FACING THE CRITICS

Renée Zellweger is a walking metaphor for the shameful way we treat aging women in Hollywood

Given Hollywood’s well-documented biases about women over the age of 40, you’d think a highly anticipated romantic comedy starring a 47-year-old woman would be cause for celebration. But that wasn’t the case for Variety critic Owen Gleiberman, who shared his concerns about the latest trailer for Bridget Jones’s Baby in an article titled “Renée Zellweger: If She No Longer Looks Like Herself, Has She Become a Different Actress?”

Gleiberman questions whether audiences will have trouble believing that they’re actually watching Bridget onscreen because Zellweger looks different than she did back when she was 32. He writes:

Watching the trailer, I didn’t stare at the actress and think: She doesn’t look like Renée Zellweger. I thought: She doesn’t look like Bridget Jones! Oddly, that made it matter more. Celebrities, like anyone else, have the right to look however they want, but the characters they play become part of us. I suddenly felt like something had been taken away.

The strangest thing about this troubling article is that Zellweger actually does look like herself in the trailer. Comparing stills from the earlier Bridget Jones and this new trailer reveals that Zellweger still has her signature “pillowy cheeks,” “quizzically pursed lips,” and “singular squint.” She looks 15 years older, of course, and potentially altered by cosmetic surgery as well (not to mention the fact that this is the most svelte we’ve seen Bridget). But the idea that she’s unrecognizable is simply preposterous.

What Gleiberman is really talking about—though it constitutes only one line in his article—is Zellweger’s widely discussed 2014 red carpet appearance in which she did look quite different. Photos of Zellweger’s changed appearance caused a massive stir on social media at the time. Although much of the attention was snarky, the actress handled the experience with grace, explaining to People: “I’m glad folks think I look different. I’m living a different, happy, more fulfilling life and I’m thrilled that perhaps it shows.”

What’s clear from the Bridget Jones trailer, however, is that Zellweger has actively returned to her old look (whatever that process may have entailed) since then. Indeed, in the trailer she looks far more like Bridget circa 2004 than she does Zellweger circa 2014. In other words, she’s done the exact thing that Gleiberman demands of her: She’s ensured that her character is still recognizable to audiences.

So why is she still being punished for changing?

While both leading ladies and leading men are generally expected to be fit and attractive, those standards are time and time again far more harshly applied to women. After all, plenty of male actors have changed their appearance over the years, whether via plastic surgery or the natural effects of aging. Yet that’s seldom seen as a massive cause for concern.

In fact, Zellweger’s co-star Colin Firth has visibly aged quite a bit since playing Mark Darcy in 2001’s Bridget Jones. But it’s almost impossible to imagine anyone suggesting audiences won’t believe he’s playing the same character.

The tired, frustrating truth is that Hollywood doesn’t like the idea of watching women get older, which is why so many women in Hollywood feel compelled to get plastic surgery in the first place. After receiving praise for “aging gracefully” in the decade-spanning Boyhood, Patricia Arquette told People she felt “trapped” by the constant discussions of her looks and called the chatter about onscreen aging a “one-sided conversation.” And she’s not alone. Star Wars star Carrie Fisher took to Twitter to express a similar frustration about the constant discussions surrounding her body:

Hollywood’s discomfort with watching women age is part of the reason women over 40 have such a hard time finding interesting, complex roles. Vulture found that while leading men get older, their love interests stay the same age. This explains why a 37-year-old Maggie Gyllenhaal was told she was too old to play the love interest of a 55-year-old man. And why Olivia Wilde was deemed too old to romance Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf Of Wall Street despite the fact that she’s nine years younger than him. (The role eventually went to Margot Robbie, 16 years DiCaprio’s junior.)

Even roles clearly written for older women tend to go to younger ones. Vulture tracked particularly egregious examples of actresses playing mother roles they were far too young for. The 29-year-old Angelina Jolie, for example, played the mother of a 28-year-old Colin Farrell in Alexander. And 25-year-old Jennifer Lawrence has bolstered her early career by playing roles that seem to have been written for 40-year-old women.

 Robert Downey Jr. is playing one of the world’s most popular superheroes. Marissa Tomei is playing the mother figures of superheroes. Put another way: Robert Downey Jr. is currently playing one of the world’s most popular superheroes, while Marissa Tomei and Diane Lane are playing the mother figures of superheroes. All three actors are 51 years old.

Rather than shame individual women under the guise of pseudo-intellectual critiques of vanity, we should be shaming the system that appears designed to crush them. If there is a problem involving Zellweger, it’s certainly not her decisions about what to do with her body. The problem lies with an industry that limits the choices of its female stars and then punishes them when they try to play by the unwritten rules.

As evidence, look to critic Gleiberman, who seems to think he is paying Zellweger a compliment in his piece by describing her as “beautiful, but not in the way that a Nicole Kidman or a Julia Roberts was. She was beautiful in the way an ordinary person is.” How odd that an actress might feel pressure to alter her image after being subjected to such critiques. Remember, as director and activist Lexi Alexander explained on Twitter:

We should also keep in mind that audiences first fell in love with Bridget Jones not because of the size of her eyelids or the shape of her cheeks, but because of the zany, harried, and utterly endearing energy Zellweger brought to the role. Gleiberman might find her “an extraordinary ordinary girl,” but that’s not what made her famous, not really. If the trailers for the new film are any indication, the insecure, optimistic Bridget that audiences have come to know and love will be back on screen this time around, even if Zellweger’s lips look a tad different.

How ironic that 15 years ago, the first Bridget Jones film drilled home the message that it’s okay to love “imperfect” women just as they are. Clearly that’s a message Hollywood—and Owen Gleiberman—still need to learn.

Follow Caroline on Twitter at @CarolineSiede. We welcome your comments at ideas@qz.com.

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