“London Human Rights Lawyer Amal Alamuddin is Engaged,” reads the cheeky headline on Slate writer Ben Mathis-Lilley’s clever riff on the news that Hollywood’s most famous confirmed bachelor is shedding his status to marry the British-Lebanese lawyer. The news that George Clooney is tying the knot a second time is more than the end of a lot of puckish wistful thinking inspired by his carousel of romantic relationships. And Alamuddin and Clooney’s engagement is an interesting rewrite to the sorts of Hollywood romances that normally grace the grocery checkout racks.
In the past, Clooney seemed to be living out one sort of Hollywood ideal, operating his private passions on two separate tracks. In the past decade and a half, he’s dated models, actresses and reality television stars; in pursuit of his other passion, he contracted malaria on human rights missions in Africa and turned his focus to Sudan.
Clooney is entitled to conduct his life however he pleases, but his girlfriends never quite seemed like partners. When the women in Clooney’s life shared his profession, they were at very different stages in their careers. And whether or not they were actors, they did not share headlines with Clooney in his advocacy work. Those relationships looked a lot like the old fairy tale standard in which a woman’s life was transformed by the love of a powerful man. Clooney might have been more democratic than Prince Charming; he shared the love rather than elevating just one woman. But those relationships seemed like a bit of an anachronism.
So there’s something delightful and very contemporary about the fact that Clooney is settling down with Alamuddin, a woman who not only shares his interests in international law and human rights, but also has a resume so impressive that it feels like news that she deemed him worthy. Alamuddin’s work has touched the ongoing conflict in Syria and the annexation crisis in Ukraine. She was one of Julian Assange’s lawyers during the attempt to extradite him to Sweden. Clooney has used his celebrity to bring attention to his political priorities; Alamuddin brings actual legal credentials and professional experience.
The pairing suggests that, in another way, the stars are just like us. As Eli Finkel, lead author of a study from Northwestern University released earlier this year, put it, Americans’ expectations for our marriages have changed. “They’re asking less of their marriage regarding basic physiological and safety needs, but they’re asking more of their marriage regarding higher psychological needs like the need for personal growth,” he said when the study came out. “Americans look to their marriage to help them ‘find themselves’ and to pursue careers and other activities that facilitate the expression of their core self.”
Celebrities who collaborate professionally, such as Jay-Z and Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, who are hitting the road for a joint tour with a charity component, may be able to hit a higher bar for that sort of achievement than those of us watching them from the cheap seats. But that difference in scope does not actually indicate a difference in kind. George Clooney is just catching up to his famous peers and to the rest of us, recognizing that the contemporary fairy tale relies much less on the benevolence and bravery of Prince Charming and more on the dream of being the sort of couple that rides off to fight dragons together.