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May 27
The Beheld
I write The Beheld (, a blog examining our concepts of beauty, using interviews with women whose professions and passions lend them a keen insight into personal appearance; analysis of news, business, economics, and culture; beauty experiments; and personal essays.


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APRIL 5, 2012 3:59AM

Jennifer’s Body, Redux: The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Actresses

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I mentioned this in my roundup last week but it’s pertinent to readers here: I penned a piece at Salon about the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss in The Hunger Games. You can read the whole piece here, but the argument in brief is this: Katniss is a prime role for a young actress, one that we knew would assure whomever was cast in the part instant fame—and Katniss’s thinness is not just a part of the character description in the books, but a part of the plot itself. So when virtually every other role written for 21-year-old women is filled by a rail-thin actress, why would Hollywood choose one of its few performers who doesn’t look underfed to play the part? I don’t think it’s just blind casting; I think it’s a message about the dearth of juicy roles for young actresses.

But one thing kept nagging at me about my own argument: Jennifer Lawrence was fantastic as Katniss. She nailed Katniss’s ferocity, her vulnerability, her dance of a child having become an adult too soon. While I think there was something else going on with the producers, at least subconsciously, it’s also hard to make the argument that it should have gone to [insert name of other talented Serious Young Actress who’s had a chance to show her chops in a well-written, complex role—oh wait, there aren’t many, that was the point of my piece]. So when people counter my argument with, “Well, they just chose the best actress for the part”—and when I don’t have a shred of hard evidence to support otherwise—part of me has to agree.

But I think that’s also a bit of a red herring, and here’s why: Talented actresses are asked all the time to manipulate their bodies in order to fit a role. Beyoncé for Dreamgirls, Charlize Theron for Monster, Rooney Mara for The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Renee Zellweger see-sawing between Bridget Jones and the other characters she played in the interim: Actresses don’t just get critical acclaim for physical transformation; they get press, and The Hunger Games team didn't shy away from that. (It’s interesting that men seem to lose weight for roles more than women, but an easy answer to that is that actresses are usually so slender to begin with that there’s little weight loss to be done.) Hell, look at the number of ballet-inspired weight-loss workouts that popped up with Black Swan. Talent alone wasn’t enough for Darren Aronofsky to direct Serious Actress Natalie Portman—who was, of course, already whippet-thin—to not whittle her frame for the film. So I don’t quite buy that the producers would have gone with mere talent as the reason to not instruct Lawrence to lose weight to play a hungry Katniss.

Let me be crystal-clear: I’m in no way suggesting Lawrence should have lost weight for this role, and I’m wary of the practice. (Yes, actors’ bodies are their “instruments” and bodily manipulation is a part of the trade, but do we really need to be encouraging performers—actresses in particular—to be even more focused on their weight? I mean, Mila Kunis, who does not have an eating disorder, started mimicking eating disorder symptoms after Black Swan wrapped. What happens to performers already prone to disordered behavior is upsetting to think about.) My point is that it’s not like losing weight to play a character is somehow verboten in Hollywood, and that for a character who is described as underweight and chronically hungry, it might actually might have made logical sense. So the fact that Lawrence didn’t lose weight to play Katniss makes me think that The Hunger Games team had an investment in keeping Lawrence looking, well, normal. Part of that investment might have been to defuse accusations (perhaps from wary feminist bloggers comme moi) of having taken a proto-feminist character and made her adhere to the beauty standard even more than Lawrence—slender, white, angel-faced Lawrence—already does. But I think the larger investment is what I fingered in the Salon piece: Figuratively speaking, they wanted to add more weight to Katniss. And adding physical weight to the character as written was an easy way to do that.

This might seem like a counterintuitive argument, but when I look at Lawrence’s own account of the intersection between Katniss’s frame and her own, I become more convinced that her body became a portal for all sorts of ideas that weren’t really about Katniss as written by Suzanne Collins. “You can’t diet,” Lawrence told UK Glamour. “Katniss is meant to be a hunter; she’s meant to be scary. Kate Moss running at you with a bow and arrow isn’t scary.” (Actually, that sounds terrifying, but I’ll give her a pass.) Decontextualized it’s sound logic, but within The Hunger Games it’s backward: Katniss, hailing from an impoverished part of the nation, should be feeling afraid of the heavier, stronger female contestants from the better-fed districts. The whole point is that Katniss survives through her agility, skill, and determination, not her muscle power—that despite the odds being never in her favor, she embodies the name of the Hunger Games better than any other contestant in the arena. Yes, Katniss could ostensibly have muscle from her outings in the meadow. But it wasn’t Lawrence’s biceps that made her ferocious in the movie; it was the intensity of her performance.

