Monday, May 16, 2011

The Problem With Jennifer's Body

Please wake me up in about two years, so that The Hunger Games movie has come out and the fandom has had enough time to make their way through all the usual complaints a fandom undergoes when their beloved source material is changed on its way to the screen and I can talk with people again about the actual content of the story as opposed to whether or not every single person cast looks right for the role. And by looks right, not, I don't mean is made to look right via training and make-up and costume. I mean bitching about how a young actress actually has meat on her bones and is thus an inappropriate choice despite what the author and director say.

Despite being a bit above the target age range for Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games trilogy, about a month and a half ago I decided to give it a spur of the moment read and I admit I was instantly addicted. It's an engrossing story with what I think are generally interesting characters and pretty decent writing. I will happily discuss whether the love triangle is annoyingly overplayed in Catching Fire, whether Katniss' behaviour in Mockingjay is either due to proper characterization or author laziness, and whether the ending is sufficient or not.

What I cannot stand, however, are the same debates I participated in, intensely, mind you, once upon a time when I was a thirteen-year-old crazed and newly indoctrinated Harry Potter fan. Was I pissed that Daniel Radcliffe had blue eyes and not green and found it silly he wasn't wearing contacts to fix that? You bet. When I was older and I realized that a) such an obsession was stupid, b) that it really didn't matter that much, and c) that Daniel Radcliffe was unable to wear the contacts because of irritation, I got over it. I think most fans did eventually because we realized what a stupid little debate it was. Harry's blazing green eyes, like his mother's, are a huge deal in the books. In the movies, they're less so. They're still a deal - Lupin remarks on them particularly in the third film and I imagine they'll play their related role in the final film - but the films adjust for the problems faced.

These sorts of issues, as The Hunger Games movie inches slowly towards filming and, eventually, completion, are floating around the fandom in abundance. People are bitching about everything, and while Willow Shields' unibrow was a big hot topic, the biggest hot topic of all is the casting of Jennifer Lawrence as the beloved lead character of Katniss Everdeen. Now, I think Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress and I can completely see her personifying what I think is a strong female protagonist in Katniss. She probably doesn't look anything like I originally imagined Katniss to look like, but I can see it in her, just like I started to see Peeta in Josh Hutcherson, who also looks differently than one might have imagined Peeta (and don't get me started on the fans who are still obsessed with picking naturally blonde actors who are rather stringy in my opinion). Some people, however, are far too obsessed with the appearance, particularly parts of Jennifer Lawrence's appearance that are harder to fix than her hair color - and I'm not talking about the debate raging over Katniss' skin color, I'm talking about her weight.

The objections to Jennifer Lawrence's curves, to put it bluntly, piss me the fuck off. It rings in my ears of all the horrendous standards that we hold women up to and the ways in which women are still objectified so much in film as having to be whatever image we deem correct and if it doesn't fit with our mold, then it is wrong. I know that when most people comment on Jennifer Lawrence's curves, they don't mean that actresses can't be curvy. Of course not, we have Queen Latifah, known for her bodacious body. But this is really not the norm. We have such bizarre and unrealistic and every-changing standards for women and we never seem to be able to do it right. As Jennifer Hudson has lost weight, many of her fans have been rather shocked and disappointed that she felt the need to lose weight, while simultaneously people are constantly wondering if Gabourey Sidibe should lose some weight because she might be dangerously unhealthy. Don't get me wrong, I do think obesity is a problem in this country and not one we should glorify. But neither should we glorify appearances that are unattainable or at the very least extremely difficult for normal women to attain. While we encourage girls to embrace their curves, we continue to bash women whose weight changes regularly, like Kelly Clarkson. When Lady Gaga puts on a few pounds, suddenly her stomach becomes a huge national problem - Why isn't she as skinny as she was in the Telephone music video!?!?!? we wonder, because it's wrong for these women who are supposed to be visually perfect to ruin our images of them by being human. Weight fluctuation is hardly unheard of amongst the normal folk and beneath the personal trainers and strict diets, celebrities are normal folk too.

