The (com)modification of Renée Zellweger, and how blaming society misses the mark

renee

“Maybe Renée Zellweger wouldn’t look like a complete stranger if society wasn’t such a judgmental dick,” read a female friend’s Facebook post.  To me that’s a far catchier headline than. “You Won’t Believe These 48 Things My Dog Did.  #12 Alone Will Make You Smile Forever,” so I did a quick Google search to find out what was up with the gal many people remember most for being had at “hello.”

Even if you don’t know what Renée Zellweger has looked like for most of her public life, a single glance at a recent picture tells the story plainly:  she has fucked herself up with botox and/or plastic surgery and is beginning to take on the unnatural physiognomic shrivel that will forever blemish on the look of American society in the decades immediately surrounding the start of the 21st century.

My friend’s post quickly attracted sympathetic comments from women similarly blaming society for Zellweger’s transformation.  But they’re throwing out the baby of personal responsibility out with the bathwater, as if societal standards of female beauty aren’t partly set by women and somehow sap all women—even those who have consciously exploited those standards to enrich themselves—of their agency.

Let’s call a spade a spade. Renée Zellweger may be a fine talent (her stellar performance in the brilliant film adaptation of Chicago emphatically proves the point), but her small fortune has come largely from her “50 Most Beautiful People“-worthy looks.  Scan her acting credits, and you find mostly roles built for beauty. Then there’s been all the “Look at how gorgeous I am!” photo spreads (Maxim, Glamour, etc.).  Zellweger has commodified her beauty, and done it profitably.

No-one should blame her for that.  And this is one player who has enjoyed the game’s rewards despite the fact that her beauty is unorthodox.  To some extent her particular pulchritude—a round and noticeably compact head, squinty face, “imperfect” skin, a mouth that perpetually seems to be sucking on something sour—enabled her to color a bit outside the lines of the Hollywood glamour template.  She never fit the mold of a classic beauty; rather, she seemed more earthy, more natural.  Whether she’s been as ripped as a pro athlete or as round as healthily plus-sized model, whether her hair was lusciously lengthy or tomboy short, she’s met with approbation.  She was never required to look the part of a typical Hollywood starlet; she got the treatment anyway.

But then she reached her mid 40s, and they say that film roles for older women don’t grow on trees. Certainly there are a plethora of data comparing the number of film roles for men and women, as well as how meaty or superficial those roles are. But almost inevitably those studies focus only on top-grossing films—generally the shallowest of the shallow.  And if you’re surveying the lay of that fallow land, what do you expect to find?

This isn’t to diminish the fact that it really is easier for men to make a living in Hollywood than for women. But as Hymen Roth would say, this is the business Zellweger chose. And business has been good, so good that she has no need to work another day in her life.

Presumably, though, she wants to work—and not necessarily (just) for the money.  Perfectly understandable. Perhaps that’s part of why she is distorting before our eyes. Whatever procedure(s) she has undergone (there was much speculation that she could not have looked the way she did at last year’s Academy Awards without some cosmetic help beyond makeup), her choice seems to signal her desire to perpetuate an artificial model of aging, some unnatural standard of what it is to be beautiful.

That’s her prerogative.  It’s her face, after all, her career, her life.  She can do whatever she wants with it for whatever reasons she wants.  But like my Facebook friend, I feel a bit sad that she feels the need to go this route.

Where I part company with my friend is in simply blaming society for Zellweger’s choice.  I agree that society is patriarchally sexist, and so I’m happy to echo my friend’s labeling of society as a dick.  Society is a dick.  But neither society at large nor Hollywood has fucked Renée Zellweger.  If she’s fucked, she’s partly fucked herself.  And while she may deserve sympathy for her insecurity or whatever other neuroses she harbors (as we all do.  And here’s a news flash:  aging is somewhat troubling for just about everybody), society didn’t exactly demand this bit of supposed beauty enhancement.

Not to mention the obvious but often overlooked:  society is a totality of constituent parts. Renée Zellweger has played her part in pop culture’s beauty game. She’s playing it still by being the latest in a line of women subjecting themselves to needle and knife (and in Zellweger’s case, telling the world that the difference in her appearance is simply that she’s healthier), women who play a part in setting the standard for girls who one day may do the same to themselves.

Blame society for Zellweger’s new look, if you like, but don’t forget her part in the whole business. We’re all influenced by our culture. Truly, some people are more or less simply victims of their lot in life.  That is not the Renée Zellweger story.  If hers is a cautionary tale about the nefarious influence of pop culture, it’s also a narrative that touches on questions of personal responsibility.

As Mohandas K. Gandhi said, “If we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.”  Easier said than done, to be sure.  But the more we (individuals, institutions) keep these words in mind, the better off we’ll be.

Love and formic acid,
G.I.ant

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G.I.ant is tired. You can contact him (but don't wake him! Blessed are the sleepers, for they may dream of a better world) at greggory@greggorymoore.com.

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