I’ve been thinking about Anne Hathaway a lot more than I should lately, but really, it’s hard not to. Her face is on the screen almost every time I turn on the TV; when I connect to the Internet, her porcelain-veneered smile and big, perfect-browed eyes stare from under a headline which announces that something like one in four Americans hates her guts. I used to read these stories, but I no longer do, because frankly, the attacks on her are so vicious that it sort of makes my tummy hurt. The woman somehow elicits nastiness in people. A lot of people, anyway.
There are many celebrities who’ve somehow managed to get on the wrong side of the public, but usually those on the receiving end of our contempt have done something to earn it–beaten up their significant other, summoned Xenu or showed their true colors during a drunken traffic stop. But Ms. Hathaway has done none of these things. She focuses on her craft, donates time and money to various charities and seems like a nice enough sort, certainly nicer than many Hollywood folks.
But there’s something about her that brings out the snark in me, too. The moment she and her nipples stepped onto the red carpet at the Oscars, I laughingly told my husband, “Well, that’s all anyone’s going to be talking about for the next three weeks. She could be discussing crop circles in Rwanda right now and no one would notice.” The cynic in me knew that those pointy darts were as intentional as her rehearsed surprise later in the show, when she breathlessly whispered, “It came true.”
Anne rubs a lot of people the wrong way, myself included. I could list a multitude of reasons why, but I’m truly not writing this to trash her. In fact, she’s been in a couple of movies that I really liked. But I never bought her as Selina Kyle in “The Dark Knight Rises,” because I found her unconvincing as someone who’d ride a big-ass motorcycle, much less lead a life of crime. I could almost hear her gush, “Don’t I look fabulous in this cat suit?” I haven’t seen “Les Miserables,” and probably won’t. I’m too aware of her pride in the weight she lost for the role, the head shaving, the Suffering for Her Art. “Look! I’m wearing burlap! It’s scratching my skin!”
I’m ashamed to admit this. There’s nothing rational about my feelings. I don’t know this person. Despising her is currently a national pastime, and I usually don’t involve myself in such matters. But for some reason, I find myself riding the “I hate Anne Hathaway” bandwagon, and it’s awful. My gut-level dislike of her makes me dislike myself. It makes me feel petty and shallow and mean-spirited. It’s ugly, it really is.
She’s just a person. Granted, she’s a public person, but she’s also a fellow human being. Whenever I have an instantaneous aversion toward someone, I start to question myself. I try to get to the root of my negative feelings and exorcise the demons of annoyance. Yesterday, as I heard yet another news story about the public’s unfathomable contempt for this attractive, Academy Award winning multi-gazillionaire, it hit me.
Anne Hathaway is that girl. You know, that girl–the one we all went to school with, that one girl we loved to hate. In a flash, I realized that for a lot of people, she isn’t Anne Hathaway at all. She’s Janie Perfectberg.
From kindergarten until eighth grade, I attended what may have been the world’s smallest private school. I can’t remember how many boys there were, but in my class, there were exactly five girls. For nine years, I had four female classmates. This was a religious school, a Hebrew school to be exact, and a lot of the kids there were from very pious, wealthy families. If you’ve learned anything about me from reading this blog, it’s that my family was anything but pious or wealthy. Though some of the teachers and students were cruel, I’m thankful for the experience, because it exposed me to a much more civilized environment than the one I had at home. Though none of the religious stuff took, the lessons I learned there were invaluable. Like the one I’m sharing now.
The four schoolgirls in my class were, all in all, very nice to me over the years. Ruthie’s father was the academy’s director, a very strict and hairy rabbi who was later dismissed due to a sex scandal with a wealthy patron’s wife. Ruthie was a cheery, rather lumpy girl, ultra-orthodox and very outspoken. Tessa was quiet, thin and studious, the daughter of Czech immigrants. Lisa was my very best friend in the world, and we were, comparatively speaking, little hellraisers. Both of us were having tough times at home, and though our backgrounds and social statuses couldn’t have been further apart, we were each other’s life preservers throughout our elementary years.
But it was evident from our first day in the sandbox there was greatness among us, and that greatness was all smooshed up into one girl, whom I’ll call Janie Perfectberg. To paraphrase those gods of rock, the Carpenters, on the day that she was born, the angels got together, and decided to create a dream come true.
Janie’s genetic makeup consisted of something very different than ours, and it included fairy dust, brilliance and Personality Plus. Her father was a very successful attorney, and her mother devoted herself to raising the children. Their house was three times bigger than mine, located in one of the nicest areas of town. Our principal, Mrs. Tack, was their neighbor and one of her parents’ closest friends. She made no attempt to hide her favoritism.
Janie was the tallest, prettiest girl in school. She had a wide, perfect smile framed by deep, perfect dimples. Neither freckles nor acne ever marred her fair skin; her hair, she informed us, was dishwater blonde, and was longer, straighter and silkier than any of the rest of ours. I don’t think there was a boy three years older or younger who didn’t have a huge crush on her.
She began piano lessons about a week after her birth, and she played like a prodigy. She took ballet, and made straight A’s. Her artwork was stunning. In a box in my closet somewhere, I still have a stack of get well cards, cards that my classmates made for me during a first-grade hospital stay. While other kids scribbled stick figure snowmen and dogs that looked like mosquitoes, Julie had cut out a series of perfect little paper snowflakes and glued them to a backdrop of a colorful winter landscape. She was the Monet of the class.
