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The redemption of Bennifer

The Jennifer Lopez-Ben Affleck recoupling is the greatest gossip story we’ve had in years.

Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck at the premiere of Daredevil in 2003.
Chris Weeks/FilmMagic
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.

If there is a shining bright spot in the world right now, it’s the reunion of Bennifer, the greatest celebrity gossip story the world has experienced in years. Since Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez first reunited this spring after breaking off their engagement in 2004, they’ve been gracing the world with photos of their coupledom: glowy, aspirational “this is what Hollywood love looks like” iconography. The reception has been one of overwhelming delight.

Yet the rapturous reception to Bennifer 2.0 is a far cry from the world’s fascination with Bennifer 1.0. Then, the public treated the relationship as tacky, embarrassing, tarnishing both their images. Now it’s discussed as the only good thing in the world.

“This story is GOOD FOR GOSSIP,” opined gossip columnist Elaine Lui at her blog Lainey Gossip in July. “It’s good gossip. It’s guilt-free gossip!” The lack of guilt that comes with glorying in the reunion of Bennifer is, as Lui notes, an unusual feature of celebrity voyeurism these days.

“As we have learned over the years, a lot of the gossip that we used to participate in has been revisited, and history has shown us our asses,” Lui explains. She’s referring to the recent revelations that have made the celebrity gossip era of decades past feel even crueler and more tawdry with hindsight than it did at the time: what happened with Britney Spears, what happened with Dylan Farrow. “But Bennifer Summer 2021? We’re not looking back on this moment in 10 years with regret.”

Nonetheless, Bennifer 2.0 is a revisitation — and it is, in fact, showing us our asses a little bit. Bennifer 1.0 was very much a relationship of the early 2000s, the same era that is currently under much reexamination. (Quoth Lorde: “Don’t you think the early 2000s seem so far away?”) And the changes between the way we talked about Ben and Jen then and the way we talk about them now show us a lot about how the culture has shifted over the past 20 years.

“It’s not easy being overly wealthy superstars”

Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck sign autographs at the premiere of Gigli in 2003.
L. Cohen/WireImage

Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck met in 2002, co-starring in the action comedy Gigli. It was to become an infamous flop, but the pair didn’t know that then. They have also strongly maintained that nothing actually happened between them while they were filming because Lopez was married to Cris Judd at the time.

As Lopez’s marriage to Judd foundered, however, Affleck seems to have decided to shoot his shot. Foreshadowing the highly public nature of their relationship, his move was to take out a full-page ad in trade magazines about how great Lopez was. (He would later say he did it to try to correct the public perception that Lopez was a diva who’s difficult to work with.)

The pair were first seen publicly canoodling in July 2002, shortly before Lopez filed for divorce from Judd. By November, they were engaged. The new relationship was met with an immediate outpouring of public fascination.

Beautiful, glamorous Jennifer Lopez and handsome, talented Ben Affleck were magazine draws on their own — but together, they had massive publicity appeal. Between August of 2002 and March 2004, the rising Us Weekly would devote 12 covers to the phenomenon of Bennifer. The pair announced their engagement in an exclusive Primetime interview. “At this rate, a pay-per-view wedding does not seem out of the question,” snarked the New York Times.

Lopez and Affleck attempted to satirize the flood of attention in November 2002, when Lopez released the video for “Jenny From the Block.” Co-starring a clean-shaven and prettied-up Affleck, the video sees the pair cuddling on a yacht. Affleck presses a kiss to Lopez’s famous butt, and paparazzi aim telephoto lenses in their direction. The idea was for Bennifer to perform a cheeky lampoon of their own personas — but the parody didn’t land.

Bennifer was so oversaturated at this point that the public, thoroughly sick of them, considered the video to be an embarrassment. How dare these movie stars complain about being rich and hot and in love? The video, people concluded, was really pretty trashy.

