The XX Factor

What’s Behind the Jennifer Lawrence Backlash? A Conversation.

Jennifer Lawrence and Lupita Nyong’o catfight over the Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Photo by Christopher Polk/Getty Images

Even before Lupita Nyong’o beat Jennifer Lawrence for the Best Supporting Actress Oscar on Sunday night, the Internet was coughing up articles about a JLaw backlash: “Is Jennifer Lawrence Katnissing Us?” asked Vulture, suddenly suspicious of her pizza-scarfing, photo-bombing, stair-tripping charm. Was she as phony as the rest of Hollywood? “We love [Cool Girls like JLaw] because they seem to offer an alternative to the polished, performative femininity visible in both our stars and our peers,” wrote Anne Helen Petersen at BuzzFeed. “But even with her short hair, Jennifer Lawrence still has the body and the face and the wardrobe that conforms to dominant beauty ideals.”

The It Girl of 2013, Lawrence, it seems, is now on the downswing. We convened a panel of Slate women to figure out why.

Katy Waldman: Hello, women who work at Slate and are here to discuss actress Jennifer Lawrence. Some questions for you: What made 2013’s Cool Girl abruptly uncool (if she is)? Why can’t we adore two beautiful, talented megastars simultaneously (if we can’t)? What does it all mean? GO.

Aisha Harris: I think, to some extent, there can only be one person on “top” at one time, at least when it comes to women. And I think it’s both a product of our collective responses to powerful women as well as the way the industry squeezes out female stars—there are so few really good roles for women that it’s hard for many people to conceive that there can be more than one deserving, talented actress to fawn over. I’ll direct you to the article I sent around a few minutes ago from New York magazine, about Lupita being the new “It” Girl. The whole conceit of the It Girl is that there’s only one. And once you’re not “fresh-faced” anymore (which can usually be after a year or so, so Lupita’s time is ticking away), you cede your place to the next big thing. Men on the other hand don’t have a comparable status of It Guy. (Or do they?)

Amanda Hess: It’s the most glamorous game of tag. I often wonder why we don’t hate all celebrities more, actually. The celebrity narrative that studios and journalists sell to us is totally unsustainable—we’re supposed to identify with actresses’ characters and personalities while also admiring them for being insanely gorgeous zillionaires? There seems to be a very small window where an emerging actress can play the girl-next-door in the popular consciousness until she flips into established celeb who lives in some gated complex none of us could ever access. That’s where the resentment and detachment comes in. And the most-hated—scientifically, it’s Gwyneth—is so reviled, I think, because she has totally abandoned any pretense of being the girl-next-door, has leaned in to celebrating her immaculate lifestyle, and is seemingly unaware that she’s far past the point in the celebrity narrative where the glamorous trappings of her success seem deserved or acceptable.

Willa Paskin: I don’t quite see it as Lupita vs. Jennifer: Yes, they have passed the It Girl tag along, and Lupita is this year’s J-law, or J-Law was last year’s Lupita or whatever, but while Lupita is clearly enjoying a moment, she is still nowhere near as famous as Jennifer Lawrence. I think even without Lupita in the mix, Jennifer Lawrence got “overexposed” and all of the things we “loved” about her—her authenticity, her IDGAF, her goofiness—came to seem inauthentic and canned: Like, she fell down again at this year’s Oscars? Quit it, kid. That overexposure was, I think, just a side-effect of having the misfortune to be so fortunate: two Oscar nominations in two years and the Hunger Games franchise? Lupita’s more old-fashioned Hollywood grace and glamour suddenly seemed more “authentic” in comparison. And this is just the real trap of being a woman in Hollywood, this question of authenticity, which men really do not have to grapple with: At some point, we decide they are all fakers. I actually think, on this score, Gwyneth is completely aware, and happy to fuel whatever hate comes her way, because she has been doing this a long time and knows there is no winning. No one gets to be very likeable forever.

Harris: Completely agree with you, Willa, on the idea that universal likability is more or less ephemeral in Hollywood, especially so long as you stay prominent in the business and never “go away,” out of the spotlight. Look at Will Smith, Tom Cruise for extreme examples of those who have fallen completely out of favor in recent years. Others have waned more or less in likability; Meryl Streep, I can’t quite explain. I wonder if it’s the fact that we know so very little about her private life?

Waldman: There have been a lot of theories about Lawrence and how precarious her America’s Sweetheart status is. The most optimistic one I’ve seen suggests we are in a kind of Hegelian dialectic of actresses. Here’s how it’s gone down in recent years: First we had Anne Hathaway, with her extreme polish, and then, at the other extreme, came JLaw, who is all rough edges. And now we’ve found a middle ground with Lupita, who is graceful and poised but not an automaton. I’m just not sure I buy the idea that we are making progress in our thinking about these stars, though. Maybe we’re just fickle and mean.

Paskin: We are just fickle and mean! There’s also Kristen Stewart, who is also the opposite of Anne Hathaway—one cares too much, one too little—and “we” “hate” her, too. Meryl was, also, for about 10-15 years, surrounding say She-Devil and Death Becomes Her, not “Meryl Streep.” Now she’s a legend, and she’s older, and the regular rules of what “hubris” is for a woman don’t apply to her. She’s Meryl Streep: She is flawless. And she’s the only one. There is no woman, her age or otherwise, anywhere close to her stature.

