Reading race in The Hunger Games and The Help

This is old news, but I’m perennially behind and just getting around to talking about it: The internet got all astir a couple of weeks ago when the tumblr Hunger Games Tweets started collecting tweets from Hunger Games fans who were surprised and often angry to learn that two of the book and movie’s most sympathetic characters were black. Buzzfeed has screenshots of ten of the most offensively racist tweets here. The discussion of the tweets has had some pretty remarkable staying power–HuffPo published a response less than a week ago, and Slate published both an interview with two of the teens whose tweets were published on Hunger Games Tweets and a response from the tumblr’s creator.

There are a lot of reasons both the tweets and the online reaction are interesting. As people commenting on the tweets are quick to point out, the novel is very explicit about Rue’s and Thresh’s race—they are described as having dark hair, dark brown skin and dark eyes. They also come from the district responsible for agricultural production that, based on the second book, seems to correspond roughly to the American southeast. They’re fairly explicitly marked as black in the novel. Beyond that, the issue of race and casting for the Hunger Games has been a hot-button issue in certain parts of the internet for quite some time.

So a big part of this discussion has been about reading comprehension, misreading, and even authorial intent. The teens who tweeted their surprise at Rue’s race are poor readers, and they’re often called out as such. But while some tweets just reveal those poor reading skills—generally expressed at surprise that Rue and Thresh didn’t look the way the teens expected them to—others reveal a deeply troubling racism—admissions, for instance, that the tweeters didn’t care about the characters once they found out they were black.

That second aspect of the tweets gives way to some interesting discussions of race and racism, as well as a nice breakdown on the New Yorker‘s “Book Bench” of the history of the blonde, innocent, angelic, and dead little white girl (from Little Eva to Jon-Benet Ramsey). Notably, even if Rue doesn’t fit the type, Katniss’s little sister Prim certainly does.

In the post on Slate, the tumblr creator separates the misreaders from the racists, implying, as I think many of the discussions about the tweets do, that the misreading is understandable, while the racism is deplorable. That may be true, but I think it’s worth attending to the way the two are deeply intertwined.

I’ve use the term “misreading,” but it’s not one I’m entirely comfortable with—it implies a stable, accepted reading, perhaps based on authorial intent, which, for someone who studies reception, is a problematic implication. What we get from these tweets is a reading. Not the most common reading, certainly, but not completely anomalous, judging from from the number of tweets collected. It’s also not a reading that attends closely to the details of the novel, or to the paratexts—blog post, fan sites, etc.—available to readers of the Hunger Games. In fact, the reading could be characterized by its very inattention to the details of the novel and a substitution of the reader’s own biases and expectations for those details.

All of that is interesting in and of itself, but I got to thinking about it after attending a panel on The Help a couple of weeks ago. Most of what got said was the same stuff that people have been saying about The Help for years, but one speaker had mined the Amazon reviews for a picture of the novel’s reception among general readers. I kept leaning over and whispering, “methodology,” with increasing urgency to my neighbor, also a reception scholar, but (fairly significant) methodological problems aside, I was most struck by the speaker’s willingness to take the positive reviews at something resembling face value. The Amazon reviewers often talked about the awakening they experienced after reading the novel, the importance of being able to identify with the characters, and their empathetic connection to the characters and their lives. This, several panel members suggested, was a site of potential for reaching people who might be resistant to issues of race and racism.

And that’s when my mind drifted back to those Hunger Games tweets. Because if there’s one thing they show, it’s that readers can be remarkably resistant to readings that chafe against their own worldviews or expectations. They’ll go to great extents to reshape their readings so they’re less challenging. Given how committed those Hunger Games readers were to maintaining a reading that reflected their own racial attitudes, even in the face of textual details to the contrary, I think we need to be wary of how much transformative power we ascribe to any particular novel.

The common paradigm for reading, both for pleasure and in many academic settings (at least in high schools across the nation), is one of identification. People look for characters or situations they can identify with, and they resist narratives that don’t invite identification (don’t get me started on Oprah’s book club). But identification is comfortable, and it doesn’t prompt much stretching, and the fact that so many readers identify with the characters in The Help makes me a bit suspicious about the novel’s potential for prompting significant change.

We (and by we, I mean literary scholars, but also a lot of folks more generally) like to believe that novels have a lot of power over attitudes and beliefs. And that may be true for certain people, in certain situations. But the deeper I get into the way people respond to and talk about novels, the more it seems that readers tend to find ways to minimize, undercut, or displace much of that impact. (Disclaimer: my research is on novels published at the turn of the century, but I think those patterns often hold out more generally.) That’s some of what we can see in the Hunger Games tweets, and it’s worth keeping in mind when dealing with responses to something like The Help, as well.

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