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Jennifer Garner’s Good-Girl Image Has Become Her Business

Jennifer Garner hasn’t been a major movie star in years. So why are gossip magazines so invested in her?

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Over the last two years, Jennifer Garner has appeared in three movies: Miracles From Heaven, a feel-good Christian movie that grossed a respectable $73 million worldwide; Nine Lives, which features Kevin Spacey turning into a cat, and grossed $19 million; and Wakefield, a would-be prestige drama costarring Bryan Cranston, which grossed just $252,000 in limited release before heading to IFC. That doesn’t mean she’s become invisible: If anything, she’s become even more present in most people’s lives, serving as the spokeswoman for Capital One Bank, smiling cheerfully in credit card commercials (including one featuring her dad), and for Neutrogena, spreading ultra-sheer sunscreen on her legs while wearing a white bathing suit. She gets massive speaking fees for corporate conferences, as she did this past June for Fast Enterprises, a software company holding a retreat in the Bahamas.

She’s no longer Jennifer Garner, movie star. She’s Jennifer Garner, brand. Of course, all stars are brands, but when stars stop appearing in successful films or television shows, they become reliant on their brand as a main revenue stream. These types of brands are the bare bones, the emboldened outlines, of the star’s original, fleshed-out image.

Garner’s original star image, largely rooted in Alias and 13 Going on 30, was that of a plucky naïf — who, when necessary, could put on a costume of sexiness or badassery. The “good girl,” as Garner herself once put it. As her film career began to fade over the course of the 2000s, her role as a wife (to Ben Affleck) and mom (to three children) began to mirror the work once performed onscreen. Today, her occasional film appearances are mere punctuation for the larger brand narrative of goodness, innocence, and, by extension, trustworthiness that have made her the perfect ambassador for skin care products and credit card companies.

When reports of Affleck’s affairs threatened to mire their images in scandal, Garner made the decision to “do what’s best for the family”: separate, and eventually divorce, but continue to spend time together with the kids. That decision — not quite “stand by your scumbag man,” but stand somewhat close to him while smiling politely — has only reinforced the Garner brand, especially as continued revelations about Affleck’s relationships give her new opportunities to demonstrate her goodness. That’s how a relatively boring celebrity like Garner, without a major movie project in sight, has reemerged as a gossip fixture: not for her participation in scandal, but for her resistance to it.

After romance, family is the easiest way to reactivate the remnants of a star’s image. First, there’s the pregnancy, and the raft of photo opportunities that accompany it — the paparazzi market hinges on celebrities looking different in public, and nothing provides constant, visible change like a pregnant body. Then there’s the reveal of the baby’s name, the first photos of the baby, the stories of what it’s like at home with the baby, and how it’s changing your relationship, and what a good father your partner is. And it just keeps growing from there: more kids, more stories, more chances to dress those kids in cute clothes and tell adorable stories about their antics at home, more ways to make the celebrity mom feel “just like us,” all while keeping the celebrity’s name in the press and, by extension, keep their brand relevant.

That’s a cynical way to conceive of how celebrities plot their personal lives, and most celebrities fall somewhere on the spectrum between “total exploitation” (see: many reality stars) and total privacy (Eva Mendes). With her marriage to Ben Affleck, and the subsequent birth of their three children, Jennifer Garner positioned herself in the most desirable celebrity sweet spot: She performed motherhood in public, playing with her kids, taking them to froyo, dropping them off at school and church, but in a covert way that has never suggested exploitation. She was one of the stars who testified before the California Assembly for stronger paparazzi laws and advocated, along with Kristen Bell and Dax Shepard, for gossip outlets to institute policies banning the publication of paparazzi photos of celebrity children.

In March 2016, Garner made an appearance on Dr. Oz to share the “heartbreaking” story of why her 4-year-old son hates the paparazzi, and she has been effusive with her praise for outlets, like E!, which have adhered to self-imposed “no kids” policies. “Because of you all taking the stand and saying, ‘You know what, this is gross,’” she said, “everyone has fallen in line, and it is just going to change everything for my kids and I can’t thank you enough.”

But as Lainey Gossip has documented, Garner and Affleck have long taken “paparazzi strolls” or “paparazzi park trips” or made other appearances in places readily accessible to photographers at times when their relationship was in question, when Affleck’s brother Casey was under scrutiny, or when an Oscar was on the line. It’s a deft celebrity PR move: publicly denounce the commodification of your private life, even as you low-key invite it. (If you’re wondering if it’s possible for any contemporary celebrity to keep their children’s lives private, consider whether you know what any of Matt Damon’s children look like.)

