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The emptiness of “couple goals” TikToks

It’s easy to pretend like you’re in love when there’s clout on the line.

Rebecca Jennings is a senior correspondent covering social platforms and the creator economy. Since joining Vox in 2018, her work has explored the rise of TikTok, internet aesthetics, and the pursuit of money and fame online. You can sign up for her biweekly Vox Culture newsletter here.

On a visit to a now-defunct TikToker content house in Los Angeles last February, I happened to meet two diminutive 20-somethings, both decked out in chunky streetwear and topped with matching neon-green hair. They were, unmistakably, a pair of TikTok stars, both of whom exhