So when Ben Affleck accepted an Academy Award for “Argo” in 2013, he followed proper convention and thanked his spouse, Jennifer Garner — but not in a manner that most of us would prefer to be thanked. “I want to thank you for working on our marriage for 10 Christmases,” he began. Which was odd phrasing, calling to mind a decade-long laborious uphill climb. Digging himself deeper: “It is work.” Then, perhaps sensing the silent cringes of 40.3 million viewers, he said “but the best kind of work, and there’s no one I’d rather work with!”
Thus began the public speculation that the Affleck-Garner union was on its way to dissolution. And two years later, that proved to be the case. The couple filed for divorce last month, having apparently decided that the work required of the marriage outweighed the benefits of continuing it.
I’m not going to pretend that the split is of earth-shattering importance to everyone. But if the circulation of People magazine and the online traffic of TMZ are to be believed, the people for whom it wasn’t are a minority. If supply is indicative of potential demand, it’s worth noting that the string “Ben Affleck” “Jennifer Garner” “divorce” yields 18.4 million results on Google. By comparison, “Iran nuclear deal” yields 7 million results, and “does god exist?” a mere 427,000.
As a lapsed gossip columnist whose former titles include founding editor of Gawker, freelancer at the New York Post’s Page Six and contributing writer for New York Magazine’s Intelligencer column, I’ve thought a lot about the romantic lives of famous people at various points in my career.
I’ve realized that we find some famous people are more compelling than others. And the reason for that, I believe, has very little to do with the people themselves, and everything to do with the stories we tell about them.
Celebrities are not fictional people, but they enact a narrative in public. We want our celebrities to live in real life the stories they tell us in their films and television shows. As Neal Gabler, a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center, argues “celebrity, far from being a symptom of cultural degradation, is actually an art form wrought in the medium of life,” he wrote. “The main reason we want to read about certain individuals in the supermarket tabloids or in People or Vanity Fair, or we want to watch television reports about them on ‘Entertainment Tonight’ or ‘Access Hollywood’ is that we are interested in their stories.”
The Garner/Affleck romance did that. It was a redemption story, and one familiar to connoisseurs of rom coms: bad boy settles down. It’s also a sequel of sorts, the bad boy’s previous relationship with Jennifer Lopez — the other Jen — had been fraught with much of the same drama, and was ubiquitously covered and discussed at the time. Around that time, I meandered around a party for Tina Brown, who was launching a talk show called Topic A, and asked various celebrities of both the A- and D-list variety what their Topic Zs were — what they were sick of hearing about. “Ben and J-Lo,” Tom Brokaw intoned in TV-anchor cadence familiar to nightly news viewers everywhere. “I don’t want to hear another word about Ben… and J-Lo.” Sadly for Mr. Brokaw, the public did not feel the same way.
And when those A-listers, with all the advantages of wealth, fame and beauty couldn’t make it work, we sought out the big, very good reason. As with any compelling narrative, there needs to be some dramatic tension. So we imagine an arc to the Affleck-Garner marriage with peaks and troughs that coincide with their intervening tabloid experiences, which tend to be extreme (The whirlwind romance! The new baby! The alleged cheating!) and unlikely to elicit ambivalence.
We have strong opinions about infidelity, about addiction, about dramatic betrayals. Is Ben a jerk for cheating? Is she being unreasonable in refusing to tolerate it? It’s unlikely that the breakup would be cocktail party fodder if the leading headline were “Jen saw the dirty boxers on the floor for the millionth time and Just Could Not, especially after her maternal authority was undermined again today by Dad telling junior he could absolutely buy the latest version of Call of Duty when Mom already said no.”
This fascination has very little to do with the level of fame of the participants. When a relationship seems basically functional and uneventful, our interest wanes. Thus we don’t care about the couples where nothing seems to happen, and it doesn’t seem that anything dramatic precipitated the breakup. (See, ScarJo/Ryan Reynolds, Charlize Theron/Sean Penn, Bradley Cooper/Suki Waterhouse). At the time of this writing, Blake Shelton and Miranda Lambert — country music A-listers, to be sure — are less than a week into a public divorce that might be attracting less attention except for rampant speculation thanks to some vague wording from Shelton’s publicist intimating that there might be a dramatic precipitating element and hinting at possible infidelity on Lambert’s part.
But when things don’t work out, we’re also a tiny bit relieved at any evidence that navigating relationships might be just as hard for them as it is for us, which is something we know, deep down. When Gwyneth Paltrow airily characterizes her breakup with Chris Martin as a “conscious uncoupling” as if it’s not a big deal, just another step on her path to organic artisanally-crafted enlightenment, we don’t totally buy it because we can’t imagine a breakup scenario that doesn’t include at the very minimum, a few negative emotions. Barring the opposite of a conscious uncoupling — a comatose one, perhaps — the act of separation itself after a long and deep partnership is bound to produce a few tears and recriminations at some point along the way. If the couple is genuinely happy about it, it’s because staying together would be worse, and if they’re struggling with it, it’s because they know being apart will also be painful in some ways. And we know this because we’ve experienced it.
Ultimately, our interest in celebrity breakups and relationships isn’t really about the celebrities at all — not who they really are, anyway. It’s about our expectations for our own relationships, how we think they’re supposed to work, and particularly, how we think they would work if we had everything we think would make them better: money, looks, someone to do the dishes so that argument never occurs in the first place. And when that perfect narrative we imagine is disrupted with a weary proclamation by the good looking, wealthy, successful actor that marriage is work, it’s not white noise the way it would be if grandma or Ann Landers said it. We expect better from our fictions.