Big Screen Bowhunts: Why
Does JLaw Get a Pass? Big Screen Bowhunts: Why Does JLaw Get a Pass?

Jennifer Lawrence skins a squirrel in “Winter’s Bone,” bowhunts in “The Hunger Games,” and said “Screw PETA” in a Rolling Stone interview. So why don’t anti-hunters attack the actress for her positive, unapologetic portrayals of hunting?

When actor Rip Torn’s character Clyde Stewart shot a pig and slit its throat in the 1981 movie “Heartland,” Torn drew widespread protests from animal lovers.

The Friends of Animals labeled the highly acclaimed movie “unacceptable,” and directed self-righteous torment at Torn. He never apologized, saying he had hunted for food since age 6, and that millions of pigs and steers get slaughtered commercially in much the same way as the pig killed in the movie.

In a 1982 interview, Torn said he felt insulted by the constant criticism: “I don’t bring up the subject; others do. I defend my views because it’s my right. What I’m doing is legal and it’s acceptable morally and ethically, and I resent people telling me otherwise, especially when they don’t know what they’re talking about.”

Jennifer Lawrence in "Winter's Bone."

Jennifer Lawrence in “Winter’s Bone.”

Likewise Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t apologize for playing Katniss Everdeen, a character who bowhunts for subsistence in the “The Hunger Games” movies; or for Ree Dolly, a character who hunts and skins squirrels in the 2010 movie “Winter’s Bone.” And when asked by Rolling Stone magazine in April 2012 about her actual squirrel-skinning skills, Lawrence was as direct as Torn, even though she doesn’t claim to hunt in real life.

“I should say it wasn’t real, for PETA – but screw PETA,” she said in the interview, which appeared two weeks after the original “Hunger Games” movie debuted in March 2012. Lawrence conceded, however, that she cried when first learning to skin squirrels. Still, she did the job on screen because it’s what the script required. Her role earned an Oscar nomination.

In a previous interview, Lawrence also said she’d rather chop wood than cut up a squirrel, if choosing a backwoods chore. But she laughed when asked if that preference sprung from vegetarian ideals. “No!” she said. “I’m from Kentucky, for god’s sake.”

Ingrid Newkirk, president of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, didn’t like Lawrence’s April 2012 comment about PETA, and fired off a condescending response: “She’s young (then 22) and the plight of animals somehow hasn’t yet touched her heart. As Henry David Thoreau said, ‘The squirrel that you kill in jest, dies in earnest.’ When people kill animals, it is the animals who are screwed, not PETA, and one day I hope she will try to make up for any pain she might cause any animal who did nothing but try to eke out a humble existence in nature.”

Still, Newkirk backed off later that day when interviewed by E! News: “That was just a throw-away remark, and we have our bet on Jennifer joining the ranks of other young celebrities … who use their influence to help animals.”

The Attacks Shift

In the 30 months since, Lawrence’s Hollywood portrayals of hunting have drawn little or no criticism, even as actual female hunters get pilloried online for posting photos of animals they’ve killed. For example, Eva Shockey – the first woman to make the cover of Field & Stream magazine in 30 years – endured waves of negativity on Facebook in mid-November after posting photos of a 510-pound black bear she shot in North Carolina while hunting with Jim Shockey, her father and co-host on the Outdoor Channel.

Criticizing females who hunt isn’t a recent phenomenon, of course. In 2005, Maryland’s Sierra Stiles – then age 8 – killed the first black bear registered in Maryland’s bear season. When her feat was reported by The Washington Post newspaper, it generated hateful comments worldwide, with some readers suggesting her parents be charged with child abuse.

So, why doesn’t Jennifer Lawrence’s depictions of hunting generate equal venom? Maybe it’s because most people understand “it’s just a movie,” even if PETA doesn’t. Maybe they realize good actors learn skills that enhance their characters’ authenticity, even if they don’t use those skills in real life.

“There’s a big difference between fiction and reality,” said author and TV host Steven Rinella of “MeatEater” fame. “People didn’t get mad at Charlize Theron or think she’s a serial killer just because she played a serial killer in a movie (‘Monster,’ 2003), and they didn’t get mad at Robert Redford for trapping beavers or killing an elk in ‘Jeremiah Johnson.’ There’s a big difference between portraying someone and being someone.”

Author and TV host Steven Rinella cooks a meal of rabbit after a hunt in Wisconsin in February 2011.

Author and TV host Steven Rinella cooks a meal of rabbit after a hunt in Wisconsin in February 2011.

Consider the Source

Rinella also thinks most people hold PETA in low regard. “PETA has become almost inconsequential in shaping public views,” he said. “The only response they generate in the press anymore is eye-rolling and, ‘Oh my god; what are they up to now?’ People might have cared about PETA’s position at one time, but they’ve become a joke. The world has grown too complicated for PETA. Whatever capital PETA had, they’ve burned with their consistently childish reactions.”

