Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, the superstar acting couple who have made famously slow progress toward the altar, announced today that they had tied the knot. To sort out my feelings about the couple’s decision to marry, marriage’s brand and celebrities who pledge not to get married until marriage equality is the law of the land (and then break their promises), I called on my Washington Post colleague Alexandra Petri, who shares my obsession with married Hollywood power couples. Our conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Alexandra: They did it! They actually did it!
Alyssa: I have to say, I have very mixed feelings about the Brangelina nuptials. I know they were engaged and seemed to actually intend to follow through and get married someday. But at the same time, I feel slightly surprised that they did it. They seemed destined to not get married, and to be stable and happy and super-into parenting for so long that there is something interesting about the idea that even they have succumbed to matrimony.
Petri: I think the State of Unions today is really intriguing … Brangelina, along with Jayonce? (Beyon-Z?) (The Carters?), is one of the celebrity portmanteaus that occupies way more real estate in my emotions than is perhaps wise … Recently, I had a long dream about going on tour with Beyonce in which a recurring element was that she was secretly on the rocks with Jay Z, and this part of the dream was a nightmare. Marriage — especially with the recent tour — has become a big part of the Bey-Jay brand.
And it wasn’t with Brangelina, you’re right … What struck me in the coverage I was reading was that Pitt said it meant a lot to the kids.
Alyssa: Yes, which I think is something we hear a lot when famous people make normative decisions about marriage and family. Women change their names so their kids won’t be confused. Brangelina get married so their kids feel their relationship is valid, etc. The power of kids, who are supposed to be the future in some sort of nebulous way, to pull us towards convention is considerable.
Alexandra: One of the most stable Hollywood unions for a long time, though, was Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins, who were together for like 26-ish years without being married.
Alyssa: True, but to what extent were they seen as a desirable model and to what extent were they wacky hippies?
Alexandra: Yeah, fair. I’m just trying to think of other Aspirational Long-Term Unwed Parent Couples.
Alyssa: I also think you raise an important point in noting the relationship between marriage branding and celebrity. Conservatives tend to talk about the decline of marriage rates in two ways. One strain of thought suggests that marriage is something that people just are not very interested in anymore, in which case celebrities can make marriage seem very aspirational. The other, which I think conservatives like Ross Douthat articulate in a way that I find fairly compelling, is that marriage is desirable but seems out of reach, in which case, married celebrity role models can only reinforce that sense that marriage is nice but not for me. (Or thee.)
Alexandra: And if you look at the way the incentives are structured, he’s got a fair point. If you’re Brangelina and get married, you’re not suddenly going to be flung into a tax bracket that makes both of you worse off. Of course, no matter where you are on the income spectrum, marriage offers some definite legal advantages and spousal rights that stable long-term cohabitation doesn’t, but if you’re struggling separately, it can actually do a number on your checkbook.
Alyssa: At the same time, the way Brad and Angelina got hitched runs counter to one aspect of the aspirational part of all of this. They do not appear to have had a giant wedding. They got married by a judge. The wedding itself seems like a chill affair, rather than a Kimye-style blowout.
Alexandra: Yes! That gave me hope! I feel like the lesson of the Kimye nuptials was that while marriage may be on the outs, weddings are still WAY too popular. Just look at Pinterest, an entire site for weddings and wedding-adjacents. I mean, “a place for fun mason jar crafts.” Contrast that to the aspirational model of marriage which I think Ruby Dee summed up really well: “The best of me has been subsidized by the best of what you are.”
Alyssa: Yes. I think this is one of the reasons good celebrity marriages are such an appealing fantasy. Beyonce and Jay Z are collaborators, both on individual tracks and on a huge tour. Brad and Angelina both have big World War II movies coming out this fall, and there is no narrative that they are in competition or rooting for each other to fail. I think a lot of the dream of celebrity marriages as ideal is just straight-up a dream of being rich and having child care and being able to focus on that mutual subsidy and support.
