A baffling, infuriating trend has cropped up in reviews of The Hunger Games: critics bodysnarking on Jennifer Lawrence. “A few years ago Ms. Lawrence might have looked hungry enough to play Katniss,” writes the New York Times’ Manohla Dargis, “but now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission.” The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy comments that Lawrence’s “lingering baby fat shows here.” And—most bluntly—Hollywood Elsewhere’s Jeffrey Wells calls Lawrence a “fairly tall, big-boned lady” who’s “too big” for Josh Hutcherson, who plays Katniss’s romantic interest. (In case the message didn’t come through: Wells thinks Jennifer Lawrence is BIG. He also thinks we should be wary of “certain female critics” who “may be susceptible to the lore of this young-female-adult-propelled franchise.”)
Let us count the ways this line of reasoning is ridiculous. First, Jennifer Lawrence is a thin young woman. Her body type may differ ever so slightly from the Hollywood norm—her thighs appear functional rather than merely decorative—but she’s still leaner than the vast majority of the American population. The hullaballoo over Lawrence’s figure reminds me of the rash of articles a few years back that could not get over the curviness of Scarlett Johansson (another thin actress). The fact that a woman’s shape deviates slightly from the stick-thin figures that populate the silver screen does not make her “big.”
Second—to respond to those whose argument is that Lawrence doesn’t look authentically “hungry” enough for the role (rather than those, like Wells, whose argument is purely aesthetic)—not everyone who starves him- or herself looks like a supermodel. If that were the case, everyone on a calorie-restricted diet would be skinny; genetics prevent most humans from achieving that look. Just as living in a world with abundant calories does not automatically make everyone fat, living in a dystopian world like Panem with sporadic food access would not automatically make everyone skinny. Some bodies, I daresay, would be even bigger than Lawrence’s.
Finally, if critics are going to pick on a 21-year-old woman for not being skinny enough for a fantasy film, why haven’t they been more consistent in their critiques of actors’ bodies? I haven’t seen much concern about Liam Hemsworth’s muscular frame, even though his character in The Hunger Games occupies the same food-strapped world as Katniss. Nor—to take an example from another recent film—did I see many reviews of Friends With Kids that took issue with the disconnect between Jennifer Westfeldt’s slim physique and her character’s constantly commented upon postpartem unfuckability. If we held actors’ physical appearance to a standard of strict realism in all movies, most Hollywood actors would be uncastable in films set in present-day America. Movie critics suspend their disbelief all the time—and when they suddenly refuse to do so for a female actor whose body looks more like an average woman’s body rather than less, it’s hard to see that as anything but sexist.