Aniston became famous in 1994, when Friends premiered on NBC. An ensemble show made up of six actors, Aniston played Rachel Green, who, in the pilot, runs out of her suburban wedding and into a coffee shop in New York City, where she meets her childhood best friend, Monica (Courteney Cox). Aniston is a physically and verbally deft performer, underscoring comedy with pathos and drama with a sense of absurdity. Then as now, she has a knack for fooling an audience into accepting a heightened sensibility as realism. From what I read, Aniston actually cared a lot about her work and a lot about her friends — thinking of friends as family appeared to be a real thing for her. Then, in the summer of 2000, Aniston married Pitt in Malibu and went from famous to very, very famous.
Mongolia has plains and deserts and not a lot to do. I started taking photos of the photo of Aniston and Pitt around Mongolia, altering the depth of field on the camera so it looked like a vacation with Jen and Brad. (I’d seen Fight Club — it was fine.) In Aniston, I saw someone who had created a life for herself where artistic ambition didn’t have to be compartmentalized from your life — didn’t have to be the thing that kept you from having friends or relationships but was what gave them to you. In the photos, he’s in a black suit and she’s in a long, low-cut black dress. They’re posed in front of yurt or lounging in the desert. In the photos, they look happy.
Right before the first episode of Friends aired, the producers arranged for the cast to go to Las Vegas together. In an act of Hollywood prescience, they were told it was the last time they could do something like that, still be normal people. Soon they’d be in a special club with The Beatles and former presidents. “Only this small group of you will ever understand what it is to be inside your life,” they were told. As a 14-year-old, who up until the year prior had thought that “Send in the Clowns” was written by and about Sonny and Cher’s divorce (and still prefers it that way), I understood that perfectly. I tell you these things not as aimless revelation, but so you know who you are reading.
Aniston has been exceedingly famous now for almost 30 years — through five presidents, including two that did not win the popular vote. In that time, although the success of various projects has waxed and waned, Aniston has remained an object of interest. It is easy to picture Aniston as part of an American time capsule. Easy to picture her as part of the architecture of Bel Air, easy to picture her in Los Angeles forever, driving too fast on the highways, up in the Hollywood Hills in an ombré twilight. What I am trying to say here — to tell you exactly what I mean — is that it is easy to picture Aniston in front of a yellow Corvette, the Joan Didion heroine of our time.
Didion’s women, as they appear in her fiction, are not what I am talking about here (although I would absolutely watch Aniston as Maria in a remake of Play It as It Lays, but does Hollywood have that kind of courage?). I am talking about the Didion who lives (still) on the pages of her nonfiction, escaping her physical presence and precisely controlling the order of words, writing about how narratives fall apart. Didion’s now-ubiquitous sentence — “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” — begins one of her most famous essays, “The White Album.” It is followed by a list of common narratives, symbols, and archetypes used to make sense of the world around us: the sermon in the suicide, the social or moral lesson in the murder of five. Didion goes on to detail a period of years where she found herself losing the plot; her skill at chronicling her own alienation from the story was one of the things made her famous. Didion was always finding the American myth caught without its clothes on, especially in her native state of California.
In 2016, in a guest editorial for The Huffington Post, Aniston wrote,
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. […] The way I am portrayed by the media is simply a reflection of how we see and portray women in general.
She was writing, specifically, about how the media covered her body and whether she would ever have a child, but it applies to almost every aspect of her life, as we, the public, know it. Because what is Jennifer Aniston — the public Jennifer Aniston, anyway, not the actual person — if not a narrative that Hollywood or America keeps telling itself?
