Shailene Woodley (aka Jennifer Lawrence: Crunchy Edition) is currently giving folks total heart-boners with her glorious words of reasonable, human normalcy. As much as I want to shake everyone and be like, “This should not be so shocking. Jennifer Lawrence is basically any girl who eats food and poops, and Shailene Woodley is any girl who doesn’t shave her vagina and uses natural deodorant.”, I get it: it is shocking compared to the bullshit we’re used to hearing from young movie stars. The fact that we’re so refreshed by hearing a famous chick say these things is actually a depressing reminder of how out of touch and superficial the rest of celebrity culture is. And really, we might be distracting ourselves from the real issue – and the real work left to do – but dreamily indulging in the idea that these women represent any change in how bodies and human experiences are portrayed in media.
But aside from the novelty of the whole “hey, look: someone on Jimmy Fallon who I wouldn’t totally loathe being friends with” thing, are “body-positive” pretty people doing us any actual good, or are they just giving us an easy way to feel self-congratulatory and progressive without having to endure the hardship of looking at imperfect people or – god forbid – actually challenging our ability to believe in one of their characters had they been played by someone who didn’t fit the Hollywood mold so well?
Is it really all that helpful to hear messages against strict, unrealistic body ideals if they’re being promoted by someone who – real talk – probably wouldn’t have the fame and subsequent public platform to say these things if they didn’t themselves fit so neatly into those ideals? That’s an actual question, not rhetorically posed with the implication that my answer is “no”. I’m not trying to undervalue the benefit of having public figures use their celebrity to issue healthy, body positive thoughts, but it’s still a little weird to hear them from women who can undoubtedly attribute at least some of their success to the fact that they’re typically beautiful. Like, it’s easy to talk about how much we shouldn’t so harshly criticize people’s appearances when you possess very few traditionally lamentable traits.
To really assess whether or not the “all bodies are awesome!” talk from Shailene Woodley and others is actually doing any good, we need to think about what we, the normals out here watching movies and TV, are ultimately trying to get from Hollywood when it comes to how we view ourselves. In a perfect little vacuum, our self-image would be purely self-contained; we would decide how we feel about our bodies per their health and functionality, how our chosen sexual partners responded to them (which would, again, be based on nothing but personal experience.) Really, in that fantasy world, as long as our bodies were healthy and had positive sexual relationships, there would be very little reason to compare or feel ashamed or inadequate.
But we don’t live in a vacuum. Our reality is like this: From the time we’re kids, we take cues from everything around us – TV, movies, books, ads, toys, and our peers and parents who are equally influenced by those things – and the things we see portrayed start to form how we view the world, and our place in the world. Because we really only look outside of ourselves in some effort to better understand who we are, and how we fit into the bigger context of human existence. That’s really it. You can trace almost all of our impulses to seek out media back to that basic goal.
So we look to the people and characters we see in various forms of media, and instinctively find the ones who most closely resemble ourselves. What we do next is the crux of this entire discussion: We take the narratives built around those characters, and the feelings projected about them, and use them to develop our ideas about where we – the actual humans these characters are theoretically supposed to represent – fit in. If we see only pretty, thin, light-skinned (or whatever other exalted qualities. You get the idea.) women falling in love, we will come to believe that they are the most loved. If we see people of color as nothing but underdeveloped side characters, acting in support of the main white character’s storyline, we will come to give people in the real world weight according to those same racial lines. If we constantly see fat characters either mocked or tormented by shame, or only achieve happiness once they “succeed” by losing weight, we will come to view all the non-skinnies of the world as shameful, failed jokes. If we see female characters acting irrational in “comedic” contrast to the unfailing rationality of male characters, we will come to believe that as well.
These correlations aren’t exaggerated. This isn’t conjecture. I’m not making this shit up. This is how it works. The dynamics between people of different genders, races, ages, and body types as represented in the media form a subconscious filter through which we view the world. Even if you decide to opt out of media consumption on an individual level, you’re still existing in a society where people are largely making themselves an audience and thus implicitly willing instruments of the perpetuation of so many stereotypes. How people are represented in movies, TV, and other media still affects you, whether you are paying attention personally or not.
