America's New Sweethearts

photo by SplashNewsOn Monday, an interview between Mila Kunis and a starstruck BBC reporter went viral. The meeting was supposed to cover Kunis' new movie "Oz: The Great and Powerful" but curiously veered off course into a debate about football, chicken, and Blue Moon beer. Unfazed by the bait and switch (even when the reporter asked her out), Kunis handled the moment with panache, earning her kudos on the Internet as America's newest sweetheart.

While the origins of the phrase "America's Sweetheart" are unclear, it's a crown worn by countless Hollywood "It" women in film or music. In the 60s there was Audrey Hepburn, the 70s ushered in Valerie Bertinelli, the 80s was the decade of Meg Ryan, and the 90s were all about Sandra Bullock, Reese Witherspoon, and Jennifer Aniston.

These women were pretty but not sexy, wholesome but not boring, and always wore a megawatt permagrin. On the red carpet they were dainty, posing with stiff smiles and stiffer hair; on screen, they were cast in one-dimensional rom-com roles with costars like Matthew McConaughey and Patrick Dempsey. Their private lives were tame—most were married or single but rarely (gasp) divorced or playing the field in any sort of obvious way. 

However, over the past five years a cultural shift has occurred and the sweethearts of yore have lost their luster. For starters, audiences are slowly losing patience for the sticky sweet rom-com genre that doesn't exactly reflect the modern day complexities of dating, exposed and complicated by social media. Then there's the rise of reality television—one study published in the "Journal of Consumer Research" found that people are drawn to non-scripted drama so they can secretly compare themselves to reality star behavior (living with total strangers, eating insects, screwing old-fashioned courtship for quickie marriages). We're also less obsessed with romance overall, with recent Pew research showing that couples are waiting longer than ever to settle down. And finally, audiences have been suffering from too much of a good thing. If you do want to watch a romantic film, your choices are mainly limited to films starring Kate Hudson or Sandra Bullock.

Enter the new genre of sweetheart: She's a bit of a tomboy, she's not stick-thin, her private life isn't perfect, and she doesn't give a shit what anyone thinks. Mila Kunis with her exotic Ukrainian background and edgy roles is rarely gussied up and often photographed downing coffee in her sweatpants with infamous cheater Ashton Kutcher. Then there's Jennifer Lawrence—she has wardrobe malfunctions, trips up stairs, allegedly smokes pot, hates makeup, and flips off the press. Taylor Swift looks angelic with her gangly limbs, long blond locks, and alabaster skin but she constantly courts trouble by dating notorious players like John Meyer, Taylor Lautner, and Harry Styles and blabbing about it.

These are women who, despite their flaws, you know you could party with. They're funny, self-deprecating, and possess a laid back coolness that's enviable. When they claim to slog away at the gym to maintain their figure, you believe them, and they never order dressing on the side. They're part of a new sweetheart club in Hollywood that's even tougher to break into than the original crew.

If you're trying to crossover, good luck with that. When Sandra Bullock married tattooed reality star Jesse James in 2005, eyebrows were raised. When his infidelity was exposed in 2010, people called her "permanently broken" and idiotic for trusting him. Meg Ryan, the girl-next-door star of films such as "When Harry Met Sally" , "Sleepless in Seattle" and "You've Got Mail" dropped off the Hollywood scene after cheating on husband Dennis Quad with bad-ass costar Russell Crowe. And it definitely didn't work for Katherine Heigl who made a career out of portraying cookie-cutter roles in flicks such as "27 Dresses", "New Years Eve", and "One For the Money." In January 2011 she told Cosmo UK, "Hollywood likes to label everyone so you're easier to identify. I didn't mind it; I got mouthy, the way a child does when you celebrate them for something. The mouthier I got, the more I'd be celebrated. I was like, 'You think that's outspoken? How about this…' Then it bit me in the hand."

And finally, there's Anne Hathaway who eternally carries the torch for her old-school cohorts. She's determined to hang onto her sweetheart status, apologizing profusely for her fashion choices, smiling eagerly for her close-up in the face of her critics.