Once or twice a decade, the American moviegoing public falls in love with an actress who plays a charming girl-next-door. She’s young and sassy, cute and wholesome. And if her breakthrough movie ends up becoming iconic, that role will forever define her. Think Jennifer Grey as Baby in “Dirty Dancing,” Meg Ryan as Sally in “When Harry Met Sally,” and, Renee Zellweger as Dorothy in “Jerry Maguire.”
It’s no surprise that lines of dialogue said by or about these particular female characters are all on the American Film Institute’s list of the top 100 movie quotations: “Nobody puts Baby in the corner.” “I’ll have what she’s having.” “You had me at hello.”
Yet just as indelible as the dialogue are the images. Who can forget Jennifer cha cha-ing her way into Patrick Swayze’s heart while lip-synching “Love is Strange”? Or the smug, satisfied look on Meg’s face after she noisily proved to Billy Crystal in the diner scene that women sometimes “fake it” and men can’t tell? (Note that the wholesomeness of Jennifer and Meg is what allows them to play these scenes without coming across as threatening to a public that, to this day, seems conflicted about female sexuality.) And then there are Renee’s teary eyes and trembling lips when she uttered the aforementioned line in response to Tom Cruise’s declaration of love.
We’ve dubbed each of these women America’s Sweetheart. And America’s Sweetheart is simply not allowed to change. She can’t get older, she can’t do things in her private life the public doesn’t approve of, and she certainly can’t deviate from her signature look. If we had our way, we’d require her to hand in a permission slip signed by the public just to adopt a new hairstyle. (Note to Jennifer Anniston, another Sweetheart: Bring back “The Rachel”!)
So, when it comes to cosmetic surgery that radically alters a Sweetheart’s looks, adoring fans take it personally. They feel baffled (“Why would you do that to yourself?”). They feel sad (“Why aren’t you the same sweet girl with the same sweet face you had a quarter century ago?”). Most of all, they feel offended (“Why would you purposely deprive me of my fantasy that you’re not an actress playing a part but are actually Baby/Sally/Dorothy? Why would you remind me that I’m older than I was when we first ‘met’? Why can’t you let me live in the 1970s/1980s/1990s, back in the days of wine and roses instead of the days of Gawker and TMZ?”)
These actresses have paid a steep price for having the audacity to make unpopular choices about their own appearances. Zellweger is “trending” right now, but it’s for her wider eyes and sharpened cheekbones, not her movie roles. Ryan will never live down the lip plumping — never. And Grey once acknowledged in an interview that her nose job was the worst mistake she’d ever made, saying it stalled her movie career because no one recognized her anymore.
Stars have the right to change and grow and defy the American public’s obsession with an idealized past. But acknowledging this won’t stop audiences from forever seeing Jennifer as Baby, Meg as Sally, and Renee as Dorothy. We simply loved them too much.
Meta Wagner teaches creative writing at Emerson College and is working on a book on creativity. Follow her on Twitter @creative_maven.