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Face value: Renée Zellweger and the enduring ageism against women in Hollywood

Actor Renée Zellweger is under scrutiny again with the release of the third Bridget Jones film, but this time it’s her age, rather than her size, that’s the focus. Zellweger has written about the social pressures women face to look a certain way in an open letter, published by The Huffington Post.

Universal Pictures

It may soon be easier to know exactly how much money actors earn rather than how old they are. Gabrielle Carteris, the former Beverly Hills, 90210 star who at 29 played the role of a 16-year-old high school student, is now the president of SAG-AFTRA (Screen Actors Guild–American Federation of Television and Radio Artists). Given her most famous role, her current position is apt: The organization has been campaigning to push through California's AB 1687 disclosure concerning personal birth dates. The rationale is that age disclosure harms members' casting potential, given the pervasive ageism that exists in Hollywood, particularly for women. If passed, it would mean that the information will be removed from industry websites like IMDb.

But the problem really lies in how old a woman looks, rather than what her biological age is, and whether the industry is ready to accept – and embrace – that women, like men, change as they grow older.

Consider the new comic-book series Glitterbomb by Canadians Jim Zub and Djibril Morisette-Phan. The story is about a middle-aged actor who's having a hard time getting roles in Hollywood – we see her at a casting, reading for a small crone-like part simply known as "the bitch." In terms of mid-life ageism, Glitterbomb mirrors the sort of career crisis that plagues the beloved fictional heroine, now a seasoned television producer, in Bridget Jones's Baby. And in the ramp up for this third instalment of the hit romantic comedy, the first of which debuted in cinemas 15 years ago, the fountain-of-youth fantasy has also affected the actress who plays her.

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After a six-year hiatus spent pursuing other interests, Bridget Jones's star Renée Zellweger is back as the titular hapless singleton – again endearingly klutzy in a shaggy coat (albeit by London label and fashion-darling Shrimps). But this time she's knocked up. And on cue, the media has generated the same sorts of speculative headlines born in the original's heyday. While media then conducted an open discussion of Zellweger's size, now her age is also a topic of conversation (which began with 2014's widespread speculation about whether or not the actor had altered her facial features).

Consider what else has happened in the past 15 years that has shaped celebrity coverage: In 2001, for example, Oprah made Spanx a fortune by proclaiming that the new footless hosiery girdles were among her favourite things. Google Image Search was also introduced that year (developed after the tech company noticed a surge in queries for photos of Jennifer Lopez wearing that green Versace dress to the Grammys). With one click, endless images were suddenly at hand enabling endless critiques.

A few cultural things have changed since Jones first tripped across the screen, too, including media literacy. In the chapter "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Media?" from her book Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women's Lives, feminist beauty theorist Autumn Whitefield-Madrano posits that, in a backhanded way, thanks to images and the rampant dissection of them, we're now past the simple machinations and susceptible manipulation of The Beauty Myth, the book that critiqued the behemoth beauty media and industries for creating and profiting on self-image insecurities. Zellweger gained weight to reprise her character in the 2004 sequel, and that same year Dove debuted its Real Beauty campaign. By this time millions of women (famous or not) were wearing Spanx, while also openly talking and joking about wearing Spanx. In this latest franchise instalment, Jones is necessarily older and in some ways wiser, but the character is no longer counting calories in her confessional journal the way she did 15 years ago.

Whitefield-Madrano knows her stuff from the inside out – she worked at women's magazines for more than a decade, and in her reporting in Face Value, conducted extensive interviews on how subjects now interact with images available 24/7 and how social media, surveillance culture and selfies are shaping self-image. Notably, she traces how body image and critical media literacy have made inroads to the point that women's media brands today run their own features examining idealized unrealistic images, attitudes and retouching. They are debunking themselves. On the cusp of the new film, Zellweger talked about the topic in an open letter decrying years of scrutiny.

Earlier this season, however, Variety's chief movie critic Owen Gleiberman still took the release of a new Bridget Jones's Baby trailer as an excuse to write a thinkpiece about Zellweger's appearance in the scant three-minute teaser, and how her 47-year-old looks make him feel. His essay was presented in the guise of film criticism and concern, one that bases Zellweger's ability to believably play the character 15 years later not on talent (consider that she was nominated for an Academy Award for best actress for the first film, and that comedic roles are seldom recognized) but on sex appeal. Besides making a compelling case for rectifying the gender gap in all aspects of Hollywood roles – including film criticism – the prominent critic's armchair-psych session spoke volumes about why a certain corner of Hollywood might do well to read more women's magazines and spend less time sitting in the dark.

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Nathalie More


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