Hollywood’s sexist appetite for rise-and-fall narratives of its ‘starlets’ is unlikely to vanish
Hollywood can be a fickle place. A good example of this is the Golden Globes, the gaudiest (and booziest) night in the yearly battery of awards shows, where stars can dress up and have their egos massaged whilst necking enough Moet to sink the Titanic. A more specific example of this fickleness came when Jennifer Lawrence, winner of the award for Best Actress in a Comedy, admonished an interviewer for using his phone and the internet suddenly decided she was the worst human being since Stalin.
Watching the clip, I felt a little underwhelmed. There were no diva screams; she didn’t hurl any projectiles at the reporter’s head; no death-rays shot forth from her eyes. Lawrence simply shook her head and said, ‘You can’t live your life behind your phone, bro’. There’s lots of different ways you could analyse the exchange – Lawrence probably does tire of dead-eyed reporters interviewing her from behind screens, but then again English wasn’t the reporter’s first language so he probably did need his phone to remind himself of his questions. Ultimately, though, it was a minor incident without any great villainy or heroics. If it’s significant in any way, it’s only as part of a wider, all-too-common narrative – that of Hollywood’s favourite starlet suffering an inevitable fall from grace.
For the past couple of years, Lawrence has arguably been the world’s biggest film star. The face of blockbuster franchise TheHunger Games as well as a respected Oscar-winner, she is a magazine staple who is frequently lauded for her vivacious, down-to-earth persona. Sprinkled with stardust but prone to tripping over and swearing, she satisfies all of the watching world’s needs – she’s a star, but still ‘one of us’. For a time, it seemed that people couldn’t get enough.
the higher our starlets rise, the further they have to fall
‘Lawrence mania’ isn’t an unusual phenomenon, though. Female actors may struggle to find as many complex roles as their male counterparts (particularly if they’re over 40 or of colour), but since the earliest days of Hollywood they’ve faced a much higher level of scrutiny. Audiences swooned for Clara Bow, the original ‘It Girl’ of the silent film era. In the Golden Age, studios carefully curated the images of their ‘goddesses’, from the spunky Ginger Rogers to the enticing Mae West. The 80s and 90s brought a parade of ‘American Sweethearts’ such as Julia Roberts and Michelle Pfeiffer, while today’s A-listers are critiqued as much for their red-carpet gowns as for their work. 50 years after her death, Marilyn Monroe’s face is still one of the most recognisable and mythologised on the planet.
But the higher our starlets rise, the further they have to fall. In a time of mass media, where the new becomes old in a matter of hours and the stars feel closer than ever, the ‘rise-and-fall’ narrative is occurring much faster and much more viciously. Take Lawrence: the final Hunger Games film was the lowest-grossing of the series, while incidents like the one seen in the Golden Globes pressroom are more widely criticised. Commentators seem to have tired of her unrefined demeanour, with some even questioning whether it is ‘orchestrated’. Much of this is down to over-exposure. Jennifer Lawrence simply isn’t new anymore. Seeing her win an award is nothing unusual, and her self-deprecating humour isn’t the gust of fresh air it once was. The more ubiquitous she becomes, the staler her shtick grows. Lawrence predicted this herself back in 2013, saying ‘everybody is fickle. They like me now, but I’m going to get really annoying really fast. Just watch’.
Countless other women have experienced this. Clara Bow’s bohemian hedonism captured audience attention, but it resulted in libellous tabloid smears and in 1944 she attempted suicide, saying she preferred death over public life. Katharine Hepburn’s spirited single-mindedness eventually made her a legend, but her popularity was interrupted by a period in the late 1930s where she was labelled ‘box office poison’ by studios. The adult struggles of former child stars are feverishly consumed, from Judy Garland in the 50s to Lindsay Lohan in the 00s, and Twilight megastar Kristen Stewart only recently re-discovered success after a break-up with co-star Robert Pattinson made her a ‘cultural punching bag’. Marilyn Monroe might be the classic Hollywood starlet, but she is also the classic example of adoration going hand-in-hand with a spectacular – and very public – downfall.
THIS FITS into a wider cultural belief that women must always be in competition
Interestingly, when Jennifer Lawrence herself first rose to prominence she was contrasted to Anne Hathaway, another actress whose high exposure led to brutal backlash. The pair won Oscars on the same night, and Lawrence’s coolness was frequently cited when critics bashed Hathaway’s allegedly ‘stagey’, ‘try-hard’ manner. ‘Why can’t she be more like Jennifer Lawrence?’ They cried. As ever, though, the wheel rotated and Lawrence now finds herself unfavourably compared to other up-and-comers.
It’s as though there’s some ideal but ever-changing standard of womanhood which we constantly measure prominent women against. Prominent men aren’t fair game for this in the same way – people might criticise Shia LaBeouf, for instance, but they won’t write an article about why he’s so lacking compared to Channing Tatum. Whereas men can achieve or fail on their own terms, one woman’s perceived strengths are consistently the barometer by which another’s shortcomings are measured.
This fits into a wider cultural belief that women must always be in competition. Whether they’re nominated for the same award, record a similar style of music or appear in rival shampoo adverts, women are routinely pitted against each other. If there’s only a limited reserve of beauty, acclaim or male attention, the argument goes, then women will constantly be plotting against each other like Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, perpetually on the verge of a bitch fight.
Not only does this overshadow women’s professional achievements and set them up for a fall (watching the Golden Globes, it was easy to feel nervous for rising stars like Alicia Vikander who might, one day, face similar overexposure and backlash). It also sends out a disconcerting message to women everywhere: that the world is waiting for them to mess up; that they ought to see other women as threats; that they can only be built up at the expense of another woman being torn down.
I’m in no particular position to solve these ills. However, stepping away from the gossip magazines and giving equal attention to older, more established performers might lessen the sense that a charismatic young actress is a temporary commodity we can obsess over then dispose of, thereby reducing the pressure on the next ‘Next Big Thing’. Giving women the same right to redemption that we afford the likes of Charlie Sheen and Justin Bieber when they make public gaffes would even the playing field. A more nuanced approach to stars would also go a long way. Why not abandon the dull dichotomy of being either a fervent fan or an ardent hater and have more developed opinions, like those you’d have about people you know in real life?
On that note: sure, I have opinions about Jennifer Lawrence. She seems a little blunt and has limited patience with the press, but generally she’s a talented and likeable woman. Unless she starts sacrificing puppies or kicking orphans, though, I see no reason to whip myself into a frenzy over her personal conduct. Given its history, Hollywood’s appetite for rise-and-fall narratives is unlikely to vanish. We aren’t powerless to diminish it, though - we are the consumers, after all.
Who knows, that might even have a positive impact beyond the gilded environs of Hollywood.
About the author
Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.
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