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Monday, December 26, 2005

Does Brangelina Matter?

It's an interesting topic, and Brangelina is a good example of how celebrities do matter, but not in the way you think. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are just actors and celebrities; they only matter to film fans and whoever buys In Touch magazine. But, Brangelina, the phenomenon, does matter.

Perusing the blogs for an article I'm writing for a friend's magazine, it's amazing how violently Jen and Angelina fans clash. There are derogatory nicknames--Whorelina, Maniston, Jennifug--but very little about Brad. Indeed, who cares about Brad? He's just the prize. There are Team Aniston and Team Jolie shirts, polls of who looked prettier as a teenager, and some unbelievably catty and cruel remarks directed at Jennifer for being high-maintenance, attention-seeking and bitchy and Angelina for being dark, a man-stealer, a fake-U.N. worker.

Other celebrity gossip--Tom-and-Katie, Jude and Sienna, who's the next Bond girl--pales in comparison to Brangelina. Why? Because celebrity gossip has replaced our civilizations age-old storytelling tradition. Not novels or books, but the popular folk tales and stories we tell each other. I don't know any of these people, and I'm not sure I care too--actors are a little too self-involved for my taste. And experience has taught me that even close friends often have no clues as to what breaks a couple up or keeps them together. So how on earth can US Weekly, The Superficial Blog or assorted posters have a clue? We don't, and frankly, we don't care about the truth of Hollywood. We use these characters in the Brangelina triangle to work out our own feelings about women, and which we prefer--good girls who make poor wives, or bad girls who take whatever they want.

In the early 1990's, Camille Paglia wrote an essay that had a huge influence on me. She wrote about being a high schooler and avidly following the Elizabeth Taylor-Eddie Fisher-Debbie Reynolds break up. For those of you not schooled in Hollywood lore, it went something like this: Widowed Liz Taylor was being taken care of by her good friend Debbie, who had just given birth and was featured in magazines as the good little wife and mother. Unfortunately, her husband, crooner Eddie, fell for Liz, and they ran off together to get married. Liz was villified as a whore and even condemned by the Pope for her poor morals. Eventually, Liz and the rest of civilization dumped Eddie into the sidelines when Richard Burton came along. Decades later, Liz and Debbie starred in a TV movie that made fun of the whole incident. Even Eddie's daughter, Carrie Fisher, doesn't speak to him.

Paglia writes about her obsession with Liz Taylor in typical grandiose terms, but essentially, her fascination with Liz is the fascination with uncontrolled sexuality, a woman of unbelievable exotic beauty and grand liquid passions who could not play by anyone else's rules. For Paglia, she was an unrestrained force, and an antidote to the cotton-candy heroines of the 1950's--not just Debbie Reynolds, but Shirley Maclaine and Doris Days, the manufactured domesticated blond actresses of the late 50's and early 60's. To root for Liz was to root for a force of pure beauty.

Paglia briefly noted how she roots for Angelina in the same way, but she hasn't really grasped the importance of Brangelina. While Eddie Fisher was just some teen idol, Brad Pitt is Mr. Hollywood. You don't have to have the hots for him to know that. He is a well-respected actor who has been the top of his game for a long time, and generally considered the Apollo of the movie industry. If he never works again, or keeps dying his hair black, he will still be Hollywood's Golden Boy. In short, he is the Grand Prize for any woman, and while good girl Aniston had him for years, bad girl Jolie took him away. And for anyone who has felt outside the norm, the mainstream, ignored by normal folks, classified as bad or unruly, generally considered a troublemaker--this is good news. Thank God for Jolie.


Do I care about the details? No. I only know the stories spun for me by the tabloids and entertainment media. Brangelina's story is becoming universal--you can go to any country and it still matters, because as much as I have nothing against Jennifer Aniston (how can I? I don't even know her), I like seeing good girls thrown for a loop--especially if they are the products of sitcom, massive public relations machinations, and overwhelming overexposure. In the spirit of folk tales and storytelling, Brangelina does matter. We, as a society, can no longer gather around the campfire and talk about the gods in the constellations, but we can talk about celebrities on the screen, and that instinct is as old as time.

Or, in fact, do celebrities matter?

Do I have a favorite? Of course. I have been as passionate about Angelina Jolie--or what I see of her--as Paglia was about Liz Taylor. Did Paglia ever meet Liz, or want to? I don't know, but I doubt it. Similarly, the real Angelina is probably far different than I imagine. But she has made female sexuality matter to the public--she does not pretend to be celibate or virginal until the public approves of her mate. She can talk about having lovers and cutting and being insane, and while this may make her a handful in a relationship, she has opened up whole avenues of dialogue that were previously closed to women in the spotlight. Plus, I'm sorry Jen, but Angelina is simply smoldering hot. She has an occult beauty and too much sexual heat to be classified normally. I don't think Brad matches her entirely, but if she wanted the king of Hollywood for herself, I doubt anything could stand in her way. As an ordinary woman, I respect that willpower, even if I would have qualms myself about acting the same way. (Or would I? I have no idea what happened). I would have felt worse for Jen if it wasn't for her blitzkrieg of interviews where she emphatically stated, many, many, many times that she is tired, oh so tired, of discussing it. Nicole Kidman, a woman with many secrets in her marriage to Tom Cruise, took the high road of silence and grace; Jennifer looks for populist pity. It's easy to feel manipulated by that.

Does Brangelina matter? To those interested in our common stories about mythical figures, yes. Does it make us shallow to care about people who will never impact us, or our families? I don't know. But I know that the instinct to dissect the stories of the famous is not an instinct new to the 21st century. We are still gathered around the campfire, trading rumors and opinions and theories about relationships that say something about ourselves. It seems foolish to get worked up about who's wrong or right, but it is fascinating to see how strongly we feel about the Brad-Jen-Angelina triangle. For those seriously obsessed with who did what to whom and why, the question is simply why is it so important to you? And the answer will vary from person to person.

One thing is clear--Angelina and Brad and Jen spend far less time thinking about us. Who do they discuss when they are gathered around a collective campfire? What constellations catch their eye? One day we will find out. Until then, I hope that the story of Brangelina continues and continues to surprise. It keeps my mind off of TomKat, anyway....


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Long time reader! Keep them coming!

Be careful not to equate folk tales with myths. Stories about Brad and Jen might be our version of folk tales but certainly not myths. The distinction, I think, is the degree of importance in the culture's world view/eschatology. Myths are fundamental; folk tales are not. I don't need to know anything about Brad and Jen to understand my existence and participation in U.S./Western/etc. culture... But they're entertaining, make at least a few existential points and are easily shared among other members of my community. The mythos surrounding the U.S. "founding fathers" explains more about our U.S. culture than Brad and Jen and Angelina.

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