In 2000, Friends still had new episodes airing every Thursday night. By 2001, it was being aired in syndication every weekday afternoon and was available on DVD. Since that year, an episode of Friends has aired somewhere in the world almost every single day. Then there is everything else that made Aniston one of the most famous women in the world: her high-profile marriage; her weirdly famous haircut; the speculation on if any of the Friends would be able to break into movies and the movies themselves (from rom-coms to well-regarded indies, she made several movies during the years Friends was on the air); the monotonously boring talk about her body and weight; the mother she didn’t speak to; the never-ending magazine covers wondering if she was pregnant, when she would be pregnant, and why she wasn’t pregnant; there was her divorce and Angelina and Brad (there were T-shirts declaring loyalty to Team Aniston or Team Jolie); there was Aniston opening the door and crying to Vanity Fair; there was Sad Jennifer Aniston when it seemed to be neither her day, her month, nor her year; there was a mixed bag of movies; there was posing on magazine not wearing a top or not wearing pants; there was Jennifer Aniston moving back to her childhood home of New York City and quickly moving back to Los Angeles (the golden rhythm appearing to have been broken); there was another marriage and another divorce; there was Sad Jennifer Aniston again; there was Cold, Ambitious Jennifer Aniston; there was What Does Jennifer Aniston Mean for Feminism?; there was Jennifer Aniston maybe almost getting an Oscar nomination; there were endorsement deals; there was her Big Return to Television in Apple TV+’s The Morning Show; there was speculation about her and ex-husband getting back together; there was the Friends reunion and the hope that Rachel and Ross might make the jump from fiction to reality; there was a hair product line; and, just a few months ago, there was a New York Times article about a psychic from Westport, Connecticut, a town most famous in my mind for being where Lucy and Ricky moved on the last season of I Love Lucy.
But for all of Aniston’s fame, we really know very little about her. She has mostly been used as a cypher, a series of symbols and images. We have seen her staring out at us from magazine covers or in ads for Smartwater, Aveeno, Vital Proteins, LolaVie, among others. Her image, bathed in the golden glow of westward expansion, a stand-in for something attainable, not that far out of reach (not as far away as Phoebe Philo–era Celine sunglasses). She is, of course, making quite a bit of money off the images and the ads (and being a stakeholder in some of the companies), and quite a bit of money has been made off of her. To take the long view of it, this is perhaps just part of the “action” of Hollywood, and the money its “totemic significance,” as Didion writes in “In Hollywood,” her essay about how that industry town functions. The ghost of Cecilia Brady, the fictional narrator of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel The Last Tycoon, hangs over the essay. The Cecilias, in Didion’s eyes, represent the real survivors, the women — not men as per F. Scott — who can “keep the whole equation in their heads.” Aniston, perhaps, is one of these women who has figured out the game and that the way to survive is by letting her image be an image, an illusion of the accessible girl-next-door, which is really a shield to keep the person within protected and out of reach.
The truth is, it is hard to put together a coherent narrative out of the facts available. There are too many contradictions and too many possibilities. It is all selective. There are things that, in fact, made it entirely predictable that Aniston’s Instagram, which she finally succumbed to in 2019, would be 80 percent politics and New Yorker cartoons. But because Aniston has been famous for so long, when you Google “Jennifer Aniston,” there are pages and pages of results, ranked by algorithm, telling you what you should know about her based on what is already known. Google Aniston and something you think you remember about her — for instance, that she talked about feminism before it was cool to talk about feminism, that she was involved in an early website meant to build girls’ self-esteem, or that she hung out at Cher’s house as a teen — and it’s almost impossible to find anything that will verify the memories. In order to have any meaningful sense of Aniston, you actually do have to have some private memory of her, which makes you feel closer to her than you actually are — and by “you,” I, of course, mean me.
Here is a Jennifer Aniston story I remember from when I was young and used to read all the magazine articles about her. One day, as a teen in the mid-’80s, she was walking down a New York City street when she passed a homeless man who looked like Santa Claus. Others were charmed by his jolliness and his Santa-like demeanor. When Aniston walked by, he hit her. For years, this was the most specific story Aniston had ever told about herself in the press: she was a girl who got punched in the face by Santa Claus.
Aniston told this story to Rolling Stone during her marriage to Pitt when the story wasn’t really about her, but about her marriage and when she would have children. In most of her press, there are few words dedicated to her acting, which is her job, and, presumably, the reason she does the press. Instead, she was cast as an every-woman, and what — I mean, really, what — does that mean? There is nothing about the level of fame or scrutiny she has experienced that is typical or relatable. And, yet, so much of her work has been read as a kind of autofiction, a bedrock in that foundational Hollywood myth that the story never ends. To say the ongoing fascination with Aniston is just about the media or timing would, I think, be missing the point. I give my 14-year-old self more credit than that.
At the beginning of another very famous Didion essay, 1961’s “On Self-Respect,” she writes that as a young woman, after failing to make Phi Beta Kappa, she lost the belief that “lights would always turn green for” her. She realizes that she had put her faith in all the things respectable young women are supposed to do to get what they want (manners, clean hair). Only, then, Didion found herself not getting what she wanted and not liking herself much in the process. The essay slowly destroys the casual fictions of the middle class, unfurling a meditation on the actual nature of self-respect.
