If you google “Renee Zellweger lemon”, you’ll get over 259,000 results.
The meme, mocking the Oscar winning actress’s smile as being the result of sucking on sour lemon candies, has been floating around the internet for a few years. There’s over three times the number of searches for “Renee Zellweger weight”, and I can only assume more than a few tabloids made a hefty profit from weeks of speculation over her size. Add an extra 100k search results for “Renee Zellweger surgery” and the overriding conversation is clear. The economy of women’s bodies in Hollywood, and indeed in life in general, is nothing new but increasingly disheartening to witness. You expect it from gossip rags and comments sections, yet you cling to the hope that perhaps the critical circle, the communities that dive deep into the intersections of culture and celebrity, will be somewhat more nuanced in their approach.
I shudder to even link to Owen Gleiberman’s mastery of concern trolling on Variety, entitled “Renee Zellweger: If She No Longer Looks Like Herself, Has She Become a Different Actress?” It’s a long winded piece, curious in tone and uncertain in its aims, that’s built on the belief that the Zellweger of Bridget Jones’s Diary no longer resembles the Zellweger of the upcoming Bridget Jones’s Baby. It seems to astound Gleiberman that a woman has aged and that we as people tend to change as we get older. There was much speculation surrounding Zellweger several months ago after her face seemed wildly altered to many, but soon after she did a TV interview and looked as she always has. Far be it from me to explain how make-up works, but when the same thing happened to Uma Thurman and she somehow had to justify darkened brows, you have to wonder what the real concern here is.
There’s a depressing history of male critics in a variety of creative fields obsessing over a woman’s appearance, positively or otherwise, under the guise of cultural analysis: Rex Reed referred to Melissa McCarthy as “tractor-sized, a “female hippo,” and a “screeching, humongous creep,” then doubled down when called to apologise under the cloak of concern for obesity. Theatre critic John Simon referred to Barbra Streisand’s nose as “a bolt of fleshy lightning”, called Kathleen Turner a “braying mantis” and compared Liza Minnelli’s face to a beagle. Jeff Wells struggles to get through a paragraph without calling someone “fat”, but was so delighted by a scene of nudity involving Vinessa Shaw in 3:10 To Yuma that he e-mailed director James Mangold to thank him and asked if he could be sent a few extra stills “just for my, myself & I.” And that doesn’t even get into the junket circuit, where perverts feel free to ask actresses to their face about diets, underwear and sex.
And then there’s the sports world. How many times have you read a condescending, bigoted think-piece from a dude who thinks Serena Williams is too muscly, possibly using steroids or is secretly a man? Rebecca Adlington, one of Britain’s best Olympic swimmers, faced years of nasty comments about her nose from supposedly qualified journalists. Simon Barnes seems psychologically incapable of talking about Jessica Ennis-Hill without focusing on her looks.
This is, of course, only the tip of the iceberg, but to me it exemplifies two major problems we must address: one, the need for more women in film and pop culture criticism, and two, an examination of the politics and economy of women’s beauty.
Imagine for a moment that you are a Hollywood actress. You’ve spent most of your career having publicists tell you to wear the tight top to the audition and maybe shave a few years off your age. You know you’re going up against younger, more beautiful actresses for parts none of you are the right age for but you’re all bordering on too old for the field. You lose the weight, or put on as necessary, for the role, do the promo shoots, pose in undies for GQ and have the same profile of vague platitudes written about you for every interview.
Now imagine the tabloids circling all your vaguely wobbly bits, or asking so-called experts why you’re looking so haggard in a paparazzi shot where you dare to not look entirely put together, or the ‘fashion police’ cackling over a heavily done make-up job. Imagine years of people screaming about your supposedly unhealthy weight loss – a side effect of an industry that fetishizes thinness – and calling in quacks to diagnose you as anorexic based on a couple of photos. Imagine constant interviews where shiny toothed men, who never have to worry about their clothing choices being mocked or their hair not looking perfect, demand you apologise for a creep crawling on the floor as you get out a taxi to reveal your lack of underwear. Think about years of constant jokes from braying chat show hosts or gossip vultures about your askew smile or chubby cheeks or squinting eyes.
Then think about the calls from directors decreasing in volume, and those jobs you used to be great at going to women a decade younger with the ‘hot young thing’ label hanging around their necks. All the voices in your head amplify the negatives, and that agent of yours, waiting for their cuts, suggests that maybe, just maybe, a bit of ‘freshening up’ isn’t such a bad idea. Everyone else is doing it and you can’t afford to fall behind.
Do you do it?
I bet you would.
Imagine being the exemplification of everything Hollywood adores, of epitomizing that incredibly narrow set of beauty standards – thin, cis, white, conventionally pretty – and still not being good enough. Imagine giving into years, possibly decades, of pressure and being criticized for setting a bad example. There is literally no way to win this game.
All of this is one of many reasons why the inclusion and amplification of women’s voices in pop culture criticism is so necessary. Of the 247 top critics listed on Rotten Tomatoes, only 27% were women, and those numbers are heavily tilted towards white women. Without those voices at the table, there will inevitably be an incomplete discourse on some of the most prescient issues in our culture.
In many ways, film criticism as a business operates like the film industry itself: The people in charge like to hire people who remind them of themselves, and those people at the top are by and large straight white dudes (baseball caps are an option). That’s not to say they can’t have wildly diverging opinions on a variety of topics, but privilege comes with blinders that are often hard to acknowledge and even tougher to remove.
The past few months have seen some of the most prominent film publications taking on new writers who are for the most part white men: Rolling Stone, Film Comment, Indiewire, and of course, Gleiberman at Variety. Many of them have championed underdog film-makers, but you can’t get over the sense of gatekeeping going on. Film criticism often feels like the treehouse girls are banned from entering, and it’s not hard to assume the conversations we’re missing out on aren’t exactly centred on women in the business.
With topics like #OscarsSoWhite, the Ghost in the Shell whitewashing and the genderswapped Ghostbusters backlash still ongoing, you will never be able to fully tackle these issues with white men leading the conversation. Things will slip by. The importance of lived experience is often dismissed as a critical tool, but it has led to some of the most beautiful and insightful criticism of recent times: For example, Todd Vanderwerff writing for Vox on the FXX show You’re The Worst in relation to being married to someone with depression, and it’s some of the most incredibly writing you’ll find in the medium.
Women critics are also more open to analyzing the work made by and for women. Romance novels will probably never get major coverage in the New York Times, despite their cultural and economic success, but women like Sarah Wendell and the Smart Bitches Trashy Books team ensure that there’s an ongoing conversation about them that comfortably slots into the wider narrative of the medium. Would the New Yorker have included such a fascinating and deep cutting study of a Bravo reality show like Vanderpump Rules if their head television critic had been a man and not the genius Emily Nussbaum? Fan culture, too quickly dismissed as entitlement or female hysteria, has the critical eye it deserves thanks to Aja Romano at Vox and her former colleagues at the Daily Dot. When criticism is the same voices writing about the same things, there may be differing opinions but the boredom and homogenizing of the conversation will inevitably take over.
Our world and our art suffers when we limit the number of perspectives allowed to not only tell the story but to discuss it. Women are no better or worse in their opinions than men, but the key differences we bring allow further dimensions in the narrative. Whether they’re conscious of it or not, the ingrained biases of white maleness will continue unchallenged without contrasting voices under the banner, and the commodification of women’s faces and bodies will exacerbate to increasingly damaging levels. Get those people to the table and they’ll tell you exactly what you’re talking about when you talk about Renee Zellweger’s face. Spoiler alert: It’s sexism.