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Who’s the Real Jennifer Aniston?

Jennifer Aniston was the archetypal girl next door of the 90s, a typecasting which sprung from her most beloved role: Rachel from Friends. As often happens when an actor plays such an iconic character for so many years, there’s a blurred line between reality and fiction – and this seems to have followed Aniston throughout her career. But the truth is that the “girl next door” box could never contain the complex person she is.

Transcript

“You were deemed America’s sweetheart a long time ago. Everyone wants you to be happy.” - Oprah Winfrey, The Oprah Winfrey Show

Jennifer Aniston was the archetypal girl next door of the 90s – but has that label limited her career, and did it ever actually represent who she really was?

Aniston’s typecasting sprung from her most beloved role: Rachel from Friends was an icon, the haircut that launched a thousand haircuts, the friend in that cultural juggernaut who has the biggest character growth, and whose central romance inspired the strongest emotions. We argued ourselves that she’s the closest thing Friends has to a main character, as the show starts when she enters the story world, and she undergoes the greatest journey from disenchanted runaway bride to successful, put-together working mom settling down with the love of her life. Rachel’s story was the real happily ever after of the show.

Ross: “I am never letting you go again.”

Rachel: “Ok, ‘cause this is where I wanna be.”

- Friends, 10x17

But, as often happens when an actor plays such an iconic character for so many years, there’s a blurred line between reality and fiction – and this seems to have followed Aniston throughout her career. There’s always been an obsession with Aniston getting the same happily ever after Rachel got, and a kind of cultural mourning that her marriage to Brad Pitt broke down, and she never had kids.

“People were obsessed with your marriage and then your divorce. I think it’s because you guys represented the picture on the wedding cake.” - Winfrey, The Oprah Winfrey Show

When it was revealed on the 2021 Friends reunion that she and David Schwimmer both once had crushes on each other, there was a spate of rumors that they may finally be acting on their feelings. And similarly, when Aniston and Pitt reunited for a virtual Fast Times At Ridgemont High read-through during Covid, it ignited speculation that they also could be on again. Neither of these stories seems based in much reality – yet again, the media and public project onto her their own Rachel-inspired assumptions of what a “happy ending” for Aniston should look like.

Here’s our take on Jennifer Aniston, and why the “girl next door” box could never contain the complex person she is.

WHO IS THE GIRL NEXT DOOR?

Before Friends, Jennifer Aniston was carving out a niche for herself as a kind of American princess type, with characters like Jeannie Bueller in the short-lived Ferris Bueller TV show, who embody a kind of archetypal, popular girl beauty. Rachel Green was cut from this same cloth. Aniston didn’t relate to Green through her own experiences, but she said, “Being in New York and being broke, watching those girls on the Upper East Side, I sort of felt like I had witnessed a good, fair amount of those sort of gal.”

Rachel: “Am I supposed to use one machine for shirts, and another machine for pants?”

Ross: “Have you never done this before?”

Rachel: “Well…not myself.”

- Friends, 1x05

However, as Rachel left that comfortable life behind and took risks to start from scratch, she came to embody the altogether more relatable, but still desirable girl next door.

While Monica is driven by an uptight, neurotic energy, and Phoebe ia the more alternative, new-age personality, Rachel sits in this cooler, more male-fantasy type space. Of course, part of this is undeniably down to the fact we are invited to see Rachel through Ross’ eyes, so on some level, she literally is a male fantasy: the unrequited high school crush who you reunite with when you’re not a dorky, awkward teenager, and now might actually have a chance with her.

Ross: “Do you think it’d be ok if I asked you out sometime, maybe?”

Rachel: “Yeah…maybe.”

- Friends, 1x01

While Rachel may have started as the princess type, this never feels like the real her. When we meet her princessy sisters, they’re clearly positioned as the opposite of Rachel, rather than living a life she might want to aspire to. And even when we see flashbacks of Rachel in high school, the jokes mostly play on her (former) big nose and a bit of boy-craziness, rather than revealing her to be truly cruel or hopelessly superficial. Similarly, in “The One That Could Have Been”, where we see what the world would have been like if Rachel hadn’t walked out on her wedding, she’s clearly not happy in that life, leading to her looking for a fling with Joey. These snapshots of the other Rachels work to cement the idea of the true Rachel as the deeper, down-to-earth girl next door in our mind.