And again, in an ideal world, that’s how it should be. I’d love to think that Lawrence was cast solely because she gave a better audition for Katniss than any other actress could. But Hollywood rarely does blind casting; certainly it didn’t for The Hunger Games (as evidenced in part by the despicable number of people who were not only surprised that Rue was played by a young black actress but claimed that her race made the character less sympathetic—which, I mean, did they see the same movie I did? Or, for that matter, read the same book, in which Rue was explicitly described as dark-skinned?). They were extraordinarily fidelitous to Collins’s books—even minor characters like Cato were cast pretty much exactly how I’d envisioned them. (Except Woody Harrelson, but whatever.)

So I’m tending to think something is up here. But at the same time, I’m wondering if I’m adding to the problem by hinging an argument upon the body size of an actress—whose job should first and foremost be to act, which Lawrence did splendidly. I stand by my arguments but I’m wondering what you think. Was Jennifer Lawrence’s casting in The Hunger Games simply an instance of talent trumping letter-perfect character description? Was there something else going on? Was it a reconception of Katniss as having a different sort of strength—the “she’s meant to be scary” strength Lawrence references? Is this a step toward blind casting? And, on a slightly different note, are there ways to discuss the bodies of specific individuals without making value judgments that contribute to the larger problem of evaluating women for their bodies?

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I have heard critics complain about Jennifer Lawrence's size in this movie, and I do not understand it. Lawrence is a thin, 21-year-old girl, end of story. The word "bigger" does not apply to her in any way. The nit-picking that occurs between a size double zero and a size two or four astounds me. What are these people looking at?

I would also argue that Katniss' "underfed appearance" is not her major descriptor in the book, and it's not the "reason" why the "odds weren't in her favor." She was an unlikely competitor because she was never trained to fight humans, and she didn't have a ruthless, killer mindset. The character's weight is a pointless discussion, imho. Does it really matter? I mean, she eats mostly meat and bread, right, so... protein and carbs?

To address your real question though, I think Lawrence was cast because of her work in "Winter's Bone." Obviously, she can be tough, assume a motherly role for younger siblings, skin a squirrel like a stone fox, and look sweet in minimal makeup, without having a "pop TV" look. I can't think of another young-enough actress who, by the time this movie was likely cast, had been in a real action movie or played a really tough role. Chloe Grace Moretz and Saoirse Ronan are probably too young (Katniss is very adult like). Hailee Steinfeld and Emily Browning too unknown. Lawrence is obviously the most convincing.
I'm not sure about the point you're making (or if you're just wondering out loud), but I really think this was simply a case of the bosses needing to be absolutely certain that the actress they picked could carry the film to an extent that few actors/characters have to. Winter's Bone proved that JL was up to it, and anybody else would have been a bigger gamble. I've also read that Ross didn't want her overly thin (for reasons you mentioned), though I think it would have been fine had she leaned up even more than she did (I agree that molding one's body to fit a role is not as shocking as some would have us believe).

Maybe she would have been even more appropriate for the role if she were flat-chested and wiry, but it was better (from the decision makers' POV) to tone down her womanly features than go with a riskier choice.

And this being a movie rather than a book, having her appear capable probably trumped accurate adaptation.
BTW- I'm one of the few people that discovered The Hunger Games because of Jennifer Lawrence rather than the other way around, so clearly I think they made the right choice.
I thought Lawrence was beautiful and she did an amazing job in this role. But remarkably, I also thought she looked thin. Funny. When you can act, you can make your audience believe what you want them to believe. She made me believe she was thin.
I would like that she had it all even if not rail thin. Did you see pic of her on the red carpet? She has a beautiful face. It (her face) can be sexy, tough and kind ( made up or not). And since when does anyone complain about proportionate , and some natural (AFAIK) breast. Maybe they wanted a Xena and not a Selene (Kate Beckinsale) or a Evelyn Salt (Angelina Jolie). She is just sexy as hell as well as being able to play the part.

