On Tuesday morning my news feed was full of images of Renee Zellweger at the Women in Hollywood awards. A gasp of shock could be heard across cyberspace, and thousands of people went online to note that Zellweger looked completely different.
By Tuesday evening the conversation was starting to turn and op-eds began to appear arguing that Zellweger’s appearance was the result of our culture’s obsessions with youth and beauty, and that actresses who have made their name playing ingénues and rom-com heroines are expected to remain eternally youthful and castigated if they don’t or if their plastic surgery is too obvious. Exceptions may be made for character actresses like Helen Mirren, Meryl Streep or Melissa Leo, but being over 40 — and worse, looking it — has you assigned to the Hollywood scrap heap.
Now I am not going to argue that Hollywood is a meritocracy or that older actresses don’t have a hard time finding work. A 2013 study from the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism found that actresses received only 28 percent of all the speaking roles in Hollywood films in 2012 — a five year low. The film industry has a preference for young, beautiful faces, and today’s “sweetheart” becomes tomorrow’s non-entity. Meg Ryan, once the most bankable woman in Hollywood, has been conspicuous by her absence.
You could argue that actresses, like sports stars and models, have short careers and are richly rewarded for it. And you could also argue that many male stars who made their name as the “hot guy” in their twenties and early thirties are no longer being offered starring roles. You’d get no arguments here. But with Zellweger something different is afoot.
Now I love a good opinion piece with a feminist slant on popular culture, but Zellweger, who is now in her mid-40s, doesn’t look younger — she looks different. There is no getting away from the physical evidence that her face, eyes and cheekbones seem to have radically altered.
Zellwegger has, predictably enough, denied using plastic surgery, claiming her new face is the result of ageing and of being at peace with herself. Whatever the truth, like Mickey Rourke, she appears to have morphed into an almost different person entirely. There’s no getting away from that. But whether or not we, the movie going public, have a right to nitpick over a star’s face and body and subject it to critique is another matter. But in this case, the public outrage, or confusion, surrounding Zellweger is understandable.
While Zellweger was hogging the headlines for all the wrong reasons, you may have missed the news the Monica Lewinsky has reinvented herself as a public speaker tackling cyberbullying. If anyone can relate to what it is like to be the target of ire for millions of strangers, it’s Lewinsky.
The public outrage that still surrounds Lewinsky is a whole lot less forgivable, particularly twenty years after the fact.
Predictably enough, under the articles I read, the content of Lewinsky’s speech was glossed over in favour of jokes about cigars, blow jobs and stained dresses mixed in with comments on Lewinsky’s looks. Like Zellweger, many suspect that she has had plastic surgery because at 41 years old, Lewinsky is presumed to looked “better” than she did at 22 years old.
Has Lewinsky had plastic surgery? Possibly. I don’t know. I’m not sure it matters except that if she has, it is probably a reaction to the sustained abuse she has received over the years. One of the ugliest aspects of the scandal was the constant stream of bile calling Lewinsky ugly and overweight.
The comments proved Lewinsky’s point — in the age of social media, there is no escaping the cyberbullies. Not that you’re likely to have forgotten it, but what exactly was Lewinsky’s great crime? Nearly twenty years ago, she gave someone a few blow jobs — that’s it, but Lewinsky has become such a whipping girl and figure of ridicule that huge amounts of people immediately react to her with derision or anger.
Piers Morgan — himself no stranger to social media flame wars — blamed Lewinsky of the her own downfall and summed up what many people were thinking.
“If you’re a 22-year-old intern working at the White House and you embark on an affair with your married President, then most people would probably say the shame-ometer probably starts right there and then.”
Yes, Bill Clinton was definitely married, but if you believe in the sanctity of marriage vows then it was up to him to keep them. Lewinsky wasn’t breaking any solemn promises of sexual fidelity — Clinton was. Besides which, Lewinsky was just 22 years old, and Bill Clinton was the most powerful man in the world, and a well-known rogue in the mould of JFK to boot. That a young woman was dazzled by his Southern charm, good looks, and most particularly, his position, is complete understandable.
Despite the huge coverage the scandal received many people think that Lewinsky broke the story herself, which is factually incorrect. She was betrayed by her colleague Linda Tripp who taped their conversations about the affair, and gave the evidence to Kenneth Starr, who then kicked off the presidential impeachment nonsense.
There was no way Lewinsky could have predicted what came after. Most people who have affairs with married men or women do so in secret, and they certainly don’t expect to become the target of the world’s media or a political witch hunt. Unlike someone like Rebecca Loos, Lewinsky initially tried to distance herself from the affair and went into hiding. She gave a rare interview to Time magazine in 1999 hoping to rehabilitate her image, but she has turned down several offers, and millions of dollars, to write a book about her indiscretion. While Clinton has gone on to be a respected elder statesman and beloved public speaker, Lewinsky has spent the past twenty years trying to dodge the scandal but no-one is prepared to let her forget it. From her Vanity Fair piece on shaming earlier this year, it seems she has decided to embrace the scandal and turn it into a cautionary tale about cyberbulling and slut shaming.
Although very different women with very different public personas, Zellwegger and Lewinsky make an interesting comparison. While Zellweger cannot escape the star image we have of her as the fresh faced chubby cheeked twenty something of Empire Records and Jerry Maguire, Lewinsky cannot escape the image of the fresh faced chubby cheeked twenty something intern in a stained blue dress.
Why won’t we allow them to grow up?