In the wintry opening scenes of Catching Fire, the second film installment of the Hunger Games series, newly minted celebrity Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) tries to pose for a photo with her co-Hunger Games champion and putative boyfriend, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). She stumbles into the snow at first, but then she dusts herself off, rises, and begins waving to the photographers, arm in arm with Peeta. The camera zooms out to a neutral angle, giving audiences a sudden, somewhat startling reminder that oh, that’s right—Katniss is slightly taller than Peeta.
To some people, this may seem like a tiny or easily missed detail; in any case, it’s never even commented upon in the first Hunger Games film or the second. And to those people, I say congratulations and keep up the good work—because for others of us, the fact that the central pairing in the box office record-shattering Hunger Games film franchise features a woman who’s casually and unapologetically taller than her designated man is equal parts transgressive and reassuring.
Women who are taller than their male relationship partners are empirically a rare find—and it’s not entirely because women are shorter than men overall. Indeed, in much of the Western world, taller-woman couples are far less common than statistics would predict in random pairings. In 1980, researchers examined height data collected from 720 assorted straight American couples’ bank-account applications and discovered that only one couple in the pool consisted of a woman who was taller than the man. For comparison, an at-random pairing of 720 females and 720 males would have produced a female-taller-than-male combo once in every 29 couples. In 1973, researchers Ellen Berscheid and Elaine Walster Hatfield gave a name to the phenomenon in which a man in a heterosexual relationship is almost always taller than his female partner: the “male-taller norm.” In their research on physical attractiveness, they found that the “male-taller norm” was so prevalent that it could be considered the “cardinal principle of date selection.”
According to research and media accounts, it’s women who are more concerned about enforcing the “male-taller norm.” A 2008 study of 382 undergrads in the journal Personality and Individual Differences found that 23 percent of straight men said they wouldn't mind being the shorter party in a relationship. Only 4 percent of women surveyed said they’d be OK as the taller one.
"When I'm with taller guys I feel more feminine and sexy, whereas when I have been with a guy that's shorter than me, I feel Amazon-like and beastly," one 5’8” woman told the Huffington Post. "Which I know is absurd, but it's just the conditioning I've been accustomed to, and it's hard to break from the norm."
In 2004, eHarmony creator Neil Clark Warren told the Los Angeles Times that early on, so many of his online matchmaking service’s female clients had complained about being matched with men shorter than them that the company created a rule: Only match women with taller men.
Often, the anxiety over female-taller relationships spills over into portrayals of heterosexual couples in movies and TV—and sometimes it results in some creative optical-illusion work intended to make male stars appear taller than their female costars. Check out this clip from Gattaca, for instance, in which the 5’10” Ethan Hawke appears to be taller than his 5’11” then-wife Uma Thurman—even while she’s in stilettos:
Or, for more clever camera work, check out Buzzfeed’s 7 Photos of Tom Cruise Pretending to Be Taller Than His Co-Stars, or this clip from Knight and Day, in which the 5’7” Cruise appears to be taller than his 5’9” costar Cameron Diaz.
So casting Lawrence, who’s said to be about 5’10”, alongside the 5’6” Hutcherson and letting their height difference simply play out onscreen, without alteration and without comment, was an unusual move.
But casually flicking aside expectations—especially gender-related ones—is nothing new for The Hunger Games. As several outlets pointed out last year, Suzanne Collins’s young-adult stories upend traditional gender roles by making the hero (a “strong and silent” type, as well as a provider) female, and the sidekick (who’s gentle, domestic, emotionally supportive, and frequently needs to be rescued) male. And one of the great strengths of The Hunger Games is that it shows that a woman rescuing a man isn’t weird or alienating at all—rather, it can be just as compelling and exciting as the other way around.
Interestingly, Katniss is taller than Peeta only in the film versions of The Hunger Games novels—so it’s not that the film is simply staying faithful to the source material. In fact, the books contain subtle text clues that Peeta is the taller of the two. When Peeta and Katniss stand facing each other in the final moments of the first Games, for example, this passage ensues:
“On the count of three?”
Peeta leans down and kisses me once, very gently. “The count of three.”
And it’s also worth noting that the onscreen height differential between Katniss and Peeta doesn’t seem quite as stark as the real-life one between Lawrence and Hutcherson. (It’s unclear whether that’s because their heights onscreen have been manipulated, or because Lawrence gets a boost from stiletto heels in many of their off-screen photos together.)
So it’s a small, measured step forward, to be sure, but it’s a step forward nonetheless. The Hunger Games has already quietly but triumphantly demonstrated that there’s nothing unnatural about a female hero figure or a boyfriend in distress. Now, the franchise seems to offer an equally subtle but progressive message about social norms and the stressful effect body size can supposedly have on the natural order of masculine-feminine relations—and that message is something like, “Meh.”