December 20, 2013

The shallow mainstream criticism of supposedly shallow characters

Posted in Judaism, Pop Culture at 4:56 am by chavalah

Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) comforts Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) after she awakes from a night terror about their shared experience in the Hunger Games.  Obviously a depiction of the one-note action heroine.

Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) comforts Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) after she awakes from a night terror about their shared experience in the Hunger Games. Obviously a depiction of the one-note action heroine.

In reading mainstream pop culture’s reviews of “The Hunger Games: Catching Fire” (which I know I shouldn’t do, even if it has an approval rating around 90%,) I’m constantly irritated by criticism like this line: “Jennifer Lawrence commits to Katniss as much as she would a complex David O’Russell character.”

My complaint is two-fold. What makes Katniss a shallow character? And what makes her David O’Russell characters so damn deep?

I’m still on the fence about whether or not I want to see “American Hustle.” I’m kind of worried that Judaism will be used as a silly movie quirk, in the same vein of Lawrence slinking around in negligee. But Tiffany, Lawrence’s character in “Silver Linings Playbook,” (I imagine that most critics who still maintain that she was a “complex character” would still have to look up her name by this point,) was one-note.

Unlike Katniss, Tiffany didn’t change during her movie. Katniss started “Catching Fire” reeling from PTSD, closing herself off from emotion as best she could, and refusing, out of fear for her family, to acknowledge how her actions fed into a nation-wide call for revolution; she ended the film by allowing herself to have a real relationship with Peeta, by constantly struggling in the Quarter Quell over the nature of her true and supposed enemies, and by starting to accept her symbolic role as the Mockingjay in the revolution.

Tiffany starts, and remains, as the brash and uninhibited “manic pixie chick” to Bradley Cooper’s character. At best, she’s granted an archetypal existence as the woman in mourning who self-medicates by sleeping with multiple men. Oh my God. When she was explaining it to Cooper’s character about being fired after screwing all 11 of her male colleagues, all I could think of was “so what, did management have a meeting when it was just ten of them, and came to the conclusion that, ‘ok, she can stay unless she also fucks Steve’?” Anyway, that all backstory. Her major purpose in the movie was to say to Cooper’s character, “look at me, I’m confident in who I am, and I want you to do this dance competition with me,” and she ended with “look at me, I’m still confident in who I am, and we did that dance competition. Plot twist: we’re now making out!”

…in fact, I’m not as alone as I feared when it comes to noting shallowness in the script writing. Robbie Collin, writing for The a Daily Telegraph, states that “Lawrence, who was a wonder in The Hunger Games and Winter’s Bone, does manage to create a tangy, complex character from some very thin source material.” Personally I still wouldn’t call Tiffany complex, but I understand what critics and award shows were drawn to–Lawrence’s incredible ability to emote genuine emotion (or in the case of Katniss, to also suppress it).

Mainstream media isn’t actually reacting to the movies in question here, but actually to their archetypes. “Silver Linings Playbook” was quirky, with an Oscar-approved cast and a vague focus on mental health, so it’s labeled mature fare. The Hunger Games is scifi, so Katniss can therefore be nothing more than a one-note action figure. More to the point, it’s YA with teen romance, with a primarily young and female fan base, so it’s immature.

Honestly, there should be a litmus test here. Why is it automatically interesting for Tiffany to sleep with 11 people for largely unexplored reasons, yet Katniss is boring for having feelings for two boys with whom she grew up and faced hardships like battle and poverty? It’s not like her character dilemma rests on which one she’ll ask to the prom. She’s literally dealing with life and death situations–debating with Gale about running away to avoid Capitol retribution, choosing to save Peeta’s life in the Quarter Quell because she cares about him, has deep respect for his humanity, and wants to show some of her own.

At the end of the day, maybe I’m judging a shallow profession for incorrectly labeling shallowness. Most mainstream critics don’t dig deep into the movies they’re reviewing–they give a cursory analysis based on personal biases and generally accepted truths. (Quirky Oscar-studded films=complex. Scifi and YA=shallow). That’s just the status quo. I just wish that more of them would realize what a certain doctor has to say on the subject: “The status is not quo.” :p.


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