As the years went by, her popularity grew. She easily won first place at our yearly talent contests. For Track and Field day, the faculty selected her as team leader. She wrote our fight song, won every event and confidently led us to victory. Teachers, students and principal fawned and gushed; no one attempted to hide their admiration for her brains, beauty, talent and athletic superiority. She was chosen first for every playground kickball game. She was the first to figure out how to play jacks and Chinese jump rope when we were six, and the one who introduced us to Carol King’s “Tapestry” album when we were eleven. When a project needed a can-do person, everyone knew Janie was the can-est, do-est person at school. About the only flaw I can think of is maybe her singing, which she loved to do, but sounded to me a bit like Julie Andrews-with-a-sinus-infection. I’m fairly certain everyone else thought it was perfect though.
Janie was adored and accomplished, but in reality, it was a big set up. I mean, how does one little girl handle such attention? How can you be normal with so many people singing your praises and kissing your ass all the time? She dealt with it as best she could, but it inflated her ego and gave her a justifiable sense of self-importance. But what was she supposed to do? Say, “Please stop being so fabulous to me? Please stop giving me awards and accolades?” Over time, she became a bit of a show-off, slightly less genuine. Her actions became somewhat studied.
After years of this skewed adulation, we girls began to develop a low-level resentment toward Janie Perfectberg. Our flaws seemed magnified in her presence. Throughout puberty, she managed to maintain her poise and beauty while we wrestled with zits and training bras and social awkwardness. I’d like to point out that none of these kids were slouches (I being the exception). They were smart, they made excellent grades, they were overachievers in a school full of overachievers. But no one could hold a candle to Janie. She’d been handed the cards from day one, and they were all aces.
By eighth grade, we were fed up. We’d put up with nearly nine years of Janie’s larger-than-life persona. We were junior high school girls now, replete with bouncing hormones and female competitiveness. Until this point, we’d been friends by circumstance, and we’d all gotten along well. But as we matured, we realized there was a horrible imbalance of power and popularity at our school, and the scales tilted on the side of our aggrandized, perfect pal.
We began to gossip about her. In the school bathroom, at recess and on the telephone after school, we dissected her personality and listed her faults, chief among them being her very high opinion of herself. Second was the mutual attraction which flowed between her and the tiny number of cute boys at our school. We counted five girls in our class, but to most of the guys, there was only one.
For my thirteenth birthday, I hosted a small slumber party at my house. Among the guests were my classmates, with the exception of Ruthie, who was forbidden to attend such sinful gatherings. But I remember Tessa was there, and Lisa, and another girl named Linda. Of course, I invited Janie Perfectberg, who I believe wanted more than anything to just be one of the gals.
What Janie didn’t realize was that prior to the party, the rest of us had decided, out of the goodness of our black, adolescent hearts, to compose a letter to her. We felt this was a public service, not only to ourselves, but to Janie, whose ego (in our opinions) had grown to monstrous proportions, and whose increasingly disingenuous personality had become a bit unbearable. We didn’t mention we were jealous of the fact that her beauty completely overshadowed us, or that her intelligence somehow made us feel that we should be boarding the short bus at the end of each day. We didn’t mention that she played piano like a pro, was as artistic as an angel or that she was light years ahead of us, maturity-wise. No, we concentrated on her flaws. Because, you know, we really wanted to help her out.
At some point during the party, we handed her the letter, written in pencil on notebook paper, folded carefully into a three-inch square with her name neatly scrawled across the front. We told her to go into my room, so she could read it by herself, while the rest of us scarfed down snacks and chattered and laughed in the living room. I remember the way we looked at each other as she walked down the hall. We were co-conspirators posing as do-gooders, an ordinarily sweet group of girls who’d subtly and viciously turned on one of our own.
Janie was gone for a long time. I imagine that she read the letter, reread it and cried, then waited to compose herself before returning to the pack of she-wolves she’d discovered herself in midst of. Finally she emerged and walked into the living room. She stood, tall and graceful before us. Her eyes were red and so was her face. But she held her head high.
“I want to thank you all,” she said quietly. “How lucky I am to have such concerned friends. Such good friends who care about me so much. Thanks for letting me know what you really think of me. This is very helpful.”
I’m not sure if her mother coached her on Jewish guilt, or if it was genetic, but I can tell you I will never forget that moment. I don’t recall if Janie stuck around after her speech or if she left; all I remember is that I was overcome with self-loathing and shame, and I still feel it when I think about that incident, almost forty years later.
Things were never the same after that. Janie politely distanced herself from us, and rightly so. I entered public school the following year and lost touch with everyone.
Looking back, I realize Janie’s life was probably as crazy and difficult as the rest of ours were. She detested her mother, who pushed her to be perfect. Her father was mean and her older brother always seemed to burn with rage. Privilege doesn’t cancel out pain, and I’m guessing her desire for perfection was an attempt to gain some control over her life. Somehow though, I’m certain she went on to do great things. The personality flaws we picked at like vultures surely dissipated with time. At that age, we try on new personas as though we’re trying on hats, rejecting them until we find the one that fits. I’ll bet that right now, wherever she is, Janie Perfectberg is wearing one swell hat. At least I hope she is. Because in all of this, I don’t remember her ever saying an unkind word about anyone. I remember our cruelty, our pettiness, but I can’t think of one instance where I saw it in her.
My guess is that there was a Janie Perfectberg in almost everyone’s childhood, and I believe that Anne Hathaway represents her. And I think we all need to lay off.