The tabloids are looking, honestly, a little bloated. Perhaps they’re pregnant? Finally? Can’t you see, if you look really closely, a little baby bump? Or, hmm, maybe they’ve just let themselves go a little? Maybe they’re depressed? Or maybe they’re not depressed enough? Or maybe they’re just aging out of relevance?
Celebrity journalism in general, and tabloid journalism in particular, have long involved a Faustian bargain: We, the public, put up with the gossip rags’ assorted nonsense—the “bikini body,” the “baby bump,” the “post-baby body,” and all that—because we crave the pictures and the stories they deliver. A culture that treats fame as simultaneous cost and benefit comes with a corollary that is as pernicious as it is paradoxical: We assume that celebrities are better than us, but also that they belong to us.
No one has been a better, and also more unfortunate, symbol of all that than Jennifer Aniston—she of The Rachel and then of Brad-and-Jen and then of #teamjen and then of Office Space and lately of Horrible Bosses 2 and also of Aveeno and L’Oreal and Living Proof and Glaceau SmartWater. Jen (we can call her Jen at this point; she’s been a part of our lives for so long) is favored fodder for paparazzi and the “journalistic” outlets they serve. Her movements are obsessively followed; her relationship status (is it a ring, or Engagement Bling?) is the subject of ongoing speculation; her uterus (“baby bump?”/“baby bump!”) is the subject of intense scrutiny. And she has, at this point, had enough of it. Which is why, this week, Jen took to the pages of The Huffington Post to excoriate the paparazzi for their treatment of her:
The way I am portrayed by the media is simply a reflection of how we see and portray women in general, measured against some warped standard of beauty. Sometimes cultural standards just need a different perspective so we can see them for what they really are — a collective acceptance... a subconscious agreement. We are in charge of our agreement. Little girls everywhere are absorbing our agreement, passive or otherwise. And it begins early. The message that girls are not pretty unless they’re incredibly thin, that they’re not worthy of our attention unless they look like a supermodel or an actress on the cover of a magazine is something we’re all willingly buying into. This conditioning is something girls then carry into womanhood. We use celebrity “news” to perpetuate this dehumanizing view of females, focused solely on one’s physical appearance, which tabloids turn into a sporting event of speculation. Is she pregnant? Is she eating too much? Has she let herself go? Is her marriage on the rocks because the camera detects some physical “imperfection”?
This is really good, and really important, stuff. The whole post, tellingly titled “For the Record,” is well worth reading. And that’s particularly so because Jen emphasizes the fact that the paparazzi’s treatment of her is simply an extreme extension of how the culture at large has been treating the women who are both part of, and subject to, its whims. Despite all the progress feminism has made in the past decades, we still live in an age that treats women’s bodies as objects of communal ownership. An age that effectively regards women not just as people, but also as vessels—waiting to be filled and made complete by way of partners and children and families.
At its extremes, it’s a toxic assumption. It’s the kind of regressive thinking that underscores rape culture and that challenges women’s reproductive rights and that, in general, allows individual women to be seen as less than. Jen is both good and entirely right to point that out. She is also right, although perhaps hopelessly naive, to want us all to adapt our vision for a more egalitarian world: to see individual women as full and complete unto themselves, regardless of their relationship status or whether they choose, or choose not, to have kids.
It’s difficult, though, to overlook the irony inherent in Jen’s accusations of tabloids’ role in perpetuating those assumptions. Jen may resent the tabloids; this is both despite and because of the fact that she relies on them for part of her livelihood. The photos of her that end up in People and US Weekly and The Daily Mail and TMZ and the like help stoke public interest in her, and by default, her movies. And Jen’s omnipresence in the lower orders of celebrity journalism raises her social capital, which in turn makes her appealing to the corporations that sell Aveeno and L’Oreal and Living Proof and SmartWater—brands that exploit not just Jen’s literal image, but also her figurative one. Brands that buy, with every endorsement contract, Jen’s glossy hair and glowing skin and also her wholesomeness and her health and her status as The Girl Next Door who is now, at 47, a Woman.
Media theorists talk about “ambient awareness,” the phenomenon by which one becomes constantly aware of the doings of friends and colleagues through those people’s updates on Facebook and Twitter and Snapchat and the like. Ambient awareness is commonly understood as a byproduct of the Internet age; in its basic impulses, however, it is something the tabloids have long exploited. Mags and rags and Entertainment Tonight-esque TV shows have, for decades, kept celebrities constantly around, whether they’re frolicking on a beach or attending a movie premiere or being, you know, Just Like Us. Celebrity journalism, in almost all its forms, has taken a fairly literal interpretation of the “star”: a heavenly body that might not always be seen, but that is always there—shining and glowing and, in pretty much every sense, above the rest of us.
Jen has profited, financially and otherwise, from those dynamics of celebrity telepresence. She is not just a person, but a brand—one that is both transcendent and omnipresent, one that can be bought and sold along with Aveeno lotion and Living Proof shampoo and bottles of questionably intelligent SmartWater. Her brand has to do with Jen as simultaneously a physical object and a human narrative: the jilted wife, the hopeful single girl, the maybe-mom.
Which is also to say that Jen’s brand itself endorses, however much she might not want it to, the relationship-obsessed tropes of the tabloids. Every maybe-baby-bump speculation TMZ shares with its craven/craving audience helps her to sell things. “Herself” being one of those things.
That’s not to say that “For the Record” is invalid. Jen’s argument, on the contrary, is extremely true: Tabloids have become more invasive in recent years. And their encroachment may be—just like the fact that you know your best friend from first grade just had a baby even though you haven’t talked to her in five years—a byproduct of the Internet age.
But perhaps the takeaway here is about more than sexism in celebrity journalism. Perhaps it is also about the technological structures underpinning celebrity journalism. Celebrities now have more say over their own brands via the messages they put forward in their Facebook and Instagram and Twitter and Snapchat feeds; paparazzi, as a result, now distinguish themselves by seeking, in particular, the images and the stories that celebrities don’t see fit to share themselves. Which often means post-gym pictures and makeup-free pictures and, yes, speculative-baby-bump pictures. Jen published her essay on The Huffington Post because, as she noted, she is “not on social media”; perhaps she feels particularly helpless within that shifting landscape because she has even less recourse than, say, Beyonce or Taylor or Kim to fight back against all that. Her fellow lady-celebs have massive—and tabloid-corrective—social media followings; now Jen has The Huffington Post.