"The Hunger Games" is the smash success it was expected to be, but amid the generally positive reviews, some writers have claimed that film critics’ comments suggesting actress Jennifer Lawrence is miscast in the lead role sends a “toxic” message that might encourage eating disorders in teen fans. (Lawrence’s character, Katniss Everdeen, is supposed to be hungry and starved, yet appears well fed and even a touch overweight.)
Marikar quoted two film reviews, including one in The New York Times that included the passage: “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.” A second expert quoted by Marikar stated that such comments “make young girls who are very susceptible to eating disorders think twice about how they look.”
There are of course many social pressures on girls and women to be thin and beautiful, but in this case there seems to be a misunderstanding, a disconnect between what the film critics wrote and the kinds of “toxic” messages about an “arbitrary and unrealistic ideal” that the quoted experts are talking about.
No one is suggesting that Lawrence is too fat to fit some Hollywood beauty ideal. Instead, they are saying that the actress’s physique is not believable in the context of the story and film, which is a completely different issue.
Portraying fictional characters often requires actors to dramatically change their appearance to fit different roles, from adopting new accents, dentures and contact lenses to putting on (or taking off) wigs and pounds. Actors and actresses routinely gain or shed weight for roles; for example Christian Bale lost 60 pounds to play a sickly, insomniac industrial worker in the 2004 drama "The Machinist." Actors who play lead characters in action and superhero films often diet and intensively train for months to get themselves in physical shape for the role.
To be believable, actors must physically fit their characters: Dustin Hoffman will never believably portray an African-American basketball player for the same reason that an obese actor will not be chosen for the role of a long-distance runner (or a ballerina). It’s not that they don’t measure up to some socially imposed physical ideal, it’s that they don’t fit the character as written.
In many film critics’ opinions, Lawrence did not fit the role, being both five years older and somewhat heavier than the character she’s portraying. Audiences may agree or disagree, but the critics were simply doing what critics always do — offering their opinion. (Lawrence is of course hardly alone; film critics regularly complain about actors being miscast for their movie roles.)
Concern that pop culture and the entertainment industry might cause eating disorders is nothing new. Over the years everything from Barbie dolls to TV shows to teen magazines and fashion advertising have been blamed for contributing to anorexia. Critics of the 2010 thriller "Black Swan" were concerned that it would lead to a surge in eating disorders among female audiences because Natalie Portman played a thin, mentally ill ballerina (the role won Portman a Best Actress Academy Award). Last year there was even widespread fear that a 44-page book in rhyming verse for children titled "Maggie Goes on a Diet" would trigger eating disorders.
The film critics’ comments about Lawrence have far more to do with choices made by the film’s director and casting director than about whether the actress falls short of some thin social ideal. Eating disorders are a serious issue that merits attention, but it’s extremely unlikely that reading a film review suggesting Lawrence doesn’t physically fit her character’s role will cause female "Hunger Games" fans to be at war with their bodies or make them think twice about how they look.
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate Films.