Tropes: Moving the Fitzpatrick Scale

This deconstruction is one that... isn't. I guess it's one part deconstruction, one part open thread.

Husband and I saw The Hunger Games this weekend. Now, I have to say that I love-love-love those books. The Hunger Games trilogy is my favorite of all time, and I don't say that lightly. Husband, on the other hand, went through the series feeling kind of meh. So I wasn't sure he would like the movie. I wasn't sure I would like the movie.

But I did. I loved it. I thought it was practically perfect in every way. And I thought Jennifer Lawrence did a fantastic job as Katniss; I thought she nailed the role in every scene.

But there's this:

Much of the criticisms are going to be waved away with some variation on "but Jennifer Lawrence is BRILLIANT!" and she is. But the fact that Lawrence is brilliant as the central character, Katniss Everdeen, does not retroactively justify the casting call for an olive-skinned, dark-haired, grey-eyed character which contained the specifications: "She should be Caucasian, between ages 15 and 20, who could portray someone 'underfed but strong,' and 'naturally pretty underneath her tomboyishness.'"

Actresses of color were not even given a chance.

And I still don't know how to feel about the Katniss call. On the one hand, I personally imagined Katniss as white, and I (mistakenly) thought white = Caucasian (without understanding the nuances of Appalachian lineages), so at no point did I expect Katniss to be anything other than white. And that's my own Privilege showing. And I absolutely do think it's a problem that Hollywood doesn't even give actresses of color a chance at these roles.

On the other hand, apparently that casting call came out from the actual author. (I can't find a source for this, though.) And I have unclear feelings on how much an author should be able to dictate the transfer to visual media, but my initial feeling is "kind of a lot" since the visual version is probably going to be what sticks in everyone's mind from here on out. (For instance, as disappointing as the movie was, Mrs. Coulter will now always be Nicole Kidman to me.)

And I don't know how to correlate my one feeling on Author Influence over my other feelings that Multi-Racial Casts are the way we should go for movies because they're awesome and genetics and continuity be damned. So I have no idea how to feel about any of this. I'm doing a lot of listening and thinking mostly.

But then there's this. I was listening to audiobook version of "The Help" yesterday, and I realized something: Hilly Holbrook has "olive skin". Just like Katniss Everdeen. Huh. So now I'm wondering just how many "olive skinned" protagonists have been whitened by Hollywood lately.

Olive Skin
@ and
Olive Skin: Hollywood is moving the Fitzpatrick Scale.

Miss Hilly got a round face and dark brown hair in the beehive. Her skin be olive color, with freckles and moles. ~ The Help, Chapter 1

He could be my brother. Straight black hair, olive skin, we even have the same gray eyes. ~ The Hunger Games, Chapter 1

Open thread below.


Patrick Knipe said...

Oh dear. It really does seem like kind of a cop-out, doesn't it? There's a sort of pervasive sneakiness to the whole thing. "It's sort of close enough, so no one will notice."

Whenever I think of this sort of thing, though, I think of poor Ursula Le Guin, who has had to deal with all sorts of nonsense of this calibre. As taken from this article:

"My protagonist is Ged, a boy with red-brown skin. In the film, he's a petulant white kid."

IIRC, this isn't a one-off thing for her, either. A few adaptations have mucked about with the colour of her characters.

On a side note, I admit with a bit of shame that I have completely missed the Hunger Games as a thing. The media buzz over the movies was literally the first time I've heard of it, and I am sad.

Will Wildman said...

I always think of the Drizzt books from the Forgotten Realms canon. The writing in-story could not be more blatant: drow are black-skinned, literally obsidian-onyx-night-without-stars black, with white hair. The original covers for the first - oh, ten books? - showed him as an old white guy. A white person who avoids all contact with the sun. Eventually, as the racial issues started having a clear and ongoing role in the story, the elf on the covers graduated to 'brown' or maybe blue-grey, but it wasn't until the... 15th book, I think, that they actually had him simply as black. They've gone back and redone all the old covers now, at least.

On the other hand, apparently that casting call came out from the actual author. (I can't find a source for this, though.)

I hadn't heard this, and I remain skeptical. Collins is explicitly on-board with the casting choices that they made, but if she'd actually dictated the terms of the call, I would expect that to have come up more clearly.

