'Poor Jen', the patron saint of wronged women isn't so poor after all
Like her or not, there's no denying Jennifer Aniston's public heartbreaks still make for big business
I have never met Jennifer Aniston, but I feel as though I know her. In fact, sometimes it feels as though I know more about her personal life than my own.
Every relationship, every subsequent break-up, every hand flutter over her tummy every time it looks bloated – inspiring feverish “Finally pregnant!” headlines – is dissected in minute detail by a media that can’t let go of its obsession with her.
It is 14 years since she made $1m an episode for Friends, one of the most popular sitcoms of all time, and nothing she’s done in her professional life since has been as successful.But Aniston’s work as an actress has long since stopped being the reason we care.
Instead, she’s become something less tangible, but far more potent: an emblem of our enduring fascination with women who don’t (or won’t) fit in the happily-married-with-children box.
Aniston, 49, addressed this herself this week in an interview with the US magazine InStyle.
Referring to assumptions made about her since her split from second husband Justin Theroux in February, she said: “It’s pretty crazy. The misconceptions are ‘Jen can’t keep a man’ and ‘Jen refuses to have a baby because she’s selfish and committed to her career’.”She called the claims “reckless”, because: “No one knows what’s going on behind closed doors ... They don’t know what I’ve been through medically or emotionally.”
She’s right, we don’t. It’s none of our business.The downright creepy obsession with her womb previously provoked a scorching Huffington Post blog from her in 2016, in which she wrote: “I am not pregnant. What I am is fed up.”
To InStyle, she added, defiantly: “There is a pressure on women to be mothers, and if they are not, then they're deemed damaged goods. Maybe my purpose on this planet isn’t to procreate. Maybe I have other things I'm supposed to do?”At 37, as a fellow single woman without children, I applaud her for taking a stand against the offensively reductive narrative that a woman can’t be complete, can’t reach her full potential, until she’s a mother.But her words didn’t stem the torrent of stories about her body, her relationships and her ovaries then and, sadly, they won’t now.
The fairy tale started when we fell in love with Aniston as Rachel, the funny, pretty girl-next-door in Friends, and it begs a traditional happy ending.
For some people, nothing less than an equally photogenic husband and baby will do.
It is the redemption many seem to need for her to prove she’s truly overcome the agony of her split with Brad Pitt, who left her for Angelina Jolie.
Never mind that this was in 2005, more than a decade ago; that love triangle gave birth to the “poor Jen” trope that has never truly faded.
I worked at Grazia magazine during that period, when putting Aniston on the cover – which we did at least once a month – would guarantee sales success. Readers couldn’t get enough of her tribulations.That she was back on Grazia’s cover last week, and InStyle has chosen to put her on the cover of its September issue – the biggest of the year for fashion monthlies – shows that she’s still a banker for magazines.
She sells other products, too. Last year, Forbes ranked her in second place (after Emma Stone) on its list of highest-paid movie actresses, with an estimated annual income of $22.5m (R302m).
Much of that comes from advertising deals, for brands ranging from Smartwater to Emirates. There is still something about Jen we buy into.
Where some stars feel untouchable, remote, Aniston feels aspirational but also approachable; real – or as real as any hyper-groomed, super-toned multimillionaire celebrity can.
The fact that she suffered a very public heartbreak, that she had her happy ending snatched away, is undeniably a part of that.She may not have wanted her role as patron saint of wronged women, but it made us – me included – relate to her and connect with her emotionally. It also makes us want her to triumph.
The problem comes when we impose on her a singular, regressive version of what that triumph should look like.
The “poor Jen” narrative has been selling tabloids – particularly in the US – ever since she split with Pitt, and the wall of noise grew deafening when she parted from Theroux.
For me, the worst moment was depressingly inevitable: when magazines including Star and People hinted heavily that she was getting back together with Pitt.
If we really can’t imagine anything more for a woman than reuniting with a man she divorced 13 years ago, we haven’t come as far as we might like to think.
When Aniston called out the gender stereotyping inherent in our attitudes towards celebrities, she was spot on.
With palpable frustration, she said: “When a couple breaks up in Hollywood, it’s the woman who is scorned. The woman is sad and alone. She’s the failure. Fuck that. When was the last time you read about a divorced, childless man referred to as a spinster?”In reality, Aniston has triumphed, on her own terms; she just hasn’t been allowed to enjoy it. Her films may not have been universally critically acclaimed, but most of them have been highly successful, making her millions. She lives in a beautiful mansion in Bel Air, California. She has married two attractive, talented men.
She’s working on a new television series with Reese Witherspoon, which, given the latter’s track record with Big Little Lies, has the makings of a hit. If this is tragic, or a failure, what hope for the rest of us? You may think she's just an actress, so what does it matter?
But the way we talk about female celebrities is a broader reflection of how we view women’s roles. And through the prism of Jennifer Aniston, too often we find an expression of enduring discomfort with those who don’t fit the traditional mould.
Until we get used to women doing things differently, “poor Jen” will remain an unwitting poster girl.
– © The Daily Telegraph