The close up of her face, eyes and lips when aiming the bow are stunning.

Not that I know women sizes, but as a guy I did notice she was a 4, as on pointed out it, instead of a Jolie zero. Yes. So what. I could look in those eyes forever.

And maybe I am mind reading but in the public appearances posing and one interview , she seems perfectly fine in her body and a happy person . Maybe her real life character is what got her the role.
Personally, I DIDN'T think Lawrence nailed the role. I remember another actress who didn't exactly fit the description of the book character she was playing: Emma Watson as Hermoine Granger in the "Harry Potter" films. When I saw that instead of a chubby, bucktoothed, frizzy-haired girl, this little imp-looking thing had been cast, I was disgusted with Hollywood making everything "pretty". But Watson won me over and I came out of even the first movie of the series feeling like THAT'S someone who must have come into the casting session and just nailed it. Lawrence, on the other hand, didn't do it for me. I think lots of other young actresses could have played the role of Katniss.

Part of the problem might have been that the movie didn't let us IN - for me, "The Hunger Games"' greatest conflict is Katniss having to let go and trust someone. I think very little of that came through in the movie.

Another thing I thought was odd is that, in addition to Lawrence being curvier than one might expect for someone in such a role, many of the costumes seemed to emphasize this - and were the kind of thing that most girls above a size 0 would probably shy away from as unflattering (like that yellow mustard squarish-bulky top she wears at the apartment before the Games!).

I also thought it was odd that, despite the book/film's title, we never really get a sense of Katniss and Peeta and the others being truly HUNGRY. In the book, for example, when they first get on the train for the Capitol, they are amazed by the food that's there for the eating, and we constantly read about them scarfing what they can - both for strength and because they were starving. I was puzzled as to why the film wasn't clearer about this.

More puzzling still is that, for all these questions we can ask, as you point out here, Collins, the author herself, was actively involved in the film, and even co-wrote the screenplay.

Thanks for an intelligent article that definitely gives one food for thought.
it could be both
letter perfect and
" with the producers, at least subconsciously"
i mean, they gotta know something, right?
a rail thin but beautiful actress in the part would have
been just as controversial, you know it...

for other reasons...

but you say she hit the character...
ferocity & running at u with bows and arrows...
i don't see how that is less terrifying than skinny gals doing it.

she's a zena in spirit. maybe her flesh hasn't caught up yet...
she is also a serious actress, of which there are, uh, not many.

Sean Penn did a film a while back with a pot belly.
With Naomi Watts..what was the name of that? shocked me.
I'm not, really not, sure I'm intelligent enough to contribute to this article, or even the comments that follow, but I have a feeling I would like to share, if I may.
Maybe the producers were sort of trapped between Charybdis and Scylla, you know, between a rock and a hard place with this one. They needed the movie to succeed, for all the common and obvious reasons, and part of any movie’s success, when it involves an actress, regardless of her age and perceived “beauty”, is that the actress (the actors in general) must appear in the public forum, red carpet events, interviews, “Leno” and his ilk, and if they “nailed” her look for the film, and it was a runaway success, the actress would be pressed to get in the right shape to make the movie look good, on the cover of the magazines. Do you see what I’m trying to say? Maybe cutting the corners on the look of the character, in order to have the actress appear on the cover of Rolling Stone the week after the movie opens in a nearly see through dress, was the option they choose. Now, it seems, that if she was slender for the film, gained weight for the photo opportunities, and then slimed down again for the sequel, which begins shooting in August, it might not only send a bad message, but might really be too much stress for the actress, and given the rushed schedule, nothing would be allowed to slow this juggernaut down.

It is, on the other hand, a very good essay. I wish I could write as well as you do.
A very thoughtful piece. When I read the book I got the impression that Katniss was a little better fed than most in the district because of her hunting and trading, so I didn't expect that she'd be emaciated. I think the main problem is that when people read a book and become heavily invested, they've already made the movie in their head, so it's impossible for any director to match that personal internal vision. Eventually these inter-cranial directors will move on to another book, and this will pass.