The Hunger Games: Action-film feminism is catching fire

Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen is a new type of female action film icon, and moviegoers should be very excited about that, writes Lisa Schwarzbaum.

As Catching Fire ignites on movie screens around the world, this is what we know about the 21st Century heroine called Katniss Everdeen: she is strong but also soft. She is brave but she has doubts. She is a phenomenal fictional creation, yet is real enough that moviegoers can draw inspiration from her values, her resourcefulness, and her very human inner conflicts. And she is played by Jennifer Lawrence, who appears not only to be handling her current duties as Hollywood’s finest model of well-adjusted millennial female stardom but doing so with charm. Everdeen and Lawrence: golden girls both.

Never mind that in the second installment of the blockbuster film adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ sensationally popular Hunger Games trilogy, our Katniss actually has a whopping case of post-traumatic stress disorder. You would too, if you were a young woman – barely out of girlhood – living in a nightmarish, dystopian near-future, in a wrecked country built on the ruins of failed rebellion against tyranny. And with your father dead, you were the chief support of your fragile mother and beloved little sister. And you had recently just barely survived a horrifying, government-mandated ‘game’ − staying alive only by exterminating your peers before they killed you.

Personified in Lawrence’s lithe movements and cool, focused gaze, Katniss is a brave, resourceful and independent-minded fighter; but she is also a troubled and vulnerably guilt-ridden human being. Nina Jacobson, the producer of the Hunger Games film franchise, puts it this way: “She is a singular heroine in that the burden of survival weighs on her. She has a ton of survivor’s guilt.  And she keeps surviving.”

Choice is complicated, whether in our own new-media age or in the eerily familiar dystopia of Panem. In the first Hunger Games, Katniss had faked love for her district’s fellow so-called ‘tribute,’ Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), mostly as a ploy to save her skin. Now, Katniss realises she and Peeta have to keep up the lovebird charade while embarking on a hypocritical victory tour, flaunting opulent excess and manufactured romance in the faces of suffering fellow citizens. And only after that charade has concluded does Katniss learn that she and Peeta will have to fight all over again for survival, in a sadistic all-star tribute rematch called a quarter quell. What is love about, anyway? What if one does not want to be a leader? What effect does killing have on the soul? The Hunger Games doesn’t shy away from the big questions.

Lawrence, now all of 23 years old, has established herself as a star as influential in her strength of personality as in her performance skills. And by standards of modern feminist movie-star role models, this confluence of J Lawrence and K Everdeen is as rare as a bad hair day for Hunger Games fashionista chaperone Effie Trinket. After all, here is a kid from Kentucky who began her acting career in her early teens, then was catapulted to instant stardom for her performance in the 2010 American indie film Winter’s Bone. Lawrence triumphed over naysayers – there are always some – in creating the role of Katniss, bringing life to a protagonist already vivid in the minds of millions of protective readers. She took home an Academy Award in 2012 (among an armload of trophies) for her fragile, utterly un-Katniss-like work in Silver Linings Playbook. And then there is this: she enjoys eating heartily, like a normal person.

Girl on fire

Here is a joyful, photogenic young movie star who trips on her beautiful gown while stepping up to collect her Oscar, then jokes about it with a candour that disarms a worldwide audience. Lawrence does not do mumbly nor sullen. She does not OD on tattoos, traipse around in $1,000 shoes, nor wear a vial of blood on a cord around her neck. She does not vomit in front of paparazzi cameras, exasperate her colleagues with demands or require a Pilates trainer on call at all times.

What is the responsibility of celebrity? What messages do we want our pop culture sagas to convey? It is strange that behaving like a well-adjusted and responsible young woman counts as movie-star news – or that the popularity of a female lead character who is strong and feminine, brave even when scared, compassionate even when imperfect, and respectful even when breaking with tradition counts as feminist heroism. But it does. There is a reason we delight equally in seeing Katniss dressed up (those pretty gowns!) and dressed down (that bow and arrow!).

Apart from Sigourney Weaver’s singular Ellen Ripley in the stereotype-shattering Alien quartet – the older soul sister to Katniss in what Jacobson calls “feminine ferocity”– there aren’t many saga-style heroines around who show their emotional wounds quite as openly. “Not a**-kicking for the sake of a**-kicking,” the producer succinctly puts it. Indeed, in discussing the adaptation with the books’ author Suzanne Collins, the two agreed on the importance of demonstrating that, as Jacobson puts it, “you don’t have to be perfect, you don’t have to be heroic, you don’t have to be planning to save the world. But you can still be an agent of change.”

The same goes for stardom. Particularly as it affects women whose physical image – magnified by the lens of a hundred photo shoots, a thousand Instagram posts, a million Twitter comments – is mercilessly parsed for meaning, message, and misstep. “Jen’s parents raised her right,” says Jacobson. “She’s the anti-diva. There are a lot of actors who, growing up, I can picture them in their room, holding up a hairbrush, saying ‘I’d like to thank the Academy’. That’s not her. She’s like Katniss, she can’t fake it. They’re very well matched that way.”

And that counts as very exciting indeed. That means that, at least while Jennifer Lawrence and Katniss Everdeen are around, the odds are in a movie-lover’s favour.

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