Our media’s objectification and denigration of women is always there, a low hum we tut about occasionally but feel powerless to stop – and we perpetuate it, by collectively being unable to stop clicking on pics of celebs flashing their knickers or showing a bit of cellulite. When one of those celebrities pushes back and calls gutter journalism out, it can feel briefly satisfying but futile, a straw in the wind.
But if ever there were an intervention that might tip the balance, it happened yesterday with the publication of an extraordinary essay written for The Huffington Post in the US. The author: former Friends star and Hollywood A-lister, Jennifer Aniston.
“Jennifer Aniston is finally getting her happily ever after,” In Touch magazine had reported on 15 June, running paparazzi pictures of the actor in which her stomach looked fractionally larger than it had in previous paparazzi pictures. “The 47-year-old is pregnant.”
After a few weeks of intense tabloid fever, Aniston spoke out. “For the record, I am not pregnant,” she wrote. “What I am is fed up.”
Aniston went on to identify that the In Touch story had a significance beyond whether or not she is with child; that it speaks to the way the media judges female celebrities relentlessly on their bodies and what they do with them; and that this feeds into attitudes in wider society:
“I used to tell myself that tabloids were like comic books, not to be taken seriously, just a soap opera for people to follow when they need a distraction. But I really can’t tell myself that anymore because the reality is the stalking and objectification I’ve experienced first-hand, going on decades now, reflects the warped way we calculate a woman’s worth.”
This point’s been expressed before, by famous people and others – but never as well as in Aniston’s cool 900-word slapdown. And the righteousness feels more powerful coming from Aniston, because the battering she’s received from the press has been uniquely unpleasant.
Perhaps there’s something going on with the way Aniston is seen (patronisingly) as a “girl next door” figure: more ordinary, because she made her name on Friends playing one of a group of ordinary people; there’s the old lads-mag thing of imagining a certain type of star is someone you’d have a chance with if they walked into the local pub. It’s as if Aniston is seen as a punter who’s lucked her way in and is thus ours to speculate about and project onto, for ever, until she resumes her rightful place in obscurity.
Whatever the reason, press coverage following her divorce from Brad Pitt in 2005 looked like a concerted campaign to portray her as a heartbroken failure, in the hope that it would come true. This successful actor, producer, philanthropist and model was surely having a terrible, torrid time of it because she couldn’t get a man. Her professional achievements meant nothing.
Once she married Justin Theroux last year, the focus switched from her emotions to her body: her face, which was reportedly “looking more rounded than usual” after her honeymoon and, now, on the strength of some bikini shots taken at a mildly unflattering angle, her womb. No baby, no happiness. Poor Jen.
What’s particularly brilliant about the Aniston article is how she sees through the idea that celebrities are distant and unreal, so we can say what we want about them without causing any real harm. She knows that the way she, as an A-lister, is portrayed doesn’t occur in isolation:
“If I am some kind of symbol to some people out there, then clearly I am an example of the lens through which we, as a society, view our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, female friends and colleagues. The objectification and scrutiny we put women through is absurd and disturbing. 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.”
It’s cogently argued, sophisticated prose – her erudition surprised me for half a second, until I checked myself and realised I previously had no clue about how good or bad Aniston might be at making her case in writing. I’d gone along with Aniston only existing as a face and body on a screen rather than an intelligent human.
Anyway, the piece is so strong it’s left almost no room for argument: “news” websites that ran a story every day for a fortnight after the In Touch piece, with blurry shots of Aniston’s allegedly convex stomach, have largely resisted the temptation to twist her words and have reported them sympathetically – albeit next to their sidebars sourly judging people in swimming costumes, a place Aniston will appear in again the next time she and Theroux hit the beach.
Or at least, she will if there are still people willing to click. Those articles are sometimes defended on the grounds of free speech. But as well as the right of free speech not extending to simple untruths – such the “friend of the couple” quoted in the In Touch cover story as saying “She’s pregnant… she and Justin are ecstatic” – it doesn’t bring with it a right to be heard. Stop reading body-shaming in the press, and they’ll stop writing it. Aniston is on point about that, too:
“From years of experience, I’ve learned tabloid practices, however dangerous, will not change, at least not any time soon. What can change is our awareness and reaction to the toxic messages buried within these seemingly harmless stories served up as truth and shaping our ideas of who we are. We get to decide how much we buy into what’s being served up, and maybe some day the tabloids will be forced to see the world through a different, more humanized lens because consumers have just stopped buying the bulls**t.”
If a heartfelt cry from one of the biggest victims of the “bulls**t” doesn’t make a difference, nothing will.