On the rise and fall of America's premiere celebrity couple
Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt have called it quits. Cue the trumpets, man the horns. That rustle you hear is the world arranging itself carefully into camps: no, not #TeamJolie or #TeamJen, but teams #ThoseWhoCare and #ThoseWhoDon't.
But here's the thing: Anyone who cares enough to say they don't care is really just showing how hard it is to resist the lure of American frivolity.
Brangelina first took America by storm in 2005, when Twitter was still gestating. And while this news smacks of the early aughts, it brings with it a certain (very 2016) pressure to respond. When Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt were plastered across magazines 11 years ago, you could guiltily read in airports without anyone being the wiser. Now, things are different. There are tens of thousands of tweets about the breakup. The couple is "trending" on Facebook. What will you say? Will you marshal the proper GIFs?
Yes, virtually everything else happening in the world right now is objectively more important than a celebrity breakup. In world-historical terms, Skittles outrank the news that the Jolie-Pitts will in the future reside in different spectacularly opulent homes. How fatuous to take this news seriously — how foolish to call it "news" at all.
But when we have a reality television star running for president — a figure who knows little except how to feed America's basest cravings for entertainment — it's incumbent upon us to think seriously about frivolity. This is not a moment to pinch our noses and pretend celebrity gossip is beneath us. It is above us: literally sometimes, on a jet, eating Kentucky Fried Chicken and grinning rapaciously into the camera. It is already reading intelligence briefings. It could conceivably dictate who will live and who will die.
So what, if anything, does the story of Brangelina's demise and the story of Trump's rise tell us about how our frivolous obsessions have evolved?
Well, let's begin by asking what about the Brangelina story tickled the American id in the first place. Was it the beauty of the parties involved? Their wealth? Their power? The implied morality tale? The simple, deliciously hopeless symmetry of a love triangle that sorts people into winners and losers? Was it the unexpected collapse of the golden Aniston-Pitt All-American alliance, which seemed so sunny and easygoing and conclusive (he designed their wedding rings himself)? Or the domestication of Jolie's particular brand of blood-vial-wearing outrageousness?
It was all of these, I think— a roux of shifting gender roles that thickened viewers' fascination with Jolie and their simple fondness for Aniston, who they'd been watching on Friends for years and developed defensive feelings about. But the public's rabid interest was also a function of the delight Americans took at the time in being transparently lied to.
Yes, I said delight. Celebrity image management has long been a contest between public relations people and the public, and America's bloodthirst for gossip in 2005 was spiked by a rising tide of gossip blogs and our simmering, still-new love of reality TV. These are genres that dangerously mix credulity and skepticism. It is the publicist's job to lie. It is the celebrity journalist's job to give the public the bare minimum if they want to keep their access to famous people. It fell to us, then, to figure out the truth. We not only came to understand this, we relished the challenge of early scandal detection. Americans spent the 2000s being trained to look for the story behind the story — whether there was one or not.
There's a lot of hand-wringing these days over how the public came to harbor such contempt for "the media." There's a lot of merit to explanations like this one, but I suspect reality TV and the meteoric rise of the gossip blog had a lot to do with the erosion of public trust. How thin was the line separating celebrity journalism from journalism?
Even as blogs distributed more images of drunk and drugged stars doing crazy things, more conventional outlets (even gossipy ones like E!) tended to keep parroting publicists' lines about people being "hospitalized for exhaustion." Through gossip blogs, the public got its first glimpse at how persistently it was being lied to — yes, about small stuff that doesn't matter, but lied to nonetheless. We also got used to reading between the lines for the truth, and projecting it when it wasn't there. That training is a crucial side effect of the frivolous side of our culture. And remember, Americans spend a lot of their precious free time on that frivolous side.
Seen this way, reality television was kind of a relief. Sure, it was a little more scripted than it claimed to be. But it was also more straightforward, less analytically exhausting. The genre put real people under artificial constraints that led to people behaving badly and entertainingly, and we came to love the outrageous ones the most; they were high-energy, compelling, driven. Evil, maybe, but whatever: They were the ones worth watching.
Looking back, it was probably around this time, when American viewing habits were in radical flux, that a Trump candidacy began to seem possible.
The line between "reality television" and "reality" was eroding too: it turned out the only thing more thrilling to watch than a reality show with contestants who agreed to be on it is a reality show with contestants who didn't. Americans love watching normal people get side-swiped by the outrageous behaviors that pass for normal in a reality TV universe (that's why this year's Republican primary debates had such exceptional ratings). And Mr. and Mrs. Smith may have been just a movie, but it was also an accidentally amazing reality show that documented Brangelina falling in love.
