Thoughts while perusing the tabloids in line at the supermarket

Hollywood publicists really have a brilliant grasp of the necessarily gendered nature of narratives about celebrity lives.  Although I only read the covers of tabloids and celebrity weeklies (except when I visit my hair stylist every month), I’ve long thought that Jennifer Aniston has one of the best publicists around for managing to keep selling the “Poor Heartbroken Jen/Poor Childless Jen” story line for all of these years since her divorce from Brad Pitt. 

Maybe it’s because I’m such an ideological Marxist feminist, but I just assume that she’s living the (unmarried, child-free) life she wants to live, and it looks like a pretty damn good life to me:  she’s financially independent, free to enjoy sexual and/or romantic entanglements with whomever she likes, free to leave them whenever she likes, and she doesn’t have any obligations beyond career and body maintenance.  But every time she’s photographed with a new boy toy, “He’s the One, and He Wants to Start a Family!” until they break up, and it’s “Poor Heartbroken Jen” again.

Compare this to the narrative about George Clooney, who is always portrayed as having “slipped the noose” of wedlock whenever he breaks up with a girlfriend, and is never presumed to be miserable or an incomplete man simply because he hasn’t spawned.  He’s portrayed as the happy playboy, enjoying the money and freedom that is his due.  His sexual promiscuity isn’t a problem to be masked by tales of disappointment and dashed hopes–it’s central to his charm for both women and men alike. 

Do people really believe that Aniston is miserable, and just desperate to get married and have babies?  Do they really think she is that powerless over her life?  Or do they just want to believe that, because the idea of a rich, talented, funny, sexy woman actually enjoying her life outside of marriage and children is intolerable in our culture?  (We can like her only if we can feel sorry for her?)  The narratives that Aniston’s publicist spins for the tabs permits people to continue liking her (thereby preserving her bankability) while also giving her the freedom to live the life she has chosen.  It’s just too bad that successful women in Hollywood must either be pitied (Aniston, Sandra Bullock, or Renee Zellweger, for example) or despised (Angelina Jolie) in tabloid dramas that revolve around their relationships with men and children. 

I don’t mean that the rest of us should pity (or despise) any of these rich, successful women–I don’t particularly care how the narratives they pay others to spin about them affect them.  I wonder about the kind of expectations these narratives create in the minds of the wider public about the proper form and structure of women’s lives.

21 thoughts on “Thoughts while perusing the tabloids in line at the supermarket

  1. Side note: I so want that top she is wearing, with the stripes going in different directions.

    True I suppose about the expectations those narratives create. Very true that the idea she could be happy single is intolerable.

    I personally am so tired of fielding that question, how in the world I dare not be someone’s property, who I am sleeping with and why I don’t discuss that with strangers, etc.


  2. The spin on Aniston has always seemed accurate to me because of the rom-coms she bankrolls. Especially the one where Jen plays an aging single gal who inseminates herself because (you know!) she’s nothing without a baby, and ends up pregnant by one of her buddies who spills the cup of the chosen guy’s semen and replaces it with his own, unknown to her. (Yes, a very probable scenario.) All the scripts Aniston chooses are retrograde on female identity and agency, to put it mildly—but “The Switch” is a nightmare reminiscent of Rosemary’s Baby.

    But you’re right, she doesn’t have a choice if she wants to keep working in Hollywood; she can’t be George Clooney. Nice to think of Poor Jen laughing all the way to the bank.


  3. Ok, now you’ve unleashed my real inner self. I love tabloid gossip (what can I say?) although I just check tabloids online.

    I have no idea about Aniston’s feelings, but I do think that that is the spin she chose to create about herself. She may be playing to society’s expectations, or might have assumed that it’s the only way to continue in the public eye. In my honest opinion, though, it was a bad choice. In a sense, it’s the image of a “looser”. I’m not saying she is a loser, but that is the narrative of the tabloids towards her. And draw a parallel between that and her box office success. It’s been going down ever since. Who wants to see her as the lead in a romantic comedy when she projects such an image? Just to repeat, I’m not blaming her not saying she is a loser. I just think she chose that image thinking it would help her sell more, and it backfired.

    Contrary to that, take Sandra Bullock. Yes, she was pitied for about 3 months. Now, she seems to be over it (I haven’t seen any tabloid saying “Sandra’s heartbreak at Jesse’s future wedding”), and projects an image of independence that Aniston does not. It will be interesting to see how her career develops, in terms of box office success or not.


  4. I’ve long wondered about this peculiar fixation on Aniston as such a sad single gal, and I guess I like the idea that Aniston and her publicist are actively selling this image (or at least, I like that idea more than that it’s a narrative being foisted on her by the gossip media).

    But I’m really driven nuts by the fixation on Brad and Jen as somehow still hung up on each other, all these years later. It seems to be a manifestation of what I call our inherent romantic conservatism: a part of us is invested in believing that break-ups (whether our own, our friends’, or those of celebrities we’re invested in) aren’t definitive, and that a couple who seems good together will get back together — because they’re meant to be together.

    I see this too often in t.v. shows, though I understand it there as partly a practical matter: you want to keep in play the characters viewers have grown to care about, and you don’t want to infinitely expand the number of characters by inventing new love interests for everyone. Better to have most the love relationships be on-again, off-again. And up to a point, that does create believable drama. But past a certain point it’s tedious and unbelievable. Doesn’t anyone get smarter, grow, change, move on?

    That’s what troubles me about the Brad & Jen thing, and about most latter-day versions of the comedy of remarriage: they imagine people and relationships as static. If it worked once, it will work again. And what we wanted before we’ll always want again.


  5. But doesn’t the comedy of remarriage trope depend on being hot enough?

    Like do we remember the first wives of all these men who become famous, and marry the starlet? Or the first husbands?

    We want proper casting, after all, and if Brad Pitt were a pump jockey somewhere after making THELMA AND LOUISE, we wouldn’t have given a damn about him — and neither would Angelina. I think it’s a holdover from the studio system, where romances were crafted strategically, regardless of the participants’ true preferences. There’s just more hate in the process because the big bucks involved depend on change, churn, chaos — like soaps, they can’t sell a longterm, happily together pair, yet they can’t resist audience choice.


  6. All that shitte in the “celebrity” magazines is completely made up bullshitte designed to feed into people’s own fantasies so they buy ridiculous shitte they don’t need and watch horrible movies and teevee shows.


  7. “Maybe it’s because I’m such an ideological Marxist feminist, but I just assume that she’s living the (unmarried, child-free) life she wants to live, and it looks like a pretty damn good life to me”

    ?? I guess I’m not seeing the Marxist feminist angle here. It looks to me like Aniston leads a life of enormous wealth and privilege, with a retinue of servants (and various hangers-on) at her beck and call; luxury goods and services to satisfy her every whim; and multiple, multi-million dollar properties that she can call ‘home.’ I’m tempted to say that she (alongside other A-list celebrities) lives the life of an eighteenth-century aristocrat, but that is probably to vastly underestimate her total net worth. She is leading the life that is late capitalism’s wet dream, perhaps.

    Not that I would call her “idle rich.” She no doubt works very hard at what she does: not only, or even primarily, at acting in movies, but even more so at image maintenance (diet; exercise; skin and hair care; being always In Style: it is probably an exhausting regimen, and no, I’m not being facetious).

    Cameron Diaz is refreshingly frank about not wanting marriage or children, and the celebrity media hounds don’t seem to have a problem with that, don’t seem to want to punish her for straying from the script. With Aniston it’s different, though, as you point out. I suspect most readers/viewers don’t really think she’s miserable, though. It’s just that her role as America’s sweetheart demands a sweetheart (and I do think she has actively fed into the ‘poor Jen, when will she find true love?’ narrative in some of the statements she has made in interviews; but who knows how she really feels? and she certainly seems to have made out okay).


  8. I think that if these celebrities want to live the way they do, that’s just fine. But basically I don’t care, because I find them deeply uninteresting as actors and as people.


  9. Because I took like to imagine that people have agency, I have always thought that Jen plays into the role of ‘lost love/ America’s sweetheart’ because of the type of roles she plays on-screen. Her ‘real’ life therefore feeds into her on-screen persona, allowing us to ‘believe’ her on-screen performances and making her the ‘natural’ choice for casting agents. To me, this is awesome publicity. (And I reckon if she really wanted a baby, she’d have one- lack of man generally isn’t a problem in Hollywood, just look at Sanda Bullock).

    Similarly, the Jen and Brad motif is just the continuation of the Rachel and Ross relationship in Friends. That is how the public learned to love ‘Jen’ as a star-struck lover who we were invested in finally getting together with her destiny. And, when she married Brad, her publicity machine sold it in much the same way as the Rachel/Ross marriage. We just forgot to stop having this investment in her real relationship when they broke up- and I have no doubt her publicity machine likes this and maintains it, because it keeps us having all that emotional investment in her that keeps her on the A-list.


  10. I’ve always wondered about this, since I never followed Friends, so I *only* know this from tabloid headlines. (And it’s amazing how much you can know about popular culture by only following the tabloid headlines when you’re in line at the supermarket.) But I have found the continuation of the Jen/Brad story bizarre. About once a year there is Brad/Angelina crisis, that leads to “Brad and Jen really still love each other and will get back together” headlines. If Jen is really still wearing hte willow for Brad, so every other guy is not good enough, she’s in real trouble. So I assume it’s the publicists.


  11. This also allows us to diminish Angelina Jolie’s achievements. She’s one of Hollywood’s best-paid actresses and she does humanitarian work, yet she is to this day portrayed as that home wrecker who destroyed Jennifer Aniston’s marriage.


  12. There was even a piece in the NYT real estate section a few weeks ago about her moving from West of Central Park to East (wanting to), or maybe the other way around, and having to deal with some mean old co-op board that might thwart her “dream” housing plans by making her ditch that mutt (the dog, I mean). I never assume that the images I see on the screen are light bouncing off of protoplasmic bodies with actual social security accounts, any more than I think “Billy Budd” is an actual person still looking to ship out under a better master. (He did avoid that dragnet and get a berth out of Leghorn on the last episode, though, didn’t he?)


