Being Katniss Everdeen

Being john malkovich
Man, I just can’t get a break. I was just recovering from the discovery that I’m a horrible misogynist-slash-“white knight” pseudo-feminist, and now I find out I’m a racist? If I’m this much of a jackass without even realizing it, I shudder to think what kind of damage I could be doing intentionally.

As it turns out, I got started on my path to white supremacy simply enough: I read The Hunger Games quickly, and I didn’t remember that one of the characters was described as being dark skinned.

I know now just how awful that is, thanks to the tireless work of the author of the Hunger Games Tweets tumblr and corresponding Twitter account. The account’s been keeping up the good fight by “expos[ing] the Hunger Games fans on Twitter who dare to call themselves fans yet don’t know a damn thing about the books.”

The reason I’ve seen dozens of people linking to and commenting on that tumblr is because of a post about it on Jezebel.com. Jezebel fulfills the “Give Me Something to Be Angry About” requirement of Gawker’s media empire, and they hit pay dirt on this one. In the two days since the post was published, I’ve seen at least two dozen links to it and comments on it, just from people I know. And they’ve found it “jaw-dropping,” “nauseating,” “depressing,” “abysmal,” “heart-stopping,” and it made them hate humanity.

To them, I’ve got a couple of questions:

1) How much of that Tumblr did you read?

I got about eighteen pages into it. And when you start reading, yes, it does look like page after page filled with disgustingly racist messages from people both hostile and clueless. And there are several of those. I counted about 15 before I stopped digging.

But there’s a lot more of this. And also this. And this. This too. Also this. Plus this. And of course this too, which I guess isn’t racist because it’s making fun of an Asian name.

In other words, a lot of people saying “she doesn’t look like I pictured” followed by trollfaces, “deal with it” animated GIFs, and treatises about exposing a significant social ill. In other words, a tumblr.

2) What internet have you guys been using?

Because I want to start using that one. I like the idea of being so stunned at the sight of someone saying something stupid and racist that it makes me want to vomit. The internet I’ve been reading has me seeing at least one disgustingly racist comment every morning before lunch. The internet I’ve been using lets actual white supremacist groups have websites.

Yes, any one of those genuinely racist tweets and facebook messages would be gross enough to be worth calling out. It’d be good to see any one of those tools held responsible for what he or she writes. And like I said, I counted 15 of them.

But at the same time, I kind of already knew that there are at least 15 racist people on the internet.

Why is this getting such a disproportionate level of outrage?

May the Click-throughs Be Ever In Your Favor

A huge part of it, of course, is the perfect combination of opening weekend for a hugely popular movie franchise based on a hugely popular book franchise, and the internet’s favorite hobby: complaining about stuff.

Casting for The Hunger Games was announced a pretty good while ago, and that twitter & tumblr account have been around for at least a month, as far as I can tell. It’s an amazingly fortuitous coincidence that Jezebel ran the story this week.

I can only imagine the fight that went on at Jezebel headquarters: a crass young copy editor and webmaster a few weeks ago, saying “We’ve got a story here! Let’s run it now!” Then the writer of the post turns, measured in tenor but still barely able to contain the swelling rage — I am of course picturing a stately, distinguished white man playing the part in the movie, maybe Alec Baldwin or Sam Waterston overdubbed with Morgan Freeman’s voice. And then that writer says, “I don’t know how long you’ve been here, young man, but I’ve been here long enough to know that the name Gawker Media means something. It means honor. It means integrity. It means responsibility. And it means holding onto this goddamn story until we’re sure we have all the facts!

And finally, after the story was given time to grow and season, and coincidentally The Hunger Games had a successful opening weekend, it was ready. That writer took a moment to gaze out the window at a city in turmoil, a city whose demons had to be set free so that healing could begin. And the writer picked up a phone and said simply, “It’s time.” And then hung up without saying goodbye.