For all the Sad Jennifer Aniston narratives, for all the supposedly not getting what she wanted, Aniston has always seemed to make the center hold. She has never seemed broken. She has never seemed to have lost complete faith in the social contract. She has kept working and she has stayed alive and stayed okay in the way many women with her level of fame have not. Yet, we are told that we are waiting for Aniston to get some happy ending. The problem with this is that it presumes that happiness exists on the same playing field as Phi Beta Kappa keys.
Aniston’s latest role has been on The Morning Show. Some critics have called The Morning Show emotionally unrealistic, a nighttime soap opera, but I find it emotionally resonant. (But you are reading someone who, for quite some time now, has believed that it is very possible that everyone else is wrong, and who, for quite some time now, has been on a break from reality.) Aniston plays Alex Levy, a beloved morning show anchor pushed under the bus by her predatory male co-anchor (Steve Carell). It is fun to watch Aniston yell in the way we all think she must want to yell, about the things we suspect she wants to yell about, assuming the actress (one of the show’s producers) is in on that particular joke, knowing that the audience might project assumptions about her onto the character.
But perhaps the figure of Alex Levy intersects with the myth of Jennifer Aniston, not just as a meta-tabloid projection, but also in the breakdown of a linear story. Levy, as written, is in many ways a mystery with little backstory. She exists in a sort of present-tense loop, constantly trying to figure out how she feels about events and people, expecting things to make sense, only to be continually confronted with the fact they do not, that sometimes there are “images with no ‘meaning’ beyond their temporary arrangement,” and that feelings are not always eternal.
One final story about Jennifer Aniston: after the last episode of Friends taped, Aniston climbed up to the catwalk above the show’s soundstage and touched the ceiling. She looked down over electrical wires and equipment, onto the purple-walled apartment set that had housed Friends. If she looked one way, she could see Monica and Chandler’s apartment, if she looked another she could see Joey and Rachel’s. Below her was a whole world — her world for the past 10 years of her life. In an Oprah special with the cast, Aniston recounted her journey to the top of the stage and her grief at the show ending. She said she was experiencing a real loss: “I had this very sad thing of where is Rachel? Where did she go? Is she in a box?”
Rachel in a box is what I think of when I think of Jennifer Aniston and loss. Not a story about the end of a show or a marriage, but a story about the end of a story. Stories end, as does our belief in the narrative arc. That famous sentiment at the opening of The White Album is capped by the line “or at least we do for a while.” Aniston’s story only bends along like a Hollywood movie if you impose some sort of narrative cohesion to it. You can’t really know anything about her. Only what she might mean. And, really, only what she might mean to you.
In that same 2016 Huffington Post editorial, Aniston wrote:
Sometimes cultural standards just need a different perspective so we can see them for what they really are — a collective acceptance … a subconscious agreement. We are in charge of our agreement. Little girls everywhere are absorbing our agreement, passive or otherwise. And it begins early.
When I was young, I actually did manage to create my own agreement with Jennifer Aniston based on how I put together pieces of her narrative. And, perhaps, if Jennifer Aniston walked through the screens of your childhood the way she walked through mine, maybe the thing she meant to you — the story she told you — was that ambition did not have to separate you from life, but could be what gave you a life. For a while, anyway. But as Didion wrote in her 1965 essay about John Wayne, these early Hollywood influences determine “forever the shape of certain of our dreams” and confessed, “[E]ven now I can hear them, in another country and a long time later.”
Back in 2000, back in Mongolia, another American saw me taking photos of Aniston’s photo. The Other American did not watch television. She did not read magazines found in the check-out lines at the grocery store. She did not go in for that type of Hollywood thing. She had multiple homes and traveled to remind herself of a simpler way of life. She had children or maybe stepchildren (I was never sure) who went to good colleges but weren’t registered to vote. The Other American assumed that I must be doing this weird photo thing as some sort of joke — a satire of ridiculous American entertainment, a subject she was happy to tell me about at length. I looked out at the Mongolian desert which stretched out into the steppes of Russia, where the children could recite Pushkin, but me, an American girl, I could quote tabloid stories on Aniston and large chunks of Joan Didion. I looked back at the Other American, costumed head to toe in desert shades of Barbour, and replied, “Oh, wow.”
Victoria Myers is a New York–based writer. For five years, she was editor and founder of the theater publication The Interval. She is currently working on developing projects for television. She was born in Akron, Ohio, which is known for rubber manufacturing.