But why, nearly a dozen years after Pitt and Jolie got together, does America still care so much about the triangle from which they emerged? Well, it's partly because we're invested: This was the biggest romance we ever detected. But it's also because there's a thrill in discovering — after years of blithe Jolie-Pitts facing down the doom-predicting tabloids with their domestic bliss — that we were being lied to by the Brange. The reality show wasn't over after all, and you can catch up! Go back, scour the archives, watch it all go wrong.
We also experience both delight and disillusionment in the relationship's sudden demise after years of meticulous image management. Angelina Jolie — as Anne Helen Petersen has argued — is a true master of the fine art of publicity. As two of three players in America's greatest celebrity scandal, Pitt and Jolie were strategically unavailable, but fluent in public displays of virtue that shamed the gossip-mongers: "The lack of public comment," Petersen writes, "could have mired both Jolie and Pitt in the quagmire of bad press and bombing movies. But Pitt and Jolie were speaking constantly. They were just doing so semiotically." Petersen tracks their initial spree of charitable globetrotting and calls it a triumph of spin: Pitt flew to Ethiopia to tour AIDS orphanages, Jolie to Sierra Leone and Darfur. They kept on the move, and they aggressively redirected the publicity hounding them toward the needy. It would have been a redemption tour if there'd been an admission of guilt. There wasn't: This was just the new reality. This is who we are, Brangelina said, and this is what we do.
There was a time when Americans admired this level of sophistication — this remarkable capacity for manipulating public opinion through careful image management. Not anymore. The prevailing reaction these days to stars we see polishing their image is an irritated exhaustion. We are tired of the publicists. We are tired of being lied to, and imagine we're being lied to even when we aren't. The most common complaint about Taylor Swift, for instance, is that she tries too hard. Even her recent donations to charity have come under fire. The charge is that her reasons for donating aren't sufficiently pure. She's trying to repair her image. She's doing it out of self-interest. She doesn't seem authentic.
You know who does seem authentic? Someone who does everything out of nothing but naked self-interest, and admits it frankly. Someone who makes no pretense that he's trying to live up to some notion of decency. Someone whose only metric — whose admitted basis of action on any topic — is how it will affect him. Donald Trump loves Vladimir Putin. Why? Because Putin called him a genius. What else could possibly matter? To pretend one cares about anything else would be just that: a pretense. His rationale may not be good, but it is at least pure, uncontaminated by considerations of how things will look.
This curious myopia — or, put differently, this remarkable ability to concentrate on oneself — extends to his political reactions. When Nykea Aldridge was shot in Chicago, Trump's response was jarringly — and exclusively — confined to how the tragic event would affect him: "Just what I have been saying. African-Americans will VOTE TRUMP!" When people say anything against Trump, he can be relied upon to issue a retaliatory tweet.
The more petty, unconsidered, or astoundingly immature his behavior, the more refreshing it seems. These responses definitely scan as "real." No one is managing this image. Trump has defeated every publicist who's tried to wrangle him into submission. And he's found some success as a result: Americans no longer delight in being lied to. Some are so tired of having to read between the lines that they're relieved to see someone on the national stage whose utterances and behaviors and reactions are routinely so strikingly indecent that they must be real. We've reached a pessimism so absolute, in fact, that the only behaviors we find genuine are the worst aspects of humanity. Goodness is a put-on. Inspiration is a con. Advocacy for a cause that isn't yours is "virtue-signaling."
There is no perfect explanation that will account for Trump supporters' anger. They seem to share with Bernie Sanders supporters a deep sense of betrayal, of fundamental and unsolvable mistrust. And of course a great deal of that sense of grievance has to do with class, and race, and gender — and the economy and our justice system and racism and education and income inequality and foreign wars and xenophobia.
But we're in danger of missing a huge chunk of what drives the American psyche if we forget just how frivolous we are, if we forget to look at what Americans actually think about and watch in their spare time. And that isn't politics. It's The Bachelorette. It's Instagram. It's the Kardashians. This week, it's Brangelina and the peculiar wave of nostalgia their breakup inspired as we remember a time when we weren't quite this jaded. The Jolie-Pitt divorce has been hailed as the end of an era. So it is: The end of their union marks the end of a style of celebrity fluent in rewriting the narrative, of spinning scandal into decency and a happy ending so convincing that people threw away their #TeamJen shirts. Sure, sure, this is a "real family." Yes, these are "real people." This story is no doubt "complicated." But secretly, we believe complexity is a con. Really, the end of Brangelina just confirms our suspicions: It's lies all the way down, just as we always feared.