Our Jennifer fixation

We've seen her laugh, we've seen her cry. We've seen her almost-exposed breast. Will we ever get enough of Jennifer Aniston?

Published November 26, 2005 12:00PM (EST)

Hey, anyone know what's going on with Jennifer Aniston these days?

That's a joke, naturally. 2005 began with the New Year's announcement that the former "Friends" star was separating from her hunky husband, Brad Pitt; now, heading home for the holidays, we'll pass airport newsstands showcasing the December issue of GQ -- which for the first time ever features a woman (Aniston) as one of its "Men of the Year" cover subjects. The intervening months have delivered unto us Aniston cover stories in September's Vanity Fair and November's Elle, along with hundreds of items about the suddenly-single actress in weekly magazines, tabloids and gossip columns. It's safe to say that many Americans know more about how Jennifer Aniston is faring than we do about some of the cousins and siblings with whom we just broke bread at Thanksgiving.

That messy Hollywood breakups are the stuff of American obsession is not news. But we have notoriously short attention spans. Even the tawdriest of Hollywood imbroglios hold us rapt for a month or two, tops. Remember Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez? Affleck and Gwyneth Paltrow? Paltrow and Pitt? Remember Julia Roberts leaving Keifer Sutherland at the altar? Remember Billy Crudup abandoning eight-months' pregnant Mary-Louise Parker for Claire Danes? Remember how we got bored with all those stories and moved on?

If this year is any indication, we do not have the capacity for boredom when it comes to Jennifer Aniston and her tale of betrayal, loneliness and redemption. So intense has our preoccupation with her been that it's easy to imagine press-shy celebrities like Julia Roberts rapping on the door of Us Weekly: "Um, I had twins? I totally have baby pictures? Anyone?"

How has Aniston managed to hold our attention when so little else -- from the victims of Hurricane Katrina to the bust-up of Renée Zellweger's marriage -- can? The 36-year-old former sitcom star with a killer body, famous head of hair, and affable demeanor never got this much attention when she was actually on television every week, or even when she was married to a bronzed god of cinema. Can we only cathect to a woman who has been made vulnerable? Do we like her because she's a survivor? Or are we responding to something even older and more basic than that -- a compelling story?

I called media professionals who have kept Aniston in the spotlight this year to see if they could offer any insight into what has turned 2005 into Aniston Horribilis.

"It's easy to make a case that this has been the story of the year," said Mark Healey, the GQ articles editor who wrote the Aniston profile and is in charge of the "Men of the Year" issue. Healey explained that while GQ has featured women inside its year-end issue in the past, this time they decided to "do one woman and do it right." The woman they wanted to do right was Aniston, who would "obviously" go on the cover, Healey said.

"She is the current defining example of Everygirl," said Liz Smith, gossip's reigning queen, who's been around long enough to judge these things. Smith wrote by e-mail that men want Aniston and women want to be her, but that "the women who want to be her are not intimidated. She's very pretty and glamorous in that sun-kissed, worked-out, size-zero L.A. way, but she can easily be just normally attractive -- a girl on the street you might turn to look at. Or not. There's comfort in that. Comfort for men, too. She's not some otherworldly intimidating Amazon or untouchable beauty."

"It was like this perfect storm of factors that created this unbelievable level of interest," said Leslie Bennetts, who wrote the Vanity Fair story that made the September issue the year's bestseller. Bennetts agreed that Aniston's accessibility is part of her appeal. But, she noted, she is also "an incredibly deft comedienne, and that's really important in terms of her popularity." Bennetts also pointed to an entertainment tradition in place since the Depression, when people coped by watching Busby Berkeley musicals. "This has been an incredibly sad and depressing time for America," Bennetts said. "We're at war, a war we increasingly don't believe in. People are scared. Not only was this soap opera a huge distraction, but it was happening to somebody who brought and continues to bring an enormous amount of pleasure into people's lives."

Then there's the familiarity, the false intimacy that 10 years on a television show can proffer. Elle editor Roberta Myers said by e-mail, "For millions and millions of people, [Aniston] was their Thursday night date every week for years on end -- probably more time than a lot of people spent with their actual friends." Myers also noted Aniston's likability. "Of all the ultra-famous female stars out there now, she's one of the few who comports herself with any dignity  she doesn't get publicly drunk, smash up her car, curse at her fans, steal other men's husbands."

That's a sentiment echoed by GQ's Healey, who described Aniston almost reverentially as "someone we can get behind. There is honor and respectability and dignity and grace in the way she's handled herself, and you don't see a lot of that anymore. Just compare that to how people 15 or 10 years younger, a generation of Hollywood tramps, handle themselves."

