There are certain narratives in Hollywood that are as old as the industry itself: The child star all grown up; the sexy reinvention; the celebrity power couple love story; the Earth mother evolution. The first fan magazines were chock full of glowing reports on the lives of the rich and famous, from their slimming techniques to their enviable marriages. You can find variations of those narratives in every iteration of gossip, be in the scandalous tabloids or the more respectable glossies. These are the stories needed to keep a star famous, and to hook the interests of audiences who have grown used to new faces every week. It’s fascinating how little these moulds change. We’re still shocked by child stars going adult in the most risque manners possible, and we still get excited when two famous people pair up to marry, have babies and suddenly form an interest in lifestyle branding. Everyone in the public eye will go through at least one of these narratives, but it’s rare to see one star embody them all, and to so little fanfare.
Jessica Biel has done it all: She shed her painfully pure youthful image through a raunchy photoshoot; she rose to prominence through middling roles that gave her enough visibility to become a sex symbol; she dated eligible bachelors and married one; then she took on the celebrity mother persona with real zeal and increased profit margins. Now, as the age of Peak TV sees the medium become a welcoming home for actors big and small, Biel is moving into the possibilities of a new age with her role in The Sinner. You probably didn’t think about her that way, or really care, but such is the fate of the sex symbol.
Biel got her start, like many child actors, in TV and print adverts but it didn’t take long for her to be cast in the pilot for the WB family drama, 7th Heaven, in the role of daughter Mary. The show was a massive success, running for 11 seasons and giving the WB its best ratings ever. It’s still the most watched series on the network and holds the record for their most watched hour of TV, an impressive 12.5m viewers. Nowadays, that’s Game of Thones ratings, but for a mid-90s clean-cut family drama that now airs on the Hallmark Channel in syndication, those were some astounding numbers. The notoriously censorship friendly Parents Television Council loved the show, frequently citing it as one of the most family-friendly shows on-air, although it’s hard to see how a conservative think-tank would ever be disapproving of a show about a good Christian family working their problems out together. Even when the show took on darker subjects, it remained a sweet and syrupy watch. The acting’s varied in quality, the production values look cheap (despite the show costing a surprising amount to run), and it embodied the textbook definition of ‘uncool’. By the late 90s, the WB were actively trying to court a younger, hipper audience with shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Roswell, but it was 7th Heaven that brought them the ratings they craved.
It wasn’t much of an acting boon for Biel, who is decent in the show but has very little to work with. Movie roles were also thin on the ground, although she did make her feature debut in the Oscar nominated drama Ulee’s Gold alongside Peter Fonda. Being the vaguely cool rebel on a show as apple pie wholesome as 7th Heaven would probably have felt smothering for a young talent like Biel. Unfortunately, the industry has few options for young women to make the jump into adulthood without being heavily sexualised. For Biel, this took the form of an infamous nude shoot with the now defunct Gear magazine, founded by none other than Bob Guccione Jr., son of the Penthouse founder Bob Guccione. Guccione Jr pitched Gear as a successor to more upmarket titles like GQ, who balanced top journalism and expensive style with the occasional nude woman. Advertisers saw it differently and sold it more like a lads mag, which has much cheaper connotations. Biel’s cover for Gear, captioned with the headline ‘Fallen Angel’, is very much a 2000 cover: The come hither pose, the Jennifer Aniston haircut, the vaguely seedy air around the entire pose, which evokes Page 3 models.
Biel is trying to do sexy, but she looks so uncomfortable. She was also only 17 at the time (which is why I’m not posting the photo). 7th Heaven producers were furious, and costar Stephen Collins claimed the photos were child pornography (Collins would later admit to ‘inappropriate sexual conduct with three female minors’ over the course of 20 years). Her role on the show was bumped down to a reoccurring guest part. Even without the misogynistic response, the experience was a horrible one for Biel. In an interview with Esquire, she would admit, ‘A lot of people said to me, That was the bravest thing I’ve ever seen anybody do. But I was miserable. It was horrible. I was humiliated. I just wanted my family to forgive me… I was taken advantage of in so many ways.’ The shoot may have signalled her arrival as an all grown up beauty in Hollywood, but like so many of those narratives, the end result was a far darker experience for the women involved.
