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ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Images and Illusions: On Aging, Beauty and Renée Zellweger’s “New” Face

ARIELLE BERNSTEIN: Images and Illusions: On Aging, Beauty and Renée Zellweger’s “New” Face

It’s scary to see actors age.

In her essay, “The Theory of Receptivity and Some Thoughts
on Ethan Hawke’s Face
,” Michelle Orange reflects on watching Ethan Hawke’s face
grow older:

Life began to show itself as more than a series
of days, or movies, all in a row, which I might or might not attend. He was
gaunt and slightly stooped, but it was his face—rough skin and sunken cheeks,
with an angry, exclamatory furrow wedged like a hatchet blade between his
eyes—that transfixed me. Some said he’d come through a divorce, and it took its
toll; that that’s what life does to people. I’d heard about such things but
never really seen it in action on the face of someone only a few years older than
me. There was something awful and yet so marvelous, so real and poignant and
right, about Ethan Hawke’s face, and about getting to see it in this beautiful
meditation on what life does to people, a ten-years-in-the-making sequel to a
film about people too young and smitten to be too concerned about what life
might do to them.

The public response to actors’ aging is uncomfortable, but it is
also inevitable and it isn’t necessarily always about sexism. We comment on the
changing appearance of actors and musicians like Ethan Hawke, Jared Leto, Elvis
Presley, Christian Bale, and Marlon Brando, their bodies held to similar
scrutiny as new lines and wrinkles emerge and bodies grow fatter or more gaunt
with age or for deliberate movie roles.

Actresses are afforded a different type of pity than aging
male actors, one that lacks the same tenor of existential gravitas. While we worry
about a fading sense of self in men, we worry about fading beauty in women.
When Renee Zellweger attended Elle’s 21st Century Women in Hollywood
event recently, tabloids immediately started reporting on Zellweger’s “new”
face, which does look significantly different and probably is the result of
both natural aging—as well as a heck of a lot of plastic surgery.

In some ways it is easy to criticize Zellweger and other
women who have gone under the knife. We call them vain, or brainwashed, or stupid
for making these choices. It’s harder, for whatever reason, to assess a culture that is
unforgiving about every single body change that a woman will go through over the
course of her life from puberty to after menopause. We judge whether a women
weighs too much or too little. We judge whether women have children or don’t
have children. We judge whether or not they breastfeed. We judge whether women
dye their hair or still wear miniskirts past the age of 40.

As Anne Helen Peterson points out in her article, “What’s
Really Behind The Ridicule of Renee Zellweger’s Face?
”, Zellweger is
particularly vulnerable to this kind of treatment because she was sold to her
audience as a symbol of youth. Zellweger’s efforts to essentially retain her
trademark “look” by way of surgery is perceived by many as especially gauche since she
is meant to symbolize a type of effortless prettiness. We hate seeing bad
plastic surgery on aging female faces, because it represents an acknowledgement of how
much the Hollywood image is mere smoke and mirrors, how the bill of goods we
are sold is so often just a bag of lies.

In an age where selfies are a dime a dozen, and the past is
hidden under a barrage of newer and newer tweets, we are constantly in the
process of building our “brand,” of crafting our identity. In this kind of
culture, the worship of youth feels almost inevitable, but then again our
obsession with female beauty always began and ended with the ultimate Hollywood
image of soft, exquisite, female perfection. Think of Marilyn Monroe, a woman
whose outside effectively masked that which was inside from the dawn of her status
as an icon onwards, and whose early death ensured that, even after we’d learn about her
frustrations, heartache and unsung potential, we’d never see that gorgeous
façade crack.

Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in
The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed four times as a finalist in
Glimmer Train short story
contests
. She is currently writing her first book.

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