It is a truth universally acknowledged that a celebrity man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of an equally lucrative, Instagram queen, botox-fuelled wife. So well-ingrained is this mentality, that the latest phenomenon to explode upon social media has been instigated not by the Syrian Civil War, nor the New York terror blasts, nor even the latest Calais controversy. Instead? The jewel-encrusted announcement of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s impending divorce: a break-up poised to garner more heartbreak than Romeo and Juliet, and nearly as much angst as Bella and Edward.
“It’s a dark day in Hollywood,” crooned US Weekly magazine, while The Cut rapidly followed suit, immediately ﬁ ring seven theories as to the couple’s split, from “Russian hookers” to an oh-so-speciﬁc “incident” that “affected the entire family”. Piers Morgan, meanwhile, has blamed Donald Trump.
A break-up poised to garner more heartbreak than Romeo and Juliet
The story of Brangelina is as central to celebrity culture as Noah’s Ark is to the Bible; meeting on the set of Mr and Mrs Smith in 2004, Pitt’s ensuing divorce with American sweetheart, Jennifer Aniston and subsequent relationship with Jolie unleashed one of the most bitter celebrity feuds in Hollywood history. To women, Jolie represented the ultimate vixen, Pitt the sociopathic womanizer, consolidated by a Vanity Fair interview in 2005, in which Aniston famously wept “there’s a sensitivity chip missing here”. However, by 2014, Brangelina were marketed as the ultimate “relationship ideal”, cementing a marital standard with which all celebrity relationships were to be assessed.
As a brand, Brangelina have hardly been one of the most striking couples of contemporary Tinseltown. In contrast with the bombastic pomposity of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, or the childish aestheticism of Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston, Brangelina are almost like the couple next door, armed with a mere eight Oscar nominations and a small army of adopted children. Yet, their divorce is set to mark an especially lucrative milestone in celebrity culture, one paved by tabloid magazines and riddled with a scathing objectiﬁcation of human relationships.
The scandal of a celebrity break-up is hardly a new phenomenon for gossip columnists; since the launch of Twitter and Instagram in the 2000s, the obsession with celebrity culture has reached stratospheric heights. From the “conscious uncoupling” of Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin, to rumoured tensions between Jay Z and Beyoncé, both tabloids and stars themselves have found lucrative methods with which to harness their own marital griefs. While Gwyneth Paltrow has since established herself as an entrepreneurial “empress” with lifestyle publication, Goop, Beyoncé has earned nearly $2 million worth of heartbreak compensation with her latest album, Lemonade.
Yet, as My News LA has smugly highlighted, the Brangelina breakup “is in a league of its own”. Not only (for those heartbroken fans sobbing into their ice cream) has it unleashed an unprecedented Twitter storm of Jennifer Aniston memes and Illuminati-style conspiracy theories, but it has also utterly uprooted the relationship ideal consumerist culture has so vehemently hinged upon.
At the core of the Brangelina obsession, there lies a fear of individualism
Say what you will: as far as celebrity couplings go, Brangelina seemed pretty darn genuine. In spite of the rumoured inﬁ delities, the remunerative Hollywood careers, the charity endorsements, Brangelina maintained a refreshingly human quality in the cesspit of the celebrity stratosphere. Far from the materialistic glamour of other celebrity unions, Pitt’s Tumblr-induced confession about Jolie’s breakdown in 2013 was marked by a far more primitive compassion than often riddles celebrity culture; a primal veracity that is too often quashed by the consumerist quest for perfection.
As such, the media obsession with Brangelina’s split is riddled by more than a destruction of “the dream that love can last”. Mary Valle’s somewhat ironic recognition – “It’s sad no matter what happened. The Jolie-Pitts bore the ﬂag of love and family and commitment for humanity for all of us” – brutally
exposes the superﬁcial idolatry with which relationships are now portrayed in the public consciousness.
Where chivalry and courtly love were once extolled by Medieval poets, contemporary scholars (by which I mean The Daily Mail and Instagram) have since ﬂayed such ideals, lauding instead the juxtaposing visions of lad culture and superﬁcial #relationshipgoals. At best, such paradigms serve as an empowering reclamation of single life, glorifying the sexualised, ambitious single ﬁgure and parodying the emotional potency with which relationships are equated. However, at worst such ideas represent a devastating incomprehension of loneliness, substituting self-love and respect for outdated gender stereotypes and the facade that genuine happiness can only be found in the constraints of a relationship. Certainly, coverage surrounding the split has already been condemned for its “toxic sexism” and its overexposure, with Susan Sarandon criticising CNN’s prioritisation of the divorce over the death of Terrence Crutcher, a black man killed by police.
Yet, such issues are hardly exclusive to the Brangelina controversy; Amber Heard was described as a “manipulative arsehole” by comic Doug Stanhope following her divorce from Johnny Depp and allegations of domestic abuse; meanwhile excessive coverage of the Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston relationship was dissected by Bridie Jabour as a “suspicion of successful women…a need for women to know their place”.
For both Pitt and Jolie, the termination of their 12 year long relationship is sure to bring with it the inevitable grieving period: the custody struggles, the sobbing into tequila bottles, the battle to re-establish an individual identity in the public eye. Yet, for the tabloids, the divorce has enabled a new gold-coated angle with which to assert their own shallow analysis of individual relationships.
As Susan Cain has argued, “our world prizes extroverts” and, as such, the idea of being alone is all too often confused with that of loneliness. It is perhaps for this reason that relationships are so tirelessly dissected by the media, constructing diamond pedestals with which to ogle the latest, hottest celebrity couple. Yet at the core of the Brangelina obsession there lies a fear of individualism, a need to idolise the sexualised “lad”, the “empowered” single woman, or the “perfect” couple.
Although a mere celebrity scandal, at the heart of the coverage are intertwined themes as old as society itself: a pressure to love, a desire to be loved, and the all-encompassing horror at feeling alone.