Friday, February 21, 2014

Strong Female Character Friday: Rue (Hunger Games)

Like I mentioned last week, February is Black History Month, and in honor of that, we're focusing on Strong African American Female Characters. First there was Jessica Pearson from Suits, then Jenny Mills from Sleepy Hollow, and now we're coming in with Rue from The Hunger Games - next week is a surprise, aren't you excited?*

I picked Rue for a number of reasons, not least of which is her age. For all that we complain about the representation of African American women on film and television, it's even worse when we start talking about kids. Kids get a hell of a bum rap. I admittedly don't know the exact numbers right off the top of my head (shame on me, I know), but just from a simple mental inventory it should be clear: we don't get to see a lot of African American kids, especially girls, in our movies. Not unless it's a movie about a black single mother or an inspirational story of hardship or something that can be otherwise categorized as a "black movie".

The Hunger Games is not a black movie. You can tell because it has a white protagonist, but also because it wasn't marketed to an exclusively white audience. This is, for the record, a good thing.

It also makes Rue's position in the film and book all the more interesting. Because for all that Rue is the innocent sacrifice that starts the whole conflagration, she's also a person. A kind of weird, occasionally not very nice person. And that, again, is a good thing. Why? Because kids are rarely shown for the complex, occasionally infuriating creatures that they are, and African American kids are given that opportunity even less than most.

For all two of you who need a reminder, Rue (the awesome Amandla Stenburg, who now appears on the also awesome Sleepy Hollow) is one of the tributes in The Hunger Games (I'm just going to take a leap and guess that if you're on the internet, you know what it's about). Rue represents District 11, which we are told is actually the poorest district, and the district with the most peacekeeper control and subsequently violence. District 11 is the agricultural district as well, and has a predominantly African American population. The implication this raises, of course, when combined with the shots of fields of cotton and wheat we get in Catching Fire, is that District 11 is barely one step removed from sharecropping, and it's a meager step if at all.

What we know about Rue only makes her a more tragic figure. She's young - the youngest tribute in the 74th Hunger Games - at only twelve years old. She comes from a single-parent family and has multiple younger siblings. She's playful and likes climbing trees. She's sweet. She likes birds. And she befriends and helps Katniss, which means that we are intended to love and mourn her. As I said before, her death is what drives the story forward. Her death is what causes the revolution.

And she's black. That's the other thing we know about her without a doubt. While her race was implicit in the book, it's (obviously) explicit in the films, and this angered a fair number of deeply racist people. Whatever. We didn't want to be friends with them anyways.

But the interesting thing about Rue's race isn't just that they made an implicitly black character explicitly so. That's actually not interesting at all. Sorry. No, it's actually that Suzanne Collins made the choice to make her sacrificial lamb of a character a little black girl. And in our society, in the culture that we're all steeping our brains in, that's never a neutral decision.

It's also not an obviously bad or good decision. While it's always cool to give African American children another role model to look up to (and Rue is a pretty rad chick), it's also a little uncomfortable that Rue is the sacrifice, not the hero. She can be sweet and funny and sassy and cool, but she's still going to die. She's a great character, but her ultimate contribution to the story comes not from something she does but from something that happens to her.

That's a bit more uncomfortable, isn't it?

It's also, sadly, a lot more common. Bodily autonomy is an uncomfortable issue to talk about, but it's even more uncomfortable when you think about all the historic ways in which black women, especially in America, have had their rights to their own bodies limited. Slavery, systematized rape, forced sterilization, none of these are fun to talk about but all of them happened, and all of them demand to be remembered.

So, yeah, it's a little bit uncomfortable that the most important black female character in The Hunger Games is best remembered not for her actions in the games themselves, which revealed a surprisingly sharp, even a bit wicked competitor who, despite the audience's need to infantilize her, stood a very good chance of actually winning the darn thing, but for dying. For lying there, dead, in a field, while Katniss, the white chick, sang a song and placed flowers and mourned.

Look, I'm not saying that Rue shouldn't have been mourned. That would be weird and sociopathic of me. What I'm saying is that I'm not comfortable with the story where Rue's great contribution to the narrative comes from a lack. It comes from her not being there. That's messed up.

I really want to attribute this, because I didn't come up with it, but I can't find the source post (help me, internet!) - anyway, I saw an awesome post on tumblr recently that suggested a different way The Hunger Games could have gone. In this version, it's Rue, not Katniss, who is the Mockingjay. Nothing against Katniss, mind, but this version of the story? It's actually a lot cooler.

