Why Jennifer Lawrence is Good for America
The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and American Hustle star Jennifer Lawrence ignores many of the less appealing aspects of celebrity culture
Last month, I was perusing the Internet, as one does when they should be working, when I came upon a site with a fascinating juxtaposition. In the top article was a song review for Miley Cyrus’ latest single, which was critiqued with sickening sycophancy by praising the former Disney star’s inspiration of a “craze” that involves reverse cowgirl-ing statues in public locations (you may recall this stemming from the video where she performed fellatio on a hammer). The other was a simple news blurb about Jennifer Lawrence in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, a movie where the young woman is a heroine who never once throws herself off a cliff because her boyfriend dumped her or waits for the man to save the day (also with nary a Beetlejuice’d Robin Thicke in sight). It then dawned on me: Jennifer Lawrence IS GOOD for America.
The 23-year-old actress has many of the assets required to be a celebrity, which our culture often mistakes for being either talented or a role model. She’s famous, she’s the star of a popular film franchise, and she’s a blonde bombshell (most of the time). But beyond all of that, she is actually talented while playing roles that do not require her to either pout or undress. And even if some do, the Oscar winning thesp seems to take it in stride.
I first became aware of Lawrence, like so many others, from a small indie called Winter’s Bone. In that permafrost film, Lawrence shined bright at 19-years-old on a screen shared with character actor heavyweights like John Hawkes, Garret Dillahunt and Dale Dickey. While I did not love the film—the story of a teenage girl who must find her probably dead meth-dealing father in the Ozark Mountains drug ring or else her younger siblings will starve—the performances were uniformly excellent, earning Lawrence a deserved Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She lost that year to Natalie Portman’s tour de force in Black Swan, but nobody doubted Lawrence would be back in the Kodak Theatre (now Dolby Theatre) and soon. Becoming a movie star was expected for someone with that much charisma at only 19. What was less predictable is that she could become an alternative to decades of Hollywood wisdom.
This is not to turn her work into an entire puff piece on The Hunger Games. But still, it is refreshing to see a popular actress in a role who actually fits all the buzzy PR words used to sell “girl power” in pop culture. You know exactly what I am referring to. If one says the phrases “empowering,” “strong,” “fierce,” or “independent” in any ensuing combination, it is often treated as an excuse for the feminine to be objectified any which way till VMA. The contradiction first became hilariously crystallized to me when I was yet still a wee lad and Cameron Diaz, Drew Barrymore, and Lucy Liu all sat on the late night chat circuit to call their film version of Charlie’s Angels a story of feminist empowerment and gender progression when all eighth grade boys wanted to see were the bouncing curves in a film that was marketed around Ms. Diaz saying to her mailman, “So, you can just feel free to stick it in my slot.”
This realization is not necessarily revolutionary, because it is so ubiquitous. It is our common sense. Consider when Machete Kills came out earlier this year, it was sold entirely on a slew of actresses wearing gun belts and not much else, but they all found the project so empowering. Obviously, these images are heavily skewed toward adolescent boys—with focus group-approved “fierce” marketing aimed at young girls arbitrarily thrown in—and there is the entire argument that American values are still rooted in some form of repressive Puritanism that needs to be torn down. Nonetheless, if such squeaky-clean repression, attempting to have “the best of both worlds,” leads to fawning over the trailblazing gusto of a mightily abused foam finger, there is something rotten in the state of pop culture.
That might be a generalization, but it is one that can be comfortably made when navel-gazing has become the centerfold of nearly all in it. Once upon a time, media would at least try to pass morality and “good vs. evil” allegories to younger demographics through animation and other assorted outlets. Consider that the most popular images sold to girls now are less about the magic wand than the jewel encrusted microphone. When pop celebrity is seen as its own kind of royalty, there is little surprise when its products simply graduate into Spring Breakers.
Yet ultimately, sexuality is not the issue; but the cynically banal use of it could be. And that goes for the flipside as well. Increasingly, Hollywood is shifting more and more to wild swings between massive franchisable blockbusters and “micro-budget” schlock. Paramount Pictures executives have supposedly said that they’re most interested in Transformers or Paranormal Activity movies these days. Ironically, this is appearing to actually somewhat hurt the traditional Hollywood “woman’s picture,” going all the way back to the 1930s: The romantic comedy. Increasingly, a middle-budgeted star vehicle like that is seen as risky because it does not have the guaranteed easy rewards of a $2 million genre flick or the massive success of a money-printing tentpole that hits. As the market changes, studios have tried to find the latter for a female-targeted demographic.
