Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rue and Racism: Intergroup dynamics and the Hunger Games

 Today we have the second installment of awesome guest blogger Maya Kuehn's posts on the psychology behind the Hunger Games. Check out the first installment here.

In the original, written version of The Hunger Games, it’s made fairly clear that both Rue and her fellow District 11 tribute, Thresh, are African American. Yet when faced with their ethnicity on the movie screen, many people have expressed great disappointment (to state it delicately) over these tragic characters not being White. But why?

Well, it turns out that empathy across group boundaries is a complicated matter. Although part of the glue holding society together is a desire to reduce the suffering of others, and though we’re quick to empathize with and help members of our own groups, this dynamic can go haywire when it must extend to members of different groups (Cikara, Bruneau, & Saxe, 2011).

When we witness a member of our own ethnic group suffering (like Katniss, if you’re European-American), our brain activates the same experience for ourselves, leading us to feel the same pain as she does.

But when we witness a member of a different ethnic group suffering (like Rue, if you’re not African American), this response short-circuits – our brains do not activate a shared experience. This is especially true of people high in implicit racism (that is, people who harbor biases toward other groups, even if they won’t admit that bias to themselves or others).

Instead of empathy, when competition abounds (and it is undeniably encouraged in The Hunger Games) we may respond to the suffering of people from different groups with Schadenfreude, taking pleasure in their pain. That is, reward regions of the brain light up when viewing someone from another, competing group receive a painful electric shock.

So although she was clearly Katniss’s ally in the book, when Rue’s race was made salient to viewers (by actually seeing her onscreen) in a savagely competitive context, it’s possible that many viewers felt they could no longer relate to Rue or empathize with her suffering. Feeling robbed of an emotional relationship with a beloved character (yes, we do build one-sided “parasocial” relationships with characters), and perhaps having to face a sick feeling of relief or joy at her death, it appears some viewers coped with these aversive feelings in a very public way: by posting racist things – some subtle, some not – on the Internet.

This topic has inspired an intense public dialogue about modern expressions of racism, and multitudes of fascinating essays and blog posts – here’s a good one.

So what should we take away from this? Rather than writing it off as “Well, some people are just racist,” or adopting a “colorblind” stance that ignores group differences and strips Rue and Thresh of their cultural identity, it’s essential that we celebrate group differences and carefully examine our own assumptions and biases. This latter task can be extremely difficult. Best of all, by cultivating friendships with members of different groups (according to the work of Elizabeth Page-Gould), we can build bridges between our own identity and that of the other group, and in turn become more comfortable when interacting with people of ethnicities different than our own.

Were you among those who had imagined Rue to be European-American? Why do you think that was? How did you react when you saw her in the movie?

The Article:

Cikara, M., Bruneau, E., & Saxe, R. (2011). Us and Them: Intergroup Failures of Empathy Current Directions in Psychological Science, 20 (3), 149-153 DOI: 10.1177/0963721411408713

Maya Kuehn is a Ph.D. candidate in social and personality psychology at UC Berkeley. She has two primary lines of research, examining: 1. How social power affects interpersonal dynamics, and 2. The intersection of self-control and emotion regulation. 


  1. When I read the book I actually thought that Rue and Thresh were Hispanic (I don't know why I assumed that), I believe the book said that they had dark skin? Anyway, I didn't think it was a big deal that they were African American, the character was so sweet and such a good actress, which I think is much more important than their race.

  2. Katniss was supposed to have an olive complexion and jet black hair; there seems to be less discussion about expectations of the title character and Jennifer Lawrence taking the title role, no? I had a different expectation for how the title role was going to be represented, and I didn't think that Katniss was necessarily European American. If there was a pre-dystopic racial analogue to her racial or ethnic background, I might think she was Egyptian or Middle Eastern, South Asian, or maybe Spanish or Latina.

