Beyond Beauty: Renee Zellweger and the Emoticons of Fame


A man walked into my living room last Saturday morning whom I hadn’t seen in over 20 years. Trailing him was a young man I didn’t recognize who picked me up and swung me full circle. Still in my jarmies I was speechless.

‘This can’t be Ollie!’ Nothing of the blonde boy I once knew was recognizable. But to his Dad I looked ‘exactly the same’. Him I knew from Adam, partly ‘cause that’s his name, but mostly ‘cause he hadn’t changed much either.

If ever there was an exacting science it is the biometrics of facial recognition. Any of us who’ve slunk home with an unflattering haircut, or noticed our faces hollow and loosen with age know that the margins by which we shore up our preferred looks are vexingly unstable.

Insecurity about appearance is largely put down to fashion/Hollywood inspired/photoshopped ideals. Maybe it has as much to do with a longing for constancy, and an incapacity to see it in ourselves.

So concentrated are we on the ways we change we’ve lost sight of the constants. Yet we’ve all recognized schoolmates we haven’t seen in 30 or 40 years in the street. By what measures, specifically, by what facial margins, are we able to recognize the constants in our physical makeup?

By all accounts Renee Zellweger did not put forward her best face at the Elle something-or-other dinner. She’s certainly got herself tricked up with a nullifying makeover and she might not have ‘deserved it’ at all. There has been an outcry at her altered appearance, and the shaming, trolling and accustomed nastiness presents an occasion to think through visual identity and its significance to women’s worth.

Most serious discussion has centered on her beauty being squandered under a wayward and injudicious scalpel. A new liberal-feminist banner has been raised – a woman’s right to, erm, Look Different. Yes, women should be able to choose however they want to look with whatever means. Huzzah for the brave new face asserted by Zellweger.

Entirely lost here is the more likely possibility that Zellweger did not chose to look literally unrecognizable. Who would? She’s probably keeping face after the unanticipated outcome of a procedure that rather overstepped her Right to Look Different.

An equivalence is being drawn between women’s right to age and women’s right to choose plastic surgery. But aging and intervening in the changes to appearance wrought by aging are light years apart. Given women ‘choose’ to undergo plastic surgery generally to maintain their youthful looks and forestall, precisely, looking different, I’d call this a contradictory argument that isn’t holding up.

Zellweger has entered the annals of catastrophic cosmetic interventions alongside Michael Jackson. Most likely she miscalculated in her quest for youth, just as Jackson got his signals crossed on racial mimicry… or something. But the genuine shock at her transformation goes beyond consumerist expectation in the longevity of the celebrity face-product, beyond even the unachievable requirements of beauty.

The public that had any investment in being able to spot Zellweger at their local convenience store – and let’s face it, this might be a somewhat noisy and overrepresented public – is reeling from an attack of prosopagnosia – a cognitive impairment in facial recognition commonly caused by brain injury. Looking at the recent (and limited) gallery of Zellweger press shots almost makes our brains hurt.

Facial recognition is a cognitive process we depend on to navigate the hairfine nuances of social interactions. Our compulsion for emoticons suggests communication falters without the signals of expression we rely on in face-to-face encounter.

The margins for error are so subtle all our social interactions are improvised by reading the cues of expression, which we start to categorise into distinct emotional states from around seven months. It seems the neural substrates laid down for facial recognition depend on the variety of faces we’re exposed to in infancy.

I’ve long wondered if the need to wallpaper public space with smiling young women harkens back to pre-linguistic perceptual development. It is the beatific smile of the mother. Everywhere we look.

What we quest for in beautiful faces is symmetry, clarity – enhanced by dramatic colouring – and I’d argue an alignment of features that pushes the boundaries of beauty, demands that we see it anew. It’s when we see beauty in the unexpected that we’re most compelled by it.

What we quest for in faces famous for their beauty is that they stay that way. It’s too easy to argue we’re unfair to have that expectation. Zellweger presents an exceptional case. Sure we scan, scope and encrypt stars like we’ve downloaded automated facial recognition technology into our amygdala. Yes, yes, it’s objectification. Undoubtedly her intervention was ‘shaped’ by the quest for youth-defined beauty. Sure it’s been influenced by the unreasonable demand that beautiful women shouldn’t change, specifically age. Sure it raises all sorts of questions about her fans’ attachment to the constancy of her image, and their weird sense of being short-shrifted by her new ‘look’.

But Zellweger’s case goes beyond beauty, right down to the exacting ratios of facial recognition. Without having a biometrics app to calibrate her particular facial algorithm I think it’s fair to say she’s been homogenized. She calls to mind a footballer’s wife – who in all fairness don’t actually look the same but they are a tranche of women who seem to try the hardest to. All the quirkiness and character have gone from her face, an endearing interplay between sangfroid poise and tremulous kook. Could yoga and diet reconfigure her prima facie to this extent? People rarely become unrecognizable, even through the dramatic transformations of age and weight, and she hasn’t done much of either.

We can reasonably surmise Zellweger was ill-advised by a surgeon who miscalculated on her appeal, and altered or removed a number of features that reconfigure how our brains codify the relation between them. And of course it’s none of my business. Of course she can do what she likes with her ‘brand’. But I think the loss of her sui generis visage is a warning to women that such procedures might not always end up saving face, rather we risk being effaced.

Hers was a unique face that conveyed a rare and lovely blend of truculent vulnerability and zaftig smarts. Though much of it was destined to change – and of course Zellweger should endure no shaming about that – the constants, the things that would have made her recognizable perhaps into her dotage, have been erased.

That is in the very least disconcerting. I’ll even say regrettable. I’m hardly being post-structurally correct (yes, yes that’s oxymoronic) – but mutable identity notwithstanding, perceptual relations do depend on some sort of facial constancy, and we seem to be able to factor in a gussy of self-modifications – up to a point. Zellweger defines that point.

Maybe the human face best illustrates the adage; the more things change, the more they stay the same. If we placed a little more faith in the constants that undergird identity – the things about us that don’t change from early to late adulthood – we might be less flabbergasted when young men swing us around the room, and gain some perspective on the things that do change.

Liz Conor is a columnist at New Matilda and an ARC Future Fellow at La Trobe University. She is the author of Skin Deep: Settler Impressions of Aboriginal Women, [UWAP, 2016] and The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s [Indiana University Press, 2004]. She is editor of Aboriginal History and has published widely in academic and mainstream press on gender, race and representation.