Public Scrutiny Destroyed Jennifer Lawrence. Now She Wants To Win Us Back.
It’s February 2023 and I find myself on the Oscars’ YouTube channel rewatching the clip titled: “Jennifer Lawrence Wins Best Actress: 85th Oscars (2013).”
The video has amassed 15 million views in the decade since it was uploaded, and I’ve probably contributed a good handful of those. I can pretty much envision each frame of the two-minute clip — from the way Jennifer claps after her name is read in the nominee lineup, to the bemused look on her face when she actually wins, to the exact second she takes a wrong step and falls to her knees on the stage while heading to collect the award.
The snapshot of Jennifer in her Dior gown strewn down the steps is deeply ingrained into my consciousness, and not just because I had a photograph of the moment pinned to my wall in my teenage bedroom. In February 2013, I was 14 and thought Jennifer Lawrence was the coolest and most awe-inspiring person to have ever walked the Earth. She may have just won an Oscar at a lavish ceremony more than 5,000 miles away from where I lived, but to me, she felt totally accessible.
Like many, I latched onto Jennifer soon after she was cast as Katniss Everdeen in the Hunger Games movie adaptation in 2011. I’d devoured the books and loved the idea that this was the person who’d be bringing my favorite character to life. The more I got to know her over the years through talk show appearances, press junkets, and magazine spreads, the more I became enamored.
She bragged about her tomboy tendencies thanks to her rough-and-tumble childhood with two brothers. (I have brothers too!) She laughed in the face of diet culture and emphasized the importance of carbs. (She loves pizza, just like me!)
She embarrassed herself in rooms filled with the world’s most famous people, but somehow the joke was never on her. She had the beauty of a model, the charm of a comedian, but the aura of a girl a few years older than me at school who I might feasibly befriend one day. And so, each time I looked at that photo of her on the stairs at the Oscars, I saw someone I knew.
But this appeal wasn’t specific to me. It wasn’t specific to girls my age, either, or even my gender. Girls and women of all ages thought she was awesome and relatable too, and boys and men across the globe loved her for being hot and fun and carefree.
Much of this appeal was down to the fact that she was a walking embodiment of the Cool Girl — a concept that first appeared in Gillian Flynn’s 2012 novel, Gone Girl.
The Cool Girl drinks beers with the guys, tells dirty jokes, and shares football opinions. She’s open about sex. She doesn’t have the body hang-ups of other women, and will happily devour cheeseburgers, fries, and pizza while also maintaining her “size 2” figure. She’s chill and laid-back; she never nags, never gets angry, and is effortlessly hot. Men love her; women want to be her.
Whether consciously or not, Jennifer adopted this persona flawlessly. She showed up to awards shows and chugged champagne straight from the bottle. She told stories about buttplugs, fangirled over other celebrities, and flipped the finger at photographers.
She subverted expectations not only of what it meant to be a traditional woman movie star, but also a celebrity more generally. Stars are often poised and controlled, but Jennifer was uninhibited and rambunctious. She acted as any normal civilian would if they were handed a glass of wine and let loose in a room full of A-listers. This lack of restraint, quirkiness, and relatability became her brand. Everyone adored her. Jennifer Lawrence could do no wrong — until she did.
In recent years, the concept of the Cool Girl has evolved into the Pick Me Girl — and the moniker is not a compliment. The Pick Me Girl exists in a similar way to the Cool Girl, but outwardly denounces typically feminine behaviors in an attempt to prove that she’s “not like other girls,” all with the aim of winning the affection of men. The Pick Me Girl puts other women down in order to get one up on them.
It goes without saying that both the Cool Girl and the Pick Me Girl have spun out from a patriarchal dream in which women are trapped in a cycle of chasing male approval while competing with one another. But our decidedly negative response to the Pick Me Girl also exposes how little tolerance society has for any woman who is transparently “trying.” Women must be effortlessly cool and appealing, without agenda.
So when Jennifer fell for a second time at the 2014 Oscars, public opinion quickly shifted. While her previous mishaps, including her first fall, had endeared her to the public, this incident had the opposite effect.
She was accused of being calculated, playing up to the cameras, engineering a viral moment for publicity. Critics began questioning whether she was actually performing a schtick. People online expressed their fatigue with her antics. The resounding feeling was that the moment was too coincidental, too controlled — proof that she was trying too hard to play the part she knew the public loved.
