House Logo
Explore categories +

Vanity Fair (#110 of 12)

Jennifer Lawrence: On Female Spontaneous Combustion

Comments Comments (...)

Jennifer Lawrence: On Female Spontaneous Combustion
Jennifer Lawrence: On Female Spontaneous Combustion

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.

Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions: Actress

Comments Comments (...)

Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions: Actress
Oscar 2012 Winner Predictions: Actress

At this point, being a Meryl Streep diehard who also cares about Oscar hoopla is a kind of brutal self-flagellation. Year after year, be it a silver fox in a royalty role, a can’t-miss Brit in a Holocaust film, or a rom-com sweetheart awarded for years of box-office gajillions, there’s always someone younger, fresher, or less-anointed to make voters feel better about passing on Streep, their near-perennial Oscar queen. This year, of course, the guilt-free alternative is Viola Davis, whose movie-carrying brilliance in The Help is fortified by the unavoidable race discussion, which, whether you pray at the church of Tate Taylor or Tavis Smiley, is all but certain to catapult her to victory. Up to now, Streep and Davis have more or less split the precursor trophies, and Streep has a fresh Kennedy Center Honor and Berlinale career kudo in her corner, but it’s next to impossible to imagine Davis’s snowballing awards narrative being derailed in the place where it would wring the most tears. Yes, a 2012 Best Actress win for a black woman in a maid role sends all kinds of regressive messages, but stronger yet is the voter urge to self-congratulate by coloring Oscar history, however sad the truth of the matter. Indeed, Streep had better hope she stays in her seat, for a win might make her look as monstrous as the shrew she so embodies in The Iron Lady.