    In fact, the first book doesn't really touch on racial dynamics at all (is there a reason why the districts have distinct racial attributes)? In Katniss' district there are the darker toned lower class and the fairer upper class like Peta, and the mayor. In Rue's district there are many Afro-descendants (I'm not sure if they are related to being African American-descendant). I have only read the first book and I'm not sure if any of this is explained later on. (Are there any Asians in the Hunger Games world?) When did the regions decide to categorize their citizens not only by occupation and wealth but also race? Is there any real history that predates the Hunger Games world, or is the anthropology pure fantasy?

  3. I also found Thresh's description to be an amalgamation of racially charged stereotypes and offensive in the book.

  4. Psychology
    Psychology” is the scientific study of mind and of consciousness. Psychology attempts to explain, predict, modify and ultimately improve the lives of people and the world in which they live. Psychology as the behaviourist views it is a purely objective experimental branch of natural science, which needs introspection as little as do the sciences of physics and chemistry.

  5. There is introspection in deciding which questions are important to ask.

  6. how do u spell peeta? or peta?

  7. @B, you're correct, I believe the book just referred to dark skin.

    And @Anonymous #1, I agree that Katniss was described as having a darker complexion than Jennifer Lawrence... And it's really hard to say what race relations are like in the Panem world, or whether the whole world is supposed to have reduced to Panem (versus just the Americas). I'd be curious to hear the author's thoughts on that. Finally, re: Thresh being described in a racially biased/charged way, I agree - it's interesting to see how a set of adjectives can go from just descriptive to offensive based on the ethnicity of the target. Just another reason we need to be cautious about our own assumptions.

    And it's Peeta. :)

    @noiln, that is indeed the behaviorist approach, though the field has largely moved past that since the advent of the humanistic approach. Indeed, the middle step (the "black box" in behaviorism) is the focus of most of our research today, determining what mechanisms are responsible for our emotions, behavior, and cognitions.

  8. Honestly I saw the movie and the length of time Rue was on screen didn't give me enough time to connect with her... most of the time it was her hiding behind stuff and staring at things. In fact if she weren't black AND I'd never heard about this fiasco about her race, I'd not given any care. Maybe the book does a better job at portraying her . xD

  9. Panem is what used to be North America, many generations in the future (exactly how many is unknown), so racial breakdowns should be similar to what they are today (I expected more mixed-race type characters, but whatever). But that's not the point...

    Everyone is worried that a character they loved in the book inspired so much less connection in the movie, and perhaps the hasty reader thought she was white - but I think the movie itself is more to blame than the casting. Between Prim acting unsympathetically whiny and Rue being relatively self-sufficient (strangely, hunger didn't play a strong role in this movie...), there is little connection between them in our minds, although that is a major aspect in the book. Rue is also not the fragile underdog that we expected. That leaves us with a Rue that we don't know how to connect with based on our reading, and I think the movie failed to give us a new kind of connection to replace it.

    Undoubtedly some people are really just racist. But if, like me, you agonized for a few days wondering if Rue's skin was the reason you weren't as touched, remember: they took away almost everything you recognized and loved about the character before the part was even cast. I think most audiences would have been fine with the casting if she had looked hungrier, been more meek and skittish and *then* shown her skills and value. In the book, it was the recognition and destruction of this girl that sparked everything to come, that made Katniss blame the capital. In the movie? Just another dead tribute.

  10. I dont know why people are making this a big issue, I mean i thought She played Rue FANTASTIC In the movie, I couldnt picture anyone else playing rue in the movie! Good Job!, And For all those racist comments out there, they're just ignorant and racist people just for a skin complexion, LIke Martin Luther kind jr Said "I had A Dream That people werent judged by the color of their skin".

  11. When we witness a member of our own ethnic group suffering (like Katniss, if you’re European-American), our brain activates the same experience for ourselves, leading us to feel the same pain as she does.

    Omg, this is why i can't feel as much empathy towards males. I'm female and for some reason, I always felt more empathy towards females (whthere adult or little). I try really hard to feel empathy towards males (men and little boys) when I hear something bad happening on the news, but I just can't. It kinda annoys me, but now I know why.