Renee Zellweger Appears in Public, Sparks a Media Firestorm

The hubbub over Renee Zellweger's "new face" has taken over the internet, but why do so many people feel so strongly about making fun of <i>this</i> celebrity?

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Oct 22 2014, 8:00pm

Photo by Frazer Harrison/Getty Images

We've now had a day to really digest Renee Zellweger's new face. I realize that sounds kind of gross, like I'm eating her face or something, but I truly wish my body could process this whole nonsensical debate and expel it as though it were a haute couture kidney stone. Reactions to Zellweger's appearance at the Elle Women in Hollywood event on Monday ranged from "OMG is that really Renee Zellweger? She looks totally different" to "How dare you point out that this person looks different!" Zellweger responded to the haters via People magazine, saying, "I'm glad folks think I look different! I'm living a different, happy, more fulfilling life, and I'm thrilled that perhaps it shows." She owned it, which is a very reasonable response, especially after websites like The Stir referred to her new appearance as "shocking," a word usually reserved for college basketball upsets and home invasions gone wrong.

If you tilt your head to the side, squint, and gargle water simultaneously, she looks a tiny bit like a kinder, gentler Robin Wright now. I think that qualifies as "different," whether or not it is the result of plastic surgery. If my cousin showed up to Thanksgiving after I hadn't seen him for five years and had drastically different facial features I would say something. I'd probably ask him what he did to achieve such a dramatic change. I might ask him for the number of his "guy." I might even make a joke about it in the kitchen while he was off taking a leak or staring at his cutlery. Celebrities are like our weird cousins, except we can easily, thoroughly examine their face from ten years ago in Bridget Jones's Diary.

In the last 24 hours, seemingly everyone with a keyboard has chimed in, as they are wont to do in our era of instant global communication. It's no longer a novelty to say that these sorts of media firestorms happen quickly. Gawker's Caity Weaver got a lot of attention for snarkily posting photos from the Elle event with the matter-of-fact title, "Here Are Some Pictures of Renee Zellweger." 

The notable thing isn't that outlets that cover celebrity news are talking about how celebrities look-they've been doing that for hundreds of years and will continue doing so after all "news" is delivered through whatever replaces Snapchat-it's that people felt compelled to defend Zellweger and condemn the press scrum. The Guardian's Jennifer Gerson Uffalussy used the occasion to denounce the Hollywood-industrial complex's latent sexism:

To be a female celebrity is to lose at every turn. Dare to age? Face-shame at best and be out of work at worst. Get noticeable plastic surgery on your face to combat the inevitable ageing? At best, you will be mocked for your narcissism and delusional attempts at hanging on to your youth; at worst, you'll be out of work again. 

To rail against snark and superficiality, though, is to deny the very opiate the masses seem to have an insatiable appetite for. I'm not exposing a heavily guarded trade secret by saying that celebrity gossip, cynicism, and sarcasm drive lots of traffic. Why was Miley Cyrus on the front page of CNN.com after the VMAs last year? Because you clicked on it. Why did I write this article? Why are you reading it? Why do I love Skittles? Why did I binge-watch Chrisley Knows Best last night? Let's just stop asking questions, shall we?

Photo via Flickr user David Shankbone

Perhaps this is the moment we as a society have decided to draw the line on shaming people for their appearances. Maybe hundreds of years of snark, smarm, and cattiness can just be wiped away. What a lovely world full of rose petals, free champagne, unicorns, and whimsical Pixar movies that would be. Unfortunately for all you fans of gratis alcohol and mythical horse creatures, that's not reality. People are mean, and that's a basic law of the universe that's not likely to change soon.

In the interest of full disclosure, I am the guy who wrote this article, but I also don't think making jokes about celebrities is anyone's grand ambition in life. As Jalen Rose might say, you've got to give the people what they want. In a supply-and-demand world, it's hard to force people to take their medicine when all they want is to mainline heroin straight into their eyeballs in the form of wisecracks about famous people. Comedy Central roasts, late night talk shows, Fashion Police (RIP Joan), whatever the fuck Chelsea Handler does on Netflix, and every single gossip website on the planet are going to have something to say whenever a famous person leaves his or her house and there's always going to be an appetite for more of that. 

Human beings use the internet to pass judgment-whether it's on Renee Zellweger for looking different or on those people who choose to make fun of her for looking different. It's been a good long while since we all had a story to play rhetorical hacky sack with. We're four months into GamerGate and pundits are running out of things to write about it. Bloggers are now in agreement that men suck (we do) and internet culture is toxic (it is). It's time to move on to the next piece of fluff the media can worry into nothingness-and here comes Zellweger walking out onto a red carpet with a face that could launch a thousand thinkpieces.

Sometimes, outrage is healthy. Our collective ability to chastise someone in power is one of the few remaining checks we have against those in the gilded world of the global upper class. Other times, that outrage can be used as a bludgeon for self-interested or partisan goals. Moral objection is a powerful rhetorical tool because it cannot be dismissed by facts. It's all about how something makes you feel. The truth, in these cases, is totally relative. I can be horrified by the Fappening celebrity nude leaks because of the invasion of privacy and sexual violence it represents, but then the other side of the equation, I can be disgusted that I am infringing on their right to free-flowing information. Who's right? I am, of course!

This binary of "right" and "wrong" is the Muscle Milk for mass media's six-pack abs of self-righteousness. We can debate if it's right or wrong to mock someone for their appearance until the day the sun dies and all the celebrities go back to their home planet in the Marcab Confederacy. The only sane reaction in a world where everyone wants to accost you with their opinion is to refuse to participate. 

Follow Dave Schilling on Twitter.