Part of the girl next door’s appeal is in her vulnerability, and how that makes her beauty less intimidating. Brooklyn Reece writes: “The Girl Next Door is not just a persona - it’s a lifestyle…innocent, flawless, quiet, distressed girls who are in need of enlightenment and rescue.” Rachel’s introduction into the world of Friends is similarly vulnerable; she is out on a limb, searching for an old high school friend in order to rebuild her life having run out on her wedding. While we get the sense that she was a high-school princess, it’s clear that that doesn’t really count for very much anymore.

Rachel: “Remember when we were in high school together? Didn’t you think you were gonna meet someone, fall in love, and that’d be it?” - Friends, 1x02

And while Rachel catapulted Aniston to worldwide fame and celebrity, this idea of her as vulnerable crossed over from fiction into reality. When Aniston took the lead in 2002’s The Good Girl - arguably the first time she was able to flex her dramatic acting muscles in a feature - the actor admitted to feeling like she wasn’t up to it at first.

“Maybe they’re all right? Maybe everyone else is seeing something that I’m not seeing which is that you are only that girl in the New York apartment with the purple walls.” - Jennifer Aniston, The Hollywood Reporter

Even before that, when Aniston was interviewed at the height of Friends there was always a sense that, while she loved the work and the show, the media onslaught and the attention of celebrity made her uncomfortable. She told Rolling Stone in 1996: “It actually makes me not want to do what I do. I mean, we go to work, we love what we do, and we do it for you, and we do it for people to enjoy. But if these are the repercussions – on my day off to see you with a camera in my face? I know it’s your job, but you really need to think about how it’s affecting people, ’cause it’s just so disheartening.” And then, of course, there’s the obsession the media had with Aniston’s love life.

Aniston: “I think everybody knows it’s all BS and, like, soap opera on paper.”

Lee Cowan: “Do you understand the appetite?”

Aniston: “I don’t understand it”

- CBS Sunday Morning

DEFINED BY HEARTBREAK

As a character, Rachel was defined by a romance that included an on-again-off-again rollercoaster and plenty iconic moments of heartbreak. But it wasn’t just Rachel who characterized Aniston as having a tumultuous love life; in two of her biggest movie roles at the height of her Friends fame - Picture Perfect and The Object of My Affection - Aniston’s characters are similarly caught in messy, complicated romantic entanglements that put her through a lot of pain.

Nina: “I want you to be with me. I want you to love me the way that I love you.” - The Object of My Affection

So while Rachel and Ross were being constantly messed around on a weekly basis during the 90s, there was a great deal of excitement and attention when Aniston settled down in real life with Brad Pitt, arguably the biggest movie star and heartthrob of the 90s. As their relationship grew in the public eye, all talk around them was of them being madly in love, with a crew member on Pitt’s movie Snatch saying, “The contrast between her beauty and Brad, who was four feet deep in mud with his nose made up to look broken and his fingernails torn, could not have been greater. As soon as they saw each other their faces lit up.”

“She’s like that fire we all crowd around for warmth. It’s genuine, it’s truly genuine, there’s not an ill-intentioned bone in this woman’s body.” - Brad Pitt, The Oprah Winfrey Show

Their combined star power made them the “it couple” of the early millennium.

Winfrey: “Look to the camera and say something to him for me, ‘cause we’re gonna air this when he’s on.”

Aniston: “Oh, you are? Where’s your camera? Hi, baby I love you.”

- The Oprah Winfrey Show

The image of their relationship was also one of real peace and solidity, rather than your typical turbulent celebrity romance. Friends co-star Lisa Kudrow said of them: “There’s not a lot to say about them because there’s no problems. They’re both light-years ahead of themselves. You know how your grandparents have a certain perspective about life? They’ve got that now.” And it really looked like their relationship was only heading in one direction. When asked about the possibility of starting a family by The Guardian in early 2004, Aniston replied: “It’s time. You know, I think you can work with a baby, I think you can work pregnant, I think you can do all of it. So I’m just truly looking forward to slowing down.” But soon after this article came out, cheating rumors started to abound about Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who were then filming Mr. and Mrs. Smith together. In 2005, Pitt and Aniston divorced – Pitt’s very public relationship with Angelina Jolie cementing this idea of Aniston as a tragic, heartbroken figure.

