It’s been a while since we heard anything from Jennifer Lawrence. After her most recent film Passengers underperformed at the box office and inspired many a critique over its unsettling gender politics, the Oscar winning actress took a step back from the limelight, which was probably for the best. Other than her low-key romance with Darren Aronofsky, the director of her upcoming film mother!, we haven’t seen much of her in the press. That’s probably for the best. During an interview on The Graham Norton Show to promote Passengers, Lawrence made some off-colour and culturally insensitive comments while sharing a story about a photo-shoot where she and her posterior became acquainted with some sacred rocks in Hawaii. The critical response was swift, as was Lawrence’s weak “I’m sorry if I offended anyone” apology. The backlash was brewing, and it’s hard to believe Lawrence herself didn’t feel it.
Jennifer Lawrence is a strong actress with an effervescent personality in an industry where the shelf life of pretty white girls is becoming increasingly shorter. Hollywood loves to build up dazzling young ingenues and make them yesterday’s news before they’ve even had a chance to show their worth. Being able to overcome that, especially in today’s entertainment field where franchises are king and the A-List holds less sway than ever, is crucial. For the most part, Lawrence has done a great job of navigating those treacherous waters and retaining her immense clout while not having to dilute any of her natural charm.
After some bit-parts in film and TV, Lawrence catapulted into the mainstream with Winter’s Bone, a low-budget indie drama that’s equal parts bleak and hopeful, and may be one of the best depictions of poverty in modern film. It earned Lawrence near universal acclaim and won her an Oscar nomination at the tender age of 20. While the Academy prefers its actors to be seasoned veterans, they’ve always loved to crown new stars from the actress world. The one-two punch of her work in X-Men: First Class and The Hunger Games increased her popularity, especially with younger women, and made her a bona-fide star. Combine that with the beginning of her partnership with the ever-volatile David O Russell in Silver Linings Playbook and Lawrence achieved something few actors could do - she became truly powerful.
With four Oscar nominations and one win to her name, plus box office receipts close to $2.5bn, Lawrence is at a point in her career where even a flop or two won’t puncture her success. Joy is a terrible movie but she still garnered an Oscar nomination from it, nobody remembers Serena, and the failure of Passengers was not thrown at her feet as many predicted it would be (her $20m paycheque for the film was questioned by a couple of people, but it was clear that the film flopping had nothing to do with her or Chris Pratt and more to do with its creepy plot). Now her blockbuster franchises have wrapped up, and Lawrence seems ready to return to the quieter potential of her Winter’s Bone days, something many of us have been yearning for.
That’s not to say that Lawrence’s work in The Hunger Games or the X-Men franchise is bad - she’s wonderful in the former, and decent in the latter although blatantly bored by the final film - but between those series and her collaborations with Russell, it felt for a while that she was stuck between one of two modes: Action Girl and Brassy Broad. It’s clear that Lawrence adores working with Russell, even though his reputation is nasty and former co-star Amy Adams could barely hide her disdain for him in a Vogue profile on Lawrence, but his method for using the actress is often baffling. Silver Linings Playbook is her best performance with him, but she still feels too fresh for a role that was clearly written for an older actress, while American Hustle feels like ill-fitting dress-up, and Joy is a tonal misfire that once again forces Lawrence into a role too old for her. Clearly this partnership paid off immensely, as Lawrence was Oscar nominated for all these roles, but by the time her name was read aloud at the nominations announcement for Joy, it felt more like Lawrence herself was being rewarded more than the performances themselves. Once again, they’re not bad performances, but they’re stifled by inherently bad casting, something Russell can’t seem to stop himself doing when it comes to his new muse. For fans of Winter’s Bone, it felt strange to see an actress of such force, one of the few in her age-group with the freedom to work with whoever she wants, returning to such blandness. You couldn’t help but want more from her.
In fairness, it’s so very easy to love Lawrence. She’s relaxed, entirely stripped of pretention, jokes about sex toys and her butt, hungers for a burger on the red carpet, hangs around with Amy Schumer (another prominent female celebrity undergoing a similar strain of backlash right now), and never seems to be anyone but herself. She was so unabashedly dorky that she became cool and relatable, both terms that have become increasingly meaningless and inescapable traps for women in the limelight. The year Lawrence won her Oscar, her actress partner was Anne Hathaway, who took home Best Supporting Actress for her barnstorming work in Les Miserables. Everyone knew she was going to win, and Hathaway worked hard to take home the gold. For some reason, that proved grating to many. Hathaway is a more earnest figure than Lawrence. Jokes don’t seem to come so easily to her, she holds herself with a more refined poise many read as stiff or aloof, and she had the gall to actively announce her ambition.
