Blake Lively is not a great actress.
On Gossip Girl — a show built entirely around her — Lively wasn’t the sixth or seventh or even eighth best performer in a cast that also featured the likes of humanoid fawn Chace Crawford and Taylor Swift Babadook Taylor Momsen, both of whom outshone her. In The Town, which many critics have deemed Lively’s best film to date, she was lauded for being unremarkable — for not distracting from the rest of the movie. And in the new shark attack survival flick The Shallows, she delivers the best performance in the movie but spends most of its running time talking to a seagull and being chased by a shark.
But Lively deserves admiration nonetheless, because none of this even matters. She is the greatest success story the movie industry has ever seen.
In a recent article for MTV, Teo Bugbee runs down Lively’s many failures, noting their inability to fell the movie star:
Nothing can kill Blake Lively — not bad reviews, not bad box office numbers, not her lifestyle brand collapsing, not clueless comments about her Oakland booty, and not even Lively skeptic Megan Ellison, who dropped out as a financier on Steven Soderbergh’s Side Effects until Soderbergh promised to replace Lively with Rooney Mara.
Lively is bulletproof. Lively is titanium. Lively is the perfect diamond: beautiful, soulless, something to behold.
Who is Blake Lively?
The story of Blake Lively is a story of innocuous blankness. The industry of fame relies on the cycle of constructing an image and selling it to willing buyers. The interviews celebrities give, the tabloids they indulge, what they post on social media, the movies they pick and choose — they partake in some strange alchemy for public consumption in the hopes that what they think they’re selling is what we’re consuming.
This is why we have irrational crushes on internet boyfriends like Oscar Isaac (and Chris Pratt before him). This is why people irrationally idolize and empathize with cool girls like Brie Larson (and Jennifer Lawrence before her).
This is why people irrationally hated Anne Hathaway.
What we think we know about celebrities and project on them — their authenticity, their fakeness, their goals, their failures, their interests, their dislikes — we consume, we taste, we judge. And when this strange process is complete, certain celebrities become people we like, while others are left wanting.
But Blake Lively holds a special glimmer of distinction. She looks like a movie star. Her hair is golden, honey-spun. It catches the sun and flash photography like a piece of jewelry. Her teeth sparkle, whiter than paper. She’s beautiful in a way that wins you prom queen in a fairy-tale version of Southern California — a perfect avatar of blonde, casual and familiar. She looks like Malibu. She looks like joy.
But there’s no edge there. Lively’s greatest offense is not living up to her name.
Her gorgeous hair, no matter what movie she’s in, will always come down to her shoulders. It will always be blond. She will always smile the same way in ads as she does in front of the paparazzi. She will never stray far from what Blake Lively is supposed to look like, from how Blake Lively is supposed to behave.
In interviews, Lively is openly dull. "I don’t know if I have ever been on a date," she told the Cut in 2013 when asked about her first one. "There are so many choices I could make, but only a few that I can’t not make," she told Vogue in 2014, sounding like a Successories motivational poster, in an interview where she also revealed that she’d never had a drink in her life.
In perhaps the Blake Liveliest interview in recent memory, People and Entertainment Weekly editorial director Jess Cagle tried to compliment Lively by acknowledging that she "styles" herself. "Everybody in the whole world does their own styling," Lively responded, shrugging off the credit. "They wake up in the morning and they put clothes on themselves." Blake Lively is an everyman.
Culture critics have expressed their boredom accordingly. She’s been called "Beige" Lively. When she and Ryan Reynolds got married in 2012, Caity Weaver wrote for Gawker that "Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds' wedding is the most interesting thing they've ever done," a response to the couple’s choice to get married in the South, despite Lively being from California and Reynolds from Canada. In the MTV piece quoted above, Bugbee describes Lively as "pleasant blankness." And Dlisted, a celebrity snark site, once referred to Lively as "a tepid lump of cream of wheat."
