Thursday 23rd October 2014,
Televisual

‘Mad Men,’ ‘The Hunger Games,’ and the Need for Consequential Characters of Color

Aymar Jean Christian March 26, 2012 Culture 3 Comments

Thanks to Racialicious for linking.

It was a blockbuster weekend if there ever was one. The Hunger Games shattered theatrical record after record, all the more admirable for what is essentially a feminist blockbuster — broad, violent and just as stirring other top earners Harry Potter and The Dark Night (blockbusters are so dark these days, aren’t they?). Then we got Mad Men, another eagerly anticipated socially conscious franchise, back with record ratings and artistry intact.

It was also a peculiar weekend for race and American narrative. Jezebel reports on a Tumblr tracking a disturbing trend among Hunger Games fans, who are angry that Rue was black in the movie (UpdateJezebel touched a nerve: the post has been viewed nearly 1 million over 2 million times, its most popular post ever). Some fans care less about her now! Rue is often cited as an important matyr in the book, which explicitly describes her dark skin, and it’s the same in the movie. Rue saves Katniss and her death ignites a riot (not in the book) in one of the poorest districts in Suzanne Collin’s fictional Panem, bringing dystopian America back to 1968. Race, class and nation-building, all in a Hollywood blockbuster! And the teenage would-be Obama voters got mad.

Meanwhile, if the death of Trayvon Martin didn’t bring you back to mid-century America, Mad Men did, book-ending its epic, masterful two-hour premiere with its clearest narrative of racial struggle yet. Its 1966 and black New Yorkers are protesting unequal hiring practices by Young & Rubicam, who I’m sure is not happy about that. By the end of the episode, it seems clear that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce will hire its first black employee, probably a secretary and probably a woman.

The furor over Rue’s race contrasts with the relative lack of surprise from the older, more niche Mad Men viewership. Mad Men has been frustratingly slow integrating race into its narrative, perhaps deliberately, to show how SCDP is slow on progress, or how the sixties in general were much less neat and idealistic as nostalgia would suggest. Nevertheless, it’s the fifth season and it’s time, and fans are mostly onboard.

Thank heavens! If The Hunger Games racial row tells us anything — it surprised me — it’s the importance of having robust, consequential characters of color, something I’ve argued in the past.

'Mad Men' dealt with race incidentally in previous episodes.

One of the byproducts of colorblind, diverse casting in television and film, particularly in big franchises, has been the existence of actors of color in roles that are present but not meaningful. Smash is only the most recent example of a big, mainstream, broadcast show that woefully underwrites its brown-skinned characters.

In simpler terms, we don’t care if these characters live or die.

A post-Trayvon world has shown us the symptoms of this syndrome. But it’s always been there, from the missing women of cable news to the scores of unwritten human interest stories about our terrible prisons and consistently harmful urban policing and policy strategies.

Suddenly, a simple move by the writers and casting directors of The Hunger Games, adhering to the book, seems so very necessary. It’s good that fans were shocked out of complacency. Brown characters should be more than just seen and not heard (and Rue isn’t even heard very much, which makes the outrage all the more sad).

Mad Men too deserves kudos for its shift. Without a shake-up in the office, the show could fall victim to plot fatigue, forced to rehearse and revisit old scuffles and plots without moving forward. And moving forward is what it needs: America, after all, changed in the 1960s, and we’re still, apparently, trying to make sense of it.

Therein lies the surprise of race: when taken seriously, it can reveal just as much about America, and about humanity, than almost anything else.

UPDATE: According to Roxie Moxie over at Nerdgasm Noire, this Hunger Games scuffle is not new. Thanks for letting me know in the comments.

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About The Author

Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

3 Comments

  1. Roxie March 29, 2012 at 2:22 pm

    I wrote about this fandom reaction about the Hunger Games for Nerdgasm Noire back in November, following the release of the character posters. The facebook comments on The Hunger Games page went wild with everything from mild surprise to “Eww, he’s black?”

    http://nerdgasmnoire.wordpress.com/2011/11/03/yes-there-are-black-people-in-your-hunger-games-the-strange-case-of-rue-cinna/

  2. Aymar Jean Christian April 6, 2012 at 12:48 pm

    Thanks for posting!

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