I had already seen the movie trailers by the time the book came out, so I had a helpful (if artificial) reference for skin tone when I read them, and I was also a bit impressed with the way Collins finessed the first-person-self-description into the narrative ('My best friend looks just like me - but let me describe him to you...') so the exact terms stuck in my head, and it's very, very weird to see pictures of Lawrence out of makeup and try to imagine her as Katniss. On the other hand, my mental image of Cinna was closer to Austin Scarlett than Lenny Kravitz, but on the remainder of that hand, I hear Kravitz absolutely nails the role, so I really don't care. I may end up thinking of them as slightly separate people, in the same way that my brain kind of thinks Nick Andros in The Stand underwent a timelord-style regeneration mid-book (I started out picturing him as black and the narrative did not disagree with me until several hundred pages in).

Anyway, one thing I think we can all agree on is that anyone who insists that there's nothing wrong with casting an ultra-white blonde as Katniss but thinks a brown guy can't be Cinna can be appropriately mocked out of the conversation.

JenL said...

[TW: blatant racism] (Not sure if that's really a TW category, but just in case - because this stuff makes *me* angry/upset and I've never been on the receiving end...)

Have you heard about the incredibly horrible, nasty things being said about the movie because of the casting of Rue and Thresh? (Even though the book clearly describes them both as having "dark brown" skin.)

One article talking about some of the tweets from angry racist fans -

depizan said...

The backlash against Rue being cast as she's described is horrifying on multiple levels. Not only is it upsetting that people are willing to barf their racism all over the Internet (with apparently no clue that they are putting themselves as having horrid opinions), but apparently people white wash as they read. Which is disturbing, as well.

On the original topic, who knew Hollywood Olive Skinned would become a category. *sad face* or maybe it's always been a category. Either way, it's depressing.

Sol said...

I hadn't realized skin color was such a big component. However, I have read several articles on how "big-boned" Jennifer Lawrence is, and how inappropriate a casting choice that makes her for half-starved Katniss. Apparently, she's too curvy. Whether you need special eyesight to tell the difference between her and a presumably skinnier actress is debatable.

So, is the image problem just applicable to actresses, or are the physical features of actors also brought up like this? Because I'm under the impression that male actors are often chosen based on acting ability/experience, while female actresses are chosen at least as much for their looks as their acting ability. (Or maybe it's just because I don't find most Caucasian males attractive).

Will Wildman said...

people white wash as they read. Which is disturbing, as well.

I read through the first book at a ridiculous pace, and while I picked up on Thresh being black, I didn't notice Rue's description beyond 'reminded me of Prim'. But as plenty of other people who did the same thing have already pointed out, the non-racist response at this point is "Whoops, my speed-reading has revealed some racial normativity on my part; I should try to correct that", not to post horrific things on the internet that devalue people based on their skin colour.

I have read several articles on how "big-boned" Jennifer Lawrence is, and how inappropriate a casting choice that makes her for half-starved Katniss.

Meh; Hollywood has enough of a fascination with ultra-skinny (as this very complaint demonstrates) that I don't really care whether they reinforce it yet a-frakking-gain. Wild guess that if any of the main cast had been described as being fat, the mainstream outcry if they'd cast a hat rack in the role would have been minimal.

Ana Mardoll said...

I really really really hate the "Katniss doesn't look starved enough" meme because BESIDES being body-policing like whoa, Katniss is supposed to be one of the best fed people in District 11: she's a HUNTRESS. Eating rich game meat is what she *does*, it's why she does well in the Games. People who don't grok that shouldn't be talking about the movie, kthxbye.

Like Will, I actually did not remember Rue being black from the book because by the time Rue was introduced I was crying hard enough to practically short out my reader. So I was actually initially thrilled that they cast a black actress and was then sad that Hollywood gets no cookies for that because it's canon. TRY HARDER, HOLLYWOOD. (Though Kravitz's Cinna was divine, I thought. I was surprised to hear that his skin color was apparently not registered in canon, because I did think his character was black.)

Minor spoiler: I was really pleased with how they handled Rue's scene, juxtaposed with District 12 -- I thought it took the usual "white person learns a lesson from a black person" meme, flung it on the ground, and danced on it. The moment became FOR District 12, not for Katniss. And I sobbed.

Redwood Rhiadra said...

