Subtitle: Why is this relationship so barfy?
I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel this way for the last three weeks. The first time I heard about Blake Lively “spending time” with Leonardo DiCaprio — and then photographed hugging at Cannes — I thought WHOA, GOOD PUBLICIST, LIVELY.
But then, as it became clear that this was really a thing, I realized that I HATED it. Some potential couplings make you happy (this mostly happens when two people you liked seeing together in a movie get together in real life — see especially McGosling (The Notebook), Nina Dobrev and Ian Somerhalder (Vampire Diaries), Bill and Sookie (True Blood, I don’t even know Bill’s real name, bygones), KStew and RPattz (Twilight). We like (most) of these romances because their existence in real life somehow authenticates the fictional romance. See, Edward and Bella do love each other! (Or, alternately, an off-screen romance suggests that the fictional love story IS JUST SO POWERFUL that anyone involved in the filming of it would just naturally fall in love). Simply put, real life romances make us feel less silly for investing/feeling moved/relying on certain scenes of The Notebook to carry us through 99% of hungover/post-breakup mornings.
When the couple has nothing to do with making us feel better about our relationships with fictional characters, then it’s all about how we feel about two images and their fit. As for their actual interactions, the way they challenge each other, or the fact that love doesn’t always make sense to people outside of the relationship, none of that matters. Again, it’s not about a relationship between two people, but a relationship between two images — and the way we feel about the resultant image, the “relationship” image as it were. Just like a star image is the sum of its signifying parts — the way the star appears at premieres, in actual films, in sweats at the supermarket, in advertisements, in interviews — so too is the relationship the sum of the couple’s appearances (or lack thereof) in public, the way they speak of each other in interviews, the way they produce (or don’t produce) children.
A couple like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have a tremendously popular/palatable relationship image. Their individual star images compliment each other (both have images whose dominant meanings are “sexy,” “talented,” “aloof”), and their relationship image is still sexually charged, yet also maternal/paternal, charitable, intelligent, savvy, and highly cosmopolitan/global.
Now, I know I’m not the only person who feels this way about Lively and DiCaprio, as many readers and Facebook followers of the blog have voiced their agreement. But what is it that makes this relationship so offensive?
Let’s do a quick run-down of their respective images.
OUR BOY LEO:
*Child star of inordinate talent and promise
*Heartthrob to millions worldwide (babyface makes him all the easier to love)
*Hollywood playboy with “Pussy Posse” of close male friends in his late teens/early ’20s (although this part of his image isn’t as well known)
*Survives transition to adulthood to became star in cerebral and/or politically engaged thrillers and Scorsese’s new muse (in other words: a big, respected star that draws both male and female audiences)
*Managed to transform his boyish cuteness into visceral hotness (see especially sex scene in The Departed)
*Dates supermodels; long-term on-and-off-again relationships with Gisele (pre-Tom Brady) and Bar Raefli. (No inclination towards long-term commitment or marriage; no children)
*Becomes involved in environmental causes; appears on cover of Vanity Fair Green Issue
*Longterm star who has paid his dues and has a firm grasp of both his image and his career. Well-respected both within the industry and amongst his audience, despite lack of “traditional” romances.
OUR GIRL LIVELY:
*Teen star of dubious talent. ”Break-out” role in Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, in which she attracts an older (college age!) soccer coach and (big sigh!) loses her virginity.
*Best known for role of “Serena” in Gossip Girl, a show that manages to have disappointing ratings yet tremendous cultural influence. Obviously the weakest link of the show (perhaps second only to Little J) despite having the best hair.
*Becomes known for great legs, great hair, and great boobs, about which there is much speculation as to their real-ness.
*Long-term relationship with her co-star (and sometimes on-screen boyfriend) Penn Badgley.
*In part due to her character’s expansive and innovative wardrobe, becomes a “muse” of the fashion industry. Karl Lagerfield loves her; calls her “America’s Dream Girl.” Face of Chanel bag line. Anna Wintour puts her on the cover of Vogue. TWICE. Named to Vogue’s “Best Dressed” list.
*Small supporting role in Ben Affleck’s The Town, in which she plays a trashy Bostonite. Mumbles through her lines.
*Nude cell-phone self-portraits leaked on the internet. Lively denies that they’re her, but they pretty obviously are. Boobs looking quite fake.
*Supporting role in The Green Lantern universally panned.
Now, most of what I’d like to conclude about Lively’s overall image has already been said by Molly Lambert in her amazing Grantland piece from last week, which I simply cannot recommend highly enough.
The best bits:
lake Lively is “rich pretty.” So is Gwyneth Paltrow. It’s a kind of prettiness that’s bound up with showing off how much money you’ve spent. Designer labels only, flat-ironed/wavy hair with lots of upkeep, super skinny, sensibly nice tits.1 Blake Lively in a Forever 21 dress is just another beautiful girl. Blake Lively in Chanel is a different creature, an idea called “Blake Lively.” An excuse for the fashion industry to promote boring standards of beauty and wealth through an aspirational avatar…..
