The image of women spontaneously combusting while doing housework was one of the most popular tropes of filmmaking more than a century ago. In a widely viewed early film from 1903, Mary Jane’s Mishap, a British housemaid accidentally immolates herself while attempting to light a hearth fire with paraffin and subsequently explodes out of the chimney. It was, of course, not uncommon for 19th-century women to catch fire in their own homes when their bulky hoop skirts would graze against an errant spark from the fireplace. Women spontaneously combusting in their own homes was a frequent hazard of the time that journalists then tastefully referred to as “crinoline conflagrations.”
Comical media images of women exploding provided outlets for spectators to laugh off the hazardous politics of everyday domesticity. While many aspects of the relationship between gender politics and media culture have changed since the early 1900s, we still harbor an unconscious tendency to laugh at otherwise horrific images of violence inflicted on women’s bodies. Fortunately, 21st-century domesticity isn’t quite so fraught with the perils of instantaneous conflagration. Yet, the image of women catching fire—quite simply as a metaphor for women’s ambitions to be visible at all—continues to spark our cultural imagination.
And perhaps no other movie star walks this fine line between media visibility and human calamity as deftly as Jennifer Lawrence. There’s something oddly literalistic about the actress’s star appeal. From her “electricity” with Bradley Cooper, to her near-fatal calamity with a 1970s microwave in American Hustle, to her iconic portrayal of “The Girl on Fire” in The Hunger Games trilogy, Lawrence draws on a long tradition of female combustion in cinema.