There are only two things that, by my scientific estimate, could have knocked Donald Trump off the top of news-gossip-social-media totem: An alien ship landing on Earth and bearing our new galactic overlords, or the breakup of the public relations entity known as Brangelina.
And lo, one of those things has happened! I’m only a little bit ashamed to admit that I gave an involuntary shout when I saw the news flicker across my computer screen — or that I clicked on several links for context and commiseration, stopping at last when I learned that Adele had dedicated a concert of breakup songs to the divorcing couple.
Our divided nation has come together at last, to sigh a collective sigh. We should also be offering collective thanks. I’m tempted to see this breakup was one final act of charity: After a week of police shootings, terror attacks, birtherism drama, and awful Skittle metaphors, we needed a diversion.
Really, celebrity gossip is more than a diversion; it’s a human urge, as fundamental to our reptile brains as watching football or talking about the weather...
Really, celebrity gossip is more than a diversion; it’s a human urge, as fundamental to our reptile brains as watching football or talking about the weather, and I don’t mean that entirely as a joke. We make sense of the world through metaphor. We use celebrities to play stock roles in public morality plays. And in this context, Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have been able to give us precisely what we wanted: Not just shots of beautiful human specimens on red carpet, but a true story, with an arc of highs and lows.
Brangelina is a pulp novel: a pairing that began with intrigue and scandal — love sparked on the set of a rom-com action flick, a marriage torn asunder — and evolved into a redemption tale in which the Other Woman became the symbol of good.
The couple tapped into the social dynamics of a changing nation, raising a blended, multicultural family, attending to their kids’ needs while maintaining a work-life balance, as they dabbled in art and jetted across the world to do good. Their wedding, two years ago, felt like an afterthought; what sparked more interest and imagination were their creative expressions of love. While working on separate continents on separate World War II movies, People Magazine tells us, they wrote each other handwritten love notes, the vernacular of bygone days.
With highs like that, where is there to go but down? At this point in the story, the audience needed a breakup. And even here, the soon-to-be-ruptured Jolie-Pitts are telling the best story. There’s no obnoxious effort to rebrand their divorce as a “conscious uncoupling.” They filed court papers for all to see. As for the reasons? Page Six will say what it will, but carefully-placed tips suggest the split isn’t about anything so mundane as an affair or a hard-partying husband. It’s about divergent goals and political aspirations. Angelina Jolie wants to serve in the House of Lords.
And to care about the Brangelina causes, we need to care about Brangelina -- so the machine rolls on.
People, you cannot make this stuff up — nor can you spread it without careful work and planning. Yes, the paparazzi are intrusive, but plenty of stars manage to largely evade the glare, by wearing enormous wigs or purchasing homes in the vast beyond outside Los Angeles and New York. Pitt and Jolie could cloister themselves in their French estate-plus-winery. But they also courted publicity when they wanted it — often, for the purposes of drawing attention to world events and major causes.
It’s easy to be cynical about this, but I’m really not. In an age of social media and wall-to-wall coverage, publicity is currency. Donald Trump has proven how far one person can get by manipulating the media. Plenty of celebrities use their platform to sell films and records and branded products. Jolie and Pitt do that, too, but they also sell charities and causes. They understand, as Princess Diana did decades ago, that to draw attention to something people are likely to ignore, it helps to add a little glamour.
And to care about the Brangelina causes, we need to care about Brangelina — so the machine rolls on. Another chapter falls, reminding us that the story is still open. We’re talking about Brangelina today. We could be doing worse.