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[Guest Post] Clothes-horse of the Apocalypse: Katniss’ Dress Size and the Book of Revelation

2012 July 10

Here’s a post from Jem Bloomfield. If you have an idea for a guest post brewing in your brain, email us: [email protected].

She’s just a hungry girl,
In a post-apocalyptic wooooorld…

When The Hunger Games came out, we were faced with possibly the most ludicrous and yet most predictable controversy in recent film history: was Katniss Everdeen too fat? More specifically, was Jennifer Lawrence the wrong body-shape to play the protagonist of these phenomenally successful novels, as a number of critics and fans said? One quotation from the New York Times can stand in for a lot of others:

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.

I’m not going to answer the question, because, y’know. But I do want to talk about why the question matters, because it’s not something so ludicrous we can dismiss it.1

Artwork of Katniss Everdeen from the UK book release, showing a pale young woman looking determined.

Cover design for an early UK release of the Hunger Games, by Jason Chan

Essentially, these readers were arguing the case for realism. Katniss has access to limited calories (though more than some other people, due to her own skills) – this is part of the plot, theme and indeed title of the novel – so an actor of a certain body type might be less able to inhabit the role convincingly onscreen. Just as Renee Zellweger visibly put on some weight to play Bridget Jones2, Jennifer Lawrence was expected to appear strikingly underweight to embody the theme of the narrative. It’s a simple biological fact.

Except, of course, that fact assumes that the Hunger Games trilogy, beloved of teenage girls in particular, is taking place in a cultural vacuum. That it just happens to involve a young woman with a fraught relationship to food, who is contrasted to the decadence and self-indulgence of the inhabits of the Capitol and other characters. I’m absolutely not arguing that these are harmful books, or that they’re written thoughtlessly. Nor is it my place to tell young women how they should interact with art. But I am pointing out that novels don’t become popular for no reason, particularly YA novels with strong female leads.

Poster for the Hunger Games showing Jennifer Lawrence's face in closeupThe cultural factors which bear on the novels increase drastically when it comes to putting Katniss on screen. Again, there is an argument that the fictional situation happens to involve a character who would have a particular physical appearance. But that discourse of realism and “accuracy” totally ignores the hundreds of images which young women are bombarded with every day. It assumes that young women are never told they’re too fat or too skinny, that they lack self control or a sense of proportion, that their success in life is directly related to their dress size. It assumes that when actors like Jennifer Lawrence relax in between film-shoots, there aren’t packs of photographers with zoom-lenses feeding the websites which police their bodies and point out how they’ve “let themselves go”. Talk about “accuracy” is deeply naive because it ignores the way actors’ public personas are constructed, how their lifestyle is carefully confused with the roles they choose and how their bodies are used in advertising. It also ignores the power of performance to draw us into a fictional world and convince us of its reality, surely one of the main reasons anyone films a book in the first place.

So much for the hungry girl, but I don’t think we can ignore the post-apocalyptic world and its relevance to this controversy. Katniss isn’t just a young woman who finds herself short on nosh after the shops have shut, she’s the central figure in a futuristic wasteland. “Post-apocalyptic” has also come in for a bit of controversy recently, with Mark Kermode demanding with typically entertaining zeal that if the apocalypse is the end of the world, then how can a film be post-apocalyptic? If the apocalypse has happened, and there’s anything left to have a film about, then that my friend is a shoddy apocalypse and you want to demand another one, that works like it says on the packet. Highly pleasing as this is, and far be it from me to out-pedant the worshipful Doctor, but apocalypse does not mean the end of the world.

Apocalypse means “revelation” or the “lifting of the veil”. The book we get most of our apocalyptic imagery from – four horsemen, 666, Whore of Babylon riding on a seven-headed beast, you know the drill – is referred to as both the Apocalypse of St. John and the Book of Revelation. The fact that the most famous one is most frequently framed as a vision of the end of the world means that we tend to assume that they’re the same thing (if we’re not massive pedants and unhealthily obsessed with etymology – oh no, wait…). But the crucial aspect is the “lifting of the veil”, the revealing of a deeper reality which is obscured by the world around us.3

I’m not bringing this up for the sake of sheer quibble (though that would be reason enough), but because I think a lot of post-apocalyptic fiction still has this original meaning embedded in it. So many post-apocalyptic films and novels have this sense of being not only “after the disaster” but also “after the revelation”, trying to strip back the complexities and confusions of modern life to get to what is basic and essential about us. In The Road, that’s the emotional bond between father and son, in Mad Max the depravity of humans as pack animals, in Escape From New York it’s a macho code of integrity.4

And in The Hunger Games it’s a famished young woman. If a deeper reality is being revealed in this apocalypse, a profound truth about humanity which lies beneath the surface of modern life, then it’s one which looks very similar to the line peddled by fashion magazines, diet books and vast swathes of Hollywood’s output. That young women should look as if they’re slightly undernourished. The tendencies of post-apocalyptic fiction mean that this film risks holding that image up as not only an ideal to aspire to, but as the most “natural” and “essential” state for them to be in.

Again, this doesn’t make The Hunger Games a bad book or a bad film, but it means that the way Katniss Everdeen is portrayed onscreen cannot be reduced to a question of “accuracy” to a description in the book. A film which presents a teenage girl as the prototypical member of humanity is a wonderful idea – not least because she’s active, intelligent and fighting on behalf of her people – but this one sits at the intersection of some very powerful cultural influences which we can’t ignore.