“Poor J-Lo couldn’t lounge on her yacht, be adored in a hot tub, or wear her $1 million engagement ring without someone taking her picture,” wrote Justine Ashley Costanza in the International Business Times. “It’s not easy being overly wealthy superstars. The video’s premise shows Lopez dealing with the perils of fame the only way she knows how ... by taking off most of what she’s wearing.”

“They were young, impossibly good-looking, fabulously wealthy, and clearly hot for each other,” reasoned the Guardian with hindsight this January, “so it seemed like a good time to knock them down a peg.”

The embarrassment of the video would be compounded when Gigli premiered and immediately bombed in August of 2003. Lopez, in an interview with W Magazine, blamed the film’s commercial failure on the overexposure of her relationship. “If you’re in the paper every damn day, people are like, ‘Who cares?’ And then nobody goes to see your movie!” she explained. “It’s like, ‘Why should we? We see her every day,’ and then you’re like, ‘Wait a minute! That’s the only reason I’m doing this!’”

To a certain degree, the flood of publicity Bennifer received was publicity they courted, presumably, as Lopez explained, to get people into the theaters for Gigli. Lopez and Affleck were the ones who chose to announce their engagement on Primetime, who brought Dateline into their shared home for a lengthy special on their relationship.

But the sheer overwhelming force of attention they received is something they couldn’t possibly have anticipated. Their relationship emerged just as Us Weekly transformed itself from monthly trade magazine to weekly gossip rag, just as publishers began pouring money into celebrity tabloids, just as the paparazzi industry was turning into an uncontrollable monster. It was an unprecedented moment, and Lopez and Affleck were both clearly unprepared for the virulence of the attention they brought down on themselves.

Affleck, especially, was becoming ever more aware that his hard-earned industry credibility was crumbling. “I’m in the worst place I can be,” he confided to Matt Damon. “I can sell magazines but not movie tickets.”

Affleck and Damon’s mutual agent, Patrick Whitesell, tried calling a gossip editor to ask him to lay off the saturation coverage. “Patrick said, ‘You’re ruining this man’s career,’” Damon recalled to the New York Times in 2021. “The editor’s response was like, ‘Sorry, they’re buying those issues in Ohio and Kansas, so we’re going to keep putting him on the cover.’”

In September of 2003, Affleck and Lopez announced they would be postponing their wedding. In January 2004, amid swirling rumors of infidelity and betrayal, they confirmed that they had broken up.

“I think it has to do with race and class, the fact that I’m white and she’s Puerto Rican”

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez at the premiere of Daredevil, in 2004.
Chris Weeks/WireImage

The rising tabloid industry created the infrastructure for the Bennifer press phenomenon. But there was something specific about Affleck and Lopez as public figures, something about the way the public thought about them, that seemed to make the public react with unusual vitriol and contempt at their union. It had something to do with the way they were both movie stars, but different kinds of movie stars.

Affleck circa 2002 was considered a Serious Actor. He’d co-written Good Will Hunting. He did Armageddon. He did Shakespeare in Love! He’d just been named People’s Sexiest Man Alive, and now — the narrative went — he was ready to take over Hollywood.

Lopez, meanwhile, was considered a Glamorous Diva. While she’d proved her acting bona fides with Selena in 1997, the public tended to overlook her chops as a thespian to focus on the spectacle of her body: Lopez’s body in the Versace gown she wore to the 2000 Grammys, so searched-for that it helped invent Google Images; Lopez’s body dancing on the beach in the video for “Love Don’t Cost a Thing.”

The public understanding of each persona conflicted violently. Ben Affleck was someone you were supposed to take seriously, someone whose work you were supposed to engage with sincerely, as highbrow art. Jennifer Lopez was someone you were supposed to love only ironically, as lowbrow kitsch. How could you make sense of the pair of them together?

A 2003 Vanity Fair profile of Ben Affleck lauds Affleck for his low-maintenance stars, they’re just like us cool: his unglamorous home, his “unfailing good humor.” But it looks askance at his union with Lopez — who, the article whispers, is “ravenously ambitious.” She has already been married twice, Vanity Fair notes, and sometimes appears to be nude in her perfume ads.

