Renee Zellweger received a ton of attention last week, not all of it wanted. The core of the story, if you haven’t been following along, is that the “work” (most insist her strikingly different new look must be the result of extensive plastic surgery) that Zellweger had done was so extensive that her fans and many others could no longer recognize the 45-year-old movie star. “She looked,” as the Washington Post quoted one fan, “different. Maybe not bad. Just not at all like herself.” Coincidentally, the reading for my “great books in sociology seminar” last week was Erving Goffman’s classic treatment of stigma.
Much of Stigma is about how people deal with various deformities and social blemishes in their daily lives (“the management of a spoiled identity” in Goffman’s dry, sardonic subtitle). That is, it’s actually not that pertinent to the Zellweger story. But there is this section about how variously famous and infamous people—actors or athletes, for example, or well-known criminals—try to disguise themselves so that they aren’t recognized in public. Goffman’s point is that publicly known and recognizable people must sometimes change their look so as not to be recognized as themselves—they must alter their appearance to transform their (public) identity and pass as someone else. Zellweger’s case, it seems to me, is kind of the inverse—she has changed her look, the equivalent of her public self, to such an extent that she is no longer easily or entirely recognizable as the person the public knows as “Renee Zellweger.” She is, as the fan said, “not at all like herself.”
Another recent example is the actress Jennifer Grey—the young star of the original “Dirty Dancing” movie whose rhinoplasty removed her most distinctive feature. As she put it, “I went into the operating room a celebrity and came out anonymous.” Grey’s life—or at least her career—was never the same. (Though it did involve a short-lived sitcom where she played, essentially, herself: a movie star who was no longer a star because no one knew who she was anymore.) Zellweger’s new look, surgical or not, is a public identity and recognizability problem.
I say this because there have been many other, different lessons and reflections on the Zellweger story. Some have seen it as an example of plastic surgery run amok. Indeed, the Washington Post story went on to point out that there were some 11 million such procedures in 2013—which was 12% more than in 2012 and six times the number of procedures performed in 1997. Others have seen Zellweger’s refresh (she says any change in her appearance is simply due to being well-rested, happy, and no longer working crazy film schedules) as an example of our obsession with looks and appearances. There is, obviously, a role and function for these analyses and interpretations. However, I think they easily miss the issues of identity and presentation of self and interactions with others that are at stake and in play here.
A lot of times we imagine our identities—and others’—to be fairly fixed and concrete. But Goffman’s larger oeuvre is full of ideas about impression management, the presentation of self, and interaction rituals that insist that all of us construct and remake our identities each and every day in our interactions with others. Thus, we are more plastic and malleable than we often care to realize. One of Goffman’s most famous explications is a chapter called “On Face-Work.” Goffman begins, “Every person lives in a world of social encounters, involving him [or her] either in face-to-face or mediated contact with other participants. In each of these contacts, he tends to act out what is sometimes called a line—that is, a pattern of verbal and non-verbal acts by which he expresses his view of the situation and… himself.”Goffman then introduces the notion of “face:” the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line other assume he has taken during a particular contact.” We all work to present a particular persona or “face” that fits the notion of ourselves we are trying to project and the image others have of us in any particular instance or encounter. But this face-work doesn’t always work the way we want. Sometimes we don’t present ourselves properly in/through our faces, other times our presentations are not accepted or, as in a case of misrecognition or plastic survey, not recognized at all. It can be awkward and unsettling to be reminded of all that, whether in our own daily lives or in our mediated interactions with celebrities and public figures like Renee Zellweger.
For what it is worth, Zellweger, at least in her public presentation of self, appears to be handling all of this face-work commentary and controversy quite well. As she told People, “Perhaps I look different. Who doesn’t as they get older? Ha. But I am different. I’m happy.” When Zellweger uses the term “different” the second time, I think, she is referring to a new look that better fits her own sense of self. Her look may be unsettling to her fans and the general public, but it is either the result of her happiness or something that makes her happy. These are the paradoxes and peculiarities of faces and identities in both public and private. It’s face-work in action.