  • Jem Bloomfield is an academic who works on theatre and performance. A longtime BadRep reader, he’s very excited to be on the other side of the line, and the references to gin and tea in the other team bios make him feel very at home. Four years working on The Duchess of Malfi has given him a taste for writing about other things, so he blogs on culture, politics and gender at Quite Irregular.
  1. Though it is ludicrous. Let no doubt be left about that. []
  2. No, I know. It’s not like I don’t have a problem with that too, but it’s awful in a slightly different way… []
  3. The titles of The Vision of Ezra and the Sibylline Oracles – both around during the first centuries of Christianity though neither made it into the Bible(s) – underline this point. []
  4. And with more time we could read right back from Snake Plissken’s tattoo to the Man With No Name, and wonder how much the classic Western is also driven by a desire to get its characters out into the oddly moonscapey deserts, to strip away the civilization. Or look at the fistfight between two astronauts which starts Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, suggesting that getting to the moon called earth morality into question… []
4 Responses leave one →
  1. July 10, 2012

    Hello!

    Great post – haven’t read the books or seen the film, but thought these ideas are really interesting. Just curious – what do you think is awful about Renee Zellweger and Bridget Jones (aside from her own obvious body fascism)?

    The realist question in performance was also raised recently during the buzz for Andrea Arnold’s (as it became in the media) Wuthering-Heights-with-a-black-Heathcliff, and this particular ‘realist?’ debate – and questions like ‘should we cast black actors in Henry V or focus instead on literature that includes non-white people?’, ‘why is it cool for Domingo to sing Otello, but not for Larry Olivier to act Othello?’ etc – is an ongoing and hotly contentious argument, of course. Interesing to see it related to body shape though, as I suppose (however it is appropriated for dastardly ends) that this, unlike race, is something changeable, and applicable to everyone, regardless of gender – I’m thinking particularly of Godlike Michael Fassbender emaciating himself for Hunger.

    I suppose you get an interesting dynamic where Zellweger doing it for Bridget Jones is an actress obsessing over body image in the service of (as it might be considered) Hollywood tripe, whereas Fassbender living on 800 calories per day is all for the Art(house).

    How that might also relate to moral judgements of fat = bad and thin = noble, self-sacrificing etc is also potentially of interest, although I am literally just transcribing thoughts as they occur…

    • Jem permalink
      July 11, 2012

      Hey, thanks – glad you enjoyed the piece. It’s a big, multi-faceted topic, isn’t it? My major problem with the Bridget Jones question is the whole way “realism” is framed – I think it’s a good example because it takes us away from “OMG skinny girls ewww! Have a sammich, amirite?” (which there was a certain amount of on reddit in response to this article.) It’s telling that the most significant aspect of “realism” identified in that performance (and the surrounding rehearsal, publicity, reception etc) was her body shape. Not, for example, hair colour, accent (tho she does a brilliant accent, and I know that got coverage do), gait, line inflections, the fact that they were translating a work written in an odd mixture of tenses (the narrative goes forward, but the accounts, bcos it’s a diary, are written in retrospective chunks) or any other “accuracy” to either the book or real life.

      I know it would be a little disingenuous to say that for a performer body shape doesn’t matter – for all the reasons I mentioned in the article – but I think it’s worth pausing to think about the sheer extent to which we accept a massive amount of convention, adaptation, unreality, but regard the body shape as a non-negotiable tenet of “realism”. That’s why I’m uncomfortable with the defence “but it says in the book Katniss is bigger than other girls, and if you think about her diet and exercise, she’d be stronger…”etc because unless the film has screen-Katniss saying every single word in the same order as page-Katniss, then “the book says” should be immediately discounted. (It should be anyway, but that’s by the by.) I threw in Zellweger to make the point that this isn’t a one-dimensional problem about people telling female actors to eat less, it’s about the fact that what a female actor eats is considered her most relevant professional attribute. (All of which I know you knew already, by the way!)

      You also make a very good point about the gender/genre question and why Fassbender doing it counts as arthouse. Didn’t see the film, but I do recall quite a lot of people making a similar point about “ah, so a male actor has a lot of explicit sex on screen and it’s proof of his artistic profundity and his grasp on the existential dilemmas of our time. Interesting…”

      (Which also plays into what a friend was saying a while ago about why people were amazed about FSOG – and I really don’t want to make this an FSOG derail, so sorry for the example! – when if you wanted to read loads of sexual material intended for a male audience all you’d have to do is read everything called the Great American Novel or Modern Canon in the last thirty years. People say “a mother at the school bus stop was reading FSOG, imagine if a Dad was reading porn there!” when the better comparison would be “what if he was reading The Slap, or The Witches of Eastwick, or The Pregnant Widow, or…” you get the picture)

      I think in the case of Fassbender- arghh, I’ve just realised I’ve swapped Hunger and Shame in my memory. Anyway, will plough on…! In the case of Hunger I think there’s also a more conscious “performance” of his body shape. This is Fassbender heroically (as you say) starving himself to embody the history and resistance of a particular tradition at a crisis point. It carries a lot more gravitas – and of course it’s framed in the film as something the character did to himself. Sorry that got a bit muddled there, but yes I think you’re right there’s a very illuminating distinction to be drawn in the way similar plots are framed and the meanings that get attached to them when the gender of the lead actor differs.

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