Alexandra: I think what “celebrity marriage” means has changed over the past few decades into something that isn’t derided as a more scandalous less-invested version of Traditional Marriage (“Those celebrities! Married six times in as many months!”) into something that actually seems MORE stable and less attainable.
Alyssa: Hah, yes, for sure. Which is in keeping with the idea that marriage is less attainable. Brangelina getting married on their French estate, or Kanye West talking about being a black man having his rehearsal dinner at Versailles, or Beyonce and Jay Z turning their marriage into a consumptive object are all actions that vary in style and taste, but they are all about the same thing: the relationship between marriage and wealth.
Alexandra: Yes! It’s a status object! (You wrote quite convincingly on this after the Beyonce-Jay Z tour, I thought.) And there’s also the question that gets left over with every celebrity activity of — is there a there there, and if so, what is that? Remember Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes.
Alyssa: Yes, and I wonder if this tendency towards suspicion is a way of ameliorating our envy. If we think Bey and Jay are going to hit the rocks, or that Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were fakes all along, then we do not have to worry about measuring up to standards of wealth or marital happiness that we know to be impossible.
Alexandra: Yeah! And the good thing about the theory that Everything’s A Fake And It’s All Cleverly Done With Cardboard And Lighting is that it’s impossible to disprove. My aunt swears that someone she knew who went to or had worked in Hollywood knew the real skinny on Tom Cruise and that everything was a sham. Everyone’s aunt knows this, somehow. But what about the ones you want to believe are real? For instance, I want to believe in Brangelina. If only because they have six kids.
Maybe it’s of a piece with the belief that some celebrity is earned. I remember Justin Bieber really tried to drive home that His Story Could Happen To Anyone And He’s Just Like You, but sometimes you want to believe that the reason these folks have houses in all countries and fame and fortune is because they are actually capable of doing things that you and I could not. Perhaps like this whole marriage jaunt.
Alyssa: We are so conflicted. We want to believe that anything is possible for anyone, except when it might reflect badly on the limited things we have achieved. We want to believe celebrity marriages are real, because we want to believe that people with huge careers can love each other and be mutually supportive, but we do not want to hold our marriages up to the requirement of getting us to that place.
Alexandra: We really are! We need to figure out what we want so that our poor celebrities don’t have to do the marital equivalent of running around leaping through flaming hoops with ham hocks held between their teeth.
Alyssa: So, aside from the question of what we want, I’ve seen some criticism of Brangelina for breaking their (fairly common) Hollywood promise not to get hitched until all gay couples do. Which I always thought was a pretty weird thing to promise in the first place. Were they threatening the conservatives who see them as making marriage seem out of reach by threatening … not to get married? Or suggesting that they would remain in a state of attractive-looking sin until everyone could be brought into legally recognized monogamy?
Alexandra: Maybe they’re making the case that “All couples can now marry, so long as they are willing to move states.”
Alyssa: As long as they have estates in France!
Alexandra: Any time a couple postpones marriage until it’s legal for everyone, it reminds me of the “Key & Peele” sketch, with the reluctant Key trying to explain that the battle is not won yet, as a way of weaseling out of actually tying the knot…And it also seems pretty solipsistic — “Hey, you know what will really get marriage legalization on a roll? The knowledge that we’re HOLDING UP BRAD AND ANGELINA.” Seriously? “All the actual couples who would be directly affected by this law were kind of motivating, but THIS, this is what sells it.”
Alyssa: Right, especially because Brad and Angelina need the protections of marriage less than almost anyone. Their money meant that they could adopt kids without necessarily being scrutinized the same way as poorer, unmarried couples. They can pay lawyers to set up all sorts of agreements. They can pay for private medical treatment so they do not have to worry about hospital visitation.
Alexandra: Yeah! I can’t think of any meaningful ways they were inconvenienced by the lack of a license.
Alyssa: Except, apparently, that it started to bother their kids.
Alexandra: Durn kids!