The internet needs sites that give people something to be angry about. It’s what drives social media sites in the first place. Gawker Media happens to have achieved perfect vertical integration — you can read Gawker.com to make fun of women, and then Jezebel.com to be outraged at people making fun of women. Personally, I get my daily outrage quota from ThinkProgress.org, and there Alyssa Rosenberg delivered a convenient two-fer of things to piss us off: the racist and sexist things that have been written about the movie.

(The misogynistic comments in reviews are legitimately awful, since a) they’re written by people who should know better, not clueless twitterers; and b) there’s no way they’re meant to be deliberately provocative, so it’s possible the writers aren’t even aware how gross it is to be complaining that a thin actress is too fat).

I’m all for a good open shaming of people being assholes. I just feel better about it when I know it’s sincere. Not just an attempt to ride the coattails of a young adult franchise from people still pissed off that Twilight was too Mormon to have significant non-white characters.

Thoughtcrimes

Those tweets and facebook messages are plenty gross, but the tone of much of that “Hunger Games Tweets” tumblr is just as toxic. They’re both fueled by ignorance, but now one’s running on a sense of righteousness and an awful lot of media exposure.

Mean-spirited but harmless “his name is Gale not Gail lol” stuff is what fuels significant portions of the nerd internet. Give it a cause and an audience, though, and it turns nasty. And a dozen genuinely repulsive messages get turned into a Significant Social Problem That Affects Us All. (That we will write a post about and then completely forget as soon as we stop getting internet traffic from it).

As I said, I’m one of the people who didn’t remember the description of Rue & Thresh as being black. Or of Katniss and Gale as being “olive-skinned,” for that matter. I also can’t remember the hair color of any of the non-Katniss characters, or whether they might’ve been left handed or homosexual. I didn’t remember because I didn’t care. It was never relevant to the story.

When I’m reading a book, I’ve got a default picture of everybody in my head. And it’s white and male until I read something that suggests otherwise. That’s not because I’m racist and misogynist, it’s because I’m white and male. Most books look pretty much like the parts of Being John Malkovich inside Malkovich’s mind, except instead of John Malkovich it’s a 50/50 mix of myself and, for some reason, Scott Adsit. It’s weird.

When a description becomes significant, I remember it. The relevant parts of the description of Rue — the character people are making the most fuss about — are that she’s young, small, stealthy, clever, and she reminds Katniss of her sister Prim. None of that has anything to do with her being black.

But now there are legions of outraged bloggers tripping over themselves trying to assign more significance to “I didn’t picture her as black” than is there. I pictured both her and Prim as looking like a younger Dakota Fanning, myself. So what? Why so eager to put a value judgment on that? They’re going to have their work cut out for them if they want to put a stop to people making assumptions. At best, it’s impotent internet rage — I’m using animated GIFs to make a difference! At worst, it’s accusing people of crypto-racism.

To be fair, there are a few glimmers of awareness, like saying that if the mentions of race aren’t relevant to the story “It really doesn’t matter.” But there’s really only one thing on that tumblr that I do agree with completely: “The outrage makes no sense.”

9 Comments

  1. Sorry, but I can’t help but feel stunned and saddened by comments like the ones on that tumblr, even if it’s just fifteen of them. Even if it’s just ONE. It still makes me sad. Yes, I realize the Internet is TEEMING with racist and bigoted idiots of all stripes. And I am going to be saddened and stunned by them every time I come across them.

    I’m being completely serious. Every time I read YouTube comments filled with hate directed at almost every group you can imagine, which is to say, 99% of all YouTube comments, it still makes me pause, and say, “Wow,” and feel sad. Which is why I avoid reading it at as much as I can.

    I posted a link to the Jezebel piece because–see above–I was saddened by the tweets included, but also because I had just come back from seeing the movie, it was on my mind, and I had just had a conversation about its casting. I didn’t think it was something that would warrant such a follow-up, and now I wish I had never linked to it in the first place, as it kinda feels like I (and whoever else linked to it) is being criticized for it.