When you combine our penchant for someone who's "just like us" with the ability to feel good about identifying with them, and add to that a fairy-tale victory -- marrying Brad Pitt, becoming a movie star -- you have a recipe for fascination. "[Aniston] was very 'glamoraverage,'" said Joe Dolce, editor of the Star. "She had a universal appeal. And she was the girl who got Brad. No one else got Brad."

GQ's Healey said that spectacular achievement by an essentially unspectacular personality is gratifying in two ways. "She appeals to the optimist in us," he said. "She's one of us but this happened to her." The other, substantially less attractive side of this coin, he continued, is "the Schadenfreude that appeals to our collective mean streak. [After her divorce] she has been knocked down a bit, and that offers us some reassurance that [celebrity] lives suck sometimes too."

All this speaks to the allure of Aniston as celebrity. But there are a lot of congenial celebrities out there -- many of them more beautiful, more famous and better paid than she. Our fascination with her this year has not been accidental; we should not ignore the crucial degree to which she has manipulated the situation she was handed along with her divorce papers.

First, she remained silent. For months. Pitt and his new girlfriend Angelina Jolie both granted interviews to promote their movie "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"; did louche photo spreads in W where they posed as a happy family; went to Africa; played with Jolie's kids in front of photographers. Aniston worked. And stayed quiet and kept her head down. There were long-lensed photos of her, sure -- in Chicago on film sets, sunning herself on her Malibu deck, playing with her friend Courteney Cox Arquette's baby. But there was no scandal there. Only room for us to wonder: Was she sad? Was she mad? Was she dating?

"She was always on the newsstand with a latte or walking her dog or whatever, and yet she didn't participate in any of that," said GQ's Healey. It was the first lesson of Desirability 101: We were teased and teased, left unrewarded by anything substantial, until we were breathless and gasping with anticipation.

Then, in late summer came Vanity Fair. On the cover, Aniston looked rumpled and vulnerable, almost childlike. The interview was heralded by the red-lettered headline "Jen Finally Talks! And talks and talks. And cries. And talks" The profile included, yes, tears. And comments from her friends about what a cad Pitt had been. Aniston carefully took the high road on the matter of her ex's rumored dalliance with Jolie, breaking once to comment on the subject of that dastardly W photo spread: "There's a sensitivity chip that's missing."

Two months later we got our next chapter. Elle's cover showed her in a sundress, a hard-ass smirk of defiance on her face, and a cover line that read, "Jennifer Aniston: Next!" In Elle, the actress said, "My women friends -- they're all my mothers, they're all my sisters, they're all my partners, they're all my wives, my everything. It's hard to find a man who can live up to any of them."

This month, she's posing on GQ's cover in a pair of take-charge Daisy Dukes, one suspiciously globe-like breast mostly in evidence, telling Healey, "One day it's like a switch went off, and all of a sudden it was like, Men! Everywhere!"

It's not just that Aniston has landed covers aimed at varied readerships, it's that she has known just what each of those readerships wants to hear. That doesn't mean that what she says isn't authentic, but that it's very well plotted. After breakups, we go through stages: rubbed raw, comforted by women, freshly excited about men. But it happens in that order, just as Aniston's cover stories conveniently happened in that order. The men-are-everywhere piece could only have come after the girlfriends-are-my-wives piece, which could only come after she'd vomited her grief to Vanity Fair. She may be completely candid and bracingly honest. But she's also playing us like a fiddle.

Star's Dolce agreed that her cover incarnations have been part of a larger story arc. "The idea was to turn around her image from victim to 'Hi, I'm independent and I can take my shirt off and show you part of my breast,'" he said.

Liz Smith added that Aniston's public "imagines she is evolving into a stronger person because of her travail, and so they love her more for that." As to how Aniston is actually evolving, Smith said that it hardly matters. "Once the media and public pigeon-holes you, it's easier to accept the fictionalized version. It plays better. Publicly she is the polar opposite of Angelina Jolie, who seems like a handful of turbulent woman. Jennifer appears to be less complicated, but not a doormat, either ... She inhabits a comfortable middle ground. Of course, the reality on both these women might be very different!"

Star's Dolce said that women will continue to feel for Aniston, "as they should feel sorry for a woman whose very good-looking husband was stolen by a younger, more beautiful woman. This has mythic appeal."

