A Stepford Too Far

Hi, readers!  Today’s post is occasioned by something seen in the grocery store checkout line.  Namely, before and after pictures of Renée Zellweger.

The ones I saw were in Us Weekly, but similar juxtapositions have been all over the media, since, apparently, she was nearly unrecognizable at a fashion preview a month or so ago.

renee-zellweger-2014-split-horizontal-gallery

I find the change really chilling on several levels.

First, although her face clearly looks quite different than it did before, she is apparently maintaining that the differences are due solely to health-related diet and exercise changes.

I’ve always liked her persona in films as she (often) plays women with humor, sass, and common sense. Having plastic surgery to this degree is a dreadful negation of these things, and trying to erase the effects by a not very convincing story is even more so.

Second, if Zellweger had plastic surgery to hide the effects of age (she’s 45) that in itself is a sad commentary on ageism in contemporary society. Indeed, the New York Times devoted a recent “Room for Debate” to her recent plastic surgery as a example of prejudice against age. (It can be read here. “Room for Debate” is a recurring feature in which 5 to 6 commentators opine on a subject of contemporary interest.)

But an even sadder commentary is the fact that her original looks were completely sandblasted away. The plastic surgery is not obvious just because—or even primarily because—she suddenly looks younger; it’s obvious because she suddenly looks profoundly different.

Isn’t it possible that age was secondary, and a misguided attempt at looking some criterion of “better” the primary reason? Renée Zellweger has always been nice looking, but someone to whom the adjective “cute” or “attractive” would likely be applied, rather than “beautiful.”

It’s equally dreadful if a woman with perfectly acceptable looks comes to feel that they are not acceptable unless they adhere to an extremely narrow spectrum, and I’m almost more afraid of that than the aging motive. (I want also to say that we don’t know, obviously, unless she advances her reasons, but we can speculate about the culture pressures.)

The whole thing reminds me of Scott Westerfeld’s young adult novel Pretty, a science fiction tale in which every member of society, at 16, undergoes plastic surgery to be (as you might guess from the title!), pretty, beautiful, with perfectly symmetrical features. Westerfeld is a master at crafting his dystopian fiction to be only a few turns different than the contemporary world. After their surgery, for example, young people congregate in New Pretty Town. Parents are “middle pretties” and the generation before them are “old pretties.” One can easily imagine an actress thinking she is an “old pretty” who needs to be rejuvenated.

But, if I really get my meta on, I have to say it also reminds me of Jean Baudrillard’s simulacra. Let me quote the introduction to Baudrillard in The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism: “simulacra seem to have referents (real phenomena they refer to), but they are merely pretend representations that mark the absence, not the existence, of the objects they purport to represent.” An example Baudrillard himself gives is Disneyland–indeed, it is the example most frequently given in the explication of his work. Frontierland and pirates in Disneyland are fantasies, not the real thing or even images of the real thing (as photographs, for example, would be). Unfortunately, Renée Zellweger’s face is now an example of simulcra as well.

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