Meg Ryan underlines the big problem with that “America’s sweetheart” label

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Emily Reynolds
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Meg Ryan was always known as “America’s sweetheart”. But, it turns out, it wasn’t a label that she was always on board with herself. 

Actress Meg Ryan has opened up about her characterisation as “America’s sweetheart” – and in doing so, has highlighted the double standards many women in Hollywood have to face.

Speaking to fellow actress Gwyneth Paltrow at a Goop Health event in Los Angeles, Ryan described the “borders” many women face – leaving them pigeonholed in roles they may not always feel comfortable in.

“You’re either intelligent or sexual or maternal,” she said. “I really feel like we’re at a time where those borders are coming down, and it’s coming with a lot of cultural upheaval in a way.

“In a certain respect, everyone in the culture is very comfortable with you in one archetype”. 

For Ryan, that archetype was “America’s sweetheart” – which she says “doesn’t imply that you’re smart or sexual or complicated or anything”. 

“It’s a label,” she said plainly. “And what can a label do but guess at you?”. 

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This blankness is sometimes necessary, Ryan acknowledges, so that people can “project on you”. 

“Despite what you may think, people don’t really want to know all that much about you,” she says. “They want to imagine the best or the worst.

“So when you’re caught in that, it really is interesting because you get reactions that have almost nothing to do with you and some that have everything to do with you, and you have to be this jiu-jitsu master to figure out what mirror you should actually be looking in.

“Life is subtle, people are complex, the world is obviously complex. Tabloid journalism and headlines: those are not. Tweets, those are not. 

“When you get labeled anything like ‘America’s Sweetheart’… I didn’t even know what that meant. Nora Ephron’s parents wrote scripts in old Hollywood and there was such a thing as America’s Sweetheart in the Forties and she decided to say that about me one day and I remember thinking, ‘Is that good?’”

Ryan has previously written about her friendship with writer and director Ephron, who she worked with on several projects – including some of Ryan’s most famous films, When Harry Met Sally and You’ve Got Mail. 

Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter in 2012, Ryan described Ephron’s “love of the precisely observed moment”. 

“She got such a big kick out of people who could turn a phrase. To walk away with something quotable from a night, she just loved it. Her love of words was so ferocious. 

“I love that she was writing a pilot in the hospital. My God! To just keep on saying what you feel. To express her experience in the pithiest, quickest, smartest possible way so as to share. It was her life’s joy.”

Ryan also used the Goop event to reflect on her career – in which she had “a lot of fun”. 

“I never wanted to be an actress,” she said. “The whole idea of being a famous person…I felt like a witness to, I didn’t feel exactly in it, and I think that was a really good thing. I felt like a student of it in a way, or that I was watching it in an anthropological way.”

Image: Getty