Despite all going on this week—an election season and two terrorist attacks on American soil, for starters—the shot heard ‘round the world was the one Angelina Jolie took at Brad Pitt in filing for divorce. Married just two years but lovers for nearly a decade, the news startled the Hollywood world and regular folk alike. Reactions on Twitter ranged from serious to tongue-in-cheek.
Many pointed out Jennifer Aniston must be feeling quite smug, as Pitt had left her for Jolie.
But let’s face it: Most of us don’t know Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, or their six children, nor the details of what prompted the divorce. Rumors are swirling that he cheated on her with a co-star, but that remains to be seen. So why then do people even care that they are getting divorced? Why can it seem personal or distressing?
Lifestyles of the Rich and the Famous
Americans have a dichotomous relationship with Hollywood. We love to mock their excessive awards shows: the way they dress up, preen, and congratulate themselves in all their presumptuous glory. We love to make fun of the way they live self-righteously in gargantuan homes and take vacations on bazillion-foot yachts yet tell the rest of us to watch our carbon footprints. We can’t help but snicker when we see photos of their kids acting up, an older actor with a “dadbod,” or a mom with a new baby who has a pooch, like the rest of us.
Yet we also love the glitz and the glamour. It all seems so fairytale, but cooler. Often children’s dreams are made of such stuff: many kids want to grow up to be “famous,” “rich,” “on TV,” or “have a nice car.” In Hollywood we see people living the lives we could be living, where everything is perfect on set, the people are beautiful, the lovemaking is orgasmic, the effects superb, the fights resolved, and more happy endings than not.
We mistakenly see the best of ourselves in the lives they portray. We too could be beautiful, talented, “on” all the time human beings who (seemingly) flawlessly juggle work, family, and community.
Whether we want to admit it or not, celebrities become our idols from afar. So we are happy when beautiful people are happy, like when Justin Timberlake married Jessica Biel. We also get angry when they divorce, which often manifests in ridicule. Remember Mel Gibson and his wife Robin?
We Want the Fairytale After All
Acclaimed author Marilynne Robinson once noted, “It’s part of our national character to ridicule what we value. And this makes it difficult to articulate what we actually value.” Psychologists have dubbed this phenomenon “reaction formation.” It could mean we’re making fun of the situation because we actually value the thing a celebrity’s marriage represents: Long-term love and commitment. See, Hollywood isn’t the only place we want to see fairytales. We want them in our own lives too.
You can blame it on glitz and glamour all you want, but the desire for happy endings has been recorded since antiquity. Look at “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s one of Shakespeare’s most popular works. Deep down everyone knows two teenagers falling desperately in love after hardly speaking is the dumbest thing anyone has ever heard, but it’s romantic, and we still want it to end well. Look at Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet: Two of the most prideful and prejudiced (heh) characters you’ve ever encountered, yet every fiber of your being longs for them to lay down their verbal weapons, make amends, and run off into the sunset.
We want happy endings, even as we mock them. We watch them and seek to create them, and when that doesn’t happen, we’re disappointed. We wonder: If two famous, beautiful people who have a surplus of wealth and children can’t make it, who can? Can we?
Yet that’s not the right question. Love and marriage, human nature and needs are complex. Wealth and beauty are nice, but not essential to happiness, particularly marital happiness. As C.S. Lewis said, “This is one of the miracles of love: It gives a power of seeing through its own enchantments and yet not being disenchanted.”
I love this concept yet find it so hard to practice and discover. That’s probably because we are all flawed, selfish, prideful human beings in need of heaps of grace and understanding, all trying to love one another on our various journeys. The dissolution of Pitt and Jolie’s marriage shows how hard it actually is, how infatuated we are with a good love story, and the complexity of love and human nature on both sides of the looking glass.