As an adult now, free of the good clean family fun confines of 7th Heaven, Biel could move fully into the world of film. First came a rom-com with men of the moment Freddie Prinze Jr. and Matthew Lillard, then the adaptation of Bret Easton Ellis’s The Rules of Attraction, where she played a promiscuous college student, followed by the token horror film part. Being a scream queen feels like its own part of the Hollywood woman narrative, although we see less of the hysterical half-nude young women in these roles nowadays than we did from Friday the 13th onwards.
The 2003 remake of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is pretty terrible - Michael Bay produced it, after all - but like most of the Platinum Dunes remakes, it made major bank at the box office. Never mind that it seemed to miss the entire point of the original film; why bother with such things when you can make back over 10 times your budget? Biel played Erin, the Final Girl and most recognisable face in the young cast. Reviews weren’t kind. Roger Ebert himself called it ‘contemptible’, but none of the critics had much to say about Biel. It wasn’t a role where she had to do much beyond scream, run and look gorgeous in a belly skimming tank-top. The movie is almost self-aware about how much it objectifies her. There are more than a few shots of her arse as she walks, and as the sweltering Texas heat increases, so does the glisten of sweat on her collarbone, which the camera loves as much as the murders it documents.
Blade: Trinity was similarly shameless in its midriff exposing focus, although at least in that film, she gets to shoot some vampires with a bow and arrow. Stealth, one of the biggest flops in cinematic history, cannot help but frame Biel in very sexualised terms, even as the narrative insists her character is a tomboy and just as capable as her two male counterparts. She still needs to be rescused and still ends up the love interest of a much blander actor by the end.
The roles may have been lacklustre, with the box office responses to match, but Biel was never more publicly visible. In 2005, Esquire named her The Sexiest Woman Alive, and accompanied the glowing article with a semi-nude photoshoot. She’s never as exposed in these photos as she was with the Gear shoot, but the intent is the same and the article supremely unnerving in its fetishistic gaze. It opens with the journalist saying this:
‘I know the body climbing out of that SUV alarmingly well. I know it better than the body of any other human being, with the possible exception of my wife’s. I’ve been staring at this body for weeks now — thinking about it, scrutinizing it, asking lots of probing questions about it.’
It takes him several paragraphs to even give ‘the body’ a name. The entire article is steeped in this creepiness. The journalist tries to offset it by bringing his wife and baby son along for the interview, but every moment focused on Biel is on her body and appeal as a sexual object: From the description of the clothes on ‘an impressive body’ to him describing his 17 month old son’s reaction to Biel as ‘a common enough reaction by men.’ He’s eager to reassure the readers that ‘she seems far older than a girl who still can’t rent a car’. All of this makes it even more uncomfortable once the subject of her Gear photoshoot is brought up. She talks about the pain, the regret, the lessons learned, and the journalist then seems impressed she’d pose for Esquire. She admits that ‘The shooting of that photo was very hard’ but feels ‘really happy with the outcome’. The interview doesn’t reveal much about Biel herself. Its concerns lie in her body, and whether she will go nude in the future. It’s not about Biel; it’s about ‘the body’.
For the next few years, Biel alternated between big-budget and indie roles, but none of them seemed to break out in any tangible way. Many of the former films seemed to scream out ‘We hired her because she’s hot’, and took any opportunity to showcase that, from the shameless breast grabbing in I Now Pronounce You Chuck & Larry to her boobs being centred on the poster for Next. Her indie work varied but she’s actually pretty good in a lot of those less showy roles: She’s striking in period roles like The Illusionist and Easy Virtue, particularly in the latter where she gets to show off some real comedic capabilities; She makes her mark as Vera Miles in the Psycho making-of biopic Hitchcock; She’s even good fun in The A-Team, as much as the film works to keep her in a vaguely defined party-pooper role. The main problem is that, over the course of a solid decade, very few of these films, regardless of how good she is in them, were given a second thought by audiences. There wasn’t any hunger for Jessica Biel the actress.
Jessica Biel the celebrity, however, still had some impressive mileage. After six years in an on-off relationship with pre-Captain America Chris Evans, she began dating Justin Timberlake. This was the Justin of ‘SexyBack’ and ‘LoveStoned’. This was the Justin who proved the critics wrong and became a post-boyband smash success. His romance with Cameron Diaz had fizzled out, and now he was on the way to a new level of fame via film roles, sellout world tours and ceaseless public visibility. Timberlake is super easy to love but equally easy to be aggravated by. He’s the theatre kid gone big, the guy who turns every moment into a performance and is just always on. The pair married in October 2012, and even the People Magazine exclusive knows who the star of the show is. Biel’s beautiful pink dress is barely on show as she dutifully sits on the ground while her new husband hogs the screen. Whatever the goings-on in their marriage, they’ve lasted a decade together, with young son Silas, and being Mrs Timberlake is a solid occupation for Biel. She knows he’s the bigger star and seems happy to stand by his side as he makes his mark on every red carpet.