Even so, Rinella agrees that girls and women probably generate more malicious reactions for hunting than males. “Maybe it has something to do with this idea that women are supposed to be the kinder, gentler sex; and some people think a woman who hunts is corrupted,” he said. “Some of that’s probably just garden-variety jealousy, too. The reaction gets even more abusive if the woman is attractive, and even more so if she’s wealthy.

“But either way, a lot of the criticisms are childish and not well-formed,” Rinella continued. “They can be shaped by cartoons and the online reactions of others. Most of those people don’t study hunting practices, wildlife management or hunting’s role in conservation. Homework is hard. Judging people on Facebook isn’t. In the old days, critics at least had to write a letter, pay a quarter for a stamp, and drop it in a mailbox. Sometimes they’d get over their anger before leaving the house. With the Internet, it’s gone as fast as they type it.”

Lily Raff McCaulou, author of “Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner,” agrees that people’s beliefs about gender roles can spark attacks from Internet “trolls.” McCaulou said many, if not most, critics know little about hunting, and hold simple beliefs that females “should be nurturers, not killers.” Even though female participation in hunting is growing, girls and women still stand out from the hunting crowd, which remains about 90 percent male. This leaves females more vulnerable to false expectations, particularly if they’re unknown.

“People assume some amazing things,” McCaulou said. “Some of them just hold a hard line on what they think is moral. They don’t see hunting as a spectrum where people hunt animals and eat the meat for wide-ranging reasons. They just think it’s wrong to kill the animal they see in a photograph, even though they have no context for the person, the setting or the motivations. They don’t know the story behind the picture. For a nonhunter or vegan with no window into our world, we can’t expect they’d generate context from their own experiences. At the same time, they shouldn’t assume they know all they need to know about the photo.”

Lovable Lawrence and Locavores

Lily Raff McCaulou, author of “Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner,”

Lily Raff McCaulou, author of “Call of the Mild: Learning to Hunt My Own Dinner,”

In contrast, most people like Jennifer Lawrence and think they know her, which makes it risky for PETA to attack her.

“One huge advantage for Jennifer Lawrence is that she’s really popular,” McCaulou said. “People don’t know her personally but they feel affection for her. She bucks the stereotype of the heartless hunter. They’ll listen to her instead of making instant value judgments.”

McCaulou and Rinella – both of whom prefer “self-sourced” meat and support “locavore” ideals – also cite studies that consistently show support for hunting if food is the primary motivation. Therefore, most people accept Lawrence and/or her movie characters because Ray Dee and Katniss Everdeen provide for themselves and their families by hunting.

“My friends and family are mostly nonhunters, and there’s much more ‘forgiveness’ for traditional reasons for hunting; and traditional equipment like bows, arrows and muzzleloaders,” McCaulou said. “They set a pretty high bar for subsistence hunting. They accept going out and killing an elk to eat it. That’s simple to understand. You need a much deeper conversation about conservation and wildlife management to make them accept (more complicated aspects of hunting). They don’t have the background to understand that so quickly.”

Rinella agrees. “Many Americans have skewed opinions of various hunting practices, but they don’t have a blanket disapproval for hunting itself,” he said. “We can reach a lot of them. Rather than stopping what we’re doing in deference to false assumptions, we should do a better job articulating why we do it and how we do it. We need to better understand habitat issues ourselves if we hope to explain the role conservation in hunting.”

Meanwhile, Rinella and McCaulou think more people are willing to accept hunting than they were a decade ago. It’s probably no coincidence their books have all been published during this time. McCaulou’s “Call of the Mild” was published in 2012; and Rinella’s “The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine” was published in 2005, “American Buffalo” in 2009, and “MeatEater” in 2012.

“Locavore ideas and getting your own food are things that matter to me personally,” Rinella said. “I’m not sure that’s the only path to righteousness, but it’s definitely something that resonates with more people today.”

McCaulou agreed. “I’m surprised how often I tell people I hunt, and they have a positive reaction when they know it’s based on local, sustainable meat sources,” McCaulou said. “When I started hunting in 2006, the reaction was more shock and horror; not curiosity and not respect. The locavore movement wasn’t as pervasive. People now make that connection. It’s become more mainstream as more urban-dwellers understand it and see more girls and women hunting. We’re also seeing more hunter-education classes for adults. In 2006, I was the only adult in a room full of kids.”

Therefore, maybe moviegoers were simply ready for Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayals of strong, brave, independent women who don’t rely on men to literally bring home the bacon.

“PETA won’t acknowledge that hunters are not all created equal,” McCaulou said. “Life just isn’t that simple. At the same time, the real challenge for the hunting community is raising competent hunters, not just the dumb girlfriend who goes along and lets the man do all the work. We need more inclusive portrayals of women. That’s where we can keep improving in the future.”

Find a store near you.