Last summer, I gave a paper on the shifting star persona of Jennifer Aniston at the Console-ing Passions conference, focusing predominantly on the significance of postfeminist discourses of ageing to the construction of Aniston’s star image in the popular press. In the Q&A session that followed the panel, one delegate raised the question of why it is Aniston specifically who is frequently subject to some of the most punishing discourses of ageing, as opposed to female film stars of a similar age, such as Cameron Diaz. While I do think there are other female stars who have come under intense scrutiny for being unwed and without children in their 40s, there are few that have been such a permanent fixture on the front covers of gossip, women’s and entertainment magazines for such a long period of time as Aniston.
An obvious answer for this intense focus is Aniston’s high profile marriage to, and subsequent divorce from, A-List film star, Brad Pitt. And yet, although this divorce occurred ten years ago and Aniston has since become engaged, the notion of her as someone to be pitied persists. Over the past twenty years, in the popular press, Aniston has gone from being the woman who seemingly ‘had it all’ – the envied haircut, the successful television career, the youthful girl-next-door good looks, the dream husband – to the perpetually doomed and ageing singleton, even while she was still in her 30s. Significantly, this transition coincided with the end of her hugely popular portrayal of the happy-go-lucky Rachel Green in Friends (NBC, 1994 – 2004) and a move from television towards film roles. This has led me to reflect further on the significance of medium specificity and, in particular, Aniston’s origins in television, to the way that her star persona has been constructed and engaged with in the popular press.
Traditionally, stardom has been seen as the preserve of cinema, with television in contrast seen to produce ‘personalities’ (Langer, 1981; Ellis, 1982). As John Langer argued, the (cinematic) star system is characterised by inaccessibility, spectacle, distance, exceptionality and sporadic contact with stars, while the personality system produced by television works to construct and emphasise familiarity, intimacy, immediacy, regularity and predictability with personalities ‘distinguished for their representativeness, their typicality, their ‘will to ordinariness’, to be accepted, normalized, experienced as familiar’ (Langer, 1981/1997: 167). Langer relates these arguments in part to the different ways in which cinema and television are consumed. Key to this distinction is the notion that the film star is viewed from a (literal) distance and, thus, is positioned as someone to be ‘contemplated, revered, desired and even blatantly imitated, stubbornly standing outside the realms of the familiar and routinized’ (Langer, 1981/1997: 167). Television, in contrast, posits ‘a drastic reduction in the distance between the circulated image and the performance. The two become very much entangled, so that the performer’s image is equated with that of the fictional role (rather than vice-versa)’ (Ellis, 1992: 106).
In more recent years, scholars have complicated this binary distinction between the film star and television personality systems. For example, Deborah Jermyn (2006) challenges the notion of stardom as exclusively belonging to cinema by making a compelling case for television stardom through a discussion of Sarah Jessica Parker’s star persona, looking at her intertextual promotion and the circulation of her image, as well as the relationship between Parker and her role as Carrie Bradshaw on HBO’s Sex and the City. I want to use Jermyn’s notion of television stardom here to think further about Aniston’s star persona.
I don’t think many people would dispute the notion of Aniston as a star, perhaps complicating some of the older distinctions made between film star and television personality systems. However, I do still think that medium specificity is important to the way that her star persona is constructed and engaged with. If the film star system is characterised by distance, then the television personality system is marked by closeness and intimacy. Langer speaks further about the cyclical and repetitive nature of television in relation to series, which ‘play a part in television’s structure of intimacy and immediacy’ (1981/1997: 169). As he continues, ‘Each repeated appearance, even though it may not elicit ‘personal data’…nonetheless tends to build what is perceived to be a knowable and known ‘television self’’, and there is a certain reliability to this with the television personality acting as a ‘coherent fixed point of regularity’ (1981/1997: 169). This repetition and predictability is distinct from the film star’s sporadic and eventful appearance and works to build up a much stronger kind of knowledge of a particular performer than film does (Lury, 1995: 120).
I suspect that one of the main reasons for the intensity of interest in Aniston’s personal life may be precisely because of her origins on television and, more specifically, on a long-running sitcom in which she played the same role for ten years. This speaks to television’s capacity for complex character development over long periods of time (even in a relatively ‘static’ narrative format such as the sitcom), thus allowing for particularly intense forms of identification that make it difficult for Aniston to fully transcend her Rachel role (Lury, 1995: 118). Further, one of the central over-arching narratives in Friends pivots around the on/off romance between Ross and Rachel and audiences are encouraged to be invested in their relationship and to root for their union at the series’ end. Shortly after Rachel got her ‘happy ending’, Aniston went through a divorce and I wonder in part if the ten-year-long investment in Rachel’s love life has been transposed onto Aniston following the end of the series.
