Writing Wednesdays: Complicity, Responsibility, and Rue

Welcome back to Hunger Games Week on the blog. I’ll be honest: I really wasn’t expecting to tie my Writing Wednesdays post into the movie or the book. I’ve already talked about the influence The Hunger Games and its sequels had on Fall – namely, the realization that the present tense could make for perfectly valid and even compelling narrative, and I didn’t need to feel awkward about using it. So when it came time to figure out what else I could say about The Hunger Games and the writing process, I drew a blank.

And then the Internet happened.

As I said previously, I went to see the movie last Saturday, and while I had some reservations, I freaking loved it. Amandla Stenberg, who plays Rue, was a pretty big part of that. I noted in my review that Rue’s story in the book, while sad and compelling, didn’t actually make me cry (I think I did get a bit sniffly, but my full-out sobbing moment came two books later, in Mockingjay). The film was a different story: when the climactic moment came, I broke down completely. During the scenes that followed, I lost it. And I do think it was in large part because Amandla Stenberg so perfectly embodied Rue. She gave a face and a voice to the character. A person I had only seen in the abstract, in the depths of my imagination, became real. If I could give her a standing ovation right the hell now, I would. You know what, let’s call this a virtual standing ovation. Brava. Seriously, fantastic job.

This little girl didn't tug at your heartstrings? Really? REALLY?

Imagine my shock, outrage and sadness when I discovered that countless assholes on the Internet were tweeting and blogging about their anger over Rue’s casting. Colorlines has a great article about this. You can also read about it on Feministing. Or on Alyssa’s blog at ThinkProgress. Or you can just check out the Hunger Games Tweets Tumblr. But to sum up: people were awful about this. There were people on Twitter who said Amandla Stenberg’s role as Rue ruined the movie for them. Others said that they were no longer saddened by Rue’s story – or they were no longer as saddened – when they saw her as black. Still others flat-out denied that Rue was black at all.

All things considered, it put me in mind of the ridiculous, overblown ‘controversy’ over the casting of Idris Elba as the Norse god Heimdall in Thor…except, in this case, the outrage is even more outrageous because yes, for God’s sake, Rue is black! At the very least, she’s clearly a person of color. The Hunger Games, page 98, where Rue is first described:

I […] see the little girl from District 11 standing back a bit, watching us. She’s the twelve-year-old, the one who reminded me so of Prim in stature. Up close she looks about ten. She has bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin and stands tilted up on her toes with her arms slightly extended to her sides, as if ready to take wing at the slightest sound.

Emphasis mine, naturally. So these jerks are not only openly racist – they completely fail at reading comprehension. But you know what, let’s leave aside the fact that yes, Rue is a person of color. Even if her race wasn’t described in the book – even if she was explicitly described as white – the casting of Amandla Stenberg would be perfectly valid and, in fact, praiseworthy.

We live in a country where Trayvon Martin was murdered in cold blood and his murderer may not even be arrested, let alone prosecuted. We live in a country where Shaima Alawadi was beaten to death in her own home, her body discovered by her 17-year-old daughter along with a note telling the family to go back to Iraq, and the authorities think it might be a hate crime. I love my country. I do. I believe in the promise of the United States of America. But we have a problem with race. The whole Western world has a problem with race.

And that problem becomes especially egregious when we consider Hollywood and all its works. It is damned hard to be a person of color in Hollywood. When the film and television industry deigns to cast people of color at all, they are all too frequently delivery people, waiters, terrorists, criminals, token sidekicks…rarely, if ever, leading men and women. Rarely, if ever, characters with really meaty, vitally important roles (unless, again, they’re terrorists or criminals). And you know what? Popular culture influences culture, full stop. When we’re constantly told that people who look like THIS are criminals, people who look like THAT are terrorists, and if they’re not, well, it’s perfectly okay to ignore them…that sinks in. That’s precisely what at least some of us start to believe. I want to believe that things are getting better. I truly, deeply want to believe that. But I cannot afford to wave these concerns off. None of us can.

