I’ve struggled with this one for a bit. Because there’s a lot to unpack. Because it’s a holiday weekend. Because sometimes when something like this hits the zeitgeist, my entire brain becomes this whirlwind of screams and cries that seem disjointed but are all saying the same thing: You don’t fucking get it.
Owen Gleiberman wrote a piece for Variety head-shakingly, brow-furrowingly titled “Renee Zellweger: If She No Longer Looks Like Herself, Has She Become a Different Actress?” But beyond the brain-boggling title, the piece itself elicits a cacophony of rages that amount to this: Fucking Hollywood. Fucking men.
Let’s let Gleiberman explain how lucky Renee Zellweger is to even have a career.
So here’s the thing: You have to realize just how radical it was that this nobody, who looked not so much like the sort of actress who would star in a Tom Cruise movie as the personal assistant to the sort of actress who would star in a Tom Cruise movie, was suddenly…starring in a Tom Cruise movie. There was a Vivien Leigh in “Gone with the Wind” vibe to it. Zellweger had won the lottery, had been plucked from semi-obscurity by the movie gods (or, actually, by the daring of Cameron Crowe), but not because it was so unusual to see a non-famous actress starring in a major movie. What was unusual, to the point of breaking the rules, was the way that she looked. In 1996, Tom Cruise was still the biggest movie star in the galaxy, and he didn’t make films with just anyone. He worked with costars who reinforced his supernova status, through their fame or their beauty or both. Zellweger, with pillowy cheeks and quizzically pursed lips and that singular squint, was beautiful, but not in the way that a Nicole Kidman or a Julia Roberts was. She was beautiful in the way an ordinary person is (even that name sounded like it hadn’t been to Hollywood yet), in a way that came from outside the Tom Cruise paradigm. And that, in the end, was exactly what the movie was about: Could Cruise, as Jerry Maguire, leave aside his Cruise-control mystique to embrace something real? “You complete me” is one of the great lines in modern romantic movies because of the way it takes its inner meaning from who Renée Zellweger is. This is what completes you: someone who looks just like this. What completes you is reality.
First, there’s fucking Hollywood. Because we know that there exists a kind of beauty Hollywood wants to display, a kind of actor or actress that they believe is most deserving of being seen. And then there’s fucking men. Because far too many women know the gift, the curse, the backhanded slap of being told you’re beautiful in a real way. Because we’ve been raised to have it ingrained in our very souls that that just means ugly. That this entire paragraph is one lengthy way of saying “she is ugly.” And he can say he doesn’t mean that. Someone can read it and say, ” that’s not what he’s saying.” But existing as a woman, a woman whose entire existence means your appearance has been picked apart, that you’ve had to watch as other women’s appearances are picked apart, that you’ve been engineered to pick apart the appearances of other women yourself as defense, as attack. I know what his words mean. I know what it means to be told you are ordinary. I know what it means to be told you’re real. To be told these things is the socially acceptable way of telling a woman she does not look right. She looks wrong. She is wrong. She exists wrong. And she is somehow lucky for being allowed to exist in this vastly more beautiful world at all.
It may sound like I’m being patronizing, but if you go back and look — I mean really look — at the old Hollywood stars, who we think of as some of the most incandescent people of the 20th century, the truth is that if you forget their iconic status for a moment, a lot of them were highly idiosyncratic-looking. To name two obvious examples: Humphrey Bogart and Edward G. Robinson. But more tellingly, on the actress side of things, just think of Barbara Stanwyck, Joan Fontaine, Bette Davis — radiant sensual goddesses all, but sorry, these weren’t the beauty contest winners. They looked like heightened versions of us.
There is a reason plastic surgeons exist, why their houses are huge with pools and meticulous gardens. Because we have had to learn, through cruel words, through well intentioned comments, through Hollywood actress after Hollywood actress, that our appearances matter more than our souls. And when we are judged just as harshly for taking those efforts to change those appearances, to love ourselves on the outside when we’ve been told we shouldn’t, we’re told that is wrong too. That we’re vapid, uglier, frozen, a monster, a freak. Not ourselves anymore, when so many people have plastic surgery because they didn’t feel like themselves to begin with.
Today, more than ever, movie stars look like models, and there’s a pressure on them to conform to certain “standards.” The amount of cosmetic surgery that goes on in Hollywood would shock almost anyone who learned about it, because the truth is that a great many stars who don’t look nipped and tucked, and who publicly decry plastic surgery, have had the work done. But that, by definition, is to keep them looking younger, to keep them looking like “themselves.” (That’s why you can’t tell.) The syndrome we’re talking about is far more insidious, because when you see someone who no longer looks like who they are, it’s not necessarily the result of bad cosmetic surgery. It’s the result of a decision, an ideology, a rejection of the self.
I’ve been trying for hours to explain how this feels. How it feels for a man to attempt to explain something like this this badly. How it feels for a man to attack this one woman, plastic surgery in general, all while hitting on the exact feelings that start the feedback loop all over again. And I don’t know how to do it. I don’t know how.
We are told our whole lives that we should look a certain way. But we should love ourselves as we are. That women who don’t look a certain way are heroes for being brave enough for not looking the way women are supposed to look. That we will be ignored if we don’t. That we are shallow if we believe that. That we are weak. And it’s weakened me. It weakens me now as I read yet another man spout these meaningless nothing words at us, while all these meaningless words do nothing except weaken the will to fight it.
I wear makeup because society has told me I should, but also because I think I look pretty. And I like feeling pretty. I work out and I eat kale because I think I should be thin and I get mad when I’m not as thin as I want to be and I know society did that. And I know 99% of actresses are thin because they have to be, but a lot of them also might feel good about themselves, but they also might not. And I know the actresses who don’t look like Hollywood says they’re supposed to might feel good about themselves and they might feel terrible about themselves and every thinkpiece telling them they should love themselves means nothing and every review calling them fat or ugly means a different kind of nothing and it’s all too much and too loud. I know that someone might not like their nose or their boobs or a fat roll and they get it fixed and maybe that fixes the way they feel and maybe it doesn’t and that a thousand people telling them they shouldn’t have done that doesn’t change the fact that something told them they should, be it society or their own hearts. There is too much and too many things and it’s all impossible to parse and maybe we should just fucking leave each other alone. Because it’s too much.
Because there is no right way to look or right answer for how to fix society or ourselves or if ourselves need fixing at all. Everything is weird and broken and I don’t know how to make it different.
But if one more man writes one more passive aggressive, condescending piece of shit like this, a piece of me will die. Because fuck everything. I’m so bored and mad and done with everything.
Just leave us alone. Just leave everyone alone.