Why did Brad and Angelina break up? Does anyone know or are we still grasping in the dark to make sense of this travesty? But why did we think they would never break up? Celebrities divorce all the time, so what makes this instance so disappointing?
A sentiment I saw repeated and retweeted on Twitter in the hours after the news broke was some variant of “if Brangelina can’t make it work, what hope is there for the rest of us?” It was a less openly misogynistic twist on the question circulating the Twittersphere after Beyonce dropped ‘LEMONADE’: “If even Beyonce gets cheated on, why should you ‘average’ women expect any different?” While I appreciate that some people are asking these questions with tongues firmly lodged in cheeks, there’s always a slice of truth behind most jokes – after all, that’s what often makes jokes actually funny.
As a generation, us millennials naturally feel we’re the most the progressive. We’re the ones ripping up and redefining the rulebook while the baby-boomers et al look on in horror, contempt and confusion. When it comes to relationships there is hand-wringing galore to be found in countless articles asking why we are so “commitment-phobic”, and then there’s the occasional address by an actual millennial explaining that we are just doing things “differently” – and better. “Beta marriages”, “hook-up culture”, polyamory and sexual fluidity are examples of the new language we use to talk about romantic relationships. More and more of us are apparently seeing marriage as it has been as an outdated institution – until it comes to celebrities of course, then we’re talking and thinking of horse and carriage fantasies once again.
Along with our dashed expectations of a glittering “happily ever after” for our fave celeb come the unspoken, but implicit patriarchal ideas about women and marriage. It was a little bit disorientating to see people who otherwise are loud progressive voices on my timeline making jokes and throwing shade about romantic rivalries (in case you need a refresher: Angelina Jolie “stole” Brad Pitt from Jennifer Aniston back in the 00s), and despairing over Angelina Jolie not being able to “keep” her husband. Yes, I know, they may have been joking, it may just have been “banter”, but the way we talk and joke about these things are not without significance or consequence. Jokes are based on unspoken understandings and assumptions, they normalise the logic that makes them funny. I don’t want to urinate on anyone’s parade, but it is what it is.
But, no, seriously: why did Brangelina break up? Why did the patron saints of familial bliss call it quits? On paper they were everything that we could hope to be: two people well-matched in attraction, bank balance and success, with a United Colors of Benetton brood of good-looking kids. They ticked all the boxes but also made a conventional relationship look effortlessly cool. They were perfect – or to be more precise, Angelina was perfect. From our voyeuristic vantage point she was everything that a modern woman is told to be: sexy but maternal, kick-ass but kind-hearted, rich but charitable, independent but loyal, career-driven but family-focused, public property yet intensely private. Somehow she managed to thoroughly embody all of those impossible dichotomies that feminists are obsessed with, and yet epitomising everything that womanhood is meant to be was not enough. She still couldn’t “make it work”. So what hope is there for the rest of us?
The end of any relationship or marriage is sad, but the collective mourning of Brangelina may speak to more than just sadness on behalf of our faves. It represents the end of a type of romantic fantasy that we have unknowingly held dear, the confirmation that dreams of perfection sold for our consumption are fickle and fallible. For women especially, who have been aggressively sold the idea that they are not enough, to see a woman like Angelina Jolie fall short of the fairytale ending can trigger an acute form of anxiety. Behind the jokes and the glib tweets, there are very real concerns about age and fertility, attractiveness and fidelity, and the messages about women and relationships that our culture tries to shove down our throats again and again.
Someone somewhere is going to say that I’m taking social media and celebrity coverage too seriously, but social media, though irreverent and fleeting, often catches us in moments of unguarded revelation as our stream of consciousness is translated digitally. Similarly, the media we consume and the lives we choose to live vicariously through speak a lot to our values and desires. What we are seeing is just the flippant tip of an iceberg that suggests stubbornly-held ideas about heterosexual relationships. We can either admit that the myths of patriarchy run deeper within us than we’d like to think, and try and address that…or we can transfer our fantasies and subconscious desires to the next shining examples of romantic bliss.
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Jendella Benson is a photographer, writer and filmmaker based in London. She writes about issues of faith, race, identity, feminism and the arts for various publications online and offline, and is also an occasional public speaker and workshop facilitator. She tweets regularly from @JENDELLA and more of her work can be found at www.jendella.co.uk.
You’re Doing It Wrong is a bi-monthly column by Jendella Benson on parenting, relationships, and the kaleidoscope of small victories, anxiety and unsolicited advice that is modern family life.