The problem with our cultural love of Jennifer Aniston is just that: We love her too hard. Ever since Friends beamed her beautiful face into our homes every week for a decade, the real-life Aniston has has been inextricable from Rachel, and we’ve been rooting for both of them. And as a result, we’ve also put what the expectations we have for Rachel (and other Aniston roles) onto the real-life person, regardless of what IRL Aniston has been telling us all along.
It wasn’t our fault: Jennifer Aniston was so charming and lovely and we just wanted her to be happy, damn it. That’s why coverage of her 2000 wedding to Brad Pitt was feverish (she got the cover of People magazine when it meant something) and coverage of her divorce even more so. I heard about their split on the radio en route to high school and I can still, 13 years later (!), conjure how sad I was at that news. We put our heartbreak, our failed expectations on her and assumed she was feeling the same thing. We scorned Angelina Jolie as the harpy who stole Brad away, cast Jen as the jilted good-girl, and worried whether she would ever recover. Because we wanted Aniston’s characters to get the guy, have the kid, and live happily ever after without aging a day. We wanted all that for Jen, too.
Oh, we didn’t stop with Pitt. After those stories stopped happening—well, those stories never actually stopped, but when new information stopped coming out—we moved onto her relationship with Vince Vaughn, and then, for seven whole years, with Justin Theroux. We even speculated about some of the women in her life.
We felt like we knew her, had a vested interest in her happiness because she was a richer, prettier, more famous version of us. And if she couldn’t be happy, could we ever expect to be? Over time, our wanting of that future for her became—like Rachel and the real Jennifer Aniston—inextricable from what she might actually want. It didn’t matter that she said she was happy: We knew the real her, the one behind the brave face we were convinced she’d put on. Never mind that she told us otherwise. Back in 2016, in an interview with this very magazine, she explained, “I have worked too hard in this life and this career to be whittled down to a sad, childless human.”
But we ignored her. We ignored her because we love her, and she’s perfect, and we want her to live perfectly.
In a new InStyle interview, Aniston again addressed our love. “The misconceptions are ‘Jen can’t keep a man,’ and ‘Jen refuses to have a baby because she’s selfish and committed to her career.’ Or that I’m sad and heartbroken. First, with all due respect, I’m not heartbroken.”
As a collective, the Ani-stans (that’s what we're called, right?) of the world failed Jennifer Aniston in one key regard: We didn’t stop to think whether our perfect was the same as hers. Why did we assume she wanted what we wanted for her, especially when it came to children? We did assume it—again and again and again—and no matter how many times she says it’s not a priority for her, we dismissed her and kept pushing. In the new interview, she addressed this too:
“Those are reckless assumptions. No one knows what’s going on behind closed doors. No one considers how sensitive that might be for my partner and me. They don’t know what I’ve been through medically or emotionally...There is a pressure on women to be mothers, and if they are not, then they’re deemed damaged goods. Maybe my purpose on this planet isn’t to procreate. Maybe I have other things I’m supposed to do?”
For a woman we claim to be cheering for, she has to spend an awful lot of time in interviews debunking the labels we’ve put on her. Name one other celebrity as universally beloved as Jennifer Aniston who has to insist as on her own autonomy as much as Jen does? I’ll wait.
It’s not too late to change course, though. We can stop clicking on the headlines about her pregnancies and flings and splits. We can wait to hear it from her. It’s not like she doesn’t do interviews—in fact, she’s always candid and warm and funny when she does. We should listen to what she’s saying in those interviews, and remember that a celebrity’s life isn’t a trial run of little to do with the reality of a person.
We failed Jennifer Aniston for all the best reasons. We rooted for her so loudly that we couldn’t hear her over our own voices telling us she didn’t really need our opinions. That we had it all wrong.