clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The strange national mourning over Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's divorce, explained

If you buy something from a Vox link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Writer-director-producer-actress Angelina Jolie Pitt (L) and actor-producer Brad Pitt attend the opening night gala premiere of Universal Pictures' By the Sea during AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi at TCL Chinese 6 Theatres on November 5, 2015, in Hollywood, California.
Writer-director-producer-actress Angelina Jolie Pitt (L) and actor-producer Brad Pitt attend the opening night gala premiere of Universal Pictures' By the Sea during AFI FEST 2015 presented by Audi at TCL Chinese 6 Theatres on November 5, 2015, in Hollywood, California.
Jason Merritt/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Americans should reconsider the concept of true love.

There was a pocket of time when the country’s divorce rate was roughly 50 percent. We have apps where we can, with a flick of a finger, dismiss another human because we don’t like the way their nose sits on their face. There is a wildly popular television show allegedly about finding true love, where no one ever gets married.

Yet a certain subset of us are caught up in the idea of fairy-tale romance. That’s how terrible public marriage proposals happen, after all. And this is in spite of the existence of at least one study that found people who are seemingly the most in love — the troglodytes who profess their love to each other on Facebook or social media — are actually insecure about their relationships.

Ultimately, we should be thankful if our personal endgame is just a couple of notches better than the premise of Mad Max: Fury Road.

And still, we have hope that true love is real, hope that is bolstered whenever we see what appears to be true love in its purest form.

Whenever we see a couple who defies all cynicism and logic. Whenever we see a couple we just genuinely wish the best for, because we know that behind the scenes, true love can mean dealing with the flagrant irritation of stepping on a wet bathroom floor while wearing dry socks because the person who means everything to you can’t, for the life of them, dry themselves off in the shower.

This week, a little bit of that hope died.

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, one of these rare couples who serve as a testament to aspirational love, are divorcing. Known as the clunky portmanteau Brangelina, the two were a Hollywood pair that many people believed in.

For a while, they beat the odds, they beat the tabloids, they even beat the story the press and pop culture had created for them. They were a Hollywood couple who made us believe a Hollywood marriage could be real. They really seemed to love and support one another.

And even if you didn’t believe in that mushy Hollywood romance bullshit, and that everything is artificial when it comes to fame, at some level you respected the way the two played the game.

People were invested in their happiness. America was invested in their love. And we all will be invested in their divorce. It’s the end of a love story, one of the greatest ones Hollywood has ever created.

Brangelina’s origin story could’ve centered on infidelity; instead it became a tale of putting family first and doing good in the world

The story of how Pitt and Jolie met is the stuff of Hollywood legend: In the fall of 2004, they began filming the 2005 movie Mr. and Mrs. Smith together, and fell in love on set. Pitt was married to Jennifer Aniston at the time. The two eventually divorced, Pitt began a relationship with Jolie, and since then and up until this week, the couple has been pop culture shorthand for true love — the kind we haven’t seen since Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson or, fine, Bogie and Bacall.

But that’s a compressed version of the tale, and one that is, in hindsight, a bit too kind.

The unabridged edition might include the blunt narrative of the time, which cast Jolie as a husband stealer, Pitt as an adulterer, and Aniston as Pitt’s mean wife who made him sad because she allegedly didn’t want to start a familyAniston’s pregnancy and marital status have been a media and pop cultural fascination ever since.

Going back to 2004, I still have searing, indelible images in my head of Jolie and humanoid bolo tie Billy Bob Thornton, her husband at the time, making out, being handsy, and telling anyone who would listen about the vial of his blood she wore around her neck. She also kissed her brother on the lips. Before Thornton, she was married to Jonny Lee Miller, with whom she starred in the 1995 Hackers. Jolie also had a romance with model Jenny Shimizu, prompting a myriad of stories about her bisexuality.

Looking back, all that — with the exception of the blood vial neck accessories and mild incest — seems pretty tame compared with the publicity stunts of today. But at the time, Jolie was painted as the edgy, sexy, enigmatic actress who breathed fire.