    1. I don’t see how you could take it as a criticism. I already said pretty much everything I’m saying here on your Facebook page! I wouldn’t be criticizing anybody for spreading something that offends them; I do it all the time. It’s always done with good intentions. Even the Kony 2012 links a lot of people were sending around were forwarded with good intentions. I don’t feel like anybody who linked to the tumblr should feel criticized by this post, any more than I really feel like I’m being called an “illiterate” with “abysmal reading comprehension” by anyone who’d linked to it.

      And I’d thought I’d made it clear that there’s plenty of stuff on that blog that’s legitimately awful and deserves to get called out. (And as for YouTube in particular: I can’t recommend this extension to turn off comments on websites highly enough!)

      What I’m reacting to, though, are two things: first, that I kept seeing so many links to that Tumblr on Facebook and Twitter, and they were repeated over and over again, and the comments were universally acting as if it were one of the most horrible things they’d ever seen. And it’s been spread around what seems like a majority of the blogs I’ve been following, and dozens and dozens more news sites. And I’m asking: what is it about this case that’s so much more horrible than the offensive shit that stupid people say on the internet, constantly? Is it that it’s been sensationalized?

      And when I see these things, I’ve got to be skeptical of how much of it is legitimate, and how much is just stirring up shit to get page views. That Jezebel post has screencaps of the worst tweets called out. I never said they’re not offensive, and I never will. But then they put a 3×3 grid of more screenshots in a smaller grid at the bottom. It makes it look like the tumblr’s full-to-bursting with horror. But if you look at the picture, about half of those tweets aren’t offensive at all. Why the need to sensationalize it? Isn’t it enough to have three or four awful ones to make the point?

      But the main thing I’m wondering about: do the people who are paying attention to this story agree with the tone of that tumblr? Are they — and you, only because you’re one of the people who linked to it — agreeing with the idea that “I didn’t remember that she was black” is racist? Do you believe that it’s an example of white male homogeneity and that it’s a social problem?

  2. I didn’t take any of your comments on my Facebook post as criticism of me because you were much more affable there. You didn’t say something like “What Internet have YOU been using?”, which is, come on, a little snide. Perhaps you can’t see why I would take that as criticism of my having a shocked reaction to the tumblr and Jezebel and posting about it, but, well, I did. So be it.

    I’m not going to even begin to get into whether or not I think assuming all characters in a book are white, until the author tells you differently, is racist because that’s a can of worms I don’t want to delve into, nor do I think I’d do the topic any justice. But I will say that if a minority sees that as a problem, or an example of “white male homogeneity,” I’m not going to argue against their opinion because their experience is not my experience. I can not know how something like that might make them feel.

    I will say, though, that if I were Suzanne Collins and I read that someone had read the book, but overlooked the descriptions of her characters because they didn’t find it important to the plot, I might be a little peeved. If she didn’t want people to know what the characters she created looked like, then she wouldn’t have written descriptions of what they look like. It doesn’t matter if it was just one or two lines, in the case of Rue and Thresh. It’s there because she wanted it to be there. Katniss is clearly described as looking different from her mother and her sister, and this is important to her character often feeling like an outsider. The fact that she looks more like Gale than she does her own family is, I think, important.

    So I wouldn’t say you overlooking the character descriptions offends me because it makes me think you’re racist; it just kind of offends me as a writer who hopes people read all the words that I write…

  3. And to add to why I posted it in the first place: Because while, yes, the Internet is full of ignorant assholes, the fact that it seemed like most of those tweets were coming from people who are youngish just made it seem even more awful. I have a prejudiced view of racists as being older, fat, white men in wife beaters. Because I am racist that way.

    And I also posted it because while you and I have a way more experience with the Internet than would ever be considered healthy, there are people (mainly family) who follow me on Facebook who don’t, and I felt like they might get something out of it….Something most likely akin to feeling awful about life, so in retrospect, probably not a good reason for posting.

    1. Again, I don’t think you should have any regrets about sharing that article! I don’t even have a problem with Jezebel or ThinkProgress posting their links to it, just how they did it. I give Jezebel a hard time because of my long-held and petty grudge against Gawker. I do think it’s silly how often I go to sites like ThinkProgress specifically looking for something to be pissed off about, though. And I definitely think it’s more than a little sleazy to see so many sites sensationalizing the story to take advantage of the movie. But I’d be the internet’s biggest hypocrite if I said there’s anything wrong with seeing something offensive & then sharing it on Facebook & Twitter.

