‘The Girl on Fire’ Part II

Children’s Fiction, Female Stars
and Contemporary Hollywood Blockbusters

by Peter Krämer

In the second part of his blog, Peter Krämer considers further the figure of the girl in contemporary Hollywood blockbusters and the rise of the actresses playing these roles, especially Jennifer Lawrence.

A recent cinema outing to see The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 highlighted to me three pointers to the evolving gender dynamics of Hollywood cinema in recent decades. I discussed two of these in Part One of this blog. The third pointer was a trailer for Jennifer Lawrence’s next movie, Joy. As the trailer pointed out, on this film Lawrence once again worked with the makers of two of her previous non-Hunger-Games hits, Silver Linings Playbook (2012, $236 million) and American Hustle (2013, $251 million). On the one hand, this reminds us of the quite possibly unprecedented scope of Lawrence’s success which ranges from action franchises (apart from Katniss she also plays Raven/Mystique in the most recent series of X-Men films starting with X Men: First Class in 2011) to Oscar-nominated dramas and comedies, and combines huge box office appeal with critical recognition by reviewers and Hollywood peers. Lawrence, who only turned 25 last August, has already been nominated for four Oscars (including her most recent nomination for Joy), winning the Best Actress award for Silver Linings Playbook.

jl x menOn the other hand, the trailer’s reference to American Hustle also serves to remind us of Lawrence’s widely publicised comments on Hollywood’s unfair treatment of women. In an article she published in October 2015, Lawrence stated that – in the wake  of the Sony email hack – she found out that she had been paid much less than her male co-stars on American Hustle, and that this was yet another indication not only of an industry-wide practice of unequal pay for women, but also perhaps, more generally, of their marginalisation in the film industry.

Here then, the biggest female star Hollywood has had in decades is directly challenging its male establishment. It is tempting to relate this challenge to the story the Hunger Games films tell. After all, like the real Jennifer Lawrence, the fictional Katniss Everdeen has risen to fame mainly through her participation in the world’s most popular form of violent entertainment (the series’ titular ‘Hunger Games’ being a sinister, futuristic mash-up of today’s reality TV and Hollywood spectacle). And a bit like Katniss, who, after leaving the games behind, agrees to play her part for the propaganda machinery of the rebels, Lawrence has made herself available to the world’s media (through interviews, photo shoots, public appearances etc.) and, on occasion, uses their interest in her to address issues of public concern.

But before we all too quickly equate her challenge to the male Hollywood establishment (and all the social injustices it could be said to represent) with Katniss’s opposition to President Snow, we should remember that, as far as gender issues are concerned, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 culminates in a terrific, and terrifying, twist; to say any more would be a dreadful spoiler. Still, I do want to point out that the exploration of female subjectivity and also of all-important relationships between females (mothers and daughters, political leaders and their followers, sisters, friends, co-workers) is one of the chief pleasures of the Hunger Games books and films. The impetus for the story is, after all, Katniss’s willingness to sacrifice her life for her sister by taking her place in the Hunger Games.

In a conference paper I presented in 2015 – entitled ‘In Space No One Can Hear You Scream (Again): Sandra Bullock, Gravity (2013) and Female Stars in Science Fiction’  – I came to similar conclusions with regards to Science Fiction blockbusters that feature a woman among their two lead roles and of female star vehicles in other genres. Across the board, I concluded, there appears to be an increase in the number of big-budget Hollywood productions primarily centred on a female protagonist, or giving the  female lead equal billing with the male lead, in recent years, and they certainly have become more prominent at the box office, both in the US and in the rest of the world.

sb gravity

Sandra Bullock – next to Lawrence arguably Hollywood’s biggest female star – has made several films with a pronounced emphasis on female friendship (most entertainingly perhaps in The Heat [2013, $230 million]) and on mother-child relationships, most movingly in Gravity (2013, $723 million) which revolves around a mother’s mourning for her little daughter. Gravity in turn represents a long-standing tendency among Hollywood’s Science Fiction blockbusters starring or co-starring a woman to emphasise the maternal role the female protagonist takes on (not necessarily by giving birth). Examples include Ripley’s ‘adoption’ of the orphan girl Newt in Aliens (1986), and Sarah Connor’s fraught relationship with her son in Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991).

avatar 123Intriguingly, Avatar (yet another James Cameron movie, which, with worldwide box office revenues of $2,788 million, still holds the record) does not only co-star Zoe Saldana as the male protagonist’s love interest Neytiri but also, in both dialogue and iconography, emphasises the maternal dimension of the latter’s relationship with the former. ‘You’re like a baby’, she says to him at the beginning, and when, towards the end, she holds his – in comparison to her towering alien figure – tiny human body, the film evokes the traditional image of Madonna with child. What is more, Neytiri’s actions are guided by the instructions of her own mother, who is the clan’s spiritual leader, and all the clans on the distant moon Pandora in turn worship the neural network of tree roots, which acts like a kind of brain for Pandora’s biosphere, as their goddess Eywa – who they often refer to as ‘mother.’ Finally, the Extended Collector’s DVD of Avatar suggests that Neytiri is pregnant, potentially setting up motherhood as a major concern for the first Avatar sequel (which is expected in 2018).

I want to conclude, then, by emphasising that Jennifer Lawrence’s remarkable career is indeed indicative of a potential opening up, in recent years, of opportunities, albeit still very limited, for actresses at the commercial centre of the Hollywood system.

There is arguably now a group of young actresses who have been able to combine box office appeal and critical recognition (not always for the same films), taking (co-)starring neytiri pregnantroles in medium-budget dramas and comedies as well as in big-budget Science Fiction, fantasy and action films. In addition to Lawrence, there is Kristen Stewart and Zoe Saldana (who also co-stars in the new Star Trek films and in Guardians of the Galaxy [2014, $773 million]) and Scarlett Johannson (who has appeared as ‘Black Widow’ in four films of Marvel’s Avengers franchise, including Marvel’s The Avengers [2012, $1,520 million] and starred on her own in the Science Fiction spectacular Lucy [2014, $463 million]).

Perhaps actresses like Sandra Bullock, who at the age of fifty received top billing for voicing the villain in the extraordinarily successful Minions (2015, $1,159 million), can lead the way into a better middle-age for women in Hollywood. Further up the age scale, Sigourney Weaver continues to hold her own, moving from her success in the first four Alien films to taking third billing for Avatar, when she was already sixty years old.

No doubt, Hollywood in particular, and the international film industry in general, remains one of the, in gender terms, most discriminatory sectors of modern society, yet it does appear to be the case that, not least because of the enormous success of Rowling, Meyer and Collins’ fiction, things are changing at the very heart of global blockbuster cinema.

Peter Krämer is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of East Anglia. He has published several essays on female film stars and producers (Audrey Hepburn, Sherry Lansing, Jodie Foster and Sandra Bullock) and on female audiences. Two of his recent publications on female protagonists in science fiction cinema and adventure stories can be found here and here. His books include the BFI Film Classic on Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (2014) and the edited collection Stanley Kubrick: New Perspectives (2015).