Harris: On the Kristen Stewart point: Much hubbub was made about her seeming disdain for her own fame—the fact that she rarely smiles, sometimes appears to be high, cheated on her heartthrob boyfriend, and starred in Twilight, are all the things starlets are NOT supposed to do if they want to be “loved.” Yes, Lawrence also has a franchise of her own, but it’s nowhere near as reviled—critically or by most people over the age of 25—as Twilight.

Paskin: One thing here, is it’s just very clear that the way we—and me too— interact with movie stars is just extraordinarily, absurdly personal. This is what Us Weekly is, the “would you want to get a white wine with this famous lady” periodical. You flip through the pages, going like, “Ugh, I just don’t like her,” or “Oh, she seems so nice and that dress is cute!” (This isn’t new: This was true back in the studio system too, but then the studios had a lot more control.) The work that the celebrities do, the movies that they make are in some ways so ancillary to our sense of them. It just really, truly is so catty and middle-school, the whole thing, and I think that’s the horror of it, but also the pleasure: We get to pretend we are in middle school with a bunch of movie stars and that what we think of them might make them cry after recess.

Hess: I want to talk about celebrity men and why we don’t hate them. Maybe we hate Tom Cruise: He is begging us to hate him. The obvious answer is “sexism,” but I think it’s also because celebrity narratives are overwhelmingly driven and consumed by women—we are the ones reading People and Us Weekly. That means that, in this big fictional celebrity narrative we’ve constructed, the actresses are our protagonists and best friends, and the actors are our fantasy boyfriends. We put a lot of pressure on the actresses to represent us, but we can’t really stay mad at a bunch of hot guys who we are mostly using for romantic masturbation material.

Waldman: I agree. We don’t feel so betrayed when celebrity men step out of the cloud of ordinariness. (Who doesn’t want a gorgeous fantasy boyfriend?) But the other piece is that we may not, to the same degree, expect men to be all things at once—stunning AND relatable, aspirational symbols AND down to earth. It reminds me almost of the way regular women in the workplace need to embody all these contradictions: Be tough, but likable. Be strong, but feminine. As a society we’re just very good at telling women to project all kinds of conflicting personas simultaneously. Men are allowed to simply be one thing.

Paskin: I think it really is simply sexism: Women have to operate in a much more constrained field of appropriate behavior, and men do not. To me it’s not about wanting to date Tom Hanks or Sean Penn or Leonardo DiCaprio or Jonah Hill or Zac Efron. It’s that they are allowed to just be actors and weirdos and whoever they are without the “whoever they are” part being analyzed as another performance.

Harris: I second Willa: It doesn’t really matter what the guy looks like; there are plenty of male actors in Hollywood who are not “attractive” by many (most?) conventional standards, and they don’t fall out of favor or get hammered in the way that women do. The only man I can think of right now that fuels as much hate as Anne Hathaway/Gwyneth is Shia LaBeouf. But he absolutely deserves it, whereas those women really don’t.

Hess: I think you’re underestimating the extent to which male actors are sold as romantic objects to women who read these magazines. That said, I was really disappointed (though unsurprised) that Jared Leto didn’t catch the same criticism that Anne Hathaway did after giving a similarly unconvincing and grating acceptance speech. It’s not that fewer people should hate Anne Hathaway. It’s that more people should hate Jared Leto!

Paskin: Ha, this is like how my solution to gratuitous female nudity on HBO is gratuitous male nudity. Let’s at least be equal opportunity offenders. If we can’t stop holding actresses to ridiculous standards of likeability, at least let’s start holding men to them, too.

Harris: I wonder, though—are we going to turn on Lupita soon, like we have on Hathaway and Lawrence? (And way before them, on Julia Roberts.) Will her straddling the line between graciousness and self-awareness become irritating to us, too? Or does she stand a chance of surviving the storm that is being a thirtysomething woman (and woman of color, especially) in Hollywood?

Paskin: I think this is a double-edged question, because the answer is— if she stays this famous, yes, probably we’ll turn on her. And if she doesn’t, no probably not. I wish she could have both good things, but I’m not sure that’s how it works. It hasn’t really worked that way for anyone else yet. Though, not to overstate it: People ride the wave of dislike and often come out the other side. (See Katharine Hepburn.)

Harris: I’m worried about her follow-up career on film, frankly. (She could easily thrive on stage, I think, if she wanted to.) If we’re talking pure accolades, only two black women have been nominated more than once for an acting Oscar, Whoopi Goldberg and Viola Davis. Most of the women who have been nominated, and/or won, have not been able to find juicy, plum roles again. And this is the case for a lot of women in general, but it’s even worse for black actresses.

Hess: Yes, whether people “like” Lupita is maybe the least of her worries. There just aren’t enough roles for black women. Then again, everybody wants to work with the It Girl, so it will be interesting to see if it forces people to create roles for Lupita, even if they’re not creating more roles for black women more widely.

Harris: Though I do think to some extent, for a black actress (or actor) to get good, or just consistent, work, they must also be likeable, by the industry and the paying public, as well.

Hess: So, have we solved sexism in Hollywood yet?

Waldman: I mean, I hate Jared Leto a little bit more, so yes?

Hess: Sorry, Jared Leto.

Paskin: (Not sorry.)