You know what not enough people are talking about today? Renee Zellweger.
Everyone is losing their mind over Renee Zellweger. The cyber gawking isn’t very polite, but I do understand it. She, a once very recognizable person, now looks “completely unrecognizable.”
Whether or not she’s actually “completely unrecognizable” is a minor bone of contention among folks on the internet right now and I’m going to go ahead and add my two cents. I think she’s “completely unrecognizable” because when a friend sent me the photos with the note “Do you recognize this person?” I did not. And, for the record, I am totally the kind of person that would recognize Renee Zellweger.
Ok, so RZ had some work done, which isn’t that surprising. Women, in general, are subject to unrealistic and unreasonable standards of beauty. This woman, specifically, was employed in an industry that has even more unrealistic and unreasonable standards of beauty. Faced with that reality, it shouldn’t come as a shock that a woman staring down the oncoming train that is 45 years old would find that the benefit of cosmetic surgery to outweigh it’s cost. Just in case you’re one of those people who doesn’t believe in that this pressure falls disproportionately on women (i.e. sexism), remember that no one really complements 45 year old women on their looks. It’s always wrapped in the pitiful idea that said woman doesn’t look as bad as we expect. Consider Tom Junod at Esquire. Basically, he’s saying, ” Hold on a minute guys. Don’t just cast these women into into a tank of hungry eels. Yes, these women may be at less than peak attractiveness, but they have additional uses. That additional use is that we, men, can still have sex with them.” Tom Junod is a million years old, and has a face that looks like a melted candle.
But don’t get me wrong, 45 year old men don’t really get complemented on their looks either. The difference is that it doesn’t really matter. Bill O’Reilly and Rush Limbaugh have both had looong careers in the media and they certainly don’t look good for their age…. or any age. There’s a once-festive-now-rotting gourd sitting on my stoop at this very moment inspires more lust than they do. Philip Seymour Hoffman was a tremendous actor. He was also a fat, pasty, hamster-faced heroin addict, but that didn’t really hurt his career. If Meryl Streep looked half as bad as PSH, we would scream in horror and scratch our eyes out.
(I feel like its important to point out that this concept applies to everyone except Rob Lowe. Whether its natural or not, he looks incredible, which is something people tell him regularly but its so true that I can’t take issue with it.)
If that reality doesn’t make you want to run out and pay a trained professional insane amounts of money to fill your face with industrial-grade Spackle, than you’re a better woman than I would be.
So the how and the why women like Renee Zellweger find themselves in that situation is pretty well tread intellectual territory. Youth is highly prized, and, conversely, the old and ugly are discarded. Stave off depreciation or end up in the junk yard. However, if someone (like RZ) goes “too far” or does something that is perceived as “cheating,” they’re demonized, punished, villainized, and shamed. Women bear this burden, like most burdens, disproportionately.
When society places value on something (youth, gold, iPhone 6’s, cronuts, etc.) people go to extreme lengths to get it. Case-in-point: Me, 1996, Beanie Babies.
Young people are hot. Old people are not. So why get all bent out of shape when someone gets plastic surgery?
It’s an impossible paradox: if you let yourself look old, you’re rendered obsolete. If you try to do something about it, you get a public drubbing so caustic it could take the paint off a barn.
As it turns out, there’s a long tradition of “teaching a lesson” to those (mostly women, but there are some men in there too) who fly a little too close to the sun, as far as beauty is concerned. Characters who go to extremes for beauty come in several varieties, but their efforts universally end in disaster.
The Wicked Queen. At one end of the spectrum are the villains, like the Wicked Queen in Snow White. If you’ve seen the movie you know that she loses her cool upon finding out that Snow White is “fairer” than she is. So she tries to kill her; first hiring a Medieval hit man-cum-woodcutter; and when that fails convincing her to eat a poison apple. Some more stuff happens then she climbs a mountain and a lightning blast (the hand of God? You decide) knocks her off. She falls down the mountain. A landslide falls on her. Vultures pick her bones clean (this part happens off camera).
This particular character type is concerned with relative beauty. She doesn’t try to make herself more beautiful, but she does try to take out the competition. Mean Girls‘s Regina George is a version of the Wicked Queen, and we all know how that ends.
Equally recently is Game of Thrones Cersei Lannister whose machinations against Margaery Tyrell are partially motivated by jealousy. The Wicked Queen is Legion in storytelling.
