The XX Factor

Renée Zellweger, Margot Robbie, and Hollywood’s Obsession With the Female Face

Renée Zellweger in May 2015 in Hollywood, California.

Imeh Akpanudosen/Getty Images for SeriousFun Children’s Network

Renée Zellweger had plastic surgery, and Variety’s Owen Gleiberman is worried that she’s ruined Bridget Jones for the rest of us. As he watched the new trailer for Bridget Jones’ Baby, the forthcoming third entry in the film franchise, Gleiberman mourned the loss of his favorite squinty-eyed, plump-cheeked lush next door. “Celebrities, like anyone else, have the right to look however they want, but the characters they play become part of us,” Gleiberman writes in an essay published last week. “I suddenly felt like something had been taken away.”

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He goes on to ponder the niche Zellweger found as the “extraordinary ordinary girl,” one who possessed a distinctive, attainable kind of beauty that seemed of this earth, not above it. Zellweger was no doe-eyed picture of perfect symmetry, and that made her the perfect actress to embody Jones, the error-prone everywoman who finds love in spite of her flaws. Now that Zellweger has succumbed to the pressures of Hollywood perfection, Gleiberman postulates, she’s become the anti-Jones.

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Some of the piece is tantamount to schoolyard bullying—Gleiberman says Zellweger looks like a victim of “Invasion of the Face Snatchers,” a cheap insult and an unsophisticated reference at that. He also confusingly conflates youth and beauty pressures with the public outrage over Zoe Saldana’s casting in a Nina Simone biopic, a more complicated story that spoke to the racialized aspect of mainstream beauty standards. That’s why Julie Chen got plastic surgery to make her eyes larger after a boss told her she’d never be a TV anchor with her “heavy … Asian eyes.” It’s why Saldana is a more palatable mainstream beauty than Simone ever was. It has to do with conventional beauty standards, yes, but more specifically with an ingrained cultural preference for lighter skin and Anglo facial features. (Another reason Gleiberman’s comparison falls flat: Bridget Jones is a lovable fictional character, not a real-life black musician and radical civil rights activist whose hijacked legacy has real political consequence.)

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Rose McGowan put the writer on blast in an open letter in the Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday, recounting years of insults, looks-based takedowns, and sexual harassment she endured as an actress. “[Zellweger’s] crime, according to you, is growing older in a way you don’t approve of. Who are you to approve of anything?” McGowan wrote. “You are an active endorser of what is tantamount to harassment and abuse of actresses and women.”

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McGowan convincingly implicates Gleiberman in a youth-obsessed, sex-obsessed Hollywood system that places actresses in a bind between aging naturally and risking their careers, or getting plastic surgery and risking making journalists like Gleiberman sad about their favorite movie characters. Even Gleiberman concedes that many, many famous women said to age “gracefully”—that is, with a youthful glow and without any visible marks of plastic surgery—have had work done, too. Their surgeons are just better at performing the subtle, incremental procedures that are harder for the layperson to notice.

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But Gleiberman attributes drastic plastic surgery to some kind of weakness of character, an overeagerness to please or an unseemly synthesis of self-hatred and vanity. “When you see someone who no longer looks like who they are, it’s not necessarily the result of bad cosmetic surgery,” he writes. “It’s the result of a decision, an ideology, a rejection of the self.”

If the desire to maintain youthful beauty is an ideology, it’s the ideology the entertainment industry has chosen as its guiding light. Consider the first paragraphs from Rich Cohen’s Vanity Fair profile of actress Margot Robbie:

America is so far gone, we have to go to Australia to find a girl next door. In case you’ve missed it, her name is Margot Robbie. She is 26 and beautiful, not in that otherworldly, catwalk way but in a minor knock-around key, a blue mood, a slow dance. She is blonde but dark at the roots. She is tall but only with the help of certain shoes. She can be sexy and composed even while naked but only in character. … I met Margot in the restaurant in the Mark hotel, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It’s a celebrity haunt. You sense them in the shadows, in their booths, tracking you with suspicious eyes. She wandered through the room like a second-semester freshman, finally at ease with the system. She stopped at tables along the way to talk to friends. I don’t remember what she was wearing, but it was simple, her hair combed around those painfully blue eyes. We sat in the corner. She looked at me and smiled.

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This remarkable display of salivary journalism—Cohen waxes erotic about Robbie’s brand of sex appeal for quite some time before ever getting to her body of work—prompted an outpouring of disgust and mockery on Twitter:

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Consider also the foul column titled “Sky Ferreira’s Sex Appeal Is What Pop Music Needs Right Now” published last month in L.A. Weekly. In it, Art Tavana takes 1,500 words to pick apart why Ferreira is hot and how her hotness differs from the hotnesses of all the other women making music this millennium. He describes 23-year-old Ferreira as a “freshly licked lollipop” with breasts similar to Madonna’s “in both cup size and ability to cause a shitstorm.” (An editor later posted an apology.)

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These essays are gross. They reek of misogyny. They also reveal, to no one’s surprise, one major way women get press, concert tours, and roles in buzzy summer films: being young and attractive. Hollywood (and, to a slightly lesser extent, the music industry) has little use for aging women—male actors get older, their love interests don’t. The parts just aren’t there. Zellweger came to fame in part because, as Gleiberman reveals, we fell in love with her adorable, pinchable face. A celebrity’s face is a part of the product she’s selling, but as Amanda Hess wrote when Zellweger first debuted her new look in October 2014, that product reaches its sell-by date much faster in women than in men:

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Character actresses like Melissa Leo can grow into great careers later in life, playing hard, complicated broads, but our baby-faced ingénues are specifically prized for their youth; it’s nearly impossible for them to “get better” with age. (See also: Meg Ryan.) Zellweger’s last critical hit came out in 2005. Hollywood discarded her a long time ago. So now, she’s returned looking nothing like the old Renée Zellweger—you know, the actress nobody wanted to look at anymore. Can you blame her?

Maybe Zellweger didn’t change her face because she didn’t like who she was. Maybe she changed her face because every granule of evidence and past experience told her that her industry and her audience wouldn’t like who she was. Maybe she made a perfectly logical decision to take the same risk that’s preserved the acting gigs of so many of her forebears, because she feared she’d have no shot at a lasting career otherwise. Gleiberman can lament her choice all he wants, but he can’t tell her she’s wrong.

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