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Why are we so obsessed with Jennifer Aniston?

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Clare Considine
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Jennifer Aniston

The One Where Stylist explores our enduring love for Jennifer Aniston…

“And now we’re Instagram FRIENDS too. HI INSTAGRAM [waving hand emoji]” captions a blurry living room group shot of six chirpy 50-somethings grinning at the camera. So far, so standard. But this was Jennifer Aniston’s very first Instagram post in October last year. And the selfie crew in the shot were the main cast of Friends.

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It swiftly broke the internet, attracting more than 116,000 followers in an hour and crashing the page; she went on to set a Guinness World Record for the fastest Insta-debut to hit a million followers, in just five hours and 16 minutes. Each of her former co-stars have also gained more than a million followers since she joined the platform, but she already has more than the rest of them put together: 27.9 million and counting.

And that is the power of Jennifer. Or, as the tech world dubbed it following her viral moment, ‘The Aniston Effect’. But, it turns out, they weren’t the first. Google ‘The Jennifer Aniston Effect’ and all manner of iterations from across her 25-year celebrityhood are revealed, from a life-coaching technique to print-industry shorthand for her ability to sell women’s mags to, of course, a hair style (‘Jennifer Aniston hair’ is still googled every 0.44 seconds).

The post was classic Aniston: down to earth, relatable and just the right side of aspirational. It was also timed to perfection. It landed on 15 October 2019. Boris Johnson was in the midst of negotiating a Brexit deal, there were violent anti-government street protests in Hong Kong, Trump had just imposed sanctions over Turkey’s offensive in northern Syria. It was like she knew the exact moment that the world needed an injection of the warm and fuzzy glow of Friends being friends.

Of course, Aniston’s appeal is widely acknowledged and endlessly written about, but have we ever truly got to the crux of her magnetism? Is there an academic explanation of our endless hunger for her? And if so, what does that say about us?

Jen on the brain

Back in 2005, a neurosurgeon at the University of Leicester called Rodrigo Quian Quiroga carried out a study on patients receiving brain surgery for epilepsy, showing them various images to see how their brains would react. For one in eight patients, a particular neuron flashed multiple times in response to an image of – you guessed it – Jennifer Aniston.

“A neuron is a brain cell that is performing functions in your brain,” explains Sophie Scott, professor of cognitive neuroscience at University College London. “The point of the study was to discover how our brains store information – how they transform visual images into concepts. Do we have a list of Aniston’s attributes – her career, her hair, her films – that our brain stores in a distributed way, or is there one specific cell that cares just about her?” It turns out that many of us have a minuscule part of our brains dedicated entirely to the idea of Jen.

Scott explains that these types of cell used to be called ‘grandmother cells’, firing only when you saw your nan, and no one else. But to carry out a study with multiple subjects, it was necessary for the researchers to find someone that everybody knew. That’s where Aniston came in. “As soon as you make it a specific person, then it’s got to be someone incredibly famous,” explains Scott. “There aren’t actually that many people who you could assume, if you took a group of, say, 20 people, that they would all know who this person was.”

Other images used in the study included Bill Clinton, Halle Berry, The Simpsons and The Beatles. Fifteen years ago, Aniston was one of the most recognised faces on the planet. If they carried out the same study today, her image could still be used. Could the same be said for Bill Clinton?

Quiroga writes in his paper Concept Cells: The Building Blocks Of Declarative Memory Functions, “The sparse, explicit and abstract representation of these neurons is crucial for memory functions, such as the creation of associations”. In other words, the takeaway is that some people and places are so embedded in our minds that they become more than just a thing, they come to represent an entire concept.

There is no doubting that Aniston is having somewhat of a massive moment. Less than a month after popping her Insta cherry, The Morning Show launched on Apple TV+; her first return to a full TV series since Friends, and the jewel in Apple’s flagship crown. It’s a hefty and considered take on #MeToo that has garnered the sort of widespread critical acclaim not normally lavished on Aniston.

It saw her nominated for a Golden Globe and take home the Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Award for Best Female Actor in a Drama Series last month. Plus, as much as it was not the news (she just won a major award for chrissake!), she was also snapped with ex-husband Brad Pitt backstage at the ceremony, the tactile duo gleefully celebrating their prospective wins and prompting what The Cut described as “widespread emotional chaos”.

But the incredible phenomenon of Aniston is that she’s never really stopped having a moment. Friends finished in 2004, and since then she has been consistently relevant. Sure, there have been film flops and tabloid mistreatment on an epic scale, but her appeal to the masses – her shot of sunshine in the collective consciousness – has never really gone away. She is a fond and well-known fixture on the cultural landscape.

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Run your own Aniston brain test. There are things you know about her – her eye colour, her best friend, her favourite skin product, her exes’ names – that you didn’t even know you knew. Stuff that you maybe can’t recall about some of your own close friends, even.

