Behold, the Witherspoon Principle

Richard Shotwell / AP
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Earlier this week, I wrote about Mindy Kaling’s new memoir, Why Not Me?. What I didn’t include in the review was a passage that may well be the most succinct summary of celebrity I have ever come across. It comes, fittingly, from Reese Witherspoon.

As Kaling describes it:

About a year ago, I had lunch with Reese Witherspoon in Brentwood*. When we walked out to the car, a couple of photographers were waiting to take her photo. She whispered to me, “Smile.” “Why?” I asked. “We’re just walking out to our cars.” Reese responded “No one who sees a photograph of us wants to see that we are anything other than totally happy all the time.”

At first I thought that couldn’t possibly be true, but then, on the drive home, I realized how correct Reese was. When I see a photo in US Weekly of Angelina Jolie-Pitt walking back to her car from the pharmacy, I feel a little irrationally miffed if she’s not smiling. She has a great life and, like, twenty gorgeous kids! Why are you not smiling, Angelina Jolie-Pitt?! If you’re not grinning ear-to-ear when you’re sleeping with Brad Pitt every night, then how shitty is my life?

*Jealous, haters?

No one wants to see a celebrity who is anything other than totally happy all the time. You could write a doctoral dissertation about that. You could write a book about it. You could write a whole series of books about it.

The Witherspoon principle, sure, may be contradicted by gossip magazines and reality shows and the phrase “wardrobe malfunction” and many, many other contemporary extensions of the celebrity industrial complex. Celebritized schadenfreude is so rampant in the culture that it’s easy to forget how cruel it can be. For the most part, though, this wisdom about the nature of fame—as uttered by one celebrity, as filtered by another—rings very true to this non-famous person. Mindy is right! I want to see stars at their best, always—even when they’re grocery shopping or gas-getting or what have you. I want to believe the thing I know, logically, not to be true: that celebrities are, in some cosmic way, fully satisfied with what they have. That the sacrifices have been worth it. That they are totally happy all the time.

Because if they aren’t—if they’re feeling overwhelmed, or frustrated, or annoyed by photographers who wait outside restaurants to take their picture as they’re walking to their cars—then I’ll have to admit that I, as part of their intended audience, am somehow complicit in their sadness.

Kaling, thankfully, is more optimistic. “Stars,” she sums it up, “are just like us (but they are super happy and grateful every moment, even when they are picking up UTI medicine)!”