That is to say, you don’t have to be a fan of Girls for Lena Dunham’s boobs to be relevant to your life. In fact, when you consider the fact that our overall happiness is indelibly tied to how we perceive ourselves (how confident we are, what things we do or don’t attempt – in our love lives or careers – based on the belief or lack thereof that it’s possible to succeed) and the foundation of how we perceive ourselves is constructed from the raw materials we gather from the media depictions we relate to, then the real power of movies and TV extends well beyond their ability to entertain. They have the ability to define entire social dynamics, as well as the single lives of every person under the influence of those dynamics (spoiler: that’s all of us.)
And for the record, if you’re tired of everyone using Dunham’s Hannah as the go-to example of a leading female character who embraces her non-Hollywood body and, in doing so, is working to expand the definition of what is sexy and what types of humans are “permitted” to be proudly sexual: We use that example all the time because we don’t have a lot of other options. If Hannah’s relationship with her body wasn’t so exceptional, we wouldn’t be discussing it at all – that’s the Promised Land. Everyone talking about how revolutionary it is for a chubby girl to be conducting herself with naked confidence while having sex with hot dudes doesn’t mean we’ve won the war on body image in media – we’ll know we’re on that path when a chubby girl being sexy on TV isn’t discussed at all because it’s normal. And girls get to grow up in a world where women who look like Lena Dunham are perfectly acceptable leading ladies with rewarding love lives, and they get to grow up in a world where they unquestioningly believe that they and their bodies are awesome and lovable.
Validating the lives of people other than pretty, thin, white people in a way that will truly make profound change to the way real people are trained to view their bodies and lives requires normalizing these things that, in media, are still very exceptional when they’re represented at all.
So the question then becomes: How much are the people responsible for media content (filmmakers, writers, casting directors, etc.) obligated to be accountable for the social effects of their creative efforts? Some argue – and as a creative professional, I tend to want to agree – that protecting creative autonomy is important; if artists are required to show awareness and sensitivity in regards to the human impact of what they create, does that inherently undermine their creative freedom? It’s a complex problem, and I’m not going to pretend to have a solid answer. There is no solid answer.
A common defense of representing unhealthy ideas like fat-shaming, or racial marginalization, in TV or movies is that showing them is not an act of discrimination unto itself, that it’s merely a reflection of the world we live in, for better or worse. The idea is that the creators of these stories don’t want to make some sweet, happy, politically correct wonderland for the sake of making everyone feel better – they would rather show the world in all of its gritty unfairness. (But let’s be honest: far more often than movies and TV which employing stereotypes and degrading portrayals to bring attention to those egregious realities, they’re just ignorantly participating in them.)
Maybe it’s hoping for too much to think that “creators in power” – which the individuals making the actual decisions about what kinds of characters and stories are represented in mainstream media could aptly be described as – would want to use their influence for positive change. Although certainly some of them do, and *fingers crossed* more will follow. Shonda Rhimes, showrunner of Grey’s Anatomy and Scandal, famously utilizes colorblind casting and has a decade-long history of incorporating characters and storylines where diversity of races, ages, orientations, and body types isn’t present for novelty, attention, or kudos; it’s present in an unextraordinary, non-focal way that actually normalizes the experiences of people who ordinarily see very little media representation, and when they do, are almost exclusively treated as exceptional objects of Otherness. And based on the rock solid ratings of Rhimes’ shows, it’s pretty hard to argue that the end creative product is suffering as a result.
Until then, girls like Jennifer Lawrence and Shailene Woodley are still a lovely change of pace. At least they say shit that we can get onboard with. I’m not saying it’s bad to be fans of these women I mean, if you don’t at least kind of want to be friends with J. Law, I don’t understand your criteria. She does seem rad. And Shailene Woodley makes me want to throw my praise hands up when she decries the use of chemical-heavy cosmetics because, seriously, fuck all of that shit. I just hope we can put our girl-crushes aside and realize that these “real girl celebs” are not even remotely indicative of a scrap of change when it comes to media impact on self-image (for women or anyone else.) We still have a lot of work to do, and casting pretty white ladies – even ones who hate bras and trip on red carpets – isn’t going to get us there.