When Twilight made nearly $400 million worldwide in 2008, Hollywood took notice of what became perceived as the new Harry Potter. When its sequel, The Twilight Saga: New Moon, opened to $142 million in the U.S. box office and earned over $700 million worldwide, putting it domestically on par with Harry Potter and above the latest Star Trek and X-Men offerings of that year, accepted Tinsletown wisdom did a 180. Prior to those films, the general notion was that women did not go out to the theater in big enough waves to see a big budget franchise film or genre fare, unless that franchise was Sex and the City. Suddenly, it became accepted by studios that teen girls, and their more quietly riveted mothers, would flock to a genre movie as long as it was romantic or featured romantic supernatural trappings.
I am not going to get into the many, many, many imitators that Twilight has had in the short four years following that massive sequel debut. Suffice to say that studios have chased Edward Cullen’s sparkles, thus far to middling results. But Twilight is pivotal because it offered the other side of the false choice: The Bella Swan. As created, somewhat brilliantly by Stephenie Meyer, Bella the character (NOTE: Not Kristen Stewart) is an amalgamation of every negative cliché imaginable. She spends four books (and five movies) waiting for her “prince” to come and save her. She then also courts another boy for much of the series, despite even being engaged and eventually married to the other, essentially playing them off one another. There is not a single conflict that she solves in the story for herself, as personified most glaringly in one of the sequels where her two suitors join forces to carry poor, helpless Bella away from a threat. Literally. She can’t even stand on her own two feet without them.
Worst of all, Bella reinforces the 1950s mindset that if a woman does not have a man in her life, then that life is not worth living. After all, once her boyfriend dumps her in the aforementioned box office smash, Bella spends most of the movie partying with a biker gang, intentionally crashing moving vehicles and jumping off a rock face, all to get her ex’s attention—which she does, making hurting herself worthwhile. In more satirical hands, Bella could have been a Shakespearian villain in the way she endangered all those around her in pursuit of her own selfish desires (thanks to Doug Walker for that comparison). But as is, she is merely the ultimate concoction of negative stereotypes involving self-hate and loathing, sent glitteringly to her millions of tween fans.
Which brings us back to Jennifer Lawrence. In all likelihood, The Hunger Games would never have been greenlit if not for the overwhelming success of Twilight. But to Lionsgate’s credit, and even more to the young readers who made Suzanne Collins’ trilogy a literary success, it was a young adult series that actually cultivated an ACTION heroine whose love triangle was genuinely secondary to her own growth, not to mention the post-apocalyptic world it paints full of more than a little allegory in response to the Bush and Jersey Shore years. Ultimately though, bringing in an actor’s director like Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit) provided an opportunity to place emphasis on higher talent than the rest of the current crop of YA adaptations.
Casting Lawrence in The Hunger Games was considered a risk for a number of reasons, besides her relative anonymity. Despite being a critical darling for Winter’s Bone, she followed that up with the box office flop The Beaver—a strangely sweet film from director Jodie Foster that was torpedoed by her friend Mel Gibson, who self-sabotaged yet another comeback for himself—and X-Men: First Class. While she was well cast as a bubbly and memorable version of Mystique, the blue paint hid some of her range in a movie more focused on the bromance between James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender (reportedly, now a star, she will have a much bigger role in the sequel). The other factor, besides fans and even some critics bizarrely whining about her weight, which gave Hollywood pause, is that her character of Katniss is an action heroine. An action heroine who does not wear skintight leather or feature a variety of costume changes. This simply isn’t done.
Of course, The Hunger Games turned into the Cinderella story of 2012 when it opened to $152 million (the highest non-sequel that year). It then also went on to earn over $400 million in the U.S. box office alone, better than any Marvel Studios film yet released at that point. It was a tremendous success that catapulted Lawrence to stardom, but what is more remarkable is WHY it was a success and why it could be a culturally good omen.
