shade of brown one day, but this book takes place rather far in the future and there's been a lot of time and opportunity for people to mesh and blend together.

But on the other, given the vast array of surgeries available, at least to those in the Capitol, I wonder if being "white" (I use this term both loosely based on the actual term, and because in CF I believe I remember one of the style team wanting to dye Katniss purple and to stick jewels in her skin, or something along those lines) would still be the most "valuable" thing to be. The default, even.

(An aside, does this still make "whiteness" more valuable? A blank canvas to paint and dye? Is that the same kind of value-- rather than "I like it because I'm privileged" it's "I like it because I can change and be anything"-- granted, which is also a sign of privilege.)

This is, after all, America, in one sense or another. Our original sins stick and stain.

Genre games said...

I am always aware of these distinctions in literature, once the book is something I read after I passed the age of nine. That's when I really started to pay more attention to the use of color in stories and in ads and in other media and communications.

I don't know if her use of color was intentional or if even in trying to get her readers thinking about the role or residency or origins in how your life turns out, she subconsciously chose those shades.

I find it difficult to believe that an author who would construct a story like that would be unaware of what she was doing with regard to color, especially when publishers are known to send back stories that have say, alpha male Asian heroes, because they're "not believable".

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