This isn’t to suggest that Garner doesn’t want the best for her children. But maybe the best for her children includes still pulling in big paychecks when the market for female stars of her age, and her rom-com specialty, seems to be waning. She doesn’t post pictures of her kids on social media; she’s selective with how she shares stories about their lives. But she has turned her model of maternity into the backbone of her brand.

Doting, sure; filled with adorable stories, yes. All those things, like any picture of basically any celebrity child, appeal to her “Minivan Majority” base. But there’s something that endears her to that base even more, that’s kept her on magazine covers, and that her post-separation narrative has been instrumental in providing: She’s the good girl.

Goodness has always been central to the Garner image. In interviews over the last two decades, she and her family have commented at length about her inclination toward innocence, her rejection of profanity, her piety. In college, she joined a sorority but didn’t go to parties because she “felt sorry” for drunk people; she battled embarrassment whenever she had to wear a sexy costume on Alias. She married her Felicity costar Scott Foley, but when the pair divorced just three years later, she was ashamed: “I grew up being the good girl,” she said. “All the Garner girls are. We’re a good-girl family. So to think that people were reading something about me that could change their opinion… I had to learn that you just have to be OK with that and know you’re still a good girl. Your mother knows it, your sisters know it, everyone important to you knows it.”

The theory of the “good girl” and her role in social control was first set forth by family studies scholar Greer Litton Fox back in 1977. The good girl — also known as the “nice girl” or the “lady” — is, according to Fox, “chaste, gentle, gracious, ingenuous, good, clean, kind, virtuous, noncontroversial, and above suspicion and reproach.” Or, more precisely, she connotes those things — they are her image — even if she doesn’t actually live or embrace them.

In their contemporary iteration, good girls praise their husbands and their children on social media. They don’t cuss publicly. They have two glasses of wine, max. Good girls might have a job, but nothing in a power position. Good girls have domestic hobbies. Good girls don’t wear earrings that are too big or skirts that are too short or heels that are too high. Good girls use Match.com or eHarmony but never Tinder. Good girls might not be regular churchgoers, but they definitely believe in God. Good girls got him to put a ring on it. Good girls go to bars only in packs of other good girls. Good girls don’t want to talk about that one time they ended up in bed with someone they didn’t know. Good girls aren’t necessarily liberal or conservative, but they don’t think it’s very nice to talk about politics on Facebook. Good girls are legion. They’d never dream of making another woman feel bad about herself. And yet they so often do.

Good girls are legion. They’d never dream of making another woman feel bad about herself. And yet they so often do.

Fox argued that the idea of the “good girl” was one of three ways of controlling women’s submissive place in society. The most extreme and obvious way is through seclusion, in which women are not allowed entrance into the male spheres of society. The second is protection, in which women are allowed access, but only with a male chaperone or guide. The third, Fox argued, is normative restriction, in which women are ostensibly free, but still highly controlled — only the control comes from within, through the internalization of how a proper, acceptable, happy woman should act, look, and speak. And the primary way women have historically and contemporarily restricted themselves is through adherence to the idea of the “good girl.”

While seclusion and protection are generally applied to girls and women only when they become sexually viable, the compulsion toward niceness — and being quiet, cooperative, and controlled — lasts from toddlerhood to death. Girls today may be more publicly involved — in sports, in school government, in class — than when Fox formed her argument in the ’70s, but there’s still an expectation that any sort of activity that is not traditionally feminine should be countered with niceness. It’s okay to be an aggressive soccer player, in other words, so long as you’re not a bitch off the field.

Or, as soon as you hit puberty, a slut. Girls are also surrounded by suggestions that they self-objectify — but only for show, and never for their own pleasure. Like Garner’s character in Alias, a good girl might put on lingerie to play a character, but only so long as she knows, and everyone else knows, that she remains a good girl beneath.

Old-fashioned American puritanism is at the heart of this ideology, with the attendant understandings of shame and the need to constantly be proving one’s worthiness: Girls aren’t born “good”; they must strive for goodness every day. As Fox explains, “one’s identity as a ‘lady’ or as a ‘nice girl’ is never finally confirmed. Rather, it is continually in jeopardy, and one is under pressure to demonstrate one’s niceness anew by one’s behavior in each instance of social interaction.”

