How Jennifer Lawrence's relatable celebrity defined the 2010s
Over the past decade, the rich and the famous went to great lengths to prove that they're just like us.
There may be no example more illustrative of the way celebrity has changed since 2010 than that of Jennifer Lawrence, the internet’s onetime BFF. In 2010, after a string of fairly un-showy performances in indie films and television, she appeared in the drama Winter’s Bone, playing a dirt-poor teenager named Ree whose daddy cooks up crystal meth. “The movie would be unimaginable,” David Denby wrote in his review for the New Yorker, “with anyone less charismatic playing Ree.” Lawrence made history as the youngest person ever to be nominated for Best Actress, turning up at the 2011 Oscar ceremony in a dress -- red, unembellished and by Calvin Klein, the better to show off her all-American allure -- that made her look like a precocious, put-together girl at a Kentucky prom, and made the tabloids talk about her as if she were shaped like Kim Kardashian because she dared to wear a size four. As introductions to Hollywood go, it was instantly memorable, as if the Oscars that year also happened to be Lawrence’s debutante ball.
By 2012, she had both conquered the teen market by appearing in The Hunger Games, and earned her second Oscar nomination playing a woman who was meant to be in her late thirties in David O. Russell’s Silver Linings Playbook. It is difficult to pinpoint the exact moment her image shifted from that of a talented young actress to that of a sexy, goofy hellion with more Oscar nominations than Brad Pitt or Greta Garbo, but it may have been the following year, when she fell down in Dior: stepping up to claim her Oscar statuette, then tripping over her absurdly voluminous princess gown, she ended up coming across more meme than actress.
The internet, and especially the female millennial internet, freaked out. Lawrence, apparently aware that she had quite literally stumbled on to something valuable, redid the bit the following year. The rest --the butt-plug anecdotes, the inebriated alter-ego "Gail", the photobombs and the obsession with reality TV -- is tabloid history. “By now, you’ve probably read a thousand things about how Jennifer Lawrence is just like the rest of us,” the interviewer Jason Gay wrote, meeting Lawrence at her rental home for a U.S. Vogue profile in 2017. “This is true… it’s easy to forget you’re in the company of someone now hailed as movie-industry royalty.” It would be easier to forget if the piece had not been accompanied by paintings of the actress by John Currin, the iconic American artist best known for his dreamy reinterpretations of an Old Master aesthetic -- a resounding confirmation of her beauty, and her status as a historically-significant work of human art.
Here is why Lawrence’s ecstatic coronation as the internet’s best friend circa 2013 has been so crucial to the twenty-teens: about three weeks after the premiere of Winter’s Bone, the very first version of Instagram came out. In two months, Instagram had one million users; after one year, it had ten million. Influencers were not far behind. The app, open to celebrities and to civilians who wanted to live publicly as if they were celebrities, proved two ideas simultaneously: that stars were just like us, and that we could be just like them. It has afforded famous people the ability to offer us the most intimate details of their lives, but in a way that is illusory. “As influencers encroach on the domain of those whose fame is a by-product of their artistic talent,” a piece at The Globe and Mail argued last month, “we’ve begun to see more celebrities try to demonstrate that they are accessible. Relatable… Today’s social-media landscape has stripped away much of that veneer and left us with (often calculated) overtures of normalcy from those who, let’s face it, definitely do not live ‘normal’ lives.”
Our lives, by contrast, are less normal: more edited, more stage-managed, more liable to be shaped around a photo opportunity, and just as built to fool as anything created by a movie star. I know at least one “normal” person with a minor #sponcon deal, and I know administrative assistants whose holiday photographs resemble stills from The Talented Mr Ripley. J-Law seemed refreshing at her peak, from roughly 2012 to 2015, because we ourselves were getting better at dissembling. Being honest and unvarnished had begun to look deceptively luxurious, like staying thin at the same as totally, like, eating pizza. Then, for very famous people, it began to seem more like the status quo.
Stars being humorously “real” became a hallmark of the viral celebrity story in this decade’s second half, making it impossible to spend time online without coming across some new and deeply humanising clip of an A-lister being goofy. Obviously, each time we found ourselves with no choice but to stan. I’m thinking of Dakota Johnson owning Ellen; Tiffany Haddish bringing her own chicken to the Met Gala, or getting extremely high and taking Will and Jada Smith alligator-spotting with a Groupon; Keanu being (delightfully) Keanu; Robert Pattinson being (delightfully) Robert Pattinson; Rihanna chatting hilarious shit on Instagram; Jake Gyllenhaal furiously defending Sean Paul; every Carpool Karaoke clip; Reese Witherspoon not knowing how to use the internet; Keke Palmer displaying some of the decade’s most impressive comic timing by referring to Dick Cheney as “this man” with her apologies. Throughout all of this, Jennifer Lawrence kept behaving like a goofball, striking up a friendship with the Kardashians and blasphemously describing some sacred Hawaiian stones as “good for butt itching”. Still, she had competition. What in 2012 or 2013 was a unique selling point had now sold well enough to almost totally reform the market.
For all of her big-time normalcy, Jennifer Lawrence does not have a public Instagram account. She has a “finsta”, a low-key account from which she cannot be identified and from which she observes everyone else’s very public, very engineered displays of fun. “I’m on it. But I’m a voyeur: I watch. I don’t speak,” she told InStyle in 2018. “There is always so much backlash. So many people are listening and paying attention, and they have so many opinions about absolutely everything.” Her realisation that it may sometimes be better to observe than to act wild and end up subject to 24/7 observation suggests both a new maturity and a more nuanced attitude to fame. A stratospheric, distant figure like Beyoncé, who has Instagram and makes nakedly autobiographical material but somehow still feels regal and remote, is now a rarity in her commitment to being a Goddamn star: she is private, immaculate, and extremely savvy, and she is not interested in looking “real” if looking “real” conflicts with the image she has spent 23 dedicated years perfecting for her fans. No wonder she is captivating to us, and no wonder she was able to pull off two of the most moving, defining artistic spectacles of the decade with her album Lemonade, and her performance at Coachella. Her discipline, the opposite of being a goof, is what makes her remarkable: she is in no way just like us.
Chloe Sevigny, a downtown icon so cool that her fame and public persona are impervious to changes in the nature of celebrity, said in 2015 that she prefers it “when a movie star is a great movie star” rather than an extremely public personality. “Jennifer Lawrence,” she added, “I find annoying. [She’s] too crass.” It is true that once you know every last thing about a person, it can become harder to desire them the same way. It’s true, too, that if that person is an actor, it can become difficult to see them disappear into a character onscreen if we are thinking about, say, the time their hotel maid discovered all those butt plugs. While Sevigny does have Instagram, she is not accessible or relatable, but coolly fashion forward. She does not post outfit pictures -- “I’m 42 and I’m already famous,” she told Net-a-Porter, “why would I self-promote myself like that?” -- and she is not known for being dorky, sweetly quirky, or low-maintenance. Her mysteriousness, in light of how much we know about most other famous people and their hilarious foibles, feels old-school, and is therefore fascinating. For celebrities in 2020, being unknowable may end up being the move. What once felt passé — i.e. actual, opaque privacy — might feel entirely new again after a decade of the inverse.