Manohla Dargis‘ New York Times review of The Hunger Games finally came out and said what many been thinking: As described by author Suzanne Collins, Jennifer Lawrence’s character, Katniss Everdeen, is a pre-teen girl on the brink of starvation; in the movie she doesn’t look emaciated or particularly pre-pubescent…in essence, Lawrence is too fat for her role. The knee-jerk reaction is of course to say that this is body-negative and defend Lawrence’s great body and attitude about her weight. But objectively, it’s true: I’ve read the books, and Lawrence certainly isn’t the Katniss Everdeen I imagined. The critiques aren’t body-negative because they’re unfounded—they’re body-negative because no one bats an eyelash when actresses are too thin or beautiful to be convincing in their roles, but when it’s the other way around, it’s a perfectly good excuse to lay into their looks.
Dargis’ matter-of-fact criticism isn’t catty or mean:
A few years ago Ms. Lawrence might have looked hungry enough to play Katniss, but now, at 21, her seductive, womanly figure makes a bad fit for a dystopian fantasy about a people starved into submission.
In fact, if anything, she carefully levels blame at Lawrence’s age and sexual maturity, instead of just her weight. But still, if we’re all willing to play along with the ruse of actresses like Jennifer Aniston and Katherine Heigl playing the homely girl next door, I have to wonder why everyone is so caught up with the fact that Lawrence doesn’t look like she’s genuinely starving.
Of course, part of the problem is that weight loss—and gain—has become an over-valued marker of actors’ and actresses’ commitment to their work. Put on enough pounds, and it practically guarantees you’ll be an Oscar nominee (at the least). Lose an extreme amount of weight, and somehow it’s equated with acting skill (although it’s still not clear to me how hiring trainers and nutritionists to change your body requires any more skill than sitting down to get your hair and makeup done).
But the bigger problem isn’t that we overvalue physical transformation, because in the vast majority of movies, there isn’t much: A pair of thick-rimmed glasses makes gorgeous actresses “ugly,” and a loosely-fitted sweater can make a size zero actress a frumpy mom, easily. When female characters are meant to be ugly, old or fat, we’ll easily ignore discrepancies (because who would want to actually hire an actress who’s any of those things?). But if a character is meant to be emaciated or sick, we feel conned if she hasn’t made herself those things in real life.
Jennifer Lawrence is not fat. She isn’t even what some would kindly refer to as an “average” weight. She’s thin. She’s beautiful. And yes, at 21, it’s clear that her body has already hit puberty. This might be distracting for die-hard fans of The Hunger Games trilogy, who imagined a Katniss with a different body, but let’s be honest: We look past far worse discrepancies regularly. (Julia Roberts, for example, is pretty much nothing like the real-life author, Elizabeth Gilbert, who she played in Eat, Pray Love, but with a few blonde highlights most audiences had a fine time forgetting her book jacket headshot and enjoying the show.) So until all Hollywood movies are held to the same standard of authenticity with actor and actresses bodies, comments about Lawrence’s weight should be taken for what they are: Unfair body snarking.