On The Hunger Games and body image

Earlier this year, Next magazine published a scary survey on the body image of young New Zealand women, a story that prompted Labour MP Sue Moroney to issue a press release in mid February (“ The Beauty Myth Needs Busting Again”) that lamented the lack of realistic images of women in the media in these terms:

Eighty-six per cent of the 1500 women who took part [in the Next survey] said they think about their weight daily, while three quarters believe good-looking people get more opportunities in life than ‘ordinary’ ones,” Sue Moroney said.

“Unfortunately it’s hardly surprising given the messages we are bombarded with every day. How often, for instance, do we see a middle-aged or older female television presenter on our screens? When was the last time we saw a size 14 – the standard New Zealand dress size – model, [or] an advertisement for make-up that shows laugh lines?

Scoop journalist Anne Russell followed up this issue in Werewolf via a story that interviewed Moroney, and sought her response to UK and Scandinavian moves to pass legislation that outlaw – or at least identify with a label – those instances where magazines and newspapers have used Photoshopped and airbrushed images of women to sell their products. Anne also tried unsuccessfully to interview Women’s Affairs Minister Jo Goodhew on the Next magazine findings.

It speaks volumes about the government’s attitudes to women that after nearly six months in the job, Goodhew has delivered exactly one speech in her role as the ministerial champion of women – that being an obligatory International Women’s Day speech on the theme of “ Equality Mean Business.” The speech made it crystal clear that women’s progress in the economy will not be getting any assistance from this Minister on such matters as pay equity.

One might have reasonably expected that Goodhew, as a woman with a background in nursing, would have views on the links between women’s negative body image, the role of the media in promoting images of women that are literally unreal, and the dietary habits of young women. No such luck. Goodhew’s spokesperson said that the Minister “has no comment to make on this issue at this time.” Anne Russell’s Werewolf story on women’s body image is here.

Yesterday, the subject gained fresh relevance with a bizarre NZ Herald story about the record-breaking movie The Hunger Games. Apparently, in the opinion of some reviewers – including the normally sane Manohla Dargis in the New York Times, the actor Jennifer Lawrence has been declared to be too FAT to credibly play the film’s hero, Katniss Everdeen. According to Dargis, “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.” Uh-huh. The underlying “logic” at work here was amplified on the Hollywood Elsewhere blog by critic Jeffrey Wells, in these terms:

Lawrence seems too big for [Josh] Hutcherson [who plays her co-star Peeta Mellark] She’s a fairly tall, big-boned lady (I’ve been in a hotel room with her) who’s maybe 5′ 8″, and he seems to be something like 5’7″. Male romantic figures have to be at least be as tall as their female partners, and we all know most girls like guys to be at least a little bit taller, so Lawrence and Hutcherson don’t seem like a good fit. It almost looks like she has to bend over a bit to give him a hug.

Thankfully, someone else has already picked up on the idiocy of this line of argument.

Briefly, Lawrence is thin by most standards. Let us count the ways this line of reasoning is ridiculous. First, Jennifer Lawrence is a thin young woman. 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. The hullaballoo over Lawrence’s figure reminds me of the rash of articles a few years back that could not get over the curviness of Scarlett Johansson (another thin actress). The fact that a woman’s shape deviates slightly from the stick-thin figures that populate the silver screen does not make her “big.”

And another good point, in rebuttal of Dargis:

….if critics are going to pick on a 21-year-old woman for not being skinny enough for a fantasy film, why haven’t they been more consistent in their critiques of actors’ bodies? I haven’t seen much concern about Liam Hemsworth’s muscular frame, even though his character [Gale] in The Hunger Games occupies the same food-strapped world as Katniss.

(For the record, Lawrence and Hutcherson are exactly the same height.)

Personally, I’ve already written thousands of admiring words about The Hunger Games books, so I won’t say any more about the film adaptation, which is remarkably faithful to the first book.

Let’s hope though, that the film’s success will finally convince Hollywood deal makers to change their focus. As this excellent article “ The New Girl Power” in Salon argues, perhaps Hollywood should stop turning to comics (the literature of teenage boys, mainly) as the prime source material for blockbuster movies. What the success of The Hunger Games books and movie indicate is that the YA literature read primarily by teenage girls is a far more reliable and economically rewarding source – and yes, that would not be an unmixed blessing, as the Twilight series indicates.

But after Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games, why should anyone think that Marvel Comics super heroes are a more worthwhile bet? As things stand, the fate of the Avengers movie in May should just about seal the deal on this one – but even that film will be directed by Joss Whedon, who has a strong track record (eg the Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly TV series) of being firmly in touch with his feminine side.

For now though, it’s worth going back to the findings of that Next magazine survey– and to the readiness of some critics to peddle the message to young girls that the star of their favourite film is too fat for the role. That claim says a lot about the current standards of beauty against which young women are being expected to measure themselves. Thankfully, Katniss is the sort of role model who wouldn’t entertain that kind of bullshit, not for an instant.


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