Perhaps there’s a teeny part of our relationship with her that isn’t entirely (whisper it) healthy. Psychotherapist Aaron Balick has another take on the Jennifer Aniston neuron, “The brain, in some ways, doesn’t know the difference between a relationship we form with a TV character, and one in real life.”

This could go a long way to explaining the sort of ‘ownership’ we feel we have over Aniston; the way in which we justify our need for access to every corner of her life. There’s a convenient simplicity to a one-way relationship that allows us to imbue her with whatever we need to feel. A subconscious desire for her to be or act a certain way. “Images that we get of celebrities, particularly through the media, are generally very intentional, making them limited and not very complex,” says Balick. “So there’s lots of room for us to project our own desires and wishes onto them.”

So what hopes and dreams do we project onto Jen? “I would point to the enduring popularity and extraordinary cultural afterlife of Friends as the obvious place to begin understanding her enduring appeal,” says Dr Hannah Hamad, senior lecturer at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies and author of The One With The Feminist Critique: Revisiting Millennial Postfeminism With Friends. We now live in a Netflix age where the only truly communal television experiences come courtesy of big sporting events or Love Island. For everyone who watched when it was first aired in the late 90s, Friends is steeped in notions of a simpler and more unified time. It was what academics now describe as ‘appointment viewing’.

Friday nights revolved around everyone getting together in the living room to eat dinner and wait for our favourite US sitcom to come on. Of course, the show offered its own subtle subversions – a happily settled lesbian couple; a story arc dedicated to Monica explaining to Chandler that there are seven female erogenous zones; Rachel’s decision to become a single mum. But it was generally noncontroversial fun for everyone. We would all fight about which character was funniest or whether Ross and Rachel were on a break – instead of Brexit.

“There are also a lot of millennials who didn’t grow up watching Friends who are viewing it for the first time now, and seeing what seems like a calmer time,” adds Balick. “In many ways it actually wasn’t – there was a lot going on then, 9/11, for example, but the hermetically sealed world of Friends doesn’t include massive political events. That world gave us a safe and friendly place that a lot of people are attached to.” 

Many post-millennials are falling for Friends while still objectively recognising its pitfalls. Rachel had the potential to be a feminist icon – rejecting her father’s wealth, leaving a man at the altar, forging her own path in her dream career, choosing singledom and motherhood. But in the end she “got off the plane”, turning down a dream job in Paris to, presumably, make a home with a man. There are whole new tribes of Friends fans who also say that Joey was her real lobster.

Feminist icon or not, Rachel Green – her lovable brattiness, her perfect comic timing, her weakness for a certain nerdy paleontologist – was undeniably a Friends favourite. However, as Balick points out, “There were five other characters on that show who seem not to have the same intense capacity to hold a special place in people’s minds”. Perhaps Aniston has been savvy enough to harness the show’s appeal. Aside from that Instagram post, there’s the fact that she only ever speaks with massive fondness about the sitcom, never seeking to distance herself from the role and always eager to leave open the possibility of a reunion. 

Beyond that, though, she’s achieved the sort of star power that puts her in a category that could feasibly be described as ‘above A-list’. Despite the fact that none of her films thus far have been all-out critical or box office hits, she has been on the Forbes Top Earning Actresses list every year since 2001.

There was a time, from 1998 to 2004, when it appeared as though Aniston was living out fairytale relationships everywhere we turned. ‘Ross and Rachel’ had become shorthand for a soulmate kind of love, while her marriage to Pitt was lauded as a rare Hollywood success story. “As the star of Friends and through her relationship with Brad, Jennifer was seen as an aspirational figure for a generation of mainly white, middle-class women,” says Dr Debra Ferreday, a senior lecturer in feminist cultural theory at Lancaster University. 

“They were told that the battles of the feminist movement had been won, and they could now have it all. If you look at Aniston as a celebrity, she is seen as an everywoman, a figure of identification against whom women are asked to measure and shape their own aspirations, goals, bodies; quite literally in the case of the Rachel haircut.”

Within a year of Friends ending, Aniston’s marriage was over and Pitt was dating America’s sweetheart in reverse, Angelina Jolie. Overnight, Aniston went from representing wish-fulfilment personified to the scorned woman. “When we think about celebrities who transcend their original identity and become symbolic figures, this is usually because they become a focus of cultural anxiety,” says Ferreday.

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“So Aniston’s very public rejection is a moment of fracture, when suddenly she becomes the centre of myriad anxieties and fears about gender, sexuality and ageing.” So, she explains, the media obsession with her getting back together with Brad came from a collective need to “resolve the narrative, to see the scorned woman safely coupled up and somehow neutralised, to shut down the danger and anxiety that the ageing childless woman represents”.