As Karen Lury explains, ‘The most complex opposition (and as argued by some critics) the defining characteristic of the television performer is the distinction between the actor and the character. It is often argued that these are notoriously blurred in television and that this is part of the pleasure for the audience, to believe that the actor is (or is at least like) the character he or she plays’ (1995: 118). While Lury uses examples from soap operas, the same idea could arguably be applied to Aniston. Online and print media coverage of the star from both the UK and US frequently invokes a slippage in the boundaries between the actor, Aniston and the character of Rachel, a trend that persists despite Friends ending a decade ago. For example, when Aniston got a new shorter haircut last year, the popular press was awash with nostalgic discussions of ‘The Rachel’, her iconic layered haircut that she debuted in Friends back in 1994 (see here and here). The very concept of ‘The Rachel’ – a haircut obviously sported by Aniston even when off-screen and out of character – encapsulates further this slippage between the TV actor and character.
To use an older example, her famous 2005 interview with Vanity Fair (her first interview following her split with Pitt) includes lines such as ‘“I haven’t been feeling emotional lately, really I haven’t,” she wails, fluttering her hands like Rachel Green in distress, except that this time it isn’t funny’.
Invoking Rachel here becomes a paradoxical signifier of Aniston’s authenticity, her ordinariness, her girl-next-door quality.
As Langer observes, ‘By never becoming overly routinized and familiar the star system can maintain its remoteness and unattainability, whereas the personality system crucially embedded within television’s cyclical rituals can much more readily facilitate a sense of familiarity and accessibility’ (1981/1997: 169). What I think is interesting about Aniston is her ability to straddle both systems – as TV sitcom character, Rachel, she is seen as familiar, accessible and knowable while as film star, Aniston, she is the paradoxical ordinary/extraordinary figure. As Christine Geraghty notes, stardom centres on the ‘duality of image’, which in classical cinema rested upon ‘a contrast between the glamorous film world and the surprisingly ordinary domestic life of the star’ (2000: 184 – 5, cited in Jermyn, 2006: 73). Aniston seems to reverse this contrast at times. When married to Pitt, her domestic life, usually a marker of a star’s ordinariness, became the site of glamour and stardom, while her fictional performance as Rachel became the marker of her authenticity and everyday-ness. This shifted following her divorce when her domestic life suddenly seemed less desirable, but her relationship to Rachel has remained key to the way that magazines often position her as relatable and accessible, harking back to Langer’s arguments about the familiarity of television.
To return to my opening paragraph, I do still think that Aniston’s age and gender play an important role in the way that she is framed in the popular press. It’s notable, for example, that George Clooney, another star who has his origins in television and who has remained unwed and without children into his 40s, does not come under the same intense scrutiny as Aniston, speaking to the wider ageism and sexism underpinning celebrity culture (Holmes and Negra, 2011). As Christine Geraghty notes, female stars are ‘particularly likely to be seen as celebrities whose working life is of less interest and worth than their personal life’ (2000: 187). This is notable in popular press coverage of Aniston, in which her successful career is frequently overshadowed by discussions of her love-life.
And yet I also think a consideration of her televisual origins is vital to fully get to grips with her star image. In her piece on SJP, Jermyn ends by questioning whether Parker’s star persona will eventually eclipse her role as Carrie Bradshaw. Similarly, an article from last year in The Telegraph questions whether Aniston will ever be able to lose her association with Rachel, ending by suggesting that her new film role in Life of Crime “might be just the thing to bury Rachel Green for good”. It strikes me, though, that it is nigh impossible for one film role to undo the power of a long-running series on television, a medium that has the capacity to create such intense forms of identification and knowledge. To use a different example, it is only after watching several seasons of How I Met Your Mother that I am finally able to see Alyson Hannigan as anyone other than Willow from Buffy – her recurring role in the film franchise American Pie didn’t come close.
I am aware that some of these reactions to particular performances are subjective, something that is picked up on by Lury. Reflecting on the challenges of teaching television, particularly teaching television performance analytically, she argues that ‘what becomes increasingly impossible to transfer, or learn, is the experience of watching (not just how you watch, but how you feel, and why you feel, when you watch’ (Lury, 1995: 114). For Lury, this viewing experience is important as performance ‘is so strongly encoded by extra-textual elements’, adding that ‘It is…the cumulation of viewing experience that informs television viewing in significant ways, ways that are specific to television as an aesthetic and technological form’ and that ‘viewing is not rational or systematic, but is instead a knowledge built out of familiarity and happenstance’ (1995: 115). In light of this, it would be interesting to carry out more detailed audience research to explore further ‘how you feel, and why you feel, when you watch’ in relation to engagement with Aniston. Ultimately, I agree with Jermyn’s call for Television and Film Studies to develop ‘new models and theoretical paradigms with which to examine the dynamic relationship between contemporary stardom and television’ (2006: 70). While film and television stardom is becoming increasingly blurred with many actors known from film now moving into television (see James Spader in Blacklist, Laura Dern in Enlightened, Kevin Spacey in House of Cards to name but a few), thus challenging further any clearcut distinctions between television and film personality/star systems, a consideration of medium specificity remains vital to fully understand how particular star personas are constructed.
Susan Berridge is a Lecturer in Film and Media at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on representations of gender, sexuality and sexual violence in popular culture. She has published on these themes in journals including Feminist Media Studies, The Journal of British Cinema and Television, and New Review of Film and Television Studies. Susan is also the co-editor of the Commentary and Criticism section of Feminist Media Studies.