Of course, men rarely face such accusations. If anything, being strategic and calculated is worn as a badge of honor. Tom Holland and Timothée Chalamet, for example, are young male actors who’ve both balanced major box office hits as well as critically acclaimed projects. They’re both as publicly visible as Jennifer was in 2014, and have each garnered massive, devoted fanbases. Their followings are partially down to their immense talents, but also their charming, candid, and sometimes awkward personas.
Tom, for example, has garnered a reputation for “accidentally” letting slip movie spoilers in the middle of interviews, to the point where he’s often paired with paternal cast members to essentially chaperone him during press junkets. Despite these slip-ups happening multiple times, they’re endlessly laughed at, lauded, memed, and seen as proof of his sweet, innocent personality. It’s unlikely that a female counterpart would receive such widespread, consistent praise over what is likely a calculated marketing stunt.
For Jennifer, the downfall was swift. While she wasn’t short of work, with Joy (2015), X-Men: Apocalypse (2016), Passengers (2016), Mother! (2017), and Red Sparrow (2018) being released in quick succession, it’s telling that none came close to the success — both critically and commercially — of her earlier work.
Articles began circulating about how she had “pushed her luck” and become “too much.” Thinkpieces described her as the “lamest actress ever” and posited that she’d become as “unlikable” as Anne Hathaway — another celebrity who’s been accused of trying too hard. Other celebrities were quick to brand her “annoying” and “crass.” Entire forums popped up for users to discuss their hatred of her.
Jennifer’s proximity to Harvey Weinstein at this time didn’t help, either. After apologizing to her “little rascal” for failing to mention him during her 2013 Oscars acceptance speech, the pair had kept up a friendly rapport in the public eye.
But in 2017, misconduct accusations started mounting against the producer thick and fast, including a range of harassment and abuse claims made by well-known public figures. At the time, Jennifer admitted that she was finding the allegations difficult to process.
“I had known him since I was 20, and he had only ever been nice to me — except for the moments that he wasn’t, and then I called him an asshole, and we moved on,” she explained. “He was paternal to me.”
Her candor on the topic wound up backfiring in February 2018 when Weinstein and his legal team used the quote in his defense while attempting to dismiss another harassment lawsuit.
His attorneys strategically name-dropped Jennifer, Meryl Streep, and Gwyneth Paltrow in a bid to argue that the three women supported him. Jennifer and Meryl wound up retaliating by issuing statements against Weinstein, directly calling out the way his attorneys took their words out of context. “This is what predators do, and it must stop,” Jennifer told CNN at the time.
But, unfortunately, her association with Weinstein didn’t end there. At the end of that same year, a woman claimed in another misconduct case against Weinstein that he had bragged about having sex with Jennifer, apparently saying: “I slept with Jennifer Lawrence and look where she is; she has just won an Oscar.” The same day the lawsuit was filed, Jennifer hit back in another statement vehemently denying ever having had sex with Weinstein.
However, the damage was already done. As the #MeToo movement picked up steam, uniting women as they shared their stories and fought against harassment and abuse, Jennifer was positioned firmly on the outside of the sisterhood.
It also didn’t help that the political landscape had shifted too. #MeToo was arguably a response to the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and the world itself had changed as a result. It was no longer enough for celebrities to eat pizza and get drunk at awards shows — people were looking to them to speak up and lead the charge on change.
While other celebrity women were protesting and enacting change, Jennifer — who has never had a social media presence — was largely absent. While she wrote a couple of essays about the gender pay gap and moving forward after Trump, they were largely filled with white feminist sentiments about glass ceilings and being loud, with little in the way of action.
Jennifer has since admitted that she fell out privately with family members over their support of Trump, but this wasn’t conveyed publicly at the time. There was simply no room for ambiguity over anyone’s political stance at a time of such unrest — especially a rich, white, conventionally attractive blonde actor who had also traditionally voted Republican.
By late 2017, the public dislike toward Jennifer had become so palpable that she was forced to address it during an interview with Oprah for the Hollywood Reporter.
