[Guest Post] Clothes-horse of the Apocalypse: Katniss’ Dress Size and the Book of Revelation
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
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.
The 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.
- Though it is ludicrous. Let no doubt be left about that. [↩]
- 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… [↩]
- 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. [↩]
- 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… [↩]