Renée Zellweger hoped we could do better. She hoped we’d stop obsessively speculating about her seemingly doctored face and focus on her acting achievements.
Yet Zellweger’s recent cri de coeur in The Huffington Post has done little to quell the relentless scrutiny of her face, which has escalated alongside the promotion of Bridget Jones’s Baby, which—because of its subject and her various demons around love, self-fulfillment, and body image—has long offered a tempting blur between Zellweger and her fictional character for the media.
On the promotional circuit in London this week, Zellweger has discussed her six-year acting hiatus (“I wanted to do some other things that there’s not a lot of time for when you’re caught up in the cycle of making films”) and whether she’d like to be a mother (“I’ve never been deliberate about what would make me happy in my life.”)
On what makes Bridget Jones such an appealing character: “She makes it OK to be human at a time when we probably feel that there’s a lot of social pressure to be a certain way, to look a certain way… She’s sort of challenging those notions.”
Zellweger, in these interviews, may be understandably opaque in her responses.
The latest frenzy around her body image kicked off in June when Variety’s new chief film critic, Owen Gleiberman, alighted on a trailer for the film and worried that Zellweger’s apparent plastic surgery made her bumbling, flaw-embracing Bridget Jones character less compelling.
Gleiberman was not simply devastated that the 47-year-old actress had visibly aged, but that the “poster girl for the notion that each and every one of us is beautiful in just the way God made us” had apparently allowed her face to be plumped and carved up so dramatically in recent years.
He hoped the film wouldn’t star Zellweger as a “victim of ‘Invasion of the Face Snatchers,’” and would instead be about a “gloriously ordinary person rather than someone who looks like she no longer wants to be who she is.”
Gleiberman’s bizarrely strong feelings about Zellweger’s face mirrored the fevered tabloid speculation about an eyelift in 2014, which—multiple celebrity and mainstream media outlets remarked—had rendered the actress “unrecognizable.” Mocking concern in a reference to Bridget Jones’s Diary, The Atlantic wondered: “Would it have made a difference if any of us had told you that we liked you just as you were?”
Zellweger, whose weight fluctuation for both Bridget Jones films had elicited collective gasps from the media, was evidently annoyed by the attention to her eyes and finally gave a statement to People magazine: “I’m glad folks think I look different! I’m living a different, happy, more, fulfilling life, and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows.”
Her recent return to the spotlight has resurrected still more meticulous dissecting of her image, which Zellweger condemned at greater length this time, in an August op-ed in The Huffington Post.
She called out the “smut pile” of articles online criticizing women’s appearances, including one tabloid piece from October 2014 presuming she’d done something to her eyes.
“It didn’t matter” to her at the time, but Gleiberman’s piece indicated the obsession had become too mainstream. Choosing the “dignity of silence” in response to such stories makes actresses like her “vulnerable not only to the usual ridicule, but to having the narrative of one’s life hijacked by those who profiteer from invented scandal,” she wrote.
So, hoping to quash some of this relentless speculation and ridicule, she wrote that she hasn’t altered her face nor had surgery on her eyes—“not that it’s anyone’s business.”
She’s right to call out society for gleefully judging women—particularly famous women—by their appearance rather than their professional value (we shouldn’t). But the tabloid obsession isn’t disappearing anytime soon, if the Daily Mail’s wildly successful internet arm and world’s most-read news site, MailOnline, is any indication.
Its roughly 200 million monthly web readers can’t help peruse the site’s so-called sidebar of shame, which traffics in celebrities’ nipple slips and cellulite-mottled thighs. As the Financial Times put it: “If you are tired of MailOnline, you are tired of Kim Kardashian’s life—and most readers are not.”
Our celebrity obsession is nothing new, and it makes sense from an evolutionary standpoint: Humans are a social species and celebrities are at the top of the social hierarchy.
They are monuments to aspiration, objects of devotion and worship by ordinary people. Daniel Kruger, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Michigan, told LiveScience that we look to celebrities for several reasons: “One is just learning what high-status individuals do so you might more effectively become one, and two, it’s basically political. Knowing what is going on with high-status individuals, you’d be better able to navigate the social scene.”
We also project our anxieties and moral righteousness on them, which explains the fixation with Zellweger’s appearance. She emerged one night in 2014 looking noticeably different, and we decided plastic surgery was the culprit. So she evoked a mix of feelings in us, from perverse nostalgia for her bedroom-y, heavy-hooded eyes as a young actress in Jerry Maguire, to our equally perverse dread of aging and plastic surgery gone wrong.
All of those sentiments were neatly and hilariously summed up in the supposedly solicitous, yet bitchy, musings of Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine on Wednesday, who alighted on a recent “heart-breaking” picture of Zellweger: “Of course, I wouldn’t expect her to look as fresh-faced as she did back in 2001… I certainly don’t. But I am still recognizably me. Yet Renée looks like someone else entirely: someone very pretty and with an amazing body, but still someone else.”
Zellweger’s insistence that she hasn’t had plastic surgery had evidently fallen on deaf ears.
“When you’re as talented as an actress as she is,” Vine wrote, getting work done to your face is “just heart-breaking.”
Yes, that’s right. We are all so “heartbroken” we can’t stop looking at Renée Zellweger’s face.