The premise itself was a rejection of the notion that women should be docile and passive to the overarching narrative of a story, even if it is their own. However, what makes Lawrence’s Katniss stick out is that Ross’ much maligned, but remarkably effective, style of gritty, handheld camera work evoked a potent verisimilitude for the story. The Kentucky born, Louisville girl was given a lived-in world where even if she did not look like she was starving, she did appear to come from a land where a warm leather jacket would be more important for her survival than a perfectly form-fitting tank top.
The general rule is that female moviegoers do not like action, and this is why there are no female superheroes with their own movies during this currently exploding genre craze. Indeed, the last ones adapted—Catwoman, Elektra, and Lara Croft—all ramped up the sex appeal of these already well-utilized objects of male gaze. Catwoman went from a leather cat suit to Halle Berry a dominatrix outfit, and Croft’s shorts inconceivably got even shorter. There have been more fully realized superheroines as of late. Last year, Anne Hathaway’s Catwoman walked away with the whole Dark Knight Trilogy closer for many viewers, including President Barack Obama. And Joss Whedon and Scarlett Johansson did convince a doubting public that Black Widow deserved to be in a group that also includes a Norse god and a not-so-jolly green giant. But neither is the star, and both have to do their fighting in high heels.
The only time Katniss is “prettied” under obvious layers of make-up and sparkling dresses is done for satirical purposes of mocking a culture who’s obsession with reality television romances mirrors our own. She never once looks comfortable in the situation. Obviously, Lawrence is still stunning and meant to be a movie star in a star-making role, but for once she is treated as a heroine first with all objectification being pushed to the background.
These elements coupled with the actress’ very natural and low-key performance created a protagonist that men AND women of all ages could root for in a movie that hits more demographics than Thor or Man of Steel. As it turns out, neither gender minds that she wasn’t rocking pumps or that she was shown as capable of killing several men throughout the narrative. And these actions, done to save a sister, are all heavily emphasized above the requisite love triangle. Many of these choices were from Collins’ own text, as well as the well-cast spotlight by Ross. Yet, Ross’ greatest coup was casting a real talent who only needed the right vehicle, because Lawrence has proven to handle the PR machine with as deft a hand as Katniss Everdeen.
It would be presumptuous to suggest that audiences know the real Jennifer Lawrence. But the personality she has chosen to project is one of replenishing common sense in a pop arena of dizzying hype. She openly mocked industry norms when she said, “In Hollywood, I’m obese. I’m considered a fat actress.” This openly challenges the standards of the modern fashion industry and reverses the media feeding frenzy’s rifle scope from herself to the pages of Vogue, Vanity Fair and even the industry professional’s Hollywood Reporter. The move, as calculated as Katniss’ “fire dress,” was well timed, similar to her instant ability to turn dumb questions about her tripping at an awards ceremony into the story, as opposed to her tripping. Whether these nuggets are truly indicative of her personality matter little as compared to the image it cleverly projects to a pop culture landscape littered with hipster apathy or fashion week cynicism.
But ultimately, the most important thing is that she is proving herself to be a great talent for whom the work matters more than this international hype machine that is raising her up as the next golden livestock. Granted, there are a number of terrific actresses and movie stars who are likewise professionally minded and in demand at the moment, but none have become an “American sweetheart” at the center of the zeitgeist. When Jennifer Lawrence won her first Oscar for Silver Linings Playbook at 22, the only surprise was the realization that while the movie is terrific, and she is good in it, that this will not be one of her best performances. She was excellent in Silver Linings, which I ranked in the Top 10 Movies of 2012, but it was in reality a supporting part in a superb romantic dramedy (a sadly dying breed). The actress from Winter’s Bone can do more, and because of her Hunger Games spotlight, she can prove that to a pop media free-for-all that otherwise would be only focus on mediocre celebrities who’s claim to fame are what inanimate object they will put in their mouth next (SPOILER ALERT: This week’s it’s a joint).
So, yes, Jennifer Lawrence is good for America. In a culture that will literally reward young women today if they make the right kind of sex tape, there is now a rising star of equal popularity built on playing a character—both in front and behind the camera—who is more memorable for her talent, skill and supremely capable gamesmanship over fleeting shock value. When even child-oriented culture now favors vacuous celebrity over fairy tales, at least this is one celebrity having a moment worth watching.