the conundrum of avoiding the rue problem

I read Gretchen McNeil’s Ten for the Hub Reading Challenge, but also because it said it was a slasher film in a book, and that sounded completely excellent. And in that sense, it totally delivered as a delicious slasher film that completely takes all the tropes and characters present in those and does nothing to update them, and that’s great, because nobody wants you to update them. They’re great because they’re utterly predictable.

But there is a point where things get meta, and where they get meta, they get weirdly racial and problematic, and even though I have no business assuming that McNeil did this in response to a current event that happened barely a year ago (except also, to be fair, it happened longer ago than that), but I’m going to, because I think it allows me to think about an interesting concept in writing.

So everyone knows that the book The Hunger Games has Katniss as maybe something that’s not totally white, or at least not totally WASP, but that everyone read her as white and it’s not really a problem, because that’s what the author is. But what some people didn’t notice in the book is that there were some people of color in it. Because, if you are the kind of person who thinks about literature and problematic things in literature, you probably know how everyone reads everyone as white, no matter the reader’s color, unless it is explicitly stated repeatedly that the character is not. And sometimes not even then. This isn’t really up for discussion as far as its validity, because everyone knows that it is more or less fact, because it’s the way we in the U.S. were socialized to read.

So then the “Hunger Games” movie came out, and you probably remember when all of the news outlets were outing all of the TOTALLY-not-racist-because-they-have-a-black-friend-and-their-aunt-adopted-a-Chinese-kid people who were tweeting about how they were less sad that Rue died when they found out she was black, and yadda yadda, because everyone is racist all the time and everyone doesn’t read closely, and even though they are still stupid and racist for not understanding that these are not perceptions you are supposed to say publicly on the Internet, it’s kind of understandable that they didn’t notice. The end. Really, you should know this already, and if you don’t, look it up.

Ten, being a teen slasher novel, obviously has a shy, pure, loyal girl at the center, and then she has a love interest who she can’t be with because she doesn’t want to betray the friend who has a crush on him. His name is T.J., and he is – gasp! – black. It’s okay if you don’t notice that the first time, because you will be told again and again that that’s what he is. The story takes place on a deserted island during a storm (of course, because that’s excellent), and there are two Asian girls whose only epithets (because McNeil seemed really averse to just using their names to describe when one of them made a salad or said words in quotation marks) were “the Asian girl” or “the small Asian girl.” Seriously. I think there were two of them. I could now be getting them confused, because ten characters are a lot to keep track of. Anyway, though, maybe in the future authors could give people of color personalities and epithets that are interesting in the same way those for white people are.

The real issue, though, is T.J. There is a moment in the novel where this happens:

“Well, if this is a horror movie, you’re the first one to go. The black dude’s always the first one to die.”

This is brilliant because it’s true, and it’s a witty observation to make in a story that is supposed to replicate that same trope (and all the other ones, like a pure of heart virgin winning in the end – you don’t get to yell at me for spoilers because if you have seen ONE horror movie you know that that’s the ending). But everyone white in the novel immediately flips out and yells at the kid who made the comment (I don’t even remember who, because again, the point is that nobody is memorable except like three people) and chastises him for getting all racial.

THAT is ridiculous, because it was a funny, astute observation that showed a sensitivity to how race is portrayed in the media. IT WAS NOT A RACIST REMARK. Then a similar thing happens later, and AGAIN, everyone chastises him for “making it about race,” even the point is that they are making a joke, because humor is when you point out something that is wrong with society and make people slightly uncomfortable with it (as opposed to the mistaken idea people have that humor is what Seth MacFarlane did at the Oscars) so as to point out why it’s ridiculous. So right here is an example of how white folks don’t quite understand when to get butthurt about race and when not to be. Joking about a true phenomenon in society is a way to make you aware of how race and institutions work; it’s not an act of racism. So many other things that don’t get recognized actually are acts of racism; please don’t go around teaching people that non-racist things are racist.

I honestly feel like this is an authorial intervention, not a natural character thing (also, these types of stories don’t have characters per se, anyway, just functions), and that it has something to do with being terrified of being labeled a racist, terrified of being one of those authors who doesn’t know how to have a multicultural cast, and terrified of having a Rue problem. And I don’t know what to do with it, because if the book were all lily white people doing lily white things, would it be any better? Or would I be claiming about how murder should really be equal opportunity? I really don’t know, but it’s a conundrum.

Of course there are steps to take, and there are different ways to approach race depending on your story, your writing style, your comfort level, whatever. But I think the reason I don’t want to be nicer about this is that McNeil clearly had a little meta moment where she thought she could make her novel more interesting by playing with the fact that her characters had seen horror movies before, and then she crashed and burned by failing to understand what horror movies mean and do.

But what is the answer to all of this? Keep using race epithets so that you can’t have people be shocked when the movie comes out, or don’t? Make your white characters care about racism even if they get it wrong, or write a manual for white antiracism at the expense of story? Be “Glee?” I don’t know.

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One thought on “the conundrum of avoiding the rue problem

  1. I remember how surprised some readers were at a character who as it turns out is black in the spectacular Newbery winner WHEN YOU REACH ME- it’s all done without guile or even a mention, the most natural way for kids.
    No preaching just rounded characters. Now this is when you know we are maturing, finally.

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