Jennifer Lawrence’s Tragic Sexual “Empowerment”

If asked to pick my favorite actor working today, I would be hard pressed not to choose Jennifer Lawrence. An exceptional thespian, Lawrence is especially skilled at communicating raw emotions through characters facing extreme trials: Ree in Winter’s Bone, Katniss in the Hunger Games films, Aurora in Passengers, and the nameless woman in mother! My admiration for her acting ability has only increased with the passage of time.

As one interested in Lawrence’s development as an actor, I thought it appropriate to examine her most recent project: the sexually violent spy thriller Red Sparrow. In the words of Refinery29’s Anne Cohen, “An actress famous for her reluctance to shoot nude scenes doesn’t just suddenly decide to go full-frontal, which makes this decision worth examining.”

Consider just one sequence in the film, once again in the words of Anne Cohen:

In the late stages of her training as a Sparrow, an elite breed of Russian spies taught to extract information with their bodies and their sexual wiles, Dominika Egorova (Jennifer Lawrence) is almost raped in the showers by another cadet. She beats the crap out of him, and both are hauled in front of a disciplinary committee…

As punishment (or more training, depending on your perspective), Dominika is made to give her aggressor what he wants — in front of their entire class. To sacrifice her body and her pride for the ultimate good: the State.

This one scene combines elements from two acts of sexual violation Lawrence has personally experienced:

  1. Coerced disrobing before a crowd (for the purpose of humiliation). A female producer had Lawrence do a “degrading and humiliating” nude lineup with “about five women who were much, much thinner than me.” The producer used the incident as an attempt to shame Lawrence into dieting more.
  2. Forced public nudity (against her wishes). In 2014, privately stored nude photos of several celebrities, including Lawrence, were stolen and released online. The action traumatized her with grief and shame (understandably so), and she referred to the photo hack as “a sex crime…a sexual violation.”
With these comparisons in mind, one might ask why Lawrence would agree to basically re-enact some of the most degrading and humiliating experiences of her life. For the answer to that question, we need look nowhere other than Lawrence herself. In a recent interview with Total Film, she said the following:

I worked myself up [about the scene], I was really nervous. But Francis [the director] made me feel so much more comfortable. Everybody made me feel like I had clothes on. And then when I finished, I just walked out feeling empowered. I felt amazing. . . .

It was never my choice for the world to see my naked body. I didn’t get to make that decision. In doing this film, in doing this for my art… I really felt, I still feel, empowered. I feel like I took something back that was taken from me.

To a degree, I get where Lawrence is coming from. When on the receiving end of a sexual offense (great or small), it is easy for a victim to experience a sense of helplessness. The lack of control can, no doubt, feel debilitating. Thus, it is understandable that any response which gives the victim a restored sense of control would be appealing. So if the sacred and private nature of your body has been exposed to the world without your consent, it makes sense that you might want to willingly expose your body to the world—if for no other reason than to prove that you have regained the control you lost.

DEFEAT AS VICTORY

I sympathize with, and mourn over, how public figures like Jennifer Lawrence have been treated as sexual objects in the past. While Lawrence’s response is understandable, and while I can see how it may have even provided a sense of catharsis, I think it is largely informed by the very culture she is trying to crawl out of—i.e., a culture of sexual exploitation. She is choosing a form of surrender and mistaking it for victory.
                                                                                                                                               
It’s not just conservatives who would agree with me here. Consider, for example, what women’s advocate Caitlin Roper said in a 2017 Huffington Post article:

While feminists in decades past fought against the objectification of women, believing it contributed to our second-class status, this same sexualising treatment has been repackaged as female empowerment or women owning their sexuality (which incidentally tends to be indistinguishable from the porn-inspired fantasies of heterosexual men... go figure). Empowerment, it appears, means women being reduced to object status on their own terms.

Lawrence is a prime example of this “empowerment.” With Red Sparrow, she chose to play a character defined by her sexuality and sexual usefulness, whose power comes only through the crucible of repeated acts of sexual violence against her. This does nothing to mitigate the sexual abuse Lawrence experienced in real life. If anything, it is a capitulation to that abuse—an inadvertent assumption that the only way for Lawrence to overcome sexual exploitation is to submit to more sexual exploitation.

Rather than taking back what was stolen from her, she willingly gave more of herself away—stooping down closer (though certainly not all the way) to the level of those who abused her. This was all done on Lawrence’s own terms, yes. But willing, self-inflicted objectification is no remedy for unwilling, forced objectification. You cannot overcome a problem by perpetuating the problem.

Many critics—some who liked Red Sparrow and some who did not—have pointed out this problem. Here is just a sampling:
                                                                                                                                        
  • “It’s hard to overlook…the sheer number of sexual assaults Dominika is subjected to or the way the camera ogles its female lead with the same discomfiting gaze as her perverted boss” (Washington Post).
  • Red Sparrow is the sort of film that thinks it’s empowering its female character by making her supremely confident in her sexual power, when in fact the story just wants to keep finding excuses for Jennifer Lawrence to take off her clothes and reduce men to quivering pools in her presence” (Screen Daily).
  • “…no matter how many times a woman can be raped or attacked, [the filmmakers] think it becomes okay once she takes control of her body (by doing what a man would do with it)” (Monsters and Critics).
  • “…the sexist, sadistic and absurdly kinky Red Sparrow starring a hyper-sexualized Jennifer Lawrence…[has] gratuitous nudity, rape, weaponized sex, torture and ruthless objectification of women” (Tampa Bay Times).
  • “[Red Sparrow is] a mostly naked Jennifer Lawrence, awaiting the male gaze, from both on-screen and off” (Cinegods).
These are not descriptions of empowerment, or anything that honors the worth and dignity of women. Rather, they shed light on the film’s misguided notions: that consent under duress is still consent, that power and agency come through the loss of power and agency, and that a woman can overcome being sexualized by sexualizing herself. To borrow a phrase from film critic Steve Persall, the film “[straddles] a line between feminist statement and centerfold fantasy.” Such an approach is antithetical to everything we should value about female sexuality and autonomy.

MIXED MESSAGES

In light of the Harvey Weinstein revelations, and considering Lawrence’s experiences in Hollywood, it should come as no surprise that she has a personal stake in effecting change within her own industry, and in the larger culture as well. She is reportedly working on a docuseries related to the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements.

I appreciate her heart to bring greater justice to our society. At the same time, with films like Red Sparrow, she is utilizing faulty methods to communicate her message. Influenced as she is by the very culture she is (rightfully and admirably) attempting to critique, she is sabotaging her own efforts.

Rachel Simon, Movie Editor at Bustle, puts it well:

When real women everywhere are bravely speaking up about their experiences and the world is treating rape with the seriousness it warrants, the last thing we need is a movie in which sexual assault is viewed as essential character development. We’ve already seen, and critiqued, that exact message in shows like Game of Thrones and The Americans. We don’t need it again.

In today’s world, Red Sparrow simply has no place. But it does exist, and it’s upsetting to think that some viewers might see this movie and take away its dangerous, unhealthy message.

My hope is that Jennifer Lawrence will be able to soon see the forest for the trees, demonstrate a personal course correction, and be a more effective advocate for those who have been victims of abuse, harassment, and degradation. If not, she could possibly do more harm than good. And that would be a tragic consequence of her well-meaning, but misguided, intentions.

photo credit: alien_artifact via flickr, CC (This photo has been cropped.)

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