I have to admit: I was never a big fan of Jennifer Aniston’s. I simply did not get the appeal. To me, she was America’s blandest vanilla sweetheart. The actress' long, iconic run as Rachel on Friends has let people enjoy a genial familiarity with her. For most of her time in the public eye, Aniston was the all-around likable celeb with a perfectly palatable public image — beloved by men and women alike. She was beautiful (but not in an unusual way), funny (but not too funny), relatable (but just glam enough), and, lest we forget, sexy (but also cute). Also key to Jen's pleasant brand of likability: The fact that she has never been overtly political, antagonistic, or abrasive in her interactions with the press, her fans, or her fellow A-listers. (She managed to remain remarkably diplomatic even in the aftermath of Brad Pitt’s relationship with Angelina Jolie, emerging clean from what could’ve been one of the messiest tabloid scandals in Hollywood history.) Now, I can’t pinpoint exactly when (or why, for that matter) Aniston, who turns 48 on February 11, became a different kind of star. But it's clear to me that in the past year the actress has casually slinked into a much more interesting role: That of an outspoken feminist. She has important things to say about women — our bodies, our choices, and the ways society treats us — and she says them well. And, crucially, her message is landing — thanks at least in part to that long-cultivated girl-next-door image. Jennifer Aniston is uniquely positioned in today’s celebrity culture to deliver essential truths — ones that men and women need to hear — in a pretty, personable package. That became obvious in June 2016, when photographers snapped pics of Aniston hanging out on a beach in the Bahamas with her husband, Justin Theroux. The photos sent tabloids into a tizzy as they frantically printed covers proclaiming that Jen was pregnant with a "miracle baby" at age 47. Aniston quickly issued a polite “fuck off” via her rep: “What you see is her having just enjoyed a delicious big lunch and her feeling safe on private property.”
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.
Then, in July, Aniston penned an incisive and at time scathing Huffington Post op-ed expressing her frustration with the public's fascination with her body. But Aniston wasn’t just griping about the invasion of privacy or personal damage. What made her essay — which itself became a hot topic of conversation, ripe for reactionary thought pieces — actually matter is how she leveraged the media moment, universalizing her experience into a timely, hard-hitting statement about our inherently sexist expectations of women and the tabloid culture that propels them. “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,” she wrote. “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.”
She continued, singling out the media coverage that feeds into this narrative. “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…” It was a strong statement on the connection between our treatment of women in the media and our treatment of women IRL, one that hadn’t been so articulately called out before by a big name actress. The other incredibly valuable takeaway from Aniston's piece was her condemnation of how we not only shame women for their appearance, but also for the "function" of their bodies. "This past month in particular has illuminated for me how much we define a woman’s value based on her marital and maternal status," she wrote, decrying the archaic "perpetuation of this notion that women are somehow incomplete, unsuccessful, or unhappy if they’re not married with children." Why, when Aniston tells us “we are complete with or without a mate, with or without a child,” do we believe her? Again, Aniston is uniquely posed to speak out on the topic. After nearly three decades in the business, Aniston has dealt with her fair share of personal crap and bullshit public scrutiny. We’ve seen her be reduced to the “sad wife,” or “childless divorcee” for years simply because she was single and without children. She may be happily married to Theroux now, but we remember the headlines in the wake of her divorce from Pitt: Will Jen ever find love again? And that lends a powerful authenticity to Aniston's reflections on womanhood and sexism. Her lived experience gives her words a genuine heft that they just don’t have coming from the mouth or a happy-go-lucky 17-year-old, fresh off her first film set, Instagramming girl power quotes. Of course, no offense to happy-go-lucky 17-year-olds fresh off her first film set, Instagramming girl power quotes. (God bless the feminists of young Hollywood.) I just think the fact that we have someone like America's sweetheart herself fighting for us is something to celebrate.