In order to maintain her brand’s viability — and bankability — Garner must continually prove her goodness. When her husband cheats on her with the nanny, she decides to fight for the family. When he continues to date the nanny, the family continues to go on vacations together — because it’s better for the kids. Goodness, at least in its American puritanical form, is all about suffering: The amount you endure, with a smile on your face and a “bless his heart” when asked about your husband’s back tattoo, is a testimony to just how truly good you are.

In order to maintain her brand’s viability — and bankability — Garner must continually prove her goodness.

From the outside, the last six months of Garner’s life have been filled with demonstrations of goodness: When she finally filed for divorce after nearly two years of separation, “sources” emphasized that she wasn’t ready for dating because Affleck was the love of her life. All of Garner’s decisions — including the one to have Affleck live in their pool house, and then nearby — were purportedly in service to “the important important thing: their children.” See: the invitation for Affleck to accompany Garner when she goes to speak in the Bahamas, because, as one source told Us Weekly, “Jen feels it most beneficial for the kids to have their father present.” When the news broke that Affleck’s affair predated the dissolution of the marriage, she stayed in “mama-bear mode ... putting the kids’ happiness first” and smiling for photographers after a trip to the gym. “She will always appear to be taking the high road,” Lainey Gossip explains. “Pleasant, keeping to herself, working on fitness with a friend.”

It’s unclear how much of this messaging comes from Garner herself, her publicists, or the magazines seeking out “sources” that confirm their narrative of Garner’s attitude. People Magazine has been willing to publish information about the extent of Affleck’s alleged affair with producer Lindsay Shookus (claiming that a source told People three years ago that Affleck and Shookus were “looking comfortable together” after his last stint hosting Saturday Night Live, which Shookus was then producing). E!, by contrast, has stuck by the narrative that nothing happened until after Affleck and Garner had separated — and that the dissolution of Shookus’s marriage had been a long time coming. Ultimately, it matters very little: Each version allows Garner an opportunity to quietly not be involved, to be the better woman, to perform goodness.

Gossip outlets also profit from this narrative: White female celebrities are a tough sell right now, but Garner — who has managed to market herself as both conservative and liberal, a good girl but not a good girl tainted by relation to Trump — fills a specific need. Us Weekly, which put Garner and Affleck on the cover of their June 28 issue, was recently purchased by American Media, which also owns the National Enquirer, Star, The Globe, and The Examiner. The company employs a complex algorithm, tested across its titles and others, to determine which celebrities sell magazines at a given moment. They wouldn’t have put Garner on the cover if the data didn’t suggest that she sold. (The cover's sales were up 18% over the week before).

Absent any new revelations — when that cover went to press, Affleck’s relationship had not yet come to light — Us knew how readers wanted their Jennifer Garner packaged. The cover photo was not from Garner and Affleck’s recent trip to the Bahamas, but from a previous trip, two years ago, after they first publicly announced their divorce. Affleck may have accompanied Garner to the Bahamas with their children, but the magazine needed a photographic suggestion of their uncoupled happiness — so they just photoshopped a different color shirt on him and let the headline do the suggestive work. Garner regularly provides evidence of her good-girl-ness, but when she doesn’t, the magazines and paparazzi and headline writers and “sources” do the work for her.

Whether Garner is participating in its manufacture or not, it’s clear that the good-girl image still has remarkable currency. It’s allowed Garner’s brand to thrive — and provided a path to continued relevancy and earnings beyond an age (35) and a point in her acting career at which Hollywood turns away from so many women. Yet it’s difficult to celebrate the endurance of this particular type of image: As Greer Litton Fox explained, the self-imposed restriction of the good girl is incredibly pernicious. It has “the virtue of subtlety,” she wrote; “it gives the appearance of nonrestriction and noncontrol, thus reducing the potential for resistance.” Garner might not be trying to tell other women how to live their lives, or shaming them for their inability to perform a certain type of femininity. But the salience of her image quietly does that work, regardless.

Writing in 1977, Fox felt hope for the decline of the good girl. “One of the impacts of the feminist movement in America has been to liberate women from the strictures of niceness,” she wrote. But 40 years later, and with the enduring relevance and regurgitation of a particular sort of Garner image, it’s clear that liberation is far from complete. ●


Correction: A previous version of this article suggested that Jennifer Garner met her first husband Scott Foley while co-starring in Alias. They met on Felicity.

Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.

Contact Anne Helen Petersen at anne.helen.petersen@buzzfeed.com.

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