Next chapter

For a long time now, Aniston has been subtly and cleverly challenging the boxes society has assigned to her. Ferreday points to the roles she played in both 30 Rock and Horrible Bosses, parodying a ridiculous kind of single, dangerous and predatory ‘cougar’. 

Then, in 2016, came her first truly public display of righteous rage, when she penned an op-ed for The Huffington Post: “For the record, I am not pregnant. What I am is fed up.” This was on-brand Aniston: hilarious and articulate in her anger; as slogan T-shirt worthy as any Beyoncé lyric. “If I am some kind of symbol to some people out there, then clearly I am an example of the lens through which we, as a society, view our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, female friends and colleagues.” She had broken her submissive silence and was finally holding a mirror to the media and society at large, acknowledging her totemic status and using it to send a clear message: “The objectification and scrutiny we put women through is absurd and disturbing.”

In directly addressing motherhood, she had uttered a sentiment that was subversive, even in 2016: the idea that she was both childless and content. “We don’t need to be married or mothers to be complete. We get to determine our own ‘happily ever after’ for ourselves.” For women without children across the globe, these words from a cultural icon like her offered immense catharsis. 

Today, in many ways, Aniston could now be seen as entering the third act. Having turned 50 last year, she is no longer in the bracket that Hollywood might deem romantic lead-worthy and the pregnancy conjecture will soon sound absurd. “More recently she has experienced an edifying career renaissance suggestive of the fact that possibilities for older women in the media are opening up that don’t depend on a normative narrative of marriage and motherhood,” says Hamad. 

“There have been times when her persona has successfully harnessed the discourse of ageing femininity that attached itself to her in interesting ways.” Aniston has been doing this as far back as 2013’s comedy We’re The Millers, playing a washed-up stripper, and nowhere more successfully than as a former beauty queen and vainglorious ‘pageant mom’ in 2018 Netflix film Dumplin’.

And, yes, now we have The Morning Show. A full 25 years on from her Friends debut, Aniston is finally back where she belongs: the small screen. Executive produced by herself and co-star Reese Witherspoon, she has chosen a role that is dangerously close to home, playing America’s sweetheart, a co-anchor on the nation’s biggest morning news show. 

As the cameras roll she is light and innocuous, but once they stop she is brittle and driven. In one iconic scene early on in the series, she sits at an enormous table with network execs, slams a glass on the table, and growls, “Guess what, America loves me. And therefore I own America.” If we’ve always conflated Aniston with her characters – the every-girlfriend, the comedy damsel, the over-sexed singleton – then, perhaps now she’s finally giving us a taste of the real her: a star who is sick to death of being nice, staying inoffensive, minding the optics. She will get what she wants and she will get it on her own terms. Network execs all over Hollywood should be terrified.

In light of the irrepressible zero-fucks-given aura currently emanating from Aniston, it feels absurd that anybody should still care about the ‘will they, won’t they’ of Brad and Jen. Perhaps our excitement at their SAGs exchange stemmed from the need for a comforting twinge of nostalgia in troubled times; or the contact high (with a side of schadenfreude) of Jen experiencing a massive life triumph while her single ex was there to witness it.

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“With the decline of religion and community and the increase of consumerism and individualism, we have piled so much hope and expectation onto romantic love that we now expect it to provide us with something that previously only God was able to offer,” adds Laura Mucha, author of Love Factually: The Science Of Who, How And Why We Love. “So, when the world is messy and depressing, which it is at the moment, we can hold onto love as our saviour. And if Jen and Brad did get back together, then we could believe that love could overcome all odds and that everyone gets their happy ever after.”

But relationship psychotherapist Sara Rourke isn’t particularly interested in Aniston’s love life and she doesn’t think that we should be either. “Where we are in the narrative around what it means to be a woman, is that the preoccupation with what they’re wearing and what they’re doing in their romantic relationships has fallen away,” she states. “That’s why there’s an enduring interest in Aniston – it’s about her relationship with herself and other women.”

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Within psychotherapy, Rourke explains that Aniston is widely cited as someone who has been on what is described as a ‘hero’s journey’. “The concept is about somebody traversing difficult challenges and how they overcome them,” she says, citing Aniston’s friendship with Courtney Cox as key to her healing process and subsequent triumph. “Now what we’re interested in is seeing someone really rise from those constraints of what a woman should be. We’re ready to see her as a trailblazer.”

If this is the moment that Aniston has chosen to blaze some trails, as always, her timing is impeccable. We need the nostalgia of her more than ever. 2020 is not just ready, but hungry for women controlling their own narratives and offering refreshingly different versions of what a heroine looks like. The world can finally embrace an American sweetheart who is in her 50s, single, childfree – and killing it.

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