Winfrey: “Poor Jen, is she dating? Is she not? How is she doing?” - The Oprah Winfrey Show

While she may have received more pity than she appreciated, in the aftermath of the divorce, it felt like collectively everyone took Aniston’s side. While the newly anointed Brangelina were posing as a pretend married couple for a huge editorial photo spread in W Magazine entitled “Domestic Bliss”, Aniston was candidly opening up about the pain of the separation. Speaking to Vanity Fair, she said: “There are many stages of grief. When you try to avoid the pain, it creates greater pain. I’m a human being, having a human experience in front of the world. I wish it weren’t in front of the world.”

She also had to refute speculation that the reason they split was because Brad wanted a family - which he got almost immediately with Angelina. She said to Vanity Fair, “That really pissed me off. I’ve never in my life said I didn’t want to have children. I did and I do and I will!”

“I’m gonna see as much of the world as I can before I have a child, and then it’s about family.” - Aniston, Dateline NBC

Perhaps frustratingly for Aniston, her divorce also contributed to her girl next door status by inviting the comparison with Angelina Jolie. Jolie’s reputation was as an unpredictable, alternative bad girl. As well as establishing herself as an actress and continuation of a Hollywood dynasty, she’d been in the headlines for knife-play, making out with her brother on red carpets, being bisexual, and wearing a vial of her then-husband Billy Bob Thornton’s blood.

“We kinda signed our life away to each other, legally, and with blood, that there’s no possible way anyone can walk away from this.” - Angelina Jolie, Access Hollywood

She was almost cast as the antithesis to Aniston - in a reductive binary that was really a disservice to both of them. But this narrative reinforced the vulnerable, victimized, virtuous girl next door narrative that already existed around Aniston - and meant she had to work even harder to dismantle it.

HOW TO BREAK OUT OF THE BOX

Jennifer Aniston has made no secret of the fact that she felt typecast by Rachel Green. For all the success of the show, when Friends ended and she had to go out and find new work, in some ways this became an albatross around her neck.

“I could not get Rachel Green off my back for the life of me.” - Aniston, The Hollywood Reporter

But now, nearly two decades since the show ended, she has established her career apart from Friends, and she’s done that in a few different ways.

While Aniston was always seen as a desirable, beautiful woman, hers was a more innocent, safe kind of beauty, and it’s as if she wanted to shed that image somehow. In Along Came Polly, her first major post-Friends role, it’s her co-star, Ben Stiller, who’s the safe, boring character, while she’s the exciting, quirky, and adventurous one who brings him out of his shell.

Polly: “I’m not really big on the whole long-term commitment thing.”

Reuben: “Why? Are you coming out of a bad relationship or…?”

Polly: “I’m kinda coming out of like eight bad relationships.”

- Along Came Polly

She’s also taken roles that play on her sexuality a lot more. As Dr. Julia Harris in Horrible Bosses, she’s essentially a sexual predator.

“I’m gonna call the police, and I’m gonna send you all to jail…unless Dale plows me.” - Dr. Julia Harris, Horrible Bosses 2

In We’re The Millers, she’s similarly provocative, playing a stripper who’s hired to go undercover as an ordinary American Mom to help smuggle drugs across the Mexican border. And as Liz Lemon’s erratic old friend Claire in 30 Rock, she immediately wraps Jack Donaghy around her little finger, again weaponizing her sexuality to do it. Each of these roles seem to play on the idea that because we don’t see Aniston as someone who plays overtly sexual parts, she has to take it to the Nth degree, going above and beyond in terms of her characters’ sexual appetites.

But it’s telling that these sexy roles have all come in comedies where we’ll go along with an over-the-top joke, even when it feels a little like a stretch. And a perhaps uncomfortable irony is that one of the reasons Aniston has been able to break out of her Rachel-shaped box is that she’s aged out of it. The girl next door is desirable, but part of that desirability is in her youth.

