Jennifer Lawrence: “More like Katniss Ever-green, amirite? Amirite?”
Recently Jill Pantozzi wrote an article at The Mary Sue explaining that the recent financial success of the second Hunger Games movie, Catching Fire, “proved” that women could headline major movie franchises (“The Hunger Games’ Success and What it Means for Female Action Films”). While I don’t disagree with the idea that women can headline major action movies, or, honestly, with most of the article, I do take issue with the idea that this, in any way or form, needed to be “proved.”
While it is edifying to learn that Catching Fire eclipsed previous box-office records for the awful action movie sequels Spiderman 3 and Iron Man 2, to say that Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of Katniss Everdeen in any way “proves” that women can be just as profitable action movie stars as men is to enter into a dialogue which presupposes that men are the predominant choice of action movie star because they are more likely to drive box-office revenue. This is obviously false.
If it were true, even the most incapable male actor would have, until recently, been a “better” choice to lead an action-movie franchise. In this world, Brendan Fraser and Mark Hamill are the dramatic equals of Oscar winners Jennifer Lawrence and Angelina Jolie, because they’ve all headed blockbuster action movie franchises. In this world, Spiderman 3 (which along with X-Men 3 holds the award for “movie most likely to have been seen and hated by everyone you know”) is nearly as good as the critically acclaimed Catching Fire, only because they are in the same stratosphere of box-office revenue. In this world, the realities of the movie industry are completely ignored, realities which mean that money invested means success more often than quality or entertainment value (but not always, to the consternation of studio executives everywhere). And, in this world, we can conveniently forget that money doesn’t often go to promoting or creating movies headlined by women.
The market can’t “prove” anything, because the market is not equal, and to pretend that it is, even when scoring points against the old status-quo, only justifies the dominant narrative that there is a reason it’s taken so long for women to have as much box-office success as men. But that’s bullshit.
Catching Fire was a success for a lot of reasons, but it wasn’t a success because audiences were finally ready to accept women in leading roles of action films. It was a success because Suzanne Collins created a compelling narrative with complex characters that she successfully helped adapt to the screen. It was a success because Jennifer Lawrence, and the cast around her (including, but not limited to, Jena Malone, Woody Harrelson, and Elizabeth Banks) did excellent work inhabiting her characters. I would also like to think it was a success because the consequences of war and violence were depicted with realism instead of being glorified, and because women could feel free to identify with Katniss (and the movie’s other female characters) without having to be constantly reminded by overt sexualization that she stands for the male-oriented idea of “woman” (in notable contrast to Jolie’s Tomb Raider, and most other action movies including a female heroine).
But it was also a success because studio executives smelled money, and money begets money. This can’t be ignored, nor can it be understated: Catching Fire wouldn’t have achieved the same level of success if it weren’t already the kind of movie that studio execs felt they could safely bet on. Maybe that does represent some kind of advancement—but in a world in which the vast majority of films—action or otherwise—are headlined by men, we’re still far behind.