Disclaimer - I've neither read the books nor seen the movie.

That said, "olive skin" refers to Mediterraneans Caucasians (Italians, Greeks, Spaniards) as much as it does to non-Caucasians - so the casting call above may be a quite accurate reflection of what the author intended.

And while the picture above shows Ms. Lawrence to be quite pale, all of the publicity images I've seen (admittedly not a lot, since I don't pay much attention to movies and don't watch TV anymore) show a much darker tone. I had honestly thought until today that they had cast an actress with Greek or Italian ancestry (I don't recognize Ms. Lawrence's name, but again, I pay little attention to movies these days.)

Looking at Google images, it seems the darker tone of the publicity images is mostly due to lighting - a conscious choice to make the images better match canon?

Will Wildman said...

The books make a small-but-notable deal out of Katniss' home region being in future-Appalachia, which has a lot of stereotypes and a somewhat complicated racial history. Suffice to say there are a lot of people there who could be described as having 'olive skin' and it would often not have anything to do with Mediterranean heritage, but with mixing Amerindian, African, and northwestern (paler) Europeans. Not that there aren't Mediterranean people as well, but considering that the books have partly been seized on as rejecting Appalchian stereotypes, a lot of people have good reason to read Katniss as having mixed heritage. Like I said, though, it's complicated. They've got a whole research centre devoted to it:

jill heather said...

Trigger warning for racism, and spoiler warning for the later books.

I missed all the descriptions, and so among them I missed Rue and Thresh being black and Peeta being blond and the descriptions of several other characters, because SC writes one line of physical description per character instead of again and again and again (like JKR does). Well, except for Katniss and her braids. So I refuse to judge people who were like "Rue was black? I missed that" because I missed it too, and at least for me, that's pretty typical of reading any book. Judging people who say "Rue was black? Now I don't care if she died" is easy to do, though.

She really nailed the role, too. I liked how much more active a character she was in the movie, which balanced out White Girl Learns Lesson Upon Death Of Black Girl. I do hope they have Finnick and/or Johanna be non-white, because we've killed off Rue and Cinna disappears soon. (And I think Johanna survives, right?) Or Plutarch whatever and President Coin.

And although I don't think JL was too big for Katniss (or more than any healthy person would be too big for people who are always on the edge of starvation), I did find the lack of hunger (and thirst) a weird change in the movie about the *hunger* games.

depizan said...

Missing a character description is understandable. Not bothering to even check when someone is cast for a part, less so. (The people going "Why did they make Rue black?" *whine*) And taking it to the point of stating you no longer care about the character is racist like woah.

Though, at least personally, I'm taken aback whenever I whitewash fictional characters. Sure, I suppose it makes some sense to default to what one is (and I am very definitely white), but, at the same time, is it really that or is it defaulting to what I've been culturally trained to think of as "normal"?

Ana Mardoll said...

Though, at least personally, I'm taken aback whenever I whitewash fictional characters.

I wonder if it's a combination of self-defaulting (I'm white, so therefore Katniss is), basic repetition (Most protagonists are white, so therefore Katniss is), and social-conditioning (Protagonists "should" be white, so therefore Katniss is). It's difficult to suss out "genuine mistake" from "ick" in there.

(I remember the first time I looked down the Baby Doll aisle at the local Target and realized there were really only two colors: White plastic and pink cardboard. That was a bit of a shock, and I remember thinking just how much my world is structured around catering to me as "the norm".)

Laiima said...


Laiima said...

Oops, trying to sign in. Non THG 'whitewashing' of a book jacket is Fire Logic by Laurie J. Marks. I bought the hardcover book partly because the jacket with a red-headed woman warrior on it caught my eye. (At the time, I was still dyeing my brown hair back to the red I was born with.) Turns out, in the book, the woman warrior actually has very dark skin, and dark brown or maybe black hair, and I think dark eyes. I totally loved the book, and all the characters. And I wish the cover art reflected that.

I am uncomfortably aware, however, that cover art with a non-redhead would not have caught my eye the same way. (Natural red hair is even rarer than natural blonde hair, occurring, iirc, in 7% vs 14% of the population.)

Laiima said...

Spouse, who is a photographer and an experienced Photoshopper, has commented to me that Jennifer Lawrence's skin in publicity shots has apparently been darkened. Which is kind of oogy.