Even her controversies are harmless. In 2014, Lively created a (now defunct) lifestyle brand called Preserve. One of the brand’s online fashion stories was called "The Allure of Antebellum" and romanticized the sartorial tastes of white women in the Confederate South. Lively and her brand were deemed racist, a charge that many people quickly seemed to forget.
And earlier this year, Lively posted a photo of her butt on Instagram with the caption "L.A. face with an Oakland booty," a reference to Sir Mix-a-Lot’s derriere paean "Baby Got Back." Mix-a-Lot himself has explained that the lyric is a comment on beauty, that LA is supposed to mean Hollywood or a heavily made-up face, whereas an Oakland booty is authentic and real.
It’s a safe bet that Lively interpreted the line differently, and believed she was saying she has the face of a white woman and the butt of a woman of color. Regardless, her biggest critics were upset that she seemed to be using women of color as a punchline, unknowingly or not.
At her absolute worst, Lively is just mildly ignorant. Preserve’s antebellum kerfuffle and her interpretation of "Baby Got Back" are groan-worthy but not enough to ruin a day. Her flubs aren’t interesting. It takes effort to feel things, good or bad, about Lively. And her controversies are just like her triumphs — sort of forgettable.
Blake Lively is thriving in spite of our changing celebrity culture
More so than in the past, today’s film, music, and TV celebrities are overwhelmingly accessible. They used to separate their personal and professional lives, to keep their thoughts and viewpoints largely to themselves while revealing only a small portion of themselves in public. It wasn’t too long ago that celebrities frequently complained about paparazzi and prying magazines.
Now celebrities showcase flashes of their personal lives on social media. As with any human who posts things online, there’s some curation or editing going on behind the scenes, as they decide what to show to the world. But the result is a sense that we know these people and their lives. We can easily guess which photos are staged and which ones are raw. (Glance at Rihanna’s Twitter or Instagram feeds and you can tell when her record company takes over.)
The masters of this changing world of celebrity are the Kardashian scions, who have cracked, hacked, and parlayed this illusion of intimacy into millions of dollars.
Social media has vaporized the line between fandom and friendship. And what make Lively fascinating is that she feels like an acquaintance.
Her Instagram feed skews toward eternal high school senior.
It is a treasure trove of young photos of Blake Lively, proof that Blake Lively existed before becoming adult Blake Lively. It’s also a place where she shows off her fingers and the combinations of things she puts on them (rings, nail polish, rings, nail polish, rings, nail polish). There are many shots of her various appearances on late-night talk shows — proof that adult Blake Lively was on these shows.
There are also inspirational memes, a quote from Sheryl Sandberg scrawled onto an image of a woman’s red lips, or one about Mondays written on a pink Pantone background. I like this one, a smiley face on a skateboard preaching about self-acceptance:
Lively frequently posts pictures of herself taken by other people, like this one where she’s being interviewed by Entertainment Tonight:
Or this candid shot that would appear in something like Us Weekly or InStyle:
Or this red carpet photo:
And when it comes to selfies, most of them are taken before, during, or after red carpet events. This one might be the most candid, with Lively and her pals sort of eating dessert out of a paper cup (with Lively sporting a perfectly made up face):
Whether it’s her intention or not, Lively’s Instagram — the persona she’s putting out there — feels like something to be admired rather than something to relate to. But it’s impossible to tell whether Lively is a bland, nice woman or an actress playing a caricature of a bland, nice woman.
In a sense, that doesn’t make her any different from many of her fellow actors.
Are Ryan Gosling and Chris Pratt goofy, funny regular dudes or just playing goofy regular dudes? Is Jennifer Lawrence faking her falls and awkwardness, or is she truly just clumsy and weird? Is Anne Hathaway so much of an overachieving theater kid that she can’t help it, or is she just playing a character? And how much of any of these celebrities’ personas is just a product of what we collectively project onto them?