….Blake Lively would actually make a great Daisy Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s terrible idea for a Great Gatsby movie.3 Daisy is the American archetype of an unattainable rich girl. Pretty, vapid, prone to dancing drunk on tables. Equal parts Paris Hilton and Paris Review. Daisy is not a great character of fiction, because she isn’t much of a character, really. She’s just a collection of fetishistic feminine and WASP traits, with a laugh that sounds like money….
…..Lively is positioning herself as A-List without having any real A-List credentials, besides her part in The Town, which she is still banking on to suggest that she is suited for A-List roles. It’s very Internet age of her to publicly declare herself A-list when evidence of her acting talent is still scant at best. It is an extremely calculated series of superficial career moves that lead to being the Green Lantern’s girlfriend, Leonardo DiCaprio’s staged-photo dream date, and on several covers of Vogue…..
And most importantly:
But how is Blake Lively positioning herself for the long-term? Are any people really “Blake Lively fans”? Could Blake Lively open a movie on her own? Will she start taking Kate Hudson’s terrible romantic-comedy leftovers? At least Kate Hudson has Almost Famous to remind us that she can be a very good actress. What does Blake Lively have? A TV show on which she plays the sympathetic main character’s richer, prettier, more vapid best frenemy Serena van der Woodsen, spiritual heir of Daisy Buchanan?
Now, I realize I just cribbed about 50% of that article. That’s how good it is — and how much I want to direct you to its home to read the rest. But part of the reason it’s so good is because Lambert gets to the heart of what’s offensive and unlikable about Lively: she’s playing above her pay grade. She skipped a step (or five) and is suddenly dating A-Listers, fancying herself an A-Lister. Lots of A-Listers lack in talent — John Travolta — but have, without doubt, paid their dues, and earned their place on the A-List. But skipping ranks? That’s downright unAmerican.
Someone can become solidly B-List by being horrible in films, appearing in television shows, or being pretty/having a nice body. Megan Fox, I am so talking to you. But A-List requires some sort of distinguishing talent, longevity, or enduring cultural resonance. And Blake Lively seems wholly devoid of actual talent, which is why the idea of “rich pretty” is so salient. She is the sum of her beautiful body parts, but none of them are in any way unique or distinguishing. There’s no Angelina Jolie lips, no Reese Witherspoon heart-shaped face. Indeed, all of her beautiful parts could be yours with a personal stylist, trainer, hairdresser, and plastic surgeon. She never says anything witty or interesting in interviews. Her clothing is beautifully tailored to fit her body and always interesting — but always seems very much like it was chosen by someone else, and she’s just modeling it. I mean, Angelina Jolie may pick some hideous dresses, but there’s very rarely the feeling that she’s someone else’s Barbie. There’s just an overwhelming sense that this girl is a blank slate of a body and performer, attempting to define herself through her association with others. I realize that this is not unique, but it does account for my general dislike.
Lambert’s piece has effectively guided me towards an answer to my initial question. Why do I hate this relationship? Most obviously, their individual images don’t mesh. Despite his womanizing past, DiCaprio’s dominant image is that of a well-respected A-Lister, someone who has worked his way through Hollywood and matured as an actor, activist, and individual….even if his relationships with women have not been exactly “solid.” Importantly, and perhaps because he’s a man, the parts of his sexual/relationship history that are less flattering are easily ignored. Lively, by contrast, is young, immature, and playing above her level. Even with the respect of the fashion communities and legions of lusty dudes, she’s still just a body, not a star. Plainly put, her image doesn’t “deserve” DiCaprio’s. She’s being uppity. She needs to date some more CW stars before she climbs the ladder to Oscar nominees.
As for their relationship image, it’s still in its early stages. The first photograph of them as a couple was a brilliant maneover on the part of their publicists: grainy, obviously paparazzi (although they were almost certainly tipped off), with an obvious connotation of an “intimate” moment not meant for public consumption.
Of course, this moment was absolutely meant for public consumption — if they were actually being careful and didn’t want the relationship public, they wouldn’t hold hands in public, even if it was Europe. But the photo’s aesthetic strongly suggests that the relationship is not a publicity stunt, forming a sharp contrast to, say, the first pictures of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Since then, DiCaprio and Lively have apparently been gallivanting around the rest of Europe and the United States, sightseeing in Verona and going to Disneyland. This seems very clunky to me. Verona?!? As in the site of Romeo and Juliet? As in the setting of the movie in which Blake Lively probably saw him when she was still, oh, 5? AND DISNEYLAND? Brangelina can go to Chuck-e-Cheese’s and I think it’s great; these two at Disneyland makes me feel the same way I did when Ryan Gosling took Olivia Wilde to the aquarium.
Whatever happens with this relationship, I don’t know how much it will actually affect DiCaprio’s image, other than bolster the notion that he can attract some of the most beautiful women in the world. As for Lively, she might ride this for increased gossip visibility, a handful of Us and Life and Style covers, and enough buzz to make people forget how horrible she was in The Green Lantern. But will it make her an actual A-Lister? If she has no fans, no charisma, and no talent, how will she remain relevant? Or is the power of the beautiful, albeit “rich beautiful,” body enough to sustain her stardom?
Serena Van Der Woodsen would just go find a professor or a Prince to marry. But what will Blake do?