      The other stuff is what interests me more, though, and I’ll comment on that when I’m not about to fall asleep. Only thing I’ll say tonight is that I wasn’t being snide to anyone who shared the link. Not every question I ask is a loaded one; a lot of times I am really asking what it sounds like I’m asking, Starman-like.

  4. “So I wouldn’t say you overlooking the character descriptions offends me because it makes me think you’re racist; it just kind of offends me as a writer who hopes people read all the words that I write…”

    Reading and retaining are two very different processes. I would be really impressed if you were to be able to remember every description – relevant to you or not – of every character you’ve ever met in text.

    1. That’s kind of what I was thinking, but I was trying to come up with the best way to say it.

      To be completely fair, it’s not “every character,” since Rue & Thresh turn out to be two pretty major characters. And I haven’t read the sequels, but I get the impression that race is given more significance in the later books, when they go more into the details and history of the other districts.

      (I do think it’s kind of a clunky allegory to have your agricultural district be predominately black; in a sci-fi story about a dystopian fascist government, there’s room for subtlety in a discussion about slavery. But again, I haven’t read the books so I can’t say. Maybe it’s an un-subtle idea that’s presented perfectly well).

  5. I totally agree with you that it’s often the case that we tend to view characters as white, male and heterosexual, and I also agree with you that it’s understandable. I would take a bit more exception with the idea that it’s therefore okay. I’m pretty sure that white women and black men and gay people also assume that a character is a white male unless they hear otherwise. And I’m pretty sure that does in fact reflect the environments we grew up in and the assumptions that we had about jobs and race and gender. It seems reasonable to me to say that we should challenge these assumptions and be a bit ashamed of ourselves when we assume people are white men in books. We should also be aware that whether a character is black or not may not matter much to us, but actually may matter a hell of a lot to other people, and that a lot of women, gay people and black people are a bit concerned about the idea that they’re being—understandable as it might be—airbrushed out of books and—in fact—out of people’s assumption of how the world works.

    For example, a book where a woman called Lesley is in charge of a law firm is a big deal for a lot of disenfranchised women across the world. There are also men called Lesley, and if a lot of people just assume that character is male, then that statement that was made is missed. It’s a big deal. It also compounds the idea that men are heads of law firms and women aren’t.

    Now, I don’t want to make a huge thing of this. I just think it’s reasonable to suggest that people *should* make a bit more of an effort to visualize characters, particularly when the text indicates that they’re non-white.

    I’d also point out that there’s clearly a reason why people were complaining about the girl being black. And that’s not just because they visualized her in their heads as white. It’s because they thought that the film makers had decided to make some kind of point by *not* making her white. In many of these comments, the sense is that people are complaining that she’s black in the film because of ‘political correctness’ or something like that. Whereas if, as you say, the race is genuinely not of importance to the audience, why would her being black be even worthy of comment. There is something prejudicial about the way people responded, even if it’s not racist. There’s some undercurrent of politics underneath that suggests that people change characters to appeal to the black lobby or something – that minorities are pushing their way into places unnecessarily. And I actually do think that kind of reaction is a problem…

    1. All reasonable points. I do think the whole question of representation of women & minorities in the media is at the core of why this thing got so widespread. If not, it’s the most interesting aspect of it, anyway. And it’s the main thing that bugs me about it, since it’s more complicated than it seems at first, and I still think that HG Tweets tumblr is the worst way to go about it.

      I totally agree with you that it’s often the case that we tend to view characters as white, male and heterosexual, and I also agree with you that it’s understandable. I would take a bit more exception with the idea that it’s therefore okay. I’m pretty sure that white women and black men and gay people also assume that a character is a white male unless they hear otherwise.
      […]
      Now, I don’t want to make a huge thing of this. I just think it’s reasonable to suggest that people *should* make a bit more of an effort to visualize characters, particularly when the text indicates that they’re non-white.