  13. But, I think that this is also informed by Angelina’s on-screen persona. She rarely plays the RomCom lead, but rather the agressive, hot, alternative, never-truly obtainable, ‘mistress-type’; she is hard to imagine as a traditional wife and mother type, so we can’t imagine her in that role with Brad.(Changeling is a really interesting attempt to disrupt this representation but that is another essay!).

    And, of course, this is worthy of feminist critique, because why is it that the ‘traditional’ RomCom lead is allowed married happiness (or that we should root for her married happiness), but the hot, tattoo-ed, sexually-knowing, alternative-type woman is not! Talk about reinforcing cultural norms.


  14. Jennifer Aniston has found her “vein of gold”, as Julia Cameron puts it, in being the gal-pal, slightly off, never truly empowered person. So it’s no surprise that her publicity keeps her consistent with that image. She is a brand, and her advertising is consistent with her brand. Celebrity rag “editorial” is advertising for such brands and nothing more.

    Who Jennifer really is, few people know. Maybe no one. Maybe not even Jennifer. We can have feminist wet dreams that she is an empowered, rich woman who doesn’t need no man to make her life whole. On the other hand, maybe she is just a real fuck-up who doesn’t know how to be successfully intimate with anyone.

    As usual, the Big Machine cranks out brain candy and we buy it. Angelina and Jennifer make a perfect Evil Stepmother and Snow White, both aesthetically and story-line wise. Neither is interesting without the other, hence the long drawn out myth of fighting over Brad. In fact, none of these people are interesting at all.


  15. Oh, one more remark. I don’t buy into the twin ideas that entering into marriage makes a woman “the property” of her partner or that a woman who has many sexual partners and avoids commitment to one partner is somehow more liberated, free or powerful. That idea seems so terribly reactionary and simplistic to me. Why, Historiann, does a life with no obligations to anyone look so good to you? Isn’t commitment to people and ideas what makes society work at all?

    Nice, provocative writing. Thanks.


  16. I agree that multiple sex partners does not necessarily equal “liberation.” I was focused more on the structure of these narratives about celebrity lives, and musing on the impossibility of Aniston’s life being written about in the way that Clooney’s life is. When women are cast as sexual libertines, that means they occupy the role of “bad girl” (a la Angela Jolie.)

    Oh, and the “Marxist feminist” bit? Joking self-mockery, mostly. (I thought that was pretty clear, but maybe not?)


  17. I had this exact same thought about Jen as I was waiting in CVS the other day and speed-reading people.

    The other big story is, of course, Brad’s transgender child, born a girl and presenting as a boy, with which slightly lower classy mags like US are obsessed. They interview numerous “experts” of dubious credentials, not to mention “friends” who “confide” in them, to put out the message that the child is deluded and that her parents are warping her by indulging it. Of course, others might argue that tremendous damage might be done to the kid by forcing her to enact a kind of femininity that is offensive to her. The whole obsession is in part a narrative about gender; but it is also an opportunity to be highly critical of Brangelina’s parenting (we know Jen would have been on top of the refusing to dress like a girl in a New York minute, right?)

    I think it is hard to know where these narratives come from, however. Jen has a “career”, just like I do: in order to be a professor I have to do certain things that cause me to be perceived as one. If you add in my blogger personality, folks who know me like Historiann and Urban Exile know that there is someone who kind of looks like that person, but is also not that person at all — I have exaggerated features of my personality and located a blogger persona which I maintain. I do that in a way because it “sells” my ideas, just as Jen is selling movies.

    That some of us find those movies exasperating in their view of child-bearing as the ultimate gift of womanhood… well, yeah, I’m down with that program. I would also say that while commitment to a person is one way to enact humanness and ethical sociability, it isn’t the only way — many single people are quite happy, and have nurturing networks of friends.


  18. TR–I thought they were laying off of that child recently? (At least, I remember that it was a bigger story about a year ago or so.)

    The policing of gender roles as enacted by children is just insane. But at least those celebrity children have the option when they grow up of getting a big fat book contract to write about their vexed childhood growing up in a celebrity bubble. (This doesn not justify the invasion of their privacy from birth, IMHO. Those children really are trapped.)

    You are right that all we need to do is read the covers of these magazines in order to follow the narrative. But I wonder if cultural studies students could detect some (or even a great deal of) “slippage” between the narrative on the cover and the information in the article? And yet the narrative remains stable and unchanged the following week. . .


  19. I think that any reading of the Clooney story in the way you tell it is complicated by the widespread rumors that he is gay. I have no knowledge or or opinion on that, but it seems like the Clooney story of “slipping the noose” could also be potentially constructed to cover a gender story that doesn’t entirely fit the heterosexual trope: i.e., he has to be seen as promiscuous and/or commitment-phobic because of an ongoing singlehood maintained in public that potentially stems from factors other than a simple desire not to fulfill bourgeois heterosexual ideals by getting married.


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