But there is no indication that there’s something beneath or a life beyond the interviews where Lively talks about not having first dates and not drinking. And there’s no impetus for anything other than beholding Blake Lively.
Blake Lively is a reminder that Hollywood isn’t a meritocracy
In her debut film, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, Lively starred alongside a fresh crop of talented actresses with more experience and accolades than her: America Ferrera, who was known for her performance in Real Women Have Curves; Alexis Bledel, whose portrayal or Rory Gilmore on Gilmore Girls would eventually make it a beloved series worthy of a Netflix rebirth; and Amber Tamblyn, who was the motor behind Joan of Arcadia.
Lively, who has earned perhaps the least amount of critical praise of the four, has been the most marketable and prolific actress since Sisterhood.
On Gossip Girl, she was paired with a squad of young, good-looking co-stars: Leighton Meester, Ed Westwick, Penn Badgley, and Crawford. From the start of the series until the very end, Meester’s Blair Waldorf eclipsed Lively’s Serena van der Woodsen. "Though her Serena Van der Woodsen has, in many ways, taken a back seat to Blair Waldorf as the driving engine of the show, Lively remains the face, if not the, er, soul, of the series," Vulture wrote in 2011.
And Lively herself stated that she had eventually grown bored with the teen soap. That she wasn’t giving it her full effort. That she was going through the motions instead of trying to make it and herself better. She told Vogue in 2014:
I felt like I had atrophied in a way. We had to produce so many episodes so quickly. And when you’re working fifteen-hour days, ten months a year, the only time you have for real life is between takes. So you’re not really acting anymore. You’re reciting. I could have fought harder and made Gossip Girl something different, but I also needed to have a life, you know?
When it comes to her movies, the aforementioned Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants is still her biggest hit, and her performance in The Town is still considered her best. And though she hasn’t given a performance that befits a leading star (her movies’ Metacritic scores are drenched in yellow), that hasn’t stopped studios from trying to help her achieve one with movies like Age of Adaline and The Shallows.
If Lively didn’t look the way she does, it’s impossible to imagine her getting the attention and roles that she does. The criticism she’s received is understandable. She’s proof and reminder of the ugly truth that in Hollywood, hard work, talent, and intelligence all take a back seat to appearance.
"You’ve found the perfect woman — all blonde and no edges, so smooth it’s like she’s not even there," Bugbee wrote at MTV.
But is the criticism against Blake Lively unfair?
But what makes Lively different from any other good-looking actress in Hollywood? What makes her different from Liam Hemsworth, Robert Pattinson, Sam Claflin, Zac Efron — actors whose good looks outweigh their skills?
We ask actresses to be more than their roles.
We expect Megan Fox to be smarter than the midriff-baring characters she plays, and we laugh at her when she isn’t. We ask Jennifer Lawrence to be "cool" but are really quick to declare her "peak" over in a way we don’t with our "internet boyfriends." We ask Anne Hathaway to not try so hard, but wouldn’t dream of doing the same to fellow theater kid Neil Patrick Harris or similarly overexposed actors like Jason Sudeikis and Kevin Hart. (Hathaway has been in two movies since the beginning of 2015, Sudeikis in six, and Hart five.)
Watching Lively dodge a shark in The Shallows was one of the first times I found myself rooting for her. She exhibits an awareness of herself, a hint that she’s in on the joke a bit — she seems just as over the gratuitous zipping and unzipping of her wetsuit as the audience is. It’s also her best onscreen performance in a recent memory, even though her main co-star is a sea bird. When the lines are so clearly drawn — shark or woman — it’s easy to cheer for her.
But outside of that pocket of fiction, Lively represents something to us. A blameless, soulless, gorgeous blonde. And like all celebrities, the feelings this boring specter conjures — the frustration that she gets rewarded over and over; our thirst for something interesting about her; our desire for her to be more, be better — reveals more about us than it does about Lively.