As a white person, I have the luxury of ‘not seeing race’. That is privilege in its most basic form. I have the luxury of looking at all-white casts and going, ‘okay, well, race wasn’t specified and those were the best people for the job, right?’ I live in a magical fairyland where people who look like me are the default. I lack privilege in other areas, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean I get to ignore the privileges I enjoy as a white American from a middle-class background. That doesn’t mean I get to fall into the trap of going with the default, where the default is white.

How does this tie back into writing? Well. I’m a big fan of Ursula K. Le Guin. I love pretty much everything of hers I’ve read, but more importantly, I admire her convictions – her determination to break out of the mold, to refuse to accept the white person as default, to include people of color, people of all backgrounds, in her stories. She’s opened up and talked about race here and there. She’s talked about wanting people who are not white, who are not among the people in power, to see themselves reflected in her stories. That’s something I want to do, too. Hell, that’s half the reason I’m writing Fall: I wanted to write a story for people like me. I wanted to see gay relationships reflected in supernatural romance. If I fail to include others in my world – if I fail to show a broader spectrum of human experience – then it’s just that: failure.

I was trying to articulate this to a friend last night. I’m not sure I succeeded, but what I said was this: the world is a mess. And if we all look at that mess and say that we didn’t cause it, that it’s not our problem, that we’re not going to take responsibility for it, then nothing is ever going to get better. I mean, I’m a person of faith, but the cold, hard truth is that we know nothing about this world except that we’re here, now, and it’s kind of screwed up. Our first duty is to make things better. Here. Now. On this planet, in this lifetime. We can’t do that by ignoring the problems. We can’t do that by denying our complicity. We have to take responsibility for what we write, what we put on film, what we draw, what we create in any way, shape or form. As creators, we have to capture some part of a whole big wide world. It is terrifying. But it is vitally important.

And if readers don’t get it? If they reject that? Well, that’s on them. Some minds are bound to stay closed. Maybe we’ll open others, if we do it right. Suzanne Collins included a little girl with brown skin who stirred readers’ sympathies to the point where several of us cried at the end of her story. Some readers rejected that premise – at least once they saw the film and realized that, horror of horrors, they were sympathizing with a black girl. Pardon my French, but fuck them. Fuck that.

The central characters of Ten Witch Grave have brown skin. And while I have struggled with issues of race in Fall, given its white protagonist and its themes of Irish mythology and the Irish diaspora, I’m including people of color there, too, because – surprise! – they freaking exist, and when I deny that, when I ignore that, I am part of the problem. And if ever the books take off, if ever the film versions are made, and my so-called ‘fans’ go off about how they lost sympathy for those characters, how they thought the mere presence of people of color ruined the story, how they don’t believe the characters I clearly and explicitly defined as people of color actually are…then those are not my fans. Those are assholes.

This is a tricky issue. I get that. I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. And, while including the whole range of human diversity, we have to be careful not to cross the line into cultural appropriation. But God damn it all – we have to try. If we fail, then we pick ourselves up. We listen, and we learn from our mistakes, and we go on and do better. But if we don’t try, then we are complicit. We have helped make the world just a little bit worse.

Try to make the world better. However you do it. Words and images have power, and as someone once said, with great power comes great responsibility. As writers, as artists, as creators, and as consumers of content, be responsible. Don’t be an asshole. Okay?

EDIT: Since first writing this post, I’ve come across Amandla Stenberg’s own statement to US Weekly regarding the racist tweets. I apologize for the omission. And, while a cursory reader might be forgiven for thinking the statement is awfully generic, I read it as a really classy way of pointing out that the people who flipped out over this don’t really deserve to be considered part of the Hunger Games fan community, and the actual fans are the ones who matter here. Way to go, Ms. Stenberg. 🙂

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