“All of a sudden it was, ‘They’re going to get sick of me,’” she said, referring to her run of poorly received movies, the way she was having to promote them, and the public backlash against her. She admitted that the negativity had made her deeply insecure in herself and her acting abilities.
She also acknowledged how much of this backlash was inextricably linked to the persona she exhibited early in her career. She admitted to outwardly cringing at her quirky behavior during press tours — the very same behavior that had established her as a relatable icon in the first place.
“I would get so nervous,” she said in hindsight. “I was 21, going through world press tours, and it’s just embarrassing. You don’t want to see yourself at 21 being ridiculous.”
It seems that the intense backlash caused Jennifer to take a conscious step back from the public eye. She released just three movies between 2017 and 2019, before quietly marrying New York art gallery director Cooke Maroney. And, then, for the next two years, Jennifer Lawrence went dark.
When she reappeared for an interview with Vanity Fair in November 2021, it was clear that Jennifer had spent her time away grappling with her identity; it had become impossible to differentiate where her public persona ended and the real Jennifer Lawrence began.
Speaking to the New York Times last November while promoting her new movie Causeway, Jennifer opened up about the decision to change her name when she got married, but to keep Lawrence professionally.
“I was born with the name Jennifer Lawrence, but that got taken from me when I was 21 and I never got it back,” she said, marking a clear distinction between her real, current self and the version you’ll find in YouTube “Funniest Moments” compilations. “That name already belongs to them,” she added.
While there’s no doubt that her personality and relatability were key in establishing her early success, it’s extremely hard to maintain a sense of authenticity when it’s actively being monetized and pumped for all its worth. After being lauded for her goofiness for years, it’s hard to imagine that Jennifer wouldn’t have felt the desire to play up to that praise a little, molding herself to fit the public demand and further blurring the distinction between the act of Jennifer Lawrence and the person herself.
This conflation and the sense of public ownership over her was never more apparent than when nude photos of her were leaked online in 2014 — a trauma she says will stay with her “forever.” She later explained that she took on the movie Red Sparrow as a way of reclaiming her sexuality, which proves just how deeply her own identity was intertwined with public perception.
It’s understandable, then, that once that perception shifted and her work projects began flopping, she truly lost sight of who she was and the career she’d set out to achieve.
“I felt like more of a celebrity than an actor … cut off from my creativity, my imagination,” she told the Times. The comment was a clear acknowledgment of how she’d existed solely to serve fans and movie executives — and when expectations weren’t met, she was vanquished.
As a result, the Jennifer who returned to public view was markedly different to any version we’d previously seen. She seemed hyper-aware of how she was presenting herself, determined to toe the line, never being “too much” or doing anything to annoy people.
“I’m so nervous,” Jennifer told Vanity Fair in late 2021. “I haven’t spoken to the world in forever.”
She went on to outline exactly why she’d stepped back, with a close friend confirming to the outlet that she vanished to protect her “sanity” after losing herself amid all the promotion and people-pleasing.
“I was not pumping out the quality that I should have,” Jennifer told Vanity Fair herself. “I just think everybody had gotten sick of me. I’d gotten sick of me. It had just gotten to a point where I couldn’t do anything right. If I walked a red carpet, it was, ‘Why didn’t she run?’”
It’s clear that nervousness and an air of reluctance were the underlying tones of Jennifer’s return, born from her desire to do things differently. “I will be the least annoying person in the room,” she said of her anxieties on the set of Don’t Look Up, terrified that the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio and Meryl Streep would find her irritating.
In December 2021, her first talk show appearance in two years embodied the same level of apprehension that she alluded to in her Vanity Fair interview a month prior — the palpable sense that each moment was spent trying to prevent herself from saying something that people might find annoying. The contrast between this and her old self was evident, although people still welcomed the new, more reserved version of Jennifer, flooding the comments section with praise.
“Man, she seems like she's really changed in the last few years … there was waaaaay less frenetic energy coming off of her,” one person wrote, adding: “I'm proud of her for not feeling like she needed to act like the person she used to be. Everybody grows!” Others echoed similar sentiments and noted the shift, with one person writing that it’s “finally nice to see her calm.”
It's unsurprising that her return was so well received. By presenting herself as calmer, more thoughtful, and less brash, she’d severed herself entirely from the persona that the public had grown to loathe.
