In 2003, I was 18 and so was Keira Knightley. I was finishing my A-levels, wearing Scissor Sisters T-shirts and getting drunk in small pubs in my local town. Meanwhile, Knightley was becoming a Big Deal. She’d just gone stratospheric, thanks to Pirates Of The Caribbean and Love Actually, both released that year.
And, somewhere in my 18-year-old brain, the following image of Knightley was emblazoned, like an inverse scarlet letter, privately reminding me of what I wasn’t:
Knightley's character in Love Actually stands at the front door, as her new husband’s best friend comes to tell her that she is “perfect”. There’s a signature Richard Curtis overkill of romance – falling snow, the Dylan-esque boards, Christmas carols and unrequited love. And I can still vividly remember the off-the-shoulder jumper: how it sat just-so on her tiny frame, the gap between her blue jeans and the white wool, casually revealing her flat stomach. I remember her straight, Rachel Green hair, which curved around her face with an impossible shine. I remember her dancing eyes and that huge smile. And, yes, she kind of was “perfect”, or, at least, she embodied what we’d been told “perfect” was.
So, is that why we hated her? And I mean, really hated her. Because that’s what I also remember. There was no one more disliked by women at that moment. Sure, it was a healthy serving of pure jealousy; we were 18 and unsure about the world and she was a film star, but she certainly wasn’t the only young actor who made the rest of us feel so very average. Perhaps it was that it all looked so effortless – like the way the jumper sat just-so above the jeans, her perfection seemed to come so naturally, like she hadn’t even noticed what the rest of us still remember 15 years later. Down the line, at university, her name cropped up occasionally. Women would roll their eyes. They could never quite articulate what it was. Was she just a mirror that left us looking hollow and disappointed in ourselves – one closer to home than American movie stars? Or was she annoying because we were so annoyed that someone else's success dripped off them so completely, like she’d just stepped out of a shower – her skin glistening in the light of her endless achievements? Were we just jealous?
Over the years, I’ve often wondered about this hatred – seemingly explainable and yet unarticulated by many, with a totally mean, unjustified venom, the kind that is often fetishised in women. I thought about it when I saw her in a blush pink, Chanel strapless dress teamed with aviators on her wedding day in the south of France. There she goes again, I thought, looking achingly, effortlessly excellent. Is that what it is? This daily struggle imposed upon us by imposible images seems to comes so easily to her. Do we feel like she wins at this exhausting game that we never actually asked to be part of?
So, who or what did we really hate? Keira Knightley, or the ingrained expectations that suddenly felt so heavy as 18-year-old women entering the real world for the first time?
And, now, she’s back in the limelight, talking about the pain she suffered after all that success; she had a breakdown at 22, she was diagnosed with PTSD, she didn’t leave the house for months. She told The Hollywood Reporter: “Everyone thinks you're shit, or focusing on your looks, or focusing on what's wrong with you. And, again, I was 19 – you can only hear the negative stuff." Could she hear us all? Could she hear our jealousy? And could we ever have known that we were on the other side of the same coin as Keira Knightley, and that she felt as shit as we did, if not worse?
Knightley’s confession of a breakdown is yet more evidence that there never really seems to be a winner when it comes to being a woman. Of course, there are some very obvious distinctions – Knightley is white and rich, and that isn’t insignificant. But Knightley’s story reminds us that even those women, who we think are effortlessly perfect, struggle, and that a system that tells women their value is in how they look doesn’t even work out for the women who do the best job of subscribing to that very system. Knightley was white, thin and conventionally beautiful, and yet she still felt completely trampled on by the same world that celebrated those things. Yes, Knightley could pay for her “deep therapy”, she could take a year off on the road – her privilege made her recovery much more accessible. But, nonetheless, her story is an important reminder that when “perfection” is succumbing to a singular, male-centric notion of how women should look, it’s actually closer to punishment.
So, who or what did we really hate? Keira Knightley, or the ingrained expectations that suddenly felt so heavy as 18-year-old women entering the real world for the first time? It was the early noughties, and we were a long way from the push for diversity we see in the media today. Keira Knightley was our scapegoat, and, for that, I’m truly sorry.