It sure does. Whether circumstances, Brad and Angelina, or Aniston herself have shaped her plot, Aniston has become an ur-heroine. She's Viola in "Twelfth Night," finding her way in a new world after a shipwreck; she's Dorothy Gale, trying to get back to a home that's been whisked away by a pillow-lipped, tattooed tornado; she's Mary Richards, throwing her hat in the air and assuring us and herself that she's going to make it after all.

Except it's not theater, books or TV. It's way better than TV.

The romance between Pitt and Aniston always had the sheen of something born on a back lot. The couple were introduced by their managers, practically cast in the parts of Hollywood super-couple. Their courtship and wedding -- even the architectural work on the house they were building -- were covered in the tabloids with abandon. The question of whether Aniston was showing a "bump" that would prove two gene pools had joined to form one tanned and highlighted embryo was afforded more editorial space in recent years than the question of whether there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

The narrative of their breakup, while sad, has frankly been almost as intriguing as their coupling. First came the dark suggestion -- voiced here as well as everywhere else -- that the message Pitt sent in dumping Aniston was that the way to keep a man was by having his babies when he said so. It was not lost on anyone that Jolie, for whom Pitt forsook Aniston, had most recently incarnated herself as adoptive earth mother after stints as a heroin addict, brother-lover, self-mutilator and blood-fetishist.

But could anyone have imagined a better other woman than bodacious vampire Jolie? Or, to be honest, a more slippery rake than Pitt? Aniston's "sensitivity chip" assessment was almost poetic in its description of a man who has behaved with an indelicacy that could only be mustered by the truly stupid. Trotting around the globe with Jolie, grunting unintelligibly at Diane Sawyer when given the opportunity to say something nice about his former wife, firing a pregnant employee of the production company he founded with Aniston because she spoke (with Aniston's permission) to Vanity Fair? Does Pitt have two brain cells to rub together?

He's been perfect in this role. A pitiable scoundrel whom most thinking people cheerfully guess will get ditched by Jolie for some Doctors Without Borders stud she picks up at a U.N.-sponsored pancake breakfast.

But the narrative satisfactions of this tale don't end with the protagonists.

How about Aniston's purported rebound man, Vince Vaughn, who happened to play the middleman in the Pitt-Jolie vehicle "Mr. and Mrs. Smith"? How about the fact that Pitt's sylph of an ex-fiancée Gwyneth Paltrow turned up (10 years later) to helpfully chime in on how Brad and Jen were too public about their relationship? In GQ, Aniston responded to Paltrow, telling Healey, "You know, she's right. She's absolutely right." While one might wonder why these two ladies can't pick up their phones and have this conversation in private, a larger (lesser?) part of us is thrilled to be let in on it. Did I mention that Paltrow also happens to be featured in the print ads for Damiani, the jewelry company that designed the Pitts' wedding rings and that they sued in 2001 for reproducing their exclusive design? How about the fact that the four movies that Aniston is about open are called "Derailed," "Rumor Has It," "Friends With Money" and "The Break-Up?"

Who writes this stuff? It's Dickensian!

Well, if not Dickensian, then at least situation-comedic. "Oddly, her romantic life probably seems for a lot of her fans like the next season of Friends,'" said Elle's Roberta Myers. "Will she break up with Ross? Er, Brad? Or will they get back together and have that baby?" We have been so thoroughly sucked in that, just like in the days of the "I Killed Laura Palmer" T-shirts, we've made clothing that signals our investment in this tale. "I'll have your baby, Brad" T-shirts abound, while "Team Aniston" and "Team Jolie" shirts sell at Kitson.

In hooking us on cliffhangers, Aniston may have gained the ultimate victory: control of her own story. What is most remarkable about the Year of Jen is that she has become a celebrity pioneer for a new age, the only star so deft at maneuvering the twists of her own tale that she has wrested control of it from the insatiable celebrity press. As stars like Kate Moss, Nick and Jessica, Britney and Kevin, and Tom Cruise and his remote-controlled bride learned the hard way in 2005, there is no such thing as "granting access" anymore. But Aniston (along with her Jedi master publicist Stephen Huvane) teaches us that there is such a thing as power -- the power of a good story.

"It helps to find one's own narrative," said the Star's Dolce, talking about the best way to deal with the industry in which he labors. "Otherwise you're going to have the weeklies and the glossies describe your narrative for you."

In some ways, Aniston is, in addition to being a talented actress, a talented writer, an instinctual mover of the story. So, while "Rachel Green" has gone the way of syndication, the actress who played her has produced for her audience a new character, "Jennifer Aniston," who is just as (more?) endearing, whose imbroglios produce just as much (more?) sympathy, and who is just as (more?) funny and self-effacing.

How long will we keep tuning in? Well, "Friends" ran for a decade.

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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