by Kiersten Hallie Krum
Renée Zellweger has been out of the spotlight for a few years but stepped back into it in a huge way when she appeared at Elle Magazine’s annual Women in Hollywood awards. A collective gasp was heard around the world when she appeared looking dramatically…different.
Granted, a lot of it has to do with how and when she’s photographed and some of the pictures out there make her look much, much worse than she actually appears. But why the outcry over Renée Zellweger’s alteration? Is the world just completely incapable of dealing with a woman aging in the public eye? Do we look with titillated horror at her transformation as though it’s some sort of comeuppance for manipulating her beauty? Why again is this at the top of the 11 o’clock news cycle in the first place?
Most pundits believe the collective shock over Renée Zellweger’s facial changes is mostly because popular culture cannot deal with a woman aging in public. Well no, it can’t, and women are almost (though not entirely) exclusively subjected to a brutal public judgment on everything to how they appear to how they act to how they do–or do not–breed. But even the staunchest feminist has to admit that age alone did not cause the dramatic changes in Renée Zellweger. Even so, it’s not that she allegedly had plastic surgery to maintain or enhance her looks. It’s that she dared to do it so dramatically, we the public can not maintain the fiction that it’s possible to age without external help to keep us looking as though we’re not aging.
You can re-read that last sentence until it makes sense. I’ll wait.
It is, of course, her face and thus her business. But as a public figure who has made a living with her face (and her considerable talent, but more on that in mo), any change is going to bring about extensive commentary. It should not, however, invite moral judgment. That said, a quick Google search of Renée Zellweger’s name populates a baffling amount of op-eds. About her face.
Why can we not shut up about Renée Zellweger’s face?
Experts in The New York Times article “Why the Strong Reaction to Renée Zellweger’s Face?” think the outcry is due to the public no longer being able to recognize a familiar face. “This is about a lot of subtle changes that up to a person who no longer looks like our memory of them. She looks like a different person,” says evolutionary psychologist Nancy Etcoff in The Times. In the same article, Doctor Debra L. Spar, author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest of Perfection, notes the hypocrisy of the situation. “On the one hand, we’re being told don’t worry about how you look, embrace inner goodness, and stop judging on external appearance, and yet, as a community, we have done nothing but talk about poor Renée Zellweger’s face all week.”
This Boston Globe piece suggests the public can’t get over when “America’s Sweetheart” movie stars change their appearances so that they no long look like the relatable girl-next-store ideal we fell in love with in the first place.
“Adoring fans take it personally. They feel baffled (“Why would you do that to yourself?”). They feel sad (“Why aren’t you the same sweet girl with the same sweet face you had a quarter century ago?”). Most of all, they feel offended (“Why would you purposely deprive me of my fantasy that you’re not an actress playing a part but are actually Baby/Sally/Dorothy? Why would you remind me that I’m older than I was when we first “met”? Why can’t you let me live in the 1970s/1980s/1990s, back in the days of wine and roses instead of the days of Gawker and TMZ?”)”
Amanda Marcotte at The Daily Beast thinks it’s more about the delusion of how hard women are expected to work to look like they’re not trying to look good while still looking good.
“[Renée] Zellweger’s face puts us off because it reminds us that she’s had work done and we’d prefer to think that somehow there’s a way to be 45 without looking 45 that doesn’t require work….Perhaps this should be an invitation to everyone to stop pretending that effortless perfection is a thing that exists in the world.”
An op-ed in The Atlantic consists entirely of a series of questions the writer now has buzzing about in her head to ask of Renée Zellweger solely about her transformation. In The Atlantic!
Nowhere in these pieces is there a discussion of Renée Zellweger’s considerable talent. Bridget Jones is regularly name-checked as her most broadly relatable character now impinged by the actress’s changed appearance along with Dorothy from Jerry Maguire and a few hat tips to her Oscar-winning role in Cold Mountain. But little of her outstanding work in Chicago is mentioned, for example. It’s all about her face, as though she has no identity or purpose beyond her “look”. Or, as comedian Russell Brand puts it in his The Trews news segment that mocks the “news” coverage of Renée Zellweger, “‘This is the thing that made Renée Zellweger herself: Her eyes.’ Not any kind of essential relationship with an unknowable entity. Not her personal experiences that she’s been through. Not her talent or her charm or her individual experiences as a woman. It’s her eyes. That’s what made her herself.”
Brand’s mocking scorn brings home the most disturbing, if not surprising, point: Renée Zellweger is being completely boiled down to the sum of her parts and that sum no longer equals the public’s expectations, so it’s open season. Never mind her talent or body of work. Never mind that she’s living a healthier life or that she claims to be the happiest she’s ever been. She doesn’t look the same, thus she must be vilified. All her success and accomplishments, her personality and values, are brushed aside because her face changed. I mean, good God, if this is what happens to her, what hope do the rest of us have?
Our image-obsessed society is too accustomed and too ready to associate physical attributes with success and attraction. We do it as writers too: the first way we describe a character is through their appearance. Those descriptions are often deployed as short-hand speak for character attributes, especially when we veer off from the standard hair color, eye color, and facial features descriptors and delve more deeply, like with the addition of a prominent scar or a person who dresses impeccably to hide a messy inner life, to show how the outward image of our characters reflects inward trauma and/or happiness. (Well, it’s always initially trauma, innit? If they all started out happy, we’d have nothing to write about.) We write Romance in its variety of forms so of course we want our characters to be attractive, at least to each other and, most importantly, to the reader. They have to be people who physically appeal to the reader, to the public, before we can get those readers to care about them. They have to be an image to which the reader can aspire before they can be a character for which the reader will invest. That’s a little backwards, yeah? Readers should invest because our characters are interesting and challenging and complex and entertaining in one way or another, not only because they fit some sort of physical ideal. And yet, that’s the world we write in; that’s the world we live in. Just ask Renée Zellweger.
The world is full of people brushed aside because they don’t meet the popular idea of beauty, a concept that itself changes every few centuries. We bemoan air-brushed magazines covers and scoff at underfed actresses only to bitch when one of those women dares to do something else, dares to be something else. Renée Zellweger herself told People Magazine she’s happy the world is discussing her transformation. “I’m glad folks think I look different! I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows.” Happiness is the golden ticket, right? That’s what the Internet memes exhort, at least. Happiness is what we all ultimately want in our lives and presume to want for others. In Romance, our readers want to see how our characters ultimately live happily ever after, or at least happy for now. As such, we’d all be better off to focus more on what Renée Zellweger is saying and less on how she’s looking, or as Russell Brand puts it:
“The important spiritual message this woman is trying to convey about personal transition is completely submerged in a glistening deluge of odd gloating and sacrificial sort of meanness.”
See the entirety of Russell Brand’s The Trews segment embedded below.
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