Elizabeth Bathory was another, IRL, beauty-obsessed Wicked Queen. This being pre-Oil of Olay, what choice did a Hungarian Countess with crows feet have, you know, other than bathing in the blood of virgin girls?
The Follies. At the other end of the spectrum are Plain Janes who get a little mixed-up, do something stupid, and suffer a little public humiliation.
Anne of Green Gables is a classic folly. Anne, ordinarily a nice Canadian girl, buys some cheap hair dye that turns her hair green instead of raven black. She has to get her hair cut to an unfashionably short length and cries vowing never to be so vain again.
Tinker Bell is another follie. She’s insecure about her appearance and so jealous of Peter’s affection for Wendy in Peter Pan that she is tricked into revealing their location to Captain Hook.
Everyone she cares about is nearly fed to an alligator ALL because she’s worried that she’s got wider hips than Wendy, which is clearly rediculous because Wendy is a normal human and Tink is small enough to fit in a drawer.
Follies’ folly serves as a quasi-low stakes teaching tool. They screw things up, but it all works out in the end, and we’re all a little wiser for it.
Let’s Make a Deal. Somewhere in the middle are the Let’s Make a Dealers. On the ladder of evil, the Let’s Make a Dealers are the a few rungs down from the Wicked Queen. These usually don’t start out bad, but, you know, one thing(usually vanity) leads to another and before you know it they’ve make a demonic pact that results in eternal damnation.
Dorian Gray (a man!) is the best example of the Dealers. He’s young and very pretty; a sort of Victorian Zac Efron. He discovers the extent of his own beauty thanks to a really good picture his artist friend and occasional lover paints for him. Thanks to some black magic that is never really explained, the painting ages instead of Dorian. He hides the painting in his attic, and takes a swan dive into moral decay: booze, theater, bisexuality, murder, etc. There’s even an opium den. His downfall is as precipitous as it is delicious.
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade is all about a futile search for everlasting life. It doesn’t end well for Elsa. Though, in Elsa’s case, she was also a secret Nazi, so she probably had other karmic crimes to pay for.
In the original Hans Christian Anderson version of Little Mermaid, said mermaid wants to trade in her fish parts for lady parts and, unlike the Disney version, things don’t end well. Two words: Sea Foam.
Lest you think my examples are too Euro-centric, here’s a gruesome Southeast Asian myth about what happens when women use black magic to stay beautiful. SPOILER ALERT: At night they’re heads fly off their bodies, entrails dangling, and they feast on the bloody placenta of newborn children. YUM.
Note: I think its worth mentioning that the tropes discussed above are different from:
1) Women whose beauty makes them dangerous, like Jezebel, Cathy from East of Eden, Bond Girls, Ancient Greece’s Pandora, or any femme fatale.
2) Women whose beauty is dangerous for them, like Jessica Rabbit (not bad just drawn that way), Snow White, or the woman from this Pantene advertisement:
3)Women whose thirst for power makes them dangerous, like Lady MacBeth, Urusula the Sea Witch, or the Wicked Witch of the West.
If your reading this and you happen to be a female literary character DO NOT under any circumstances do anything interesting. It never ends well.
This is kind of storytelling framework that informed our reaction to the recent pictures of Renee Zellweger. From what I can tell the RZ scandal began at Gawker, where all they wrote on the subject was “Here are some Pictures of Renee Zellweger.” We filled in the rest of the story ourselves. Like all the fictional woman (and some men too) who were faced with the prospect of looking older, RZ tried to “cheat” her way out of it and therefore had to be punished. The subtext is that the universe punished her hubris by making her look noticeably different. However, “looking different” isn’t actually a punishment. It’s how we reacted to the new news (a fortnight of public excoriation) that was the actual punishment.
Why punish someone something they only did because we told them to? I don’t understand it. I only know that, based on all these old examples, we’ve been doing it for ages.
The tropes are old, but I don’t know if means it’s some sort of unquestioned primordial impulse that’s seeped its way into every facet of our culture. All I can think is that even though all these moralistic tales are about punishing jealousy and vanity, its our own sense of jealous vanity that led us to humiliate people like RZ. We have to get older, but she gets to “cheat.” And if that’s true, than doesn’t that make us the villain?