That said, then, shouldn't we choose actors who can physically embody the very specific framework we have in mind for a character? Dumb, dumb, dumb. I get it, Katniss' character is very specifically one who has suffered from malnourishment her entire life. But even if we get a sickly stick of an actress who could potentially perform the role of Katniss brilliantly, there's still a difference between a healthy, skinny body and a malnourished, skinny body. And let's face it, we're not going to cast someone that is literally malnourished - that is, unless Christian Bale was in the role and he would just make that choice on his own probably and the fans would hail him for it, but would it be right? Everyone also worries when Christian Bale does such a thing, and we'd worry for whatever actress that played Katniss that would do it too. But, BUT, beneath that worry, don't even lie to yourself, you'd be proud of that actor for taking such a dramatic step. You'd be impressed and pleased that the actor would be willing to take such a risk for the sake of art. I'm not going to lie, I'd probably be impressed too. But while being impressed, I'd also be disgusted.

There is a poster that hangs in the health services office in my college. It shows two pictures of legs. One is a starving child. One is a runway model. Their legs, despite one pair being cleaner than the other, are indistinguishably similar in shape. That horrifies me, which is the point of the poster. If you are naturally skinny, there's nothing you can help about that. Same with if you're curvy. But there is still, always, a difference between what is natural and healthy and what is unnatural and unhealthy. You can suffer from either no matter what shape or size you are.

We need to stop boxing women into categories based on their size though. Daniel Radcliffe has grown up to be a lot stockier than I imagined Harry in the books to be - Harry always seemed so stretched and, at times, lanky. Daniel Radcliffe is of more average height and weight in appearance. But he has also grown into becoming a better actor and a better Harry over the years. Movie!Harry and Book!Harry are different in their appearance and y'know what? That's okay, because Daniel Radcliffe still manages to capture the general essence of what the character of Harry Potter is, at least in the movies. A smaller debate has raged in the Potter fandom community over the looks of its female characters. In the books, Ginny is supposed to be very popular and supposedly pretty good-looking, but Bonnie Wright's beauty doesn't seem to be particularly played up in the movies making her a bit more plain. Alternatively, in the books, Hermione is generally pretty average looking from the perspective and her hair frizzy, but by the third movie, Emma Watson was clearly turning into a pretty young woman and her hair was no longer made to look quite so frizzy. I have long contended, particularly in Hermione's case, that these are just examples of how different the book and movie versions of the characters are. And THAT'S OKAY.

Why is that okay? First of all, when it comes to movie adaptations of books, I tend to believe that the best adaptations are more interpretations. Good adaptations should be done by fans of the original source material, but intelligent fans who have enough distance from the source material to be able to know what the story is about without obsessing too much on details that may be less important. My favorite example of an adaptation is Lord of the Rings. I love the books and the movies, but though they capture a similar plotline and a similar essence, they are truly different stories, but they are both grand and know what story they want to tell. My main problem with, say, the Harry Potter movie adaptations is that they're a bit scatter-brained, not just because of the different directors, but also because most of the earlier films didn't give strong enough hints of what this story was supposed to be about. I have no expectation that The Hunger Games movie will be just like the book, and I really hope it isn't. I want to watch something that takes the plot and the morals and the characters and shape them ever so slightly different to fit the very different medium that film is from novels. I want the actors to be good and the script to be strong and the effects to be well-done and all the elements of filmmaking to be well-executed, and if it isn't the same as the book, so long as it's well-made, I am totally okay with that.

Secondly, reality is not so easy to manipulate as the written world of a book and whatever live-action movies are, they are capturing something that was physically there, in reality, at some point (not counting CGI). Reality can be manipulated, but in a different way, for different reasons.

Finally, I want to break out of the boxes we have created for women. Katniss can still be Katniss even if her ribs aren't frighteningly protruding. I cannot accept the fact that women have to be defined by their appearance, that Katniss can only be a skinny girl, for instance. Stanley Tucci is a pretty fit individual, small and seemingly average in his weight and yet isn't Caesar Flickerman supposed to be rather rotund? I have not heard a single person complain that his stomach isn't the right size for the role. You may argue that that isn't the same, it doesn't define Caesar like it does Katniss, but Katniss is defined by much, MUCH more than her weight. If all Katniss was was a malnourished girl, she wouldn't be the strong character I believe her to be. Women's appearances are a part of who we are, certainly, but there is so much more that goes into defining ourselves, just like men, that I really wish we could stop placing more value on a woman's appearance than her other features. "The Girl Next Door" is more of a look than a personality type. "The Blonde Bombshell." "The Femme Fatale." These types and the many others women exemplify are so defined by appearance in our minds rather than attitude, and most of the categories really are about the attitude.

So, in conclusion, either the entire world needs to change or I really need to learn how to bite my tongue. Well, I've already got a scar from biting through my tongue a lot as a kid, I might as well keep up the hard work.