There’s long been a history of Hollywood discarding women once they hit 30 –

“My looks will go/ and I will become some sad, middle-aged women who looks a bit like someone who was famous for a while.” - Anna Scott, Notting Hill

– which hasn’t happened to Aniston, in part thanks to her keeping up her enviable looks and physique with little obvious change even into her 50s. Her film career was just taking off in her 30s. Arguably, Aniston’s first movie role that made people stand up and take notice was The Good Girl, in which she plays a woman at exactly that stage of her life - just turned 30, stuck in a rut, who begins having an affair with a much younger man. The Good Girl almost felt like Aniston consciously reckoning with how she’d been viewed as the “good girl” herself and was ready to be something more or different. Since then, her dramatic roles have moved her in a different direction - playing a woman suffering with chronic pain in Cake, and a doting, faded beauty queen Mom in Dumplin’.

In a 2021 Hollywood Reporter interview Aniston alluded to the self-doubt that used to plague her younger self, saying: “I think I needed to get over those hurdles of self-doubt and own who I am and where I am and just how long I’ve f*cking been here.” As Alex on The Morning Show - her first TV role since Friends - she’s playing a character who she possibly can fully identify with, someone who’s highly relatable to viewers but whose public image obscures a more painful, messy reality behind the scenes. The lines between fiction and non-fiction in the show are already blurry, with the narrative dealing with both the #MeToo movement and the Covid-19 pandemic. Aniston’s casting works in tandem with that, as she almost plays two characters, wrestling with that balance.

So Aniston having broken out of the box reducing her to one thing has been a blessing– we’re finally beginning to see the full extent of the actress she is, and the actress she wants to be.

“I’m sick of it. I want happiness. I earned happiness. I’m a human being!” - Alex, The Morning Show

CONCLUSION

When you’re associated with one character, it’s always going to be hard to shake that off. Rita Hayworth famously said: “Men go to bed with Gilda, but they wake up with me.” And you do wonder if Aniston had a similar love-hate relationship with Rachel.

On the positive side, though, while some elements of Friends haven’t aged well, Rachel holds a timeless appeal – if anything the comedic quality of her performance has been re-celebrated with more respect as the show becomes embraced by a new generation. While the media at the time focused more on her romantic appeal than her acting, she was arguably always the stand-out cast member – it’s just taken us till now to realize that maybe this was down to Aniston all along, and not just the narrative that was created around her.

SOURCES

Feinberg, Scott. “Jennifer Aniston on ‘Cake,’ Typecasting and Not Wanting to Talk About BS Anymore.” The Hollywood Reporter, 8 Dec. 2014 https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/general-news/jennifer-aniston-cake-typecasting-not-754710/

Reece, Brooklyn. “Opinion: “The Girl Next Door” Needs to Die.” An Injustice Mag, 10 Apr. 2020 https://aninjusticemag.com/opinion-why-the-girl-next-door-is-incredibly-destructive-to-society-65b0fd7d4702

Cohen, Rich. “Jennifer Aniston: The Girl Friend.” Rolling Stone, 7 Mar. 1996 https://www.rollingstone.com/tv/tv-news/jennifer-aniston-the-girl-friend-183119

Schneider, Karen S. “Brad Pitt.” People, 13 Nov. 2000 https://people.com/archive/cover-story-brad-pitt-vol-54-no-20/

Collins, Nancy. “Jennifer Aniston: Cherry Poppin’ Mama.” Rolling Stone, 4 Mar. 1999 https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-news/jennifer-aniston-cherry-poppin-mama-230096/

Schruers, Fred. “Power Jen.” The Guardian, 22 Feb. 2004 https://www.theguardian.com/film/2004/feb/22/features.magazine

“Domestic Bliss: Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt at Home.” W Magazine, 1 Jul. 2005 https://www.wmagazine.com/gallery/brad-pitt-angelina-jolie

Bennetts, Leslie. “The Unsinkable Jennifer Aniston.” Vanity Fair, 10 Oct. 2006 https://www.vanityfair.com/news/2005/09/aniston200509

Rose, Lacey. “Jennifer Aniston Has No Regrets.” The Hollywood Reporter, 8 Dec. 2021 https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/feature/jennifer-aniston-interview-morning-show-friends-murder-mystery-sequel-1235058142