“Although [Lopez] is a canny manipulator of her public image,” it goes on to warn us, “sordid tidbits about her past keep slithering out from under discarded rocks like nasty little snakes.” It’s referring to an interview Lopez’s first husband Ojani Noa had just given in the tabloids, where he referred to her as cold-hearted.

In Vanity Fair, when Affleck is “starry-eyed” and “rhapsodizing” about Lopez, it’s not a good look for him. It’s a sign that a once-respectable movie star has been ensnared by a vicious snake of a woman, and that he is now under her spell, emasculated and laughable.

That narrative, by and large, was the one the press embraced for Bennifer: Lopez as a social-climbing man-eater, and Affleck as her oblivious pawn. One of the biggest pieces of “evidence” for the story was Affleck’s new look, widely understood to be Lopez-mandated: his enhanced tan, his close shave, his slicked-back hair. In 2004, Seattle PI called the makeover “emasculating,” decrying the entire relationship as a “tacky public spectacle.”

In the same Vanity Fair profile, Affleck proffers a counternarrative: What if, he posits, the reason the American public is being so weird about his relationship is good old-fashioned racism and sexism?

“I think it has to do with race and class, the fact that I’m white and she’s Puerto Rican. That’s what’s underneath, although nobody says it, because it’s not politically correct,” he says. “There’s a kind of language that’s used about her — the spicy Latina, the tempestuous diva. She’s characterized as oversexed. I mean, the woman’s had five boyfriends in her whole life!”

Affleck’s counternarrative garnered little traction in 2003. But in 2021, it looks fairly convincing. The ways the public fetishized Lopez’s body while refusing to respect the labor she performed with it, the way people considered her work and persona trashy while Affleck’s was considered highbrow — it’s all inflected by race, class, and gender.

Lopez’s professional ambitions became cold and threatening while Affleck’s were considered aspirational, because women aren’t supposed to be ambitious. Because white men are generally offered the benefit of the doubt, the good movies Affleck had made were signs that he had real talent, while the bad movies were considered blips. In contrast, Lopez’s good movies were, by 2003, considered odd curiosities in a career that had refocused itself around music and movies for women and brown people, and her whole body of work was hence not worthy of respect.

The disparity is perhaps clearest in the differing understanding of their bodies. Lopez became oversexed (married twice already!) and someone who would surely “eat Affleck alive,” because Latina women are understood to have inherently sexualized bodies, to be predatory in their sexuality. Meanwhile, Affleck’s “Sexiest Man Alive” status was understood to be a mark in his favor, a sign of his leading man chops — up until the makeover.

The makeover was understood to be Affleck bowing to Lopez’s will. All the grit of his leading man handsomeness had been polished away, and with this new look, he became pretty, feminized, womanly. Feminine bodies are not considered worthy of respect, so Affleck lost all of his.

Later, Affleck would say that appearing in that “Jenny From the Block” video ruined his career. (But for the record, he would note, it wasn’t Lopez’s fault.)

With Bennifer 2.0, things have changed.

“Let’s appreciate this in a way we didn’t the first time”

Lopez and Affleck share a kiss on a yacht.
Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck made their relationship social media official when Lopez posted this photo to her Instagram.
Jennifer Lopez/Instagram

“Breaking breaking breaking breaking fucking news,” announced Jennifer Lawrence, mid-podcast interview, earlier this spring. “Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are BACK TOGETHER!” As one, the host and Lawrence’s fellow guests screamed in delight.

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez reunited in the spring of 2021. Since 2004, they’d both been married, had children, and gotten divorced, and when Lopez dissolved her engagement with former Yankees player Alex Rodriguez at the beginning of the year, both she and Affleck were single at the same time.

According to the gossip press, Affleck began wooing Lopez by email in February. They were first photographed publicly together on April 30, and in July, they made it Instagram official. They are now reportedly shopping for houses together.

Strikingly, Bennifer 2.0 is repeating a lot of the same iconography Bennifer 1.0 used — but the public reception this time around is very different than it was in 2003. The public is loving this.

