Performing Femininity

Performing Femininity

Meg Ryan’s face and the historical battleground of ageing

Neigeline advertisement, London, advertisement, 1895. Author supplied

The day after the horrific Orlando massacre, the highest-trending topic on Facebook was the appearance of Meg Ryan’s face at the Tony Awards. Like Renee Zellweger before her, the perception that Ryan has become almost unrecognisable due to cosmetic procedures caused a social media “meltdown”.

Most Hollywood actresses can expect leading roles to dwindle once they advance into their late thirties. A University of Southern California study of 700 films from 2007 to 2014 showed that not one female actor over the age of 45 performed a leading or co-leading role in that period. It concluded that “[t]he class of women most likely to be marginalized in movies was women 40 to 64 years of age”.

Meg Ryan speaking at the 70th annual Tony Awards. Lucas Jackson/Reuters

It is a clear expectation that female stars will take all steps possible to retain a youthful appearance while they remain within the marketable age-bracket for women. Yet any cosmetic enhancements, such as fillers and Botox, must be virtually undetectable and not seen to compromise a “natural” appearance

When actresses age and transgress expectations about what is natural, or what their face “should” look like, public reaction is harsh and trumps competing anxieties about the undesirability of older women. Nicole Kidman, for example, who is now 47, has been repeatedly critiqued for her “frozen” and expressionless face despite her claims to have abandoned Botox.

For Zellweger and Ryan, criticism rests on the sense that cosmetic surgery has destroyed the unique features and charm that were key to their popularity. However, with almost several decades since the roles that defined both actresses’ careers, neither would still resemble Bridget Jones or “I’ll have what she’s having” Sally regardless of any surgical intervention.

Unreasonable expectations about ageing have dogged women since advertising in women’s magazines began to popularise brand-name beauty products in the late nineteenth century.

Magazines distinguished between natural products that might “preserve” youth, and those that attempted to artificially conceal aged skin. Advertisements for cosmetics and dyes consistently denied the status of products as unnatural or detectable, even when the process was obviously artificial.

Paula Black explains in The Beauty Industry that scepticism about certain cosmetics fed into selling the idea of beauty routines as “a duty to women in order to preserve their own natural assets”.

From the beginning, actresses were central to the marketing of the natural beauty routine that would retain looks rather than transform them. Sarah Bernhardt and Lillie Langtry, among others, were featured in advertisements and also became associated with their own branded cosmetic products. Soap was the most acceptable of commercial products for preserving youthful skin, and actresses regularly provided written testimonials or directly featured in its advertising, as in an 1887 ad for Pears including a testimonial from Langtry.

Pears’ Soap advertisement. Myra’s Journal of Dress and Fashion, 1 April 1887, p. 165. Author supplied.

French actress Bernhardt was 56 years old in 1891 when the magazine Woman published an article expressing amazement that she is “looking fatter and fairer, but absolutely younger, than she did ten years ago”. This was all the more remarkable because not only was she middle-aged, and a grandmother, but because she had also experienced “unusual stress of work, dissipation, and fatiguing travel”.

La Diaphane advertisement, 1890. Jules Chéret. BnF Gallica

Despite Bernhardt’s famous soap advertisements and her own brand of rice-based face powder, the article suggests that the actual secret of her youthful appearance is bathing in a home-made Eau Sedative of ammonia, camphor and salt when she is tired. This ritual, women were told, keeps the flesh firm and prevents wrinkles, providing an example of acceptable preventative beauty treatments for older women.

Such a claim resembles those found in magazine articles today in which actresses like Kidman attribute youthful, taut skin to using sunscreen despite the ads for cosmetics that sit alongside them.

Women then, as now, had to accept the fading of their looks, invite criticism if they attempted to visibly ameliorate signs of age, or pursue the near-impossible task of staving off wrinkles through acceptable preventative methods.

Today, cosmetic surgery expands the means by which celebrities might look younger. It also then increases the opportunities for judgement and criticism as they attempt to balance entirely incompatible expectations about women, ageing and beauty.

The scale of the reaction to Meg Ryan’s appearance signals how important an actress’s face is to her continued viability as a star. Unfortunately for Ryan, and most other beautiful leading women as they reach their forties, there is no way to beat the attractiveness expiration date that does not invoke intense ridicule.