Amaryllis said...

And there was the famous case (well, famous in YA circles anyway) of Justine Larbalestier's Liar-- a novel about a black girl, but the original cover design for the book showed a white girl. Bwuh?

Editors have told me that their sales departments say black covers don’t sell. Sales reps have told me that many of their accounts won’t take books with black covers. Booksellers have told me that they can’t give away YAs with black covers. Authors have told me that their books with black covers are frequently not shelved in the same part of the library as other YA—they’re exiled to the Urban Fiction section—and many bookshops simply don’t stock them at all.


Fortunately, the publisher saw reason and the book was released with a cover that matched the protagonist a little more closely. But how many other books are still being whitewashed?

Launcifer said...


That almost sounds like Tango logic. To clarify:-

there was an advertising campaign in the United Kingdom, during the early- to mid- nineties, that basically set out to ignore accepted logic concerning what would and would not sell when it came to a televisual marketing campaign. Bright colours on the can? Ours will be black, thanks. No harsh or grating sounds in the advertisements? We'll include some slaps in our first few ads (which brought its own problems)....

It genuinely feels like someone read the accepted logic and simply never bothered to question it, rather like the period during the early noughties where every fantasy novel that had a heroine who was pale and dark-haired had a photoshopped picture of Angelina Jolie's junkie phase on the cover.

I never really understood it, just as this olive-skinned Katniss business doesn't quite compute. The actress who plays her may be perfectly capable. She may even be "right for the part" depending on how casting directors quantify these things, but she's not Mediterranean enough to qualify in terms of the label (and authorial intent be damned).


Ana Mardoll said...

I have that cover!

Or, "had". I dumped my copy when I got the e-book version. But, yeah, I got "Liar" as an ARC. I wasn't aware that white-washing covers was repeatedly a thing, and since the ARC cover was grayscale, I wasn't 100% sure that had happened, but I did notice that the cover model seemed 'off'. But several other reviewers saw the seriousness of it, hopped right on it, and complained loudly enough until it was changed.

The new cover is far superior. I'm so sad to learn that this is commonplace.

chris the cynic said...

Though, at least personally, I'm taken aback whenever I whitewash fictional characters. Sure, I suppose it makes some sense to default to what one is (and I am very definitely white), but, at the same time, is it really that or is it defaulting to what I've been culturally trained to think of as "normal"?

I wonder how much of it is personal experience. If we're assuming the character description was simply missed then the question is one assumes someone is white in the absence of description. I wonder if it might depend at least as much in the type of people the reader is likely to meet as it does on the reader's appearance.

I have no idea what kind of people your life brings you into contact with. For myself, if I meet someone that person will probably be white. Not just probably, almost certainly. I think that's had a pretty big effect on how I expect people to look. I could be wrong, but if I think that my experience with meeting people had been more diverse the way that I'd think about undescribed people would be different even though I'd be just as white..


One reason the effect of personal experience is on my mind is that this morning I was sitting in the waiting area of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services, which is not a place I would normally be (and is rather more diverse than anywhere I usually am) and I was there without much of anything to do so I was mostly looking at the other people waiting, and in doing that I bumped into an unusual prejudice in myself.

I saw a dark skinned woman in a headscarf and certain associations immediately sprang to mind. I knew that they were almost certainly false, but they were there none the less. It wasn't the first time it has happened. It's happened many times before in fact, but I've never stopped to examine it before.

I tried looking around at other people to see if similar things happened with anyone else.

A white woman with a small child, nothing. Ditto for another, very similar looking woman, with three small children that the first ended up sitting near. A black man using an umbrella as a cane who was wearing the most amazing sunglasses, nothing. A young white woman with torn jeans, nothing. A black woman who I had a clear memory of until I tried to write a description of her just now, nothing. A white man I initially mistook for a woman in a powered wheelchair with a cover over it, horns on the front, and decorations all over, nothing. So on.

For everyone else nothing, but for the woman in the headscarf: mathematician.

Mathematician tending towards the more specific label of statistician. It wasn't really hard to figure out why. In my life I have seen many women in headscarfs, but I have only known one. I didn't know her very well, I don't even remember her name, but she's the only personal experience I have with what a person in a headscarf is like. She was a mathematician, I remember her most clearly from a statistics class we took together. Therefore, apparently, in my brain headscarf=math.