“They lost their love once, and so did we, and now that it’s been miraculously reborn, let’s appreciate this in a way we didn’t the first time!” wrote Lui at Lainey Gossip. “Look at what JLo is giving us. We should be grateful!”

Affleck is now getting photographed out and about wearing the watch Lopez gave him in the “Jenny From the Block” video. He gave her a framed print of a picture of the pair of them riding a motorcycle together from that 2003 Vanity Fair profile. He was even photographed rubbing sunscreen into her ass on a yacht, in what tabloids immediately dubbed a reprise of the famous butt kiss from “Jenny From the Block.” The parallels are striking enough that comedian Caissie St. Onge has begun to theorize that Bennifer is making a shot-for-shot “Jenny From the Block” remake.

Affleck even appears to have gone through another Lopez-appropriate glow-up — as fashion bloggers Tom and Lorenzo noted on Twitter, “Ben Affleck got himself in better shape for J Lo again than he did to play Batman.” The New York Times published a winky little article on the “J. Lo effect,” noting “Ms. Lopez’s appearance-boosting effect on the men she dates.”

This time around, the makeover is being greeted not with hostility so much as it is amused and understanding respect. Well, of course Ben Affleck hit the gym before he shot his shot with J. Lo, is the implication. Someone of her status deserves no less.

It is Affleck and Lopez’s respective statuses that have shifted the most since 2003 and that seem to account for some of the change in the public’s reception of Bennifer 2.0. In 2021, J. Lo’s Glamorous Diva image has become aspirational, while Affleck’s Serious Actor image has taken on a tinge of sadsackery.

Nearly 20 years after Gigli, time has vindicated Lopez’s career. She is still relevant, still considered top-tier talent, in a way few of her peers are. In our rise-and-grind era, her palpable ambition has come to read as an admirable commitment to the hustle. Her much-buzzed-over performance in 2018’s Hustlers reestablished her credibility as both a serious actress and a serious dancer, and her age-defying beauty is continually memed across social media.

When people said Jennifer Lopez was a diva in 2003, they meant that she was probably bitchy, probably high-maintenance, and probably slutty. When people say Jennifer Lopez is a diva in 2021, they mean that she’s an icon, a goddess.

Affleck, meanwhile, has suffered in the public eye. Post-Gigli, his well-received work as a director helped get his acting career back on track, but his turn as Batman in the much-reviled Justice League franchise put that credibility in serious jeopardy. Simultaneously, in the wake of his 2015 divorce from Jennifer Garner (the other Ben and Jen) and a really bad tattoo, he developed an image as someone slightly pathetic, like a pratfalling sitcom character. Like Lopez, Affleck gets memed a lot these days — but while Lopez gets memed for looking ageless, Affleck usually gets memed for something like dropping his Dunkin’, vaping in his car with an air of existential despair, or having to throw out a life-size cardboard cutout of his ex-girlfriend.

So as Bennifer make their triumphant return, they’re no longer faced with a narrative in which cold, man-eating Lopez is emasculating and humiliating serious, respectable Affleck. Instead, the narrative this time around is that of a former golden boy on the skids, turning himself around to land the untouchable goddess who once loved him. The celebrity romance that once appeared obnoxious and in need of being dragged down a peg or 10 now seems to be, endearingly, the tale of an underdog working hard to get the girl; the tale of a woman who worked her ass off to get to the top and is now marvelously condescending to bring her ex up with her.

It’s a turn that Lopez, in a way, anticipated. “I think different time, different thing, who knows what could’ve happened,” she told People in 2016, “but there was a genuine love there.”

In a different time, Bennifer is a different thing. But the change doesn’t seem to have much to do with either Lopez or Affleck’s individual actions: After all, they’re repeating everything they did the first time around. Their public actions and comments have stayed remarkably consistent through all this time — it’s the way we read them that has shifted dramatically.

So in the end, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez aren’t the ones who’ve changed. We are.