First, a pact. No making fun of Renée Zellweger. Instead of recoiling at her new look—the rounded eyes and chin, the uncanny valley of a new face molded from the kewpie features the camera knew so well—our first reaction should be to give Zellweger a hug. And if you're a girl, or really any human being who's ever felt insecure about your looks, to brush back her perfect blonde waves and whisper, “I understand.”
But it's okay to be upset.
Not at Zellweger herself. At least, not exactly. A thousand flashbulbs will light up anyone's deficiencies, even Mother Teresa's. (Did she have to wear a one rupee sari to meet Pope John Paul II? Wouldn't a normal person wear their nicest sari?) Celebrity is like a mugging: You have no idea how you'll react until it happens.
Still, patterns emerge. There are three types of famous women who get plastic surgery. The two most common are beautiful women who do it before they're famous (Megan Fox, Angelina Jolie, Kim Kardashian) and beautiful women who do it to stay famous (Kim Novak, Demi Moore, Nicole Kidman). No one gets angry at Jennifer Lopez for making herself more lovely. Instead we get annoyed at women like Zellweger who belong to category three: quirky actresses who become famous and then agree to change their body and face.
Take Jennifer Grey's nose job, which is being referenced alongside Zellweger's new look far more often than Jolie and Fox's conventional re-plasterings. Yes, Grey could do what she pleased with her face. Yes, she never asked to be a role model. But fame is about fan identification. Dirty Dancing turned Grey into a star because it promised awkward girls that they, too, could land a hunk who loved them just the way they were. Her new nose took it back. “Nevermind,” it sniffed. “The real world hates big schnozes.”
In the '90s, those take-backsies happened a lot. Memorable alternababes like Christina Ricci and Janeane Garofalo made curves hot. In music, Courtney Love's thighs were defiant and thrilling. Love's crooked nose and crooked lipstick were proof that she didn't give a shit if the guys in suits thought she was sexy. When she snarled songs about “anorexic magazines,” we believed her. Women like that succeeded on their own terms, and their victory was ours, too.
But off-camera, the three fought a losing battle for the right to remain themselves. Ricci spoke openly about people accosting her on the street to call her chubby. Garofalo admitted she felt like a “sellout” for losing 30 pounds. And the outspoken Love growled that before her nose job, “I wasn't offered a fucking job anywhere but in a strip joint,” and pledged that she'd “never sell out the fat and ugly.”
So when even Ricci, Garofalo and Love succumbed to the pressure to be thin and pretty, it felt personal. Their makeovers spoke to our inner fears: talent and personality matter less than looks. They'd climbed the mountain and it still didn't please the beast.
The rest of us mortals didn't stand a chance.
Zellweger exploded onto the scene the same year that Love redid herself for Hollywood after getting raves for The People Versus Larry Flynt. Zellweger was a cuddlier version of the oddball ingenue. When she smiled, her entire face curled up like a kitten. As an actress, her whole mythology was that the awkward girl could get the guy: Tom Cruise, Hugh Grant. That wasn't the subtext of Jerry Maguire and Bridget Jones' Diary—it was the plot. She was excellent in those roles, but people rarely talked about her talent. Especially during the two Bridget Jones films, Zellweger could suffer through an entire interview where she was only asked about her weight.
Fans didn't love Zellweger for her beauty, though she was in her own way very, very beautiful. (Just picture her perfect, shocked pout when Cruise kisses her breasts on the porch.) Fans loved her because her appeal transcended beauty—she was aspirational in a way that didn't require a knife.
Except, it turns out that she did. Or rather, that she somehow became convinced of it.
The think-pieces tsk-tsking us for caring about Zellweger's unrecognizable new look are missing the point. It's okay to be angry when a gifted, Oscar-winning actress believes she's not good enough. It's okay to be hurt when a role model devalues the very thing she represents. It's not okay to mock a woman who's clearly struggling with pressures few of us will ever understand.
What we must do is separate the person from those external pressures and focus our fury at every exec, blogger, and pundit whose insults carved Zellweger's new face. And then let's go after the larger beauty culture where individuality is so rare that women like Zellweger and Grey are forced to be role models in the first place.
Amy Nicholson on Twitter:
Public Spectacle, L.A. Weekly's arts & culture blog, on Facebook and Twitter: