January Jones and the Fight for a Public Persona

Since giving birth to her son in 2011, actress January Jones has been the subject of a very popular guessing game. I don’t know if it’s going on in whispers in Hollywood, but it flares up from time to time in the tabloids and exists constantly on various snarky, Hollywood-related websites.

It has to do with the paternity of her child. Jones is the biological mother of her offspring but has never revealed the identity of the father. This, of course, has lead to a wild degree of speculation with potential guesses ranging from the possible to the completely outrageous.

The paternity of her child, of course, isn’t anyone’s business but her and her son’s but such high principals is not going to end this ad hoc, slightly unseemly, parlor game of guess the sperm donor.

In some ways, it was probably Jones’ own honesty which has created this predicament for her. Rather than create a ruse, give fake credit to a sperm bank or asking a male friend to pretend and play along about the parentage, Jones just told the truth. Or, at least, as much of the truth as she wanted to.

Unfortunately for her though, enquiring minds want to know!, or at least they feel they have to know in this day of continuous news speculation, public exposure via Facebook and runaway paparazzi.

And, sadly, the discretion on Jones’s part is slowly beginning to overshadow all other aspects of her career, work and public persona. When it comes to Jones, all anyone seems to be focusing on these days is the big, big question: who is her “baby daddy”?

(As an aside: we sure are preoccupied with reproduction in the US. There’s the endless pro-choice/pro-life debate; enduring “Mommy Wars” over women who don’t have children but ongoing discomfort with women who have too many—like the Octomom or Michelle Duggar; there’s near obsessive speculation over visible “baby bumps” protruding from Beyonce and others; and then there’s the constant bidding wars for baby pictures of celebrity newborns… It’s almost as if childbirth was something new and hasn’t been going on for centuries, but I digress.)

What is befalling Jones is something that—for better or worse—anyone in any sort of public life must keep in mind as they progress with their career. I think of it as John McEnroe Syndrome. McEnroe, now retired, is one of the greatest male tennis players ever. Yet, ask most people about McEnroe (or “Super Brat”, as he’s known in England) and they probably won’t recall any of his Wimbledon wins or US Open victories. Instead, most people will only recall McEnroe’s notorious on-court antics, his fights with umpires and other exhibitions of unsportsman-like conduct. So strong is his reputation for outbursts and tantrums that they (it) has forever muddied his legacy.

Other celebrities face or have faced similar conflicts within their fame. Another athlete, Bruce Jenner, will now probably forevermore be remembered as part of the great Kardashian reality circus and not for his athletic abilities or for his long broadcasting career. Similarly, stars ranging in type from Fatty Arbuckle to Tallulah Bankhead to O.J. Simpson have all bastardized their celebrity with behavior that has ranged from the unfortunate to the overly indulgent to the downright criminal.

Some celebrities, of course, find their images forever altered after their death. Joan Crawford’s public persona forever got switched after the publication of her daughter Christina’s book, Mommie Dearest, in 1978. And was Elvis’s drug use and other proclivities known while he was alive? They are certainly known now and are certainly part and parcel of his legend.

Some stars have persona-altering shifts inflicted upon them from outside sources. Jodie Foster certainly seemed destined to be known only as John Hinkley’s obsessive object of affection rather than a gifted actress and talented director, had she not so fiercely worked to regain control of her career and public image in the years after.

Indeed, career and public persona rehab can be achieved with hard enough labor and a careful eye to how one’s behavior reads to the masses. Robert Downey, Jr. (once most famous as a punchline for drug abuse) and Britney Spears are recent examples of people who have pulled themselves back together and once again become known for something other than their respective scandals.

Of course, I also thoroughly believe that some “famous” people don’t care one whit how they are viewed or remembered by the masses, as long as they are at least remembered. Zsa Zsa Gabor and Jayne Mansfield seemed to have pioneered this sort of weird “celebrity”, where their “knowness” is not tied to any specific piece of work or achievement. They paved the way for the aforementioned Kardashians (who we don’t really know why they’re famous to begin with), not to mention every last one of the Real Housewives and other “Bravo-leberties”.

In contrast, January Jones has proved herself to be a capable actress in her signature role as Betty Draper on AMC’s Mad Men and she’s been celebrated for her dressing sense so many times on E!’s Fashion Police, that she also seems to be an emerging style icon. Still, legitimate talent (as we’ve seen with McEnroe, et.al.) is no vaccine against what people eventually become famous or infamous for. A

The longer Jones maintains her silence, the more distorted her image will no doubt become. (The guessing game will only intensify, once her son matures and speculations begins about who he supposedly looks like.) Hate to say it, but in terms of her pregnancy and her son, Jones should probably just come clean now if she wants to stop having his paternity overwhelm her work.

It’s even more unfortunate to say, but she probably should just have lied about the whole damn thing to begin with. It’s just too hard, or at least exhausting, to try to keep a secret these days, no matter how noble the reason.