Response to the Response to Renee Zellweger’s Face

by | October 25, 2014
filed under Pop Culture

Renee Zellweger in 2008

Renee Zellweger in 2008

Last week Elle Magazine hosted an awards ceremony to celebrate successful women in Hollywood. At the ceremony, honourees alluded to sexism in the film industry. Garner apparently walked up to the stage eating pizza and joked that she’s glad she’s playing mostly “mom” roles now because she’s actually allowed to snack, and said she looks forward to the day when the idea of  “Women in Hollywood” is “put out of business”:

“Because the fact that there even needs to be a Women in Hollywood event is a little bit sad…I mean, the ‘Men in Hollywood’ event is every day — it’s called Hollywood. Fifty-one percent of the population should not have to have to schedule a special event to celebrate the fact that in an art that tells the story of what it means to be human and alive, we get to play a part.”

It is, then, the ultimate irony that the coverage of that part of the event was totally drowned out by something else that happened there: Renee Zellweger walking the red carpet and looking dramatically changed.

I don’t pay attention to celebrity news and blogs but the number of my friends sharing it on Facebook let me know something was up. Everyone seemed to have an opinion, and very few of them were nice.

Even after hearing Renee Zellweger’s response, which was basically that she’s glad people think she looks different because she feels different – rested and happy, people assumed she was being dishonest and harped on her for not just admitting she must’ve had plastic surgery.

Here are questions I got from friends, neighbours and other acquaintances this week, none of which I will be answering here, just so you know:

On Thursday morning I got up at 3 a.m. and did seven interviews with CBC stations across the country and got to answer what I think are some more important questions. Here’s a summary of the discussion:

1. Celebrities get plastic surgery all the time. Why are we seeing this response to Renee Zellweger’s face?

Well, this certainly isn’t the first time we’ve seen a loud, public reaction to a celebrity changing their appearance. I think it comes from how much our society is influenced by, and relies on Hollywood to reflect, an ideal of beauty for women that is skinny, white and young. Women are taught from the time they’re girls to be afraid of getting old, which is ridiculous because it’s inevitably going to happen. Instead of looking around and realizing we’re all in this aging thing together, we’re trained to cut other women down.

As Melissa Silverstein said in her article on this at Forbes, “The problem is that the world has become a reality show. We peer, we glare, we judge, we question — and most of the people at the receiving end of those judgements are women.”

It’s particularly frustrating when it comes to Renee Zellweger because it’s like people have forgotten how much she was hounded for her appearance back when she was making movies more actively (until about 2008). She was hounded for her “squinty eyes” and “chipmunk cheeks.” Even I got in on it at one point – I remember telling my friend when we saw Chicago when I was in high school, that Zellweger “looks like a bobble-head doll.”

The Urban Dictionary definition for “Renee Zellweger” is “the anti-Viagara.”

It probably seemed like everyone was telling her to change, and certainly getting close to age 40, with the ageism in Hollywood, was not going to make things easier.

2. But surely men experience ageism too! And sometimes they get bad plastic surgery and get criticized. Like…uh…uh…I know, Mickey Rourke!

Yes, there is pressure on men to stay looking young, especially in Hollywood. The global beauty industry, which relies on people feeling insecure, is expected to grow to $265 billion by 2017, and more and more we’re seeing their marketing geared to men, so I think that pressure will increase. And that’s not good.

But for now, men have more room to age. We still believe that men can get older and be “handsome,” and “distinguished” and besides, we don’t evaluate their total value for their looks as much as we do for women. Meanwhile, when women hit 40, the message is, “You can never get that back.”

The pressure on women to change their looks and avoid looking older is plainly disproportionate. The financial site estimates women make up 85% of beauty industry spending.. And the most recent statistics from the American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery show 90.6% of surgical procedures in 2013 were performed on women.

And media reinforces that divide. Just look at the relative ages of romantic leads in Holllywood movies by gender. Men like Richard Gere, George Clooney, and Denzel Washington get to keep playing romantic leads through their 50s, while the women cast to play their love interests stay basically the same age.

Or look at all the actresses cast to play moms of other actresses they’re too young to have actually given birth to. It’s like Hollywood just can’t with women aging normally. As Silverstein says:

“Women are still judged incredibly differently. It doesn’t matter how many women identify as feminists. Hollywood is still a culture that makes a sport of knocking down women.3. What about actresses like Meryl Streep and Judi Dench who have committed not to getting cosmetic surgery?”

3. What about actresses like Meryl Streep and Judi Dench, who have come out against plastic surgery?

It’s great to see more public figures speaking out about unrealistic beauty expectations and how women shouldn’t be pressured into extreme measures to conform to those expectations. I think it’s helpful to talk about that pressure and the culture. But I don’t think it’s helpful to keep judging other women negatively – for having plastic surgery or not, or for their motivations. The fact that we feel entitled to is part of the problem.

Meryl Streep and Judi Dench (and actresses like Judy Parfitt from Call the Midwife, who called women who get plastic surgery “pathetic”) established themselves as incredibly talented dramatic actresses before surgery was quite so de rigeur. Younger actresses, especially those young romantic leads, have it drilled into them to remember, “You are just another pretty face. You can be replaced.”

The pressure needs to be on media creators and consumers to rethink their expectations of actresses and demand more diverse representations, and a focus on casting for talent rather than how well you fit into an unrealistic skinny, white, young beauty ideal.

4. What does this mean for us, outside of Hollywood?

When a celebration of successful women turns into a gossip-fest about one woman’s looks, it sends the message to average girls and women that no matter how successful you are in your life, your looks are always the most important thing. No one’s talking about your skills, your personality, or if you’re feeling happy and healthy; they only want to talk about your face.

Debora L. Spar, Barnard College president and author of Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection, was interviewed at the New York Times and put it well: “It’s a terrible double bind,” Dr. Spar said, noting the sense of hypocrisy around 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 all done nothing but talk about poor Renée Zellweger’s face all week.”

Watching makeover reality shows and arguing about “who wore it better” pictures in magazines might briefly distract us from our own fear that we’re not living up to beauty ideals, but it compounds the pressure on other women

Signs of ageing should be (and are in some cultures) a sign that one has had a chance to accrue insight and perspective. They shouldn’t be shameful. Like I said, we’re all in this together. Let’s stop pretending that the standards that are out there create a game that anyone can ever win.

Photo of Renee Zellweger and George Clooney by: Escapedtowisconsin Photo/Paul M. Walsh (Own work by uploader Photo/Paul M. Walsh) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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