The Renee Zellweger Pile-On Proves, Once Again, That Women Can’t Win

We demanded Renee Zellweger change her face, and then bitched about her after she did it. GREAT WORK.

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I was never a big fan of Renee Zellweger, except literally as I’m quite fat. I didn’t like the Bridget Jones movies at all; watching a really mean Colin Firth gradually come to love Bridget because I don’t know, she drops things? That wasn’t really my idea of a classic. But she was fine-to-good-to-great in the role, depending on whom you asked, and was fine-to-good-to-great in Empire Records, Jerry Maguire, and Chicago as well.

In fact, when I was going through her IMDB page I realised I had seen almost every movie she made from 1995 to 2006. She was a bona fide movie star for a solid ten years, but I never warmed to her completely — so if you had told me that on one sleepless night in 2014 I would spend hours defending her on twitter, I would have been very very surprised (after having you spend two solid days explaining to me what twitter is). And yet, that’s exactly what happened last night.

On Monday, Zellweger dared to appear in public at Elle Magazine’s 2014 Women in Hollywood event looking different than the person we’d (analysed and snarked about and criticised for her fluctuating weight gains and different looks during the filming of the Bridget Jones movies) loved ten years ago. News sites seemed to be flabbergasted and utterly confused by her appearance — finally making it clear to me how none of Clarke Kent’s colleagues knew he was Superman.

There were the subtle and snide posts, like one from Gawker that simply showed photo after photo of Renee with the caption ‘Here is a picture of Renee Zellweger’, ending with comparison shots of her from ten years ago. But most were even more overt with their judgement, as epitomised by the Daily Mail who asked “What HAS Renee Zellweger done to her face? Bridget actress looks utterly unrecognisable as she steps out with her boyfriend in LA”.

Yes, it is apparent that she may have had some amount of plastic surgery done, and she does indeed look different. That is true, congratulations to all the Sherlock Holmes out there with the ability to differentiate between two photos of a person separated by a decade. What I take issue with is the hundreds of (mostly unfunny) jokes I read through in my Twitter feed, dedicated to making fun of her for it.

Or the ones calling her disgusting.

Oh, and let’s not forget the tweets by men informing us if they used to find her fuckable or not, and what her fuckable status is now.

This is all kicking in the wrong direction. Renee Zellweger was a very successful young actress, and she is now still only 45 years old. But our memories of her, and what we think she is ‘supposed’ to look like, all come from over a decade ago. And that’s where it seems our reaction becomes more vicious, as we are presented with the image of a woman looking older and different than we remember, without the benefit of having seen her age in real time. As Anne Helen Petersen wrote over at Buzzfeed, Hollywood is horrible to aging women, but particularly to those whose images are rooted to a more youthful version of themselves; those who got famous when they were older mostly get away with it.

That’s why Julia Roberts and Reese Witherspoon keep playing variations on the same roles, praised for their apparent agelessness, and why Demi Moore and Nicole Kidman struggle to reinvigorate their stardom. Indeed, the most flattering form of praise for a longtime female star isn’t “Look at their varied and complex career!” but “[Insert Star Here] Doesn’t Age!”

What do we make, however, of the cult of 47-year-old Connie Britton? The silver fox praise of Helen Mirren, who is 69? The love for Julianna Margulies (48), and Viola Davis (49), and Vera Farmiga (41)? It’s simple: All of their images (at least for American audiences) are rooted in a “mature” version of beauty. No one criticizes them for aging on screen because they’ve seemingly always already been aging.”

So, if you looked at Renee Zellweger’s face and the first thing you felt wasn’t overwhelming anger at the pressure our society puts on women to stay looking young and beautiful BUT FOR THE LOVE OF FUCKING GOD STILL GRACEFULLY AND AGELESSLY NATURAL OR YOU ARE WORTHLESS, then perhaps it’s time you started to consider these things within a wider context, instead of trying to be the first person to make a Face/Off joke.

The pressure to stay looking a certain way is damaging enough for women who are not in the entertainment industry. It is unimaginable within that sphere. All you need to do is take a quick look at how leading men like Liam Neeson and Harrison Ford are allowed to age with no repercussion, to see what is different for women. All you need to do is to see how those leading men age into their 50s and 60s are still playing sexy leading men, while their romantic on-screen partners stay 25 and 30 years old, to understand what is unfair here. Have a look to see how many great parts are written for older women. Have a look to see what age actresses are when they stop being cast as the love interest, and start being cast as the mother of actors similarly aged or younger than them in real life (in Riding in Cars with Boys Drew Barrymore played the mother of Adam Garcia, despite being two years younger than him in real life).

Think about the value we place on women, and how easily discarded and replaced they are once their skin starts to sag in a way we find unpalatable. Then think about all those reactions to Renee Zellweger’s face you saw.

We demand that women look a certain way, and we discard them like garbage when they stop. We demand they stay the same, and then we judge them for choosing to use plastic surgery. We comment if they look fat, if they look thin, if they look old, if they look like they’ve had work done. When women try everything in their power to hold onto those brief moments where society found them appealing enough to look at on a screen, when they try to stay looking the same because they know we will discard them as soon as they are out of date, we turn on them then, as well.

Women can’t fucking win, because we won’t let them.

Rebecca Shaw is a Brisbane-based freelance writer and co-host of the comedy podcast Bring A Plate. For dumb jokes and crazed rants, you can follow her on Twitter @brocklesnitch

This is an updated version of her blog post, which you can find here.