Hunger Games of the Hunger Games

I saw The Hunger Games this weekend, along with however many other hundreds of thousands of people, and I’m still processing it. I’m not going to post a review of it because I think Kimberly’s review is entirely spot on and perfect.

Instead, I thought I’d talk about the response to the movie I’ve been reading and been thinking a lot about. Two constant criticisms popping up that have rubbed me wrong on so many levels fall squarely on Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss. Both are perfect examples of the sorts of criticism people heft onto female actresses, especially in leading performances.

Right before the movie released on Friday, this article popped up via a (male) friend’s Facebook page. He asked everyone if they believed Hunger Games was really the first female-lead driven, huge movie, and their responses to the question were interesting. Most said this is probably the biggest wide release film with a female lead, but they pointed out other film/film series that featured female leads, including Twilight (which female commenters in the thread were quick to dismiss since “Bella’s worthless”), Tomb Raider, Underworld, and Kill Bill. I think it says a lot there IS a discussion and there ARE articles trying to ferret out which movies were the first to star a female. Because we cannot get past gender.

But more disturbing to me are reviews like this one. I get the reviewers weren’t fans of the film, and that’s everyone’s right to have. I also get the humor they’re going for in this review, and it’s spot on in being more about the authors than about the film. But the line that struck me was this: “Natasha: Like, I needed a bitch to EMOTE and pretend like her tummy was a little rumbly.” 

Let me start with the first part and work into the second part. 

For what it’s worth, I thought Jennifer Lawrence was spot-on in her portrayal of Katniss. See, as much as this film was about a desperate situation, it was also a game being televised for everyone to watch. She knew that. Playing into her emotions would be playing into precisely what the Capitol would want. More importantly, though, Katniss isn’t an emoter. Katniss is a thinker. She’s critically assessing her situations and making strategic decisions about which moves to make and not make. Even in that scene with Rue — the one where I shed a couple of tears — she’s not emotionally wrought. She’s holding back and she’s acting with steelness because she has to. Because that is who she is. If you’ll remember back to the scenes prior to Katniss’s going into the arena, particularly when she is saying her goodbyes to Prim, her mother, and Gale, she’s tough. She has no emotional blatant emotional response because she’s in a state of utter shock and disbelief, and this response doesn’t change when she’s fighting, either. It wouldn’t. 

Lawrence, as Kimberly pointed out, “frequently remain[s] silent but able to communicate a lot through her face and body language without making it seem like she’s emoting.” This is where I found Katniss to be most believable and most authentic to everything she was to herself. Had Lawrence emoted or worn her feelings in more visible ways (breaking down in tears, shredding things in anguish, and so forth), she’d be playing the game and losing sight of the end goal (getting out of there, getting home). More than that, though, it’d be playing into what the audience expects from her.

Which takes me to this point: we expect females to emote, don’t we? We expect the emotional response and we’re almost uncomfortable when it’s not there. Like it’s not right. I needed a bitch to EMOTE. I probably don’t need to go into the connotation there, do I? Bitches need to show their emotions or they’re not valid. Remember the earlier comments about Twilight?

The second part of the comment above that got me was about Katniss needing to portray her hunger a little more. Don’t worry, this one’s been covered, too. Why is it a woman’s body is always open for discussion? Why is it when a woman’s body IS discussed, it’s always leveraged with a subtle jab at any other body type? This article does it, too, intentionally or not, right here: “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.”

So your thighs are either functional or they’re not, depending on the size? So, very thin people have non-functional thighs? I wholeheartedly agree with what Anderson’s trying to say in the piece, but the way it’s presented is a little problematic for me because it invariably pits “right” bodies from “not-right” bodies. We ARE fixated on this, and we continue to fixate by making these kind of distinctions.

But back to the point: we realize that Lawrence is tiny, right? That her body is thinner than average, but she’s got curves. She’s got breasts and she’s got a butt. Guess what? Females come in all shapes and sizes, and even if Lawrence is “bigger” than the average model, why does it matter in this role? To be entirely honest, I thought the fact she WAS curvy made her an even more inspired choice for the role. It hammered home the desperation and the hunger. While I will admit to the film not necessarily capturing the back story to the Hunger Games particularly well, Lawrence’s “average” body didn’t make her need any less valid or less believable. The anguish and hunger? It was written on her face. It was written in the way she moved her body, the pacing with which she advanced and retreated in each scene. It was also right there on the faces and in the actions of every other tribute.

Since when does one need to be emaciated to prove they’re hungry? And since when does there need to be audible grumbling? We expect certain things because they’re what we’ve come to accept as the right way for things to be. We expect hunger to manifest in moaning and in weakness. If it’s presented any other way, it’s up for easy criticism. For easy mockery. If our main heroine in a story like The Hunger Games isn’t teeny tiny, isn’t crying or breaking at the drop of a hat, and if her stomach isn’t growling, then she’s wrong.

She’s wrong.

I’ve avoided a lot of review reading of the movie because what I have read has presented judgment of Lawrence’s performance in a way that’s made an assumption of the role a female — a female teen, no less — should play. Viewers are spending more time critiquing what is acceptable emotion and body shape against our believed societal norms, rather than analyzing her performance by critiquing it in terms of story. In terms of the world she’s been put in. In terms of who Katniss is.

It’s become almost a Hunger Games in itself, hasn’t it?

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  1. says

    Great article… I loved the movie. :) I took my 12yo daughter, and we both enjoyed it a lot. I thought Lawrence portrayed Katniss REALLY well, and I'm looking forward to what she does in the sequel (which I'm assuming is happening). It's interesting how we react when we encounter entertainment that doesn't quite fit the societal norm for our gender expectations. I love it. I love it for the same reasons I loved Lord of the Rings… We all, male and female, dream of being part of something bigger, the epic quest. And it's dang cool when we get to be a part of that.

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