I already posted on the discussion about Renee Zellweger’s changed appearance in 2014. As the link shows, I do have concerns about not only the changes to Zellweger’s face but also the criticism of their scrutiny. The topic has reemerged thanks to release of the trailer for Bridget Jones’ Baby, third installment in the series on the plucky British chick lit heroine.
It has raised to a fever pitch due to Owen Gleiberman’s Variety post asking “If (Zellweger) No Longer Looks Like Herself, Has She Become a Different Actress?” and actress Rose McGowan’s (mostly ad hominem attack) Hollywood Reporter response calling Gleiberman’s post “vile, damaging, stupid and cruel.” Social media is buzzing about the two pieces; most of what I have seen is very critical of Gleiberman.
It’s right to note the double standards that women face compared to men when it comes to appearance and its regulations. It’s also right to be concerned about men in the media industry writing critically about women’s appearance. However, I don’t think it’s fair to outright dismiss Gleiberman’s piece based on those concerns. For one thing, he’s asking a lot of the same questions I admit asking in my own research. What does it mean when a mediated body changes? What are the effects? How is the body used and interpreted differently in relationship to these changes? How do identity factors like race and gender relate to this? How are those changes perceived and by whom?
For another thing, in my interpretation, he is speaking exactly to the concerns that people have about the pressures actresses face over appearance. This quote below is my focus for understanding the piece.
My take on this is that Gleiberman is noting what gets lost when actresses feel pressured to make these changes, especially someone like Zellweger who had come to represent a kind of (white) “girl next door” in part through her Bridget Jones character. The entire piece effectively leads up to this statement and then extends from it. My main criticisms of the piece are that Gleiberman 1) should have noted the role of sexism specifically in these cases and 2) should have used more examples with men, especially men who changed their appearance in ways we notice that women do. For example, Tom Cruise would have been an excellent example here for those stars who’ve had “work” but still look like what we think and see as “themselves”; that work now becomes obvious because he’s so outrageously defied the laws of aging. However, I still think the main points in the piece don’t fall so far from many activist talking points on sexism and lookism (even racism in the section on Zoe Saldana as Nina Simone) for women in Hollywood.
There’s some other cultural context we need to unpack here as well. One is that this scrutiny may accrue to Zellweger more because of the role she has already played as a cultural lightning rod for these issues. These include the particularity of her “extraordinary ordinary” looks that Gleiberman notes helped to establish her celebrity in the 1990s and early 2000s, as well as the controversies over her weight gain for the earlier Bridget Jones movies. To the first part, we must acknowledge that face becomes brand, and the changing of the face risks changing that brand, in ways often perceived to be detrimental to an actor’s career. Yes, women are more susceptible to this devaluation, hence the scramble to “augment” perceived faults and arrest time with surgery. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t note when those alterations occur or the effect on their work because of it.
The second cultural context to note here is that audiences are aware of these changes. That may seem an obvious point, but it often gets overlooked. In a key work for my dissertation, Mark Graham claims that all cultures have “lipoliteracy,” a way of reading fat on the body and making interpretations of health, status, and other identity markers accordingly. Different cultures may read fat in different ways, but this literacy persists, even if subtle. Likewise, there are now enough examples for audiences to have a kind of “plastic surgery literacy.” Look at enough of any kind of media and you can see the evidence: the befores and afters, the comparisons between actors of the same age. It’s hard to ignore, and this contributes to the frustrations with the beauty standards we now see on screens: such work is rarely acknowledged individually or personally, but thanks to the literacy we’ve accrued, the evidence is becoming more clear. As Gleiberman suggests, it’s like an open secret that often doesn’t get adequately addressed. I see it as a form of gaslighting. As I wrote in my 2014 post,
“This is an industry-wide–indeed, culture-wide–problem and Zellweger’s just one part of it, but reflective of the changes that need to happen to make this a better business for women, on and off the screen. In teaching prep the past few weeks I’ve been watching doc after doc on women in the industry, and it gets tiresome after a while hearing these women talk about the dangers of Hollywood’s representations of women while seeing how little their faces move and how much bigger their cheekbones are than when they were in their 20s. Part of chipping away at the problems with these -isms is going to have to involve ending the conspiracy of silence around these fitness regimens and cosmetic procedures, and being honest about what ‘work’ is really going into these bodies.”
We see those changes and we want to discuss and understand them, especially because so many women face these issues. Acting like nothing happened–or like you’re experiencing changes due to aging or “wellness”–evades and essentially undermines the concerns that many in Hollywood claim to have about representations of women.
The upside of this whole brouhaha for me is that I’m actually kind of excited to see Bridget Jones’ Baby. I don’t think I’ve seen Zellweger in “action,” beyond photos, in a few years. Seeing her in motion on the screen will give a different sense of her body and face that will reveal her changes in different ways. I was especially encouraged to see wrinkles on her neck. Bridget Jones really has aged! Maybe this performance will show us something new to understand about all of these issues, but attacking any and all examination of Zellweger, her face, and her body likely won’t give us that.