For a brief moment in the early to mid 2000s, we were in the age of the Jessica. Imagine our current Chris situation, but with a more discomfiting lens of objectification. This trio of women - Biel, Alba and Simpson - were never framed in terms of talent or personality (with the exception of Simpson for the latter, but that was more as a means of mockery over her perceived stupidity). The focus was on beauty and its appeal to a young male demographic. Biel had her photoshoots, Alba had her Sin City stripping, Simpson had the Daisy Dukes. It was the era of the Blonde, land-marked by the breakout of Paris Hilton and the growing domination of the upmarket boho look pushed by stylist Rachel Zoe. By contrast, Biel was never really a good fit for either the Jessica crowd or the public Blondes. She is certainly beautiful but has an earthy appeal that doesn’t gel with the pin-up mould she was constantly pushed into. She wasn’t even blonde for most of this time anyway. Whatever the case, the era of the Jessica wrapped up quickly and the trio scattered into better roles: Alba was settling into her newfound success as a businesswoman with The Honest Company, and Simpson had forged a billion dollar empire with her shoes. Biel hasn’t dipped her toes into the wellness market or fashion industry, but she has her own very curious business venture.
Au Fudge doesn’t seem to know what it wants to be. Ostensibly, it’s meant to be a restaurant for mothers and their kids, a ‘Soho House for kids’, as it was pitched to Page Six, but the end result is like a fever dream of a harried mother operating on 2 hours sleep. It’s a kid friendly restautant with cocktails for parents with names like ‘First Base’ and ‘MILF’; it’s a clubhouse with space for kids to ‘be creative’ while mummy orders a $15 salad. Do yoga with the kids then let the staff look after them while you enjoy a ‘Jessica Rabbit’s Rabbit’ (which actually sounds really tasty). If this all seems like an odd mix to you, it’s probably because you’ve never needed to multi-task in this manner. This is Hollywood mothering and it knows that. It’s confusing and kind of exhausting, but if you’re a millionaire with an au pair, this probably makes a lot of sense.
In that sense, Biel knows her audience. It’s a far smaller scale business investment than a major company like Alba’s or Simpson’s, but it’s a safer bet for a smaller name like Biel’s. It’s a means to use her own motherhood as a jumping off point for the next part of her career narrative - from sex symbol to wife and mother, because patriarchy hates seeing the two mix - without having to commodify her own kid. Silas Timberlake is pretty absent from her Instagram account, his face hidden or obscured when it does, although the Biel-Timberlake clan did use a family moment to plug Justin’s film Trolls (and help out with his very driven Oscar campaign for the movie’s song). You’re more likely to see Silas on his dad’s Instagram. Indeed, it’s on his page that we see him in a selfie with mum. Social media is a good way for celebrities to rein in narratives about their private lives and families. A strategically posted loved-up pic can get more public traction than a tabloid rumour about marriage troubles these days. Biel’s social media presence, combined with that of her husband’s, helps to toe that line, but those Instagram pics are more focused on giving her a carefree, fun-loving public image. After years of being reduced to nothing but ‘the body’ by the media and industry, it’s Biel herself who has the power to reclaim her personality.
There’s not much about Jessica Biel that inspires fervent excitement these days. She’s still beautiful, her project choices are more interesting but no more memorable, and her private life keeps bringing in the column inches, always with a positive glow. Yet there is so much about Biel that exemplifies what women can and must expect when they dare to grow up and get involved in an industry that simultaneously loves and shames sexual beauty. Her life has inadvertently become a model for Hollywood as a narrative, and there’s real credit to be given in her managing to navigate such treacherous waters and come out of it in one piece.
You don’t get through two decades in the business without learning a few lessons, and Jessica Biel is nothing if not self aware. In a hilarious guest appearance on Netflix’s BoJack Horseman, Biel played a version of herself as Mr. Peanutbutter’s glamorous second wife. It’s a pretty merciless mockery of her career and the forgettable nature of it all, defined almost exclusively by her being ‘the girl from 7th Heaven who took of all her clothes for that magazine.’ Biel herself even asked the writers to go meaner with their depiction. She knows who you think she is and she’s got no qualms with that.