So lately we’ve been talking about fiction and especially fantasy/science fiction and race, and I just finished Malinda Lo’s Ash, which was so incisively reviewed by Raz. I found it an interesting read in light of what the author has to say about race in the novel, and how she leaves it open for every reader to construct race individually as they read:
I think that sometimes readers tend to give too much credence to an author’s thoughts about her own work. Every reader brings his or her background to a book, and a book’s meaning is always a negotiation between the reader (and her experiences) and the story itself.
This is a nice theory, but it begs the question: why is race left up to the reader, when queerness is built into the structure of the novel?
One of the nicest parts about reading Ash is the way characters can dance and flirt and fall in love with characters of either gender. It’s no big thing, and that’s really, really awesome. (I could read an entire book of just the queer fairy tales that get narrated at various parts of the book.) And there’s definitely such a thing as too much physical description of characters in romance (as always, Smart Bitches has all the evidence). But when she says her characters can’t be Asian because in the world of the novel there’s no Asia, it’s really hard not to respond that there are ways of describing an Asian body without using the word “Asian” and nothing else. In light of the discussions in comments about writers of color whitewashing their own fantasy novels, this reticence feels troubling. If I hadn’t read her blog about this issue, I never would have known how she viewed the characters.
Which is okay. Malinda Lo can write her books however she wants. But I do feel a little betrayed — worse, I feel like a bad reader — when I go to her blog and find I’ve missed a large chunk of the context she had in mind as she wrote the book. Not excluding the possibility that the protagonist is a person of color is not quite the same as including a protagonist who is a person of color. It’s not precisely whitewashing — but it feels kinda close.
And today I found this item about the upcoming film version of The Hunger Games:
The debate over Katniss’s on-screen ethnicity (or lack thereof) has raged in the Hunger Games fan community ever since a film adaptation was announced, owing to author Collins’ seemingly specific descriptions of the young heroine’s ethnicity. Described as having dark hair, olive skin, and gray eyes (in contrast to her fair-haired mother and sister), Katniss is thought by some readers to be of Mediterranean, Latin, Asian, or mixed descent.
By the same token [note: HA HA HA SOB], Katniss’s colorings could also suggest a brunette Caucasian girl, as in the novel’s official marketing materials (above). Either way, it’s fair to say that Collins’ ambiguity was purposeful in this regard. So the question isn’t, “Is Katniss white?” but “Could Katniss possibly be anything other than white?”
In casting only for Caucasian performers, the filmmakers seem to close the door on that possibility.
So because race was considered an ambiguous aspect of Katniss’ identity in the book, it is considered unimportant to the people casting the (probably white) actress to play her in the movie. This is not Suzanne Collins’ fault — it is the classic White People Are The Only Real Protagonists problem in Hollywood films.
And the only antidote for that particular poison is more protagonists of color.
But if you make skin color and race a strong part of your character’s identity, you become Niche Art. And the mainstream — who are of course all white people, it goes without saying — feels like they can comfortably ignore you.
It gets worse, though:
The candidate must be between the ages of 15-20, be Caucasian, appear “underfed but strong,” and be “naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.”
Now, the point of the whole entire series — which I’ve only read snippets of, because hot damn that is some good dystopia, by which I mean thoroughly and unrelentingly depressing and so I’ll save it for summer when I’m not already halfway down Dreary Lane — is that Katniss and her family are starving. So yeah, she’s gonna be malnourished. But there’s something creepy and unpleasant in the use of the term “underfed” when you’re using it to describe 1600 actual teenage girls — 1600 is the number of unsolicited resumes received in the open casting call. (Not to mention the thought that putting “underfed” next to “pretty” in this instance only works for a given value of pretty.)
So the author’s description of the character is unimportant when considering race, but significant when considering weight.
And it all just plays to me as so terribly convenient — I don’t have to think about race in Ash because it’s up to me in my own head. I don’t have to worry about Katniss and the idealization of thinness because she’s starving, so obvs she’s not gonna be, like, fat. (Because Hollywood, they really care about realism and plausibility above all else, you guys.)
This is what it looks like when privilege reinforces itself.