With the exception of certain t-shirts and the like, for any type of clothing you can be pretty sure that a randomly selected person wearing it is almost certainly not a mathematician, and I'm pretty headscarfs are no exception to that, yet if I see a woman in one my first association is mathmatician.

I'll need to work on that.

Fluffy_goddess said...

I watched THG with friends, and we were a two-had-read-the-books-two-hadn't group; the criticism of casting from those who'd read the books was age, not race. Rue being black -- no big deal. But we all agreed that the teenaged characters looked a little older than we'd been imagining, and one of my friends noted she'd thought of Rue as being exceptionally small and young-looking for her age, which didn't quite match what we saw on screen. Part of this is probably the usual actors don't have ages, they have age ranges thing, which always throws me (I don't watch a lot of stuff with teenaged characters; most of my shows are set in an artificially adult-only world). But I think it's also all part of the usual prettification that books get when they get turned into movies.

Also, seriously, they think Lawrence is too curvy to play Katniss? She's got some curves, yes, but she's still pretty skinny. I absolutely loved the way they used her body in the movie; to me, the costuming was very clever and set off different features at different times really well. The body-mismatch my friends noticed was that a couple of the guys were played by actors who are not nearly as hulkingly large as their characters were described as being, which is a slightly different complaint.

Antigone10 said...

Yeah, I read "dark haired and dark skinned" for the character description as "Hispanic". Probably because the people who did most of the apple picking around where I grew up in Washington were....Hispanic, which is probably a whole new level of race fail. I still thought the movie Rue was sweetness and adorableness, and I loved how they had the scene where she stole the knife. I cried when she died- how couldn't you?

Launcifer said...

The "curves" thing genuinely throws me whenever it comes up in relation to a character in a film. About all I can say in terms of Lawrence is that she doesn't look like she's got a serious eating disorder, which is probably a step or three above the average Hollywood actress. She's nowhere near as skinny as she could be but nor is she anyone I'd remotely describe as curvy. It probably doesn't help that I've never read the books, probably never will and therefore have no real idea of how the character's described as looking beyond what's been said in this thread.

Also: a general apology to anyone offended by whatever the hell I posted in the early hours of this morning. I have no idea what bizarre thought I was even trying to articulate. That's the second time I've done it recently, so I'll have to watch myself a bit more closely.

Jeannette said...

Am deeply disappointed by the many racist remarks made about Rue on twitter. It's not completely unreasonable to miss the fact that she's (like Thresh, and District 11) aren't white, especially given how she's liked to Prim (who is blond and pale). But that is really no excuse whatsoever for the horrible things that have been said.

I had actually initially envisioned "olive skinned" Katniss as not white (Mediterranean or possibly Hispanic), but the fact that her mother and sister were blond made me rethink that and went back to the "tanned white person" theory. For what that's worth.

Strangely, I've been having similar conversations today and one of the odd things I noticed about ways to describe race (without reference to real world geography) is how I still don't think of East Asians as having "brown" skin. Perhaps it's just pale skin is attractive where I come from, so we don't like to think of ourselves that way? Perhaps it's because we're only brown in comparison to white people, and I grew up in Hong Kong where white people are very much a minority? I don't know, but I found it interesting to note that an author could be trying to tell me someone was East Asian, but I could completely miss it because the language they would describe me with is different from the language I would chose to describe me.

Also, many good things and other things about the Hunger Games film, but an irritation that seem unique to me: Where are all the FEMALE MINERS?!

Button said...

I'm here late, but for what it's worth, I've even heard people of solely European ancestry described as "olive-skinned" if they have a green or yellow overtone (undertone?) to their skin. One is even a freckly Polish/Irish blonde who burns from 10 minutes in the sun.

Wikipedia agrees:

Eleanor said...

(Long time reader, first time commenter, etc.)

Count me as another person who wouldn't have expected the casting of Katniss to be a racial issue. Maybe it's because I'm British (and white) so I tend to think any European-looking person counts as white. "Hispanic" isn't an option on the UK census.

