Sarah Caden: 'Bad dose of narrative overload as Jennifer Aniston takes to Instagram'

Twelve years ago, I had the opportunity to interview Jennifer Aniston in LA. It was a press conference, with tens of other European journalists, and Aniston was promoting her non-rom-com The Break-Up.

Remember The Break-Up? She and Vince Vaughn played a cohabiting couple who break up at the start of the film, both refuse to move out of the apartment and then go through entertaining agonies as amicable turns to outright enmity. That was the narrative of The Break-Up on screen.

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Off-screen, the narrative of The Break-Up was that Aniston and Vaughn were dating.

It was a year since Aniston’s marriage to Brad Pitt had ended, and only a matter of months since Angelina Jolie and Pitt had announced that they were having a baby.

Yes, there was a lot of narrative going on. There was the Vaughn relationship, which was never really confirmed or denied; and the title of the film, which let interviewers segue into “So, how do you feel about break-ups, Jen?”; and there was the fact that Pitt and Aniston had never had children in their five-year marriage, and here was Jolie having one after no time at all.

Aniston seemed a bit tense, and an English journalist sitting beside me said she often seemed this way in interviews.

He may have been simply trying to show off superior knowledge and experience, but he also claimed that Aniston always had her hairstylist with her for interviews, as a sort of support blanket.

Of course she seemed tense, where the Vaughn relationship, real or otherwise, set one narrative – Jen’s doing great, she’s so over Brad – Aniston was in a situation where she really had no control.

Everyone in that press conference had to go off and write a story, and Aniston couldn’t oversee what was said. That’s the movie-promotion gig. Or it was the gig then.

Jennifer Aniston joined Instagram last week, in case you hadn’t heard.

In fact, Jennifer Aniston broke Instagram by joining it. Her debut post – a picture of the five Friends round her place hanging out – saw so much traffic that it ceased functioning for a while.

She’s up to 13.5m followers at the time of writing, with only a few posts and a pithy video of her smashing her phone, a literal breaking of the internet.

And now we’re Instagram FRIENDS too. HI INSTAGRAM ??

A post shared by Jennifer Aniston (@jenniferaniston) on

Already, there’s something different in the air about Aniston. It’s like she’s stood up and said, “Who’s the boss?” It’s like she’s taken hold of the reins and reinvented herself – which is no mean feat for an actress of 50, who has spent more than a decade encumbered by the narrative that she’s poor unlucky-in-love and childless Jen.

Aniston has been under pressure for a while to join.

Fellow Friends, Lisa Kudrow and Courtney Cox joined early this year, and since then, Cox has publicly put pressure on Aniston and the last other cast Insta-denier, Matthew Perry, to come on board.

Outside of that, there has been the obvious societal and probably professional pressure to be a part of Instagram, but Aniston has resisted.

Only a matter of weeks ago, she remained determined that it wasn’t for her, even as her colleagues racked up millions of followers. In an interview with US InStyle magazine, she questioned the wisdom of people viewing the world and life “through someone else’s lens, which has been filtered and changed… and then it’s ‘like me, don’t like me, did I get liked?’ There’s all this comparing and despairing”.

The world had enough noise and competing narratives already, seemed to be her message, without adding to it.

I swear I didn’t mean to break it… Thank you guys for the kind, glitchy welcome ❤️

A post shared by Jennifer Aniston (@jenniferaniston) on

Further, in another interview Aniston framed her refusal to join as a way of maintaining some privacy.

“The one thing I have is maintaining this little circle of sanctity that’s my own,” she said. “If I’m sitting here posting about my dogs or I’m boomeranging a coffee mug in the morning, that’s just giving away one more piece of something that is mine.”

More recently, however, while promoting her forthcoming movie, The Morning Show – yes, a new movie coming out – Aniston seemed to be loosening her firmly held position on Instagram.

“I’m on this TV show couch and I’m very happy to be here, and we’ll see what else I get on,” Aniston said. “I’m only human,” she went on. “Eventually, I will cave.”

You could say, at this point, that Aniston was going with the flow because everyone else is. It brings to mind the way we say to teenagers: “If all your friends were jumping off a cliff, would you jump too?”

Of course the teenagers’ answer to that is, “Eh, yes.” And so it may be with Aniston.

It was Reese Witherspoon, perhaps, a brilliant operator as an actress who has also built a successful career as a producer with a good eye for marketable, female-driven material, who convinced Aniston to get on the gram.

Last week, in a joint junket to promote The Morning Show, Aniston’s co-star Witherspoon spelled out the manner in which Instagram has allowed her to control her public narrative.

She told how last year, a tabloid story was published that she and actress Jennifer Garner were both pregnant. Witherspoon went on Instagram and directly addressed Garner with, “‘Say, Jen, are you pregnant? Because I’m not. Wouldn’t that be cute though if we had babies at the same time?’ And it was gone.”

The false story, she said, just never grew legs.

One of the best parts of working with Jen is reliving my favorite lines from #FRIENDS! ? #theGreenSisters

A post shared by Reese Witherspoon (@reesewitherspoon) on

“Just like that?” says Aniston, who has never managed to shake off the sad-Jen tag, which has only been made worse by her divorce since from Justin Theroux.

“Just like that,” says Witherspoon, who has nearly 20m Instagram followers.

“Years ago [our image] was prescribed by a journalist,” she continued. “Now we have the chance to be in control of our own narrative.”

“That is appealing,” said Aniston. “I’ve got to get on social media.”

And she did.

In the past, Jennifer Aniston has tried to change the narrative. She’s written published tracts about body-shaming and making assumptions about people, including her, who are divorced or who don’t have kids or who aren’t 22 any more. Those well-framed opinions won headlines for a while, but the narrative on Aniston always had a habit of returning to the same old track.

On Instagram, already, Aniston seems like someone who has, as Witherspoon suggested, taken control. She hasn’t done much, but maybe it doesn’t take much.

Incidentally, her tagline is “My friends call me Jen”. Maybe this is a cynical read, but I take that to mean, “If you don’t know me, don’t assume to.”

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