Meanwhile, Aniston and Pitt were a Hollywood power couple. He was a golden-boy movie star, and she was the approachable, lovable star of the biggest show on television.

The eventual rumors that Pitt and Jolie had kindled something on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith were inevitable. We often hear gossip about movie co-stars finding romance with each other. Pitt and Jolie were no exception, especially in light of the media’s portrayal of Jolie as a seductive wild child. And when news of Pitt’s divorce broke in 2005, the story took off.

But then something funny happened: Jolie and Pitt’s relationship wasn’t treated like a scandal. There were, of course, the "Team Jolie" and "Team Aniston" shirts, but the new couple carried on, relatively unscathed — especially considering how the relationship started — by the media.

BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen has a good theory about this. She posits that Jolie plays the "game" of celebrity — managing her image, her availability to the press, and the balance between her private and public lives — better than anyone. And in that pocket of time during the maelstrom of Pitt and Aniston’s divorce, Jolie and Pitt figured out how to present their relationship in a way that dignified it.

"There was no confirmation of a relationship, no public displays of affection. At press junkets, interviewers signed agreements that they wouldn’t ask questions about their personal lives," Petersen wrote. "The lack of public comment could have mired both Jolie and Pitt in the quagmire of bad press and bombing movies. But Pitt and Jolie were speaking constantly. They were just doing so semiotically."

What Petersen is referring to is the type of stories that Jolie and Pitt allowed themselves to be a part of. The two built a romance and a family in the public eye. He was a part of her child and their children’s lives, not just her own. She was traveling the world, working with the United Nations and speaking about human rights and refugees.

As Petersen notes, there were photos of the couple, but there were also photos of Pitt with Jolie’s son Maddox. Pitt went to Ethiopia and toured AIDS orphanages, and he accompanied Jolie to the country when they adopted their daughter Zahara in 2005. Jolie went to Sierra Leone and Darfur. They both went to Geneva together to talk about an earthquake in Pakistan and the devastation it caused. They didn’t wed, initially, because they said they didn’t want to get married until everyone in the US — specifically the LGBTQ community — could. And they temporarily moved to Namibia to raise awareness about global poverty.

Brangelina could have easily been treated as a scandal.

But Pitt and Jolie’s press strategy was effective because it made it so that popular magazines and publications would have to risk their own reputations if they wanted to mention infidelity or sex, since those publications would look like they were smearing this superhero couple.

That effectively laid the foundation of how we talk about Brangelina today.

Their story isn’t about a man who may or may not have cheated on his wife to shack up with someone new. It’s not about a seductress who stole a husband. It’s a story about two souls finding true love and a family together.

In 2008, Jolie told the New York Times that she would love to show her kids Mr. and Mrs. Smith because "not a lot of people get to see a movie where their parents fell in love."

That’s adorable. But it’s also a sign of how much the narrative has changed, and perhaps how in control of their own image Pitt and Jolie have always been. We saw another example of this in the wake of the divorce announcement, in their individual statements.

"I am very saddened by this, but what matters most now is the well-being of our kids," Pitt said in a statement.

Jolie issued a statement through one of her lawyers, Robert Offer: "This decision was made for the health of the family. She will not be commenting, and asks that the family be given its privacy at this time."

Their respective statements both focus on their six children and the family they’ve created. This puts the press in the position of looking uncouth or feckless if they choose to dig deeper or insinuate salacious rumors.

If this were any other couple than Brangelina, even a much fainter whiff of infidelity at the beginning of their relationship would have doomed them. It would have made this week’s news of their divorce seem inevitable. But it didn’t, because Brangelina isn’t any other couple.

Why Brangelina doesn’t feel like any other Hollywood couple

In many ways, "Brangelina" changed the way Hollywood couples are covered in the media. For one thing, at the most basic level, Pitt and Jolie are responsible for our tendency to make portmanteaus of famous couples’ names, like Kimye and the now-dead Hiddleswift.

