Why Do We See Jennifer Lawrence Getting Strangled on That X-Men Billboard?

Why do we see Jennifer Lawrence — and her not her fictional character Mystique — getting strangled on a billboard advertising X-Men: Apocalypse?

The viral headlines — from the Guardian to the Huffington Post — alleged that Academy Award winning actress Jennifer Lawrence was being strangled in the billboard advertisement for the new X-Men franchise film. Only The Hollywood Reporter, which initially ran with the headline “Rose McGowan Calls Out ‘X-Men’ Billboard That Shows Jennifer Lawrence Being Strangled,” which they later changed to “Rose McGowan Calls Out ‘X-Men’ Billboard That Shows Mystique Being Strangled,” seemed to understand the difference between the actress and the fictional character.

This particular billboard is just one in a series with the tagline “only the strong will survive.” It is not the only one depicting violence; another depicts Jean Grey mercilessly gripping the neck of Cyclops to wield the red lasers that shoot from his eyes as a weapon. Yet, only the billboard featuring Jennifer Lawrence’s character has been singled out as violent.

That billboard features a scene in which the super villain Apocalypse strangles the shapeshifting mutant Mystique, and in spite of its clearly fictional signifiers — neither figure is human, and Lawrence is barely recognizable underneath blue makeup — the image has been interpreted as promoting violence against women.

In a Facebook post addressed to The Hollywood Reporter, actress Rose McGowan wrote: “There is a major problem when the men and women at 20th Century Fox think casual violence against women is the way to market a film. There is no context in the ad, just a woman getting strangled. The fact that no one flagged this is offensive and frankly, stupid. The geniuses behind this, and I use that term lightly, need to to take a long hard look at the mirror and see how they are contributing to society.”

Less than two days later, Fox apologized for the billboard in a press statement: “In our enthusiasm to show the villainy of the character Apocalypse, we didn’t immediately recognize the upsetting connotation of this image in print form. Once we realized how insensitive it was, we quickly took steps to remove those materials. We apologize for our actions and would never condone violence against women.” The studio also made plans to remove the image from its marketing materials.

But does the billboard actually promote violence against women? Mystique is a mutant who is a shapeshifter — commonly referred to as female in both comics and cinematic adaptations, but her gender is changeable depending upon who she’s impersonating. According to AfterEllen, the character’s co-creator, Chris Claremont, intended “that Mystique and Destiny be Nightcrawler’s biological parents by way of Mystique having transformed into a man for conception.” Her shapeshifting is not cosmetic; in the world of X-Men, it is anatomical fact and ontologically true.

So why are people confusing Jennifer Lawrence with a blue-skinned, shapeshifting, genderless figment? The elision between the actress and the fictional character signifies a number of disturbing aspects of contemporary American culture.

The current legitimization of art solely on the basis of identity politics and economics has caused audiences to look beyond the art object itself to a counterpart in the real world.

Rose McGowan looks at Mystique and sees a fellow working actress being brutalized by a more powerful man; marketing becomes a mirror for her own trauma — her experiences of powerlessness, exploitation, and sexism within the industry.

But McGowan is not the only woman to look at this billboard and see a woman being brutalized. Today, anyone who is perceived or identifies as female fears against their body. Because of this collective trauma, do we need trigger warnings when any scene involving a power struggle between genders is depicted? Where is women’s artistic power in this? To only see Jennifer being strangled in this billboard is to assume female powerlessness — both the actress and the character, and by extension the female spectator.

Female creatives are rarely allowed to stand outside their art. Audiences and critics constantly search for the woman behind the work — whether it’s refusing to see the difference between Lena Dunham and her character on Girls, Hannah Horvath, or grilling Cate Blanchett about her sexuality for her role in interviews for Carol. On the red carpet, actresses are asked about their gowns and personal lives, not their craft.

In the digital age, the boundaries between art and identity, news and entertainment, fact and fiction are collapsing due to the proliferation and interchangeability of screens. We can view the same content on a billboard, on a movie screen, on a laptop, or on a phone — “screens” which previously delivered differing content. there is no physical demarcation between spaces for the arts and spaces for politics on screens. Our Twitter feeds are screeds of the fictional, the nonfictional, and the absurd. We don’t know what’s real anymore; corrections and apologies are issued on a near-daily basis by news sites that end up reporting false or nonfactual news.

In the digital matrix, our intelligence and our ability to interpret what we see has changed.

Billboards are not intended to be Rorschach tests — their messages are meant to be clear. But women are seeing violence in this movie ad. Perhaps it should be no surprise given the egregiously pervasive culture of violence against women in America. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, “every nine seconds in the U.S., a woman is assaulted or beaten.” The 2010 National Intimate Partner and Sexual Violence survey found “more than 1 in 3 women (35.6%) and more than 1 in 4 men (28.5%) in the United States have experienced rape, physical violence, and/or stalking by an intimate partner in their lifetime.” An average of three women are killed every day in the United States. Violence perpetrated by men against women is all over the news, and ubiquitous within the American entertainment and gaming industries. Lawmakers, who should be making laws to protect women, are proposing and implementing laws to strip women of their bodily agency.

Many women live in a state of post traumatic stress, and all women live in a state of alert — we live, breathe and eat the constant threat of violence to our bodies.

To the marketers at Fox, it’s just Mystique in a chokehold on the X-Men billboard. To anyone else with a screen, it’s another warning that women — even as successful and powerful as Jennifer Lawrence — must fight to survive on their own terms.