Never mind that she and Lawrence were very similar in their approach during the Oscar campaign - both called out the sexism they were subjected to by the press, with Hathaway issuing a particularly satisfying smack-down to Matt Lauer - the narrative was already in place: Everyone loves Jennifer Lawrence, and everyone hates Anne Hathaway. It’s taken Hathaway, who is a wonderful actress, a long time to shake off that unwarranted disdain she faced, and one can almost sense the flipping of the table when it comes to Lawrence. Neither women need or deserve this kind of weather-vane response, switching from love to hate as quickly as the wind blows, but it seems so dishearteningly inevitable for women, famous or otherwise.
So much of the backlash to Hathaway seemed rooted in the idea that her sweetness and theatre-kid style persona was fake, a stark contrast to the apparent realness of Lawrence’s don’t-care good time life. The reality is that performativity is par for the course with those in the public eye. It has to be, otherwise the pressure would be too much. People don’t really want 100% authenticity, because most of the time it’s not as fun or charming as what celebrities give us. We like it when Lawrence tells us she doesn’t care what people think of her because she says so in a goofy and inviting manner. When someone like Rooney Mara, who admittedly hates interviews and does little to hide that awkwardness on TV, says something similar, people call her a brat for it. The racial dynamics at play can’t be overlooked either - what is defined as charming and honest when coming from a white woman will probably be criticized as ungrateful or angry when said by a black woman.
Even for Lawrence, her persona, which I do believe is authentic but carefully managed, could only last for so long. After winning at the 2016 Golden Globes, a sarcastic remark Lawrence made to a foreign reporter for using his phone, led to a barrage of headlines on “Peak Jennifer Lawrence” and asking fans “Is anyone else sick of Jennifer Lawrence?” The same no-filter humour that had won over millions was suddenly seen as proof of her rudeness and bratty behaviour, and chalked up as a sign that her time was ending. As Buzzfeed’s Anne Helen Petersen noted in her now-famous essay on the “Cool Girl” phenomenon, this is a persona we’ve seen before and the public can easily reject.
Overall, Lawrence has managed to mostly avoid the backlash cycle that looms overhead for any woman in the industry, and has been more open in her willingness to call out sexism she faces, such as her article in Lenny Letter about unequal pay in the industry. Her response to the hacking of her nude images was also impeccable, refusing to adhere to archaic notions of patriarchy that would have forced her to apologise for being the victim of a sex crime. Even under intense scrutiny, Lawrence keeps her head above water. Generally speaking, white men seem impervious to it, partly because we don’t demand constant likeability from them, nor do we wish as hard for them to be relatable or “just like us”. The gossip industry as a whole is driven by and for women, and we consume stories of famous ladies more frequently and with greater zeal than those of men. Sadly, we women can be much harder on other women, often for ridiculous reasons: Anne Hathaway’s too earnest, Jennifer Lawrence is trying too hard, who the hell is Alicia Vikander, why are Kristen Stewart and Rooney Mara such bitches? That’s not to say none of these women can’t be criticized or even disliked for arbitrary reasons - you hate who you hate, go enjoy yourselves - but the frequency with which these backlash narratives are applied to women is surely worth questioning.
Now, Lawrence is busy filming Red Sparrow, and will be back on the promotional trail - and probably the Oscar one too - once mother! is released. The latter will be especially tasking given her relationship with the director and the inevitability of sexist reporting on that front. Whatever route Lawrence chooses with the future of her career, she has immense freedom and power to pursue the kind of parts and coverage few actresses will ever possess. As such, all eyes remain on her. She has shaken off the stormy clouds of backlash and emerged with a feminist fire and enough industry support to keep her going well into her 30s and beyond. In her Vogue profile, Lawrence admitted to indulging in using private jets for travel, and responded jokingly, “Is that relatable enough for you?” For Jennifer Lawrence, that Cool Girl “Just like us” pressure may never die off, but she’s certainly someone with the power and self-awareness to know how to use that.