But they also changed the way publications cover celebrity families and dulled the stigma often prescribed to nontraditional couples. Brangelina remained unwed for the most of the time they spent together, effectively dodging and killing the popular celebrity question, "When are you two getting married?"

And in a sense, more than any couple before them, Brangelina really figured out how to use their fame in a way that didn’t directly benefit them but also ultimately strengthened our respect for them.

For example, in April 2006, the couple and their family moved to Namibia prior to the birth of Shiloh Jolie-Pitt. They did so to avoid the paparazzi, but to also raise awareness about the poverty in the country. Every outlet that covered Shiloh’s arrival mentioned the fact that most of the 2 million people there are born poor. Brangelina then donated $300,000 to the country to help other babies born there.

In this day and age of celebrities thirsting for fame (see: Kim Kardashian and her topless selfies) or celebrity couples looking for photo ops (see: Taylor Swift and her presumably staged photo ops with Tom Hiddleston) Brangelina stood out, not only for not needing recognition or validation or attention but also for using their fame in a way that was powerful, political, and ultimately good.

Even if isn’t their intention, Pitt and Jolie seem like good people, a good Hollywood couple that puts good out in the world. This isn’t to say the media has always treated Pitt and Jolie with respect. Throughout the years there have been plenty of tacky headlines and tabloid covers about them, but that’s more of a reflection on the publications that ran those headlines and covers than it is about Jolie or Pitt.

Why people care so much about the Brangelina divorce

The greatest impact of the Brangelina coupling is that the two, up until this week, made celebrity marriage something we want to emulate.

That’s easy to scoff at.

But if you think about the way celebrity couples have usually been portrayed, it’s often negative. Some are steeped in derision (see: Kimye). Some are haunted by the underlying suggestion that divorce is inevitable. Some are lumped into a category of political marriages, where there’s a whisper that they’re only together for personal gain (see: Beyoncé and Jay Z and the now-divorced Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes).

And usually, it’s only vintage Hollywood couples — think Bogie and Bacall — who make us believe there’s something genuine underneath the scrim of Hollywood glamour and glitz.

What Brangelina have done is carve out their own definition of celebrity marriage and make it desirable. Their relationship has always seemed like a stable, no-frills, no-drama sort of love. It’s also been tested by moments that are terrifyingly real.

In 2013, Jolie underwent a double mastectomy to reduce her risk of cancer from a gene she knows she carries that makes her prone to it. Two years later, she had her ovaries removed. She wrote about the ordeal, and was very open about her decision, the fact that cancer runs in her family, and the reason she was taking these precautions. And she and Pitt sat down together to talk about all of it on the Today show, with Pitt praising his wife’s courage and publicly supporting her:

"I was out in France, and Angie called me and I got straight on a plane to return,'' Pitt said. "Seeing my wife have to be her strongest and knowing that it's the scariest news is terribly moving. And not being there is a horrible feeling."

The two handled the situation with a certain honesty and grace that you don’t often see in Hollywood stories. They handled it like they handled every situation — raising their children together and trying to give them normal lives, not making a spectacle of their happiness during Pitt’s divorce from Aniston, letting their child Shiloh question and experiment with gender roles.

The two were always a team.

Granted, in Hollywood there’s always a sliding scale of belief. At one end of the spectrum, there are people who believe that everything we read about when it comes to our favorite celebrities is the product of a team of agents and PR people. On the other is a belief that there’s always a kernel of something genuine behind the magazine stories, that in this world where everyone fakes it, some part of it has to be real, and that perhaps only actors can truly understand other actors.

But even those who are more cynical tend to hold a certain respect for Jolie and Pitt. To acknowledge that even if Hollywood is a sham, they have managed to play this game of celebrity to perfection. And that’s sort of admirable in its own way.

To more fervent Brangelina fans, Pitt and Jolie are good parents, good people, a good husband and wife. Their commitment to their relationship and to their family and their obviously supportive love for one another made them an ideal couple, a couple people want to root for, a couple whose dissolution has shocked and saddened a lot of regular people.

That’s not crazy. That’s a great Hollywood love story.