It’s also telling that this shift in public opinion coincided with her pregnancy. You only have to look at the response to Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie in 2005 to see how quickly women are praised for falling into line with societal expectations to marry and have children. Whereas Jennifer Aniston was labeled cold and unfeeling for “refusing” to have kids with Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie was quickly rebranded from vampish vixen to grounded nurturer the second she and Brad were photographed on the beach with her son. For Jennifer, her baby bump was a tangible symbol that she’d dutifully quietened down and embraced domesticity.
Jennifer has recently tried to claim that she no longer cares about public opinion. She emphasized during an interview with Vogue that she’s much more concerned with politics, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, and gun control reform than she is with box office figures.
As she discussed in an interview for her new film Causeway, Jennifer quipped: “Yes, I did make a movie. I worked really hard on it. It was the hardest shoot of my life. It was three years. I hope people see it. But if not, we’re all going to die anyway, so who cares.”
On the surface, her answer indicated that her time away from the public eye had given her the space to reevaluate what really mattered aside from the expectations of studios and audiences. But the very fact she began by emphasizing how hard she’d worked seemed like a bid to be taken seriously — to draw attention to what was arguably the weightiest project of her career so far, and her first-ever producer credit.
And while she likely no longer deliberately hunts out hurtful comments and reviews online in the way she did at the peak of her success, it’s clear that Jennifer is at the very least conscious of how she’s perceived.
In each recent interview, she seems wary of overexposure. Her answers feel more restrained, as though she’s aware that one wrong move, one anecdote too far, and she’ll be cast out once more. In just the same way as she probably played up parts of her personality for continued attention in 2013, she’s arguably tempering herself now for the sake of palatability.
However, this temperance is actually crucial if Jennifer is to draw a line between then and now — which she clearly wants to do. It seems that she’s now striving to exist less as Jennifer Lawrence the Celebrity, who’s memed and analyzed and torn apart, and more as the artist she’d clearly set out to be before The Hunger Games launched her into the stratosphere. And she’s slowly been implementing boundaries to reduce the level of public consumption around her life and career.
This began with protecting her private life. While she’s always been cautious about giving away details about her past relationships, it’s undeniable that several have played out in the full glare of the public eye. This has only fueled the celebrity gossip mill and distracted from her work.
For example, she starred in three X-Men movies with her on-off boyfriend Nicholas Hoult between 2010 and 2015. Not only did she share the screen with him, but they also attended events together and regularly discussed one another in interviews — to the point where she even heavily alluded to the fact that the nude photos leaked in 2014 had been taken for him. And when she began dating director Darren Aronofsky in 2016, the fascination around their relationship and 22-year age gap completely overshadowed their work on Mother!
But with her husband, things are different. The pair are yet to attend a single public event together, and it looks set to stay that way. After giving birth to their first child, Jennifer confirmed to Vogue she’d had a son and he was named Cy, but made it clear that she wouldn’t be offering up any further details about her baby.
And this newfound control over her public image also extends to Jennifer’s career, with her seemingly only prioritizing movie projects she’s passionate about. While the first chapter of her career was mostly defined by ticking the blockbuster checklist like a dutiful movie star should, the second chapter is more focused on the stories she actually wants to tell — where she’s judged on talent rather than multimillion-dollar rollouts.
Fitting for her big return, Don’t Look Up was her first-ever comedy and was helmed by a director she’d dreamt of working with since she was 19. Similarly, her second movie back, Causeway, is the first project made by her very own production company, which backs the stories she wants to be heard.
Later in the pipeline, she’s set to star in a biopic about the Hollywood agent Sue Mengers, which will be directed by Paolo Sorrentino, as well as an R-rated coming-of-age comedy called No Hard Feelings — more stories on her terms.
It’s telling that she’s so far kept promotion of these films to a relative minimum, generally selecting one talk show and high-profile magazine interview per project. By limiting personal life fodder, memeable moments, and quirky soundbites, there's simply far less for the public to pick apart and scrutinize. She’s free to take on the work she cares about and otherwise live a relatively peaceful life, free from constant scrutiny.
“Full circle, I’m kind of getting the life that I imagined,” she told the Times last year, emphasizing that this new chapter is the best yet. “There’s an occasional article about me walking out in Ugg boots, but other than that, the interest has lessened, God bless it.”
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