In this version, Rue's still cute and lovely and sassy and fun and dark and capable of murdering a whole pack of teenagers (remember the tracker-jacker scene? not so cute.), but she's also got agency. She's the one with sponsors coming out of her butt, because she's so little and cute and the Capitol can't stand not rooting for her! She and Thresh bond, because she's like a little sister to him (as she is in canon), and it's the two of them who make it to the end. It's the two of them who defy the Capitol, refusing to break their bond, and it's the two of them who return home to their district, the most impoverished district, the one most ready for revolution, and light the spark.

Why the hell not?

Now, if that made you angry, if the idea of a Hunger Games that isn't about Katniss and Peeta and Gale makes you feel weird inside, I want you to take a long hard look at yourself. Why is that not something you want? Because I guarantee you that Rue's story is just as worthy of telling as Katniss'. And in a lot of ways, it makes more sense.

Rue sparks so much of the revolution, that wouldn't it be nice, just once, to see her live it? Wouldn't it be cool if the well-written black girl wasn't a casualty to the plot? Wouldn't it be cool if she lived and prospered and led an army to destroy the flawed governmental system? Wouldn't it be nice if she got to live her freaking life, instead of being killed so the white girl can save the day?

Yeah. It would.

Yes, it's a powerful picture. But living for a cause is better than dying for one.

*Next week's SFC Friday is a toss up between Lt. Uhura and Storm. Cast your votes now!

11 comments:

  1. I'm reminded of a comment I saw about Tara's death in Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Someone said it was subversive for the death of a gay woman to be shown as a true, world-shaking (literally and figuratively) tragedy rather than a sad thing to be quickly brushed aside for the main event. To which I responded, "true, but not as subversive as if she'd lived (and thus had the gay relationship be the first on the show to work out)."

    It's like this. It's subversive for a black girl to be the embodiment of innocence. But as you say, not as subversive as if she'd lived and been the embodiment of the rebellion itself.


    Next week's SFC Friday is a toss up between Lt. Uhura and Storm. Cast your votes now!

    Go nuts and do both. :) (Otherwise, I vote Storm, because the contrast of strength and power will be interesting).

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    1. You know, that comparison probably wouldn't have occurred to me, but it is spot on. It's subversive, sure, but not nearly subversive enough.

      And I will duly note your votes. :D

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    2. With Tara's death, I truly believe that it could've just as easily have been Oz that was killed. The writers knew from almost the very beginning of Willow's magic use that she was going to go fully to the dark side and that the death of her significant other would be the final catalyst. They knew that before they knew that Willow was going to be gay (it was a 50/50 between her and Xander and they chose her after Seth Green left for movies and Aly had good chemistry with Amber). I actually give the show a lot of credit for postponing Willow's dark arc for an entire year because of how much the writers and the fans liked Tara. She was supposed to die at the end of S5 but it was changed to the end of S6.

      Personally, I thought that Tara deserved better than Willow. If she had lived I wouldn't have wanted their relationship to continue. It says a lot that the very first time that Tara shows her agency, having her own opinions based on her own experiences, and disagrees with Willow it leads to their first big fight and several months of Willow using magic to brainwash Tara into complacency. They had completely different moral codes and spiritualties.

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  2. I vote storm! Mainly because I'm a bigger X-men fan than Star Trek, but also because Storms character has had so many incarnations... She's interesting as hell.

    Or yeah, you could do both.

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    1. Storm really is hella interesting. I'm loving her current arc in the comics, personally.

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  3. My vote is for Storm. I love her in the comics, and the cartoon but someone needs to talk about how much she was downplayed in the movies. Someone needs to talk about how any characters of color were downplayed. Where was Jubilee?! Why was she just a casual cross over and how come her story got mixed up with Rogues?! And Storm... there is that amazing alternate story line where she and Wolverine are thing and her background story isn't one to be lookever either. So yea.. Storm, please!

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    1. Currently, Storm is winning the poll! :)

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  4. Could you have been thinking of this amazing fanfic? If not, go read it. If yes, go read it again.

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    1. Holy moly that is an amazing fic. That wasn't actually what I was thinking of (I had a meta tumblr post in mind), but that is freaking spectacular.

      Dang.

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  5. Wait wait waitwaitwait... Storm Storm? Or Halle Berry Storm? Because former YISS and latter No. I have no beef with the lovely actress but she was not the right pick for Storm.

    You know what? Nevermind. I love Uhura. The OG and the reboot, they're both great.

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    1. We were gonna talk about Storm in the general sense, both comics and movies.

      But you are the first vote for Uhura!

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