Jenniferâ€™s Body, Redux: The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Actresses
But one thing kept nagging at me about my own argument: Jennifer Lawrence was fantastic as Katniss. She nailed Katnissâ€™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, itâ€™s also hard to make the argument that it should have gone to [insert name of other talented Serious Young Actress whoâ€™s had a chance to show her chops in a well-written, complex roleâ€”oh wait, there arenâ€™t many, that was the point of my piece]. So when people counter my argument with, â€śWell, they just chose the best actress for the partâ€ťâ€”and when I donâ€™t have a shred of hard evidence to support otherwiseâ€”part of me has to agree.
But I think thatâ€™s also a bit of a red herring, and hereâ€™s why: Talented actresses are asked all the time to manipulate their bodies in order to fit a role. BeyoncĂ© 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 donâ€™t just get critical acclaim for physical transformation; they get press, and The Hunger Games team didn't shy away from that. (Itâ€™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 thereâ€™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 wasnâ€™t enough for Darren Aronofsky to direct Serious Actress Natalie Portmanâ€”who was, of course, already whippet-thinâ€”to not whittle her frame for the film. So I donâ€™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: Iâ€™m in no way suggesting Lawrence should have lost weight for this role, and Iâ€™m wary of the practice. (Yes, actorsâ€™ bodies are their â€śinstrumentsâ€ť and bodily manipulation is a part of the trade, but do we really need to be encouraging performersâ€”actresses in particularâ€”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 itâ€™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 didnâ€™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 Lawrenceâ€”slender, white, angel-faced Lawrenceâ€”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 Lawrenceâ€™s own account of the intersection between Katnissâ€™s frame and her own, I become more convinced that her body became a portal for all sorts of ideas that werenâ€™t really about Katniss as written by Suzanne Collins. â€śYou canâ€™t diet,â€ť Lawrence told UK Glamour. â€śKatniss is meant to be a hunter; sheâ€™s meant to be scary. Kate Moss running at you with a bow and arrow isnâ€™t scary.â€ť (Actually, that sounds terrifying, but Iâ€™ll give her a pass.) Decontextualized itâ€™s sound logic, but within The Hunger Games itâ€™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 powerâ€”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 wasnâ€™t Lawrenceâ€™s biceps that made her ferocious in the movie; it was the intensity of her performance.
And again, in an ideal world, thatâ€™s how it should be. Iâ€™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 didnâ€™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 sympatheticâ€”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 Collinsâ€™s booksâ€”even minor characters like Cato were cast pretty much exactly how Iâ€™d envisioned them. (Except Woody Harrelson, but whatever.)
So Iâ€™m tending to think something is up here. But at the same time, Iâ€™m wondering if Iâ€™m adding to the problem by hinging an argument upon the body size of an actressâ€”whose job should first and foremost be to act, which Lawrence did splendidly. I stand by my arguments but Iâ€™m wondering what you think. Was Jennifer Lawrenceâ€™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 strengthâ€”the â€śsheâ€™s meant to be scaryâ€ť 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?