Another thing, when I saw Katniss described as "olive" I didn't even think that necessarily meant she looked Mediterranean. I guess it comes of living in a place where the language is adapted for a not very racially diverse population. I mean, the town I grew up in was about 98% white-British. So words like "olive" and "sallow" and "pink-and-white" get applied to a comically narrow range of skin tones. And then (if you're me) you move to a city and go online and your horizons broaden, but your vocabulary doesn't completely adapt, so you still think "olive skin" means "doesn't get sunburn easily".

I'm currently puzzling over how to imagine/describe a character of mine who has one English parent and one Ancient Greek parent. (He lives in modern Britain. There is time travel.) It's difficult for me because my mental picture of him is older than the decisions I made about his parents, and in my head he has definitely not got dark hair. I can't seem to make him go any darker than light brown. Has he got olive skin? What will people picture if I describe him that way? Could there be anything in the shape of his features that makes him look antiquated? etc.

sarah said...

I am totally late on this, but I just saw this post.

I'm olive-skinned, probably Type IV on the Fitzpatrick Scale. I'm probably paler right now because of the season. But my underlying skin tone, if you want to call it that, isn't pink-and-white. If I stay in the sun for four hours without sunblock, I'll burn, but usually I just tan. I'm of Mediterranean descent (Italian on both sides of my family).
I haven't seen THG (yet), so I can't really comment on Jennifer Lawrence. But those two pictures that you posted of the actress from The Help? Yeah, olive-skinned, not so much. Then again, photos don't really capture my skin tone well.

Will Wildman said...

This whole conversation is bringing to mind a George Carlin routine in which he makes reference to Indians being classified as 'white people' (which he uses as a foundation to discuss how 'race' and 'skin colour' are often dissonant), which always confused me, because whether he meant people from India or pre-colonist people from either of the Americas, there's no group in there that I've ever been aware of as being commonly considered 'white'. It's a good bit, but I'm confused the whole time because his premise seems to be coming from a parallel world I am not familiar with.

I say we drop it all and just switch to hex codes. Under the new system, I'm melon-skinned, #E3A869. I pictured Katniss as being sort of a #8E6B23, sienna, or maybe #B8860B, darkgoldenrod.

(If there are skin tones that don't appear on the hex chart, this is proof that it's in need of updating, but I think the theory is sound.)

redsixwing said...

Mm. I like the hex chart method.

If the back of my hand is any indication, I am an unfortunate #EE9572 salmon. >.<
While I have no Hunger Games experience to play with, I can safely say that I picture one of my favorite protagonists (Damien Vryce) to be close to bronzeii #A67D3D, but I don't know, because aside from being described as weather-beaten and having the sort of skin that's tanned so many times it's basically light leather, the author never gives what he looks like! Seriously, can I at least have a hair color? I imagine it as dark brown or maybe black, but considering the author makes no bones about describing literally everyone else, it seems an odd omission to not have Damien a solid physical description somewhere. Dude even looks in mirrors and they manage not to describe him.

Given the racial politics of the world he inhabits and considering the writing fail that often seems to occur around protagonist description, though, maybe it isn't a bad thing.

If I'm ever signed off work for a very long time, I may have to do some Coldfire Trilogy close reading, because that would be seriously So. Much. Fun.

Ladyinredny said...

Olive skin is very fair in color!white in the usa is defined by the us census bureau as people of middle eastern/northafrican​/european blood! many countries in europe originated in the middle east,,,dumb folks dont know that
!!Even racist sites like sormfront know that whites come in MANY shades!!! the majoirty of whites have brunette hair! whites have pink/olive/yellow/go​lden/red undertones and be darker or lighter!! fair skinned can be pink and olive! olive is very pale! you do know that whites have olive skin right???

Ana Mardoll said...

Please read the commenting policy before posting again. Yelling at other commenters and acting like their opinions are ignorant is not appropriate here, and you've created that impression with me.

Skin color is complicated, and you seem to be dismissing the complexities of this particular case.

Thank you.

Ladyinredny said...

Olive skin is very fair in color!white in the usa is defined by the us census bureau as people of middle eastern/northafrican​/european blood! many countries in europe originated in the middle east,,,dumb folks dont know that
!!Even racist sites like sormfront know that whites come in MANY shades!!! the majoirty of whites have brunette hair! whites have pink/olive/yellow/go​lden/red undertones and be darker or lighter!! fair skinned can be pink and olive! olive is very pale! you do know that whites have olive skin right???

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