Let’s get the obvious facts out of the way: She’s young. She’s beautiful. She’s adorably inexperienced at being a huge movie star. She talks like an actual person. She stays in close contact with her roots. She seems to drink constantly but holds it together (except for that infamous tumble at the Oscars). She has a face so expressive it seems tailor-made for GIFs and memes. She made a great furry on Monk. She’s a comic book heroine in one film and kills kids young enough to read comic books in another. And oh, yeah: she’s also a stellar, world-class actress.
It’s easy to see how Jennifer Lawrence is capturing the heart of the internet. Anne Hathaway is too glitzy and artificial (as proven by science), Lena Dunham comes with an airline full of pretentious baggage. Zooey Deschanel is to be blamed for the horrible assault on the Broca that is the word “adorkable”. Lawrence is the perfect heir to a throne previously held by Tina Fey, who has succumbed her place in the subreddits of nerds everywhere for some pretty sweet cool-mom territory. She’s not the new “it” girl; she’s the new IT girl.
But Jennifer Lawrence’s fame says something not just about Internet culture but about the culture at large. For generations, the hunt for “cool” has landed at the feet of a very typified personality: Brad Pitt, James Dean, Ernest Hemingway. They have always been those with lives we all hope to lead yet likely never will. Brad Pitt plays bad boys and marries Angelina Jolie. James Dean created the Angry Young Man and died driving a Porsche Spyder at top speeds along the California coast. Ernest Hemingway hunted lions, fought bulls, covered two world wars (one as a soldier and the other as a gun-toting journalist), and had some pretty awesome cats to come home to. We’ve learned to idolize men who live the lives we see them play out in films or novels. Johnny Cash wrote about breaking the law and did. Hunter S. Thompson wrote about taking a shit-ton of drugs and did.
But the women we are taught to idolize have rarely been asked to do more than be beautiful. Sure, you have your Dorothy Parker’s, your Mae West’s, your Katharine Hepburn’s; women with golden looks and silver tongues. But the dichotomy of on-screen characters versus real life persona tend to be very slim. Women like Hathaway and Deschanel seem lab-tested to commit as little offenses to the expectations of the Hollywood elite as possible. In interviews, they seem as plasticine as most of their characters, despite their respective talents. And the importance of interviewing well cannot go understated. While performances delineate the expectations we have of them at their job, the interview is a forum for their actual personality. However, far too many movie stars tend toward playing an archetype–just as they do in the movies or on TV–simply because it is what they know how to do.
Lawrence, however, seems to balance that line between acting the hell out of a role and retaining their central personality. Her success is very new, and she likely could not have anticipated having a franchise as large as The Hunger Games heaped on her shoulders. However, when one compares her to a similar YA creation like Kristen Stewart (who even Jon Stewart struggled to make interesting), it is easy to see why Lawrence’s habit of wearing her personality on her sleeve has come to her benefit.
Both the Internet and reality TV have converged on a central idea: We all want to be famous. In the words of the immortal Rachel Barbara Berry, “being anonymous is worse than being poor. Fame is the most important thing in our culture now.” However, those who become famous through reality television (or similarly contrived phenomenon) tend to have faith in the old structure of what is expected from a celebrity: well-composed anecdotes, heavily-painted faces, and a supreme lack of depth. The only issue with this is most reality TV stars lack the talent or ability to maintain such a composure, leaving us with reality TV that feels like scripted TV played out by bad actors. The end result is even the media which is supposed to portray real life ends up feeling artificial solely because the subjects are performing to a rubric.
Jennifer Lawrence is the polar opposite. Why the typical cast member of Buckwild or Gallery Girls has gone into their situation with a preset collection of habits and behaviors, Jennifer Lawrence is an actual actress who behaves more like an actual person than either of those shows’ actual people. TV as a medium is becoming more and more contrived even as it claims to become more and more real. Hollywood, however, is turning towards a star who innately captures people you already know. Throw whatever archetype on to Jennifer Lawrence you wish: The Girl Next Door, Manic Pixie Dream Girl, Action Girl. However you wish to categorize her, she is both very unused to being categorized and manages to handle any attempt with charm, wit, and an extreme lack of pretentiousness.
Take a look at her post-Oscar meeting with Jack Nicholson. While being interviewed by George Stephanopoulos, Lawrence is approached (ahem) from behind by the movie industry’s eternal bad boy. After some kind words, Nicholson says to her “you look like an old girlfriend of mine.” Lawrence replies “maybe like a new girlfriend?” in a very sarcastic manner, only to be met with “I thought about it!” from Jack. She immediately shows a completely unforced reaction of shock and awe, one in which her melting facial reactions are similar to what we all imagine we’d be like if R.P. McMurphy were to so directly hit on us.
The dream of the Internet — with its fly-by-night treatment of fame — is that we will all have our Warholian 15 minutes. Combined with reality television, it has helped to foster an environment in which even the most normal, most mundane of people can achieve the glorious life of the rich and famous. While Jennifer Lawrence is neither normal or mundane, she sustains the collective attitude and controlled ego we all wish we could have once our moment comes–and in each of our egotistical minds, our moment will inevitably come. I, for one, imagine Howard Zinn never existed and I, in fact, wrote The People’s History of The United States, filled with appearances on The Daily Show and Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me. Even the subtlest amongst us imagine one day, our field will be in front of millions and we will be the chosen star. We love Jennifer Lawrence because this is exactly what has happened to her. She worked immensely hard from the ground up yet is as shocked to find her talent being as widely recognized as it is. While rock stars and movie stars and other cult-of-personalities have fostered the idea of who we should be, Jennifer Lawrence has garnered such mass attention because she represents who we already think we are.