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Why Brangelina eclipsed Brad and Angelina

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Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

Early on Wednesday, TMZ broke the news that Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt are divorcing. The response was immediate, and by and large followed the same template: This is not just the end of a marriage but the end of Brangelina.

“They are a portmanteau no more,” wrote Vulture. “Brangelina reduced to component parts,” wrote the A.V. Club. “Brangelina no more,” wrote CBC Canada.

Brangelina was a distinctive celebrity entity, one that for most of its life outshone its component parts. And now it’s dead.

Brangelina emerged from a classic Betty-versus-Veronica narrative

Every celebrity has a carefully constructed image, one that reduces his or her public appeal to its simplest possible form. Jennifer Lawrence is a goofy cutup; Natalie Portman is a refined intellectual; Tom Hanks is America’s dad. When Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie first announced their relationship in 2004, they were homewreckers.

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Like looking at the head cheerleader and the quarterback.

Famously, when Pitt and Jolie became involved on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Pitt was married to Jennifer Aniston. Aniston’s image — with her iconic blond hair, her face familiar and lovable to every American who owned a TV after years of Friends — was and remains that of a classic “girl next door.” When Pitt was married to Aniston, he was an all-American boy, clean-cut and unthreateningly handsome.

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These are the bad kids who hang out under the bleachers.
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Jolie, in contrast, had a racier image. She used to wear a vial of Billy Bob Thornton’s blood around her neck. She once kissed her brother on the red carpet. If Aniston was Betty, Jolie was Veronica: sultry, a little dangerous, and somehow exotic.

That Betty-versus-Veronica narrative has little to no basis in reality. We have absolutely no way of knowing what Aniston, Jolie, and Pitt are like in their private lives. But Aniston’s public persona was sweet and accessible and Jolie’s was sexy and dangerous, so that was the narrative that dominated discussion of Aniston and Pitt’s divorce and the beginning of Pitt and Jolie’s relationship.

Hence headlines like Homewrecker Angelina Jolie Attacks Good Girl Jennifer Aniston! Hence stories of an unhinged Aniston fan storming Jolie’s dinner table and trying to slap her, screaming, “Where is that homewrecking Angelina?!!” Hence comments on gossip forums like: “I happen think Angelia looks dirty and sleezy.. kissing her brother the way she did, yuck!.. wearing blood around her neck, something is just not right with that chick. Jen, who I don't think is drop dead gorgeous, just seems like a nice, wholesome, sweet girl..”

But then Pitt and Jolie changed the conversation. They created Brangelina.

Brangelina put Pitt and Jolie in charge of the narrative

As Anne Helen Petersen has chronicled for BuzzFeed, soon after Pitt and Jolie were first photographed frolicking together on a beach with Jolie’s son Maddox, they began a public relations offensive.

They did high-profile, global humanitarian outreach. Pitt visited AIDS orphanages in Ethiopia. Jolie won the United Nations’ Global Humanitarian Action Award. They traveled to Pakistan together to help with relief efforts after the earthquake.

Angelina Jolie And Brad Pit Visit President Musharraf
These are important people with no time for your silly high school analogies.

And as they did their global humanitarian work, they continually linked it to their growing, globalist family. They decided to deliver Shiloh in Namibia to draw attention to the country. They declared they wouldn’t marry until same-sex marriage was legal. They took their children with them to countries across the world.

Brad Pitt And Angelina Jolie Arrive In Japan
The image of a happy globalist family.
Photo by Junko Kimura/Getty Images

This humanitarianism and family focus wasn’t necessarily new or calculated — Jolie, for one, has a well-documented history of working with refugees that goes back to 2002. But as Petersen points out, the focus of the PR campaign carried a message: “What they were saying was that this wasn’t a story about sex or scandal; rather, it was one of family, humanitarianism, and global citizenship.”

By the time they were done, Jolie and Pitt were no longer a scheming homewrecker and her hapless, feckless prey. No, they were Brangelina, a single celebrity unit that stood for happy modern families, for humanitarianism. And if the people who made up Brangelina happened to be beautiful, glamorous movie stars, that was just icing on the cake.

81st Annual Academy Awards - Arrivals
Hollywood royalty.
Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images

But what the advent of Brangelina meant was that Brad and Angelina weren’t all that interesting on their own anymore. Instead, any story that had the potential to be about one of them got tweaked until it could be about both of them.

So if you Google “Brad Pitt Oscar,” one of the first results speculates whether Pitt stores his statuette next to Jolie’s in a domestic his-and-hers awards setup.

And when Jolie announced in the New York Times that she would be getting a preventative double mastectomy, her op-ed discussed how lucky she was “to have a partner, Brad Pitt, who is so loving and supportive.” The next day, Pitt released a statement calling her “heroic.” The story of Jolie’s mastectomy became not just about a woman and her medical decision but about Brangelina and their family. “We knew this was the right choice for our family,” Jolie wrote.

Brangelina has subsumed its component parts. It has eclipsed them. There is no room for a narrative about Brad and Angelina as individuals; there is only room for Brangelina the unit.

So it’s entirely on brand that Jolie’s lawyer says she’s filing for divorce “for the health of the family.”

As Brangelina enters its death throes, it still cares more about family than anything else.

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