      Fair enough, and I actually hadn’t thought of it that way.

      I’m divided on the question of media representation. On the one hand, whenever I read anyone complaining about it, my first impulse is always to dismiss it. I’m absolutely opposed to the idea of a “quota system” in art. If race is insignificant in the story, then there’s nothing inherently racist about having a predominantly white cast, and nothing inherently noble about having a predominately African American or Asian cast. It’s just a creator sharing his own experiences, and if race (or gender or orientation) isn’t a factor in the creation, then it shouldn’t be a factor in the presentation.

      At the same time, though, I know from experience how important it is. I was raised on TV and movies, and I never saw gay male characters that didn’t fit into one of two stereotypes — frail, overly-sensitive and -earnest tragic figure; or Paul Lynde. (And lesbians only got the one stereotype, humorless Patton Oswalt). If I’d seen more diverse representations growing up, then I probably would’ve been more comfortable coming out a lot earlier. That constant reinforcement of “you’re different, and you should be ashamed of it and hide it” seems subtle but is a really big deal.

      And it’s bad enough when you can “fit in” except for one aspect of yourself. If your entire background and upbringing is either completely absent or completely misrepresented in the media, that’s worse.

      Before I read your comment, I thought this was completely clear-cut: what happens inside my head when I’m reading a book is inviolate. If I were a casting director, and I were to cast a white actress in a black part in a predominantly white movie, then that’d be a big problem. But if I’m reading a book and the version of a character in my head doesn’t match what’s on the page in some irrelevant aspect, then it couldn’t be a problem.

      Now I see your point: the author’s the casting director in that case. If she’s including diversity in the “cast” of the book, then it’s in the reader’s best interest to pick up on that. Readers, regardless of race, can get the reminder that race doesn’t make a difference but diversity does. And in this specific case, that one character’s compassion for another doesn’t depend on race.

      It’s a good idea.

      I’d also point out that there’s clearly a reason why people were complaining about the girl being black. And that’s not just because they visualized her in their heads as white. It’s because they thought that the film makers had decided to make some kind of point by *not* making her white. In many of these comments, the sense is that people are complaining that she’s black in the film because of ‘political correctness’ or something like that. Whereas if, as you say, the race is genuinely not of importance to the audience, why would her being black be even worthy of comment. There is something prejudicial about the way people responded, even if it’s not racist. There’s some undercurrent of politics underneath that suggests that people change characters to appeal to the black lobby or something – that minorities are pushing their way into places unnecessarily. And I actually do think that kind of reaction is a problem…

      I do too, although I think there are degrees to it — not every objection to that is borne from prejudice. Of course, many of them are, especially the most vocal ones, but not every one.

      Audiences have been seeing token representations of women & minorities for decades now, and they can see right through them. Especially to younger audiences who are more likely to see race as irrelevant, being shown a perfectly statistically balanced, ethnically-diverse cast just comes across as fake and pandering. “I’m the black one!” “I’m the Latino one! Ai ai ai!” It doesn’t do anything to solve “the race problem,” and instead it simply comes across as insincere. I think people in the past couple of generations have grown up being a lot more wary of media manipulation than they are of race. (And no, acknowledging that isn’t saying that we’re living in a “post-racist society.” It’s all about priorities).

      There’s an undercurrent there, too: the preponderance of “I guess I must be racist” comments, and the person who felt he had to put the “I saw Thresh as being Pacific Islander” on a secret confessional website because it was too shameful to say out loud (and was apparently right, seeing as how the HG Tweets person mocked it). That if their own experience doesn’t reflect the forced-diversity of TV and movies, then that’s something they should feel guilty about.

      But back to your point: yes, there were a lot of people complaining that the actress shouldn’t have been black. And yes, that’s a dumb and offensive comment. But not every observation of “I didn’t picture her as black” is the same, and thinking it worthy of comment isn’t always a complaint. In my case, anyway, my first response back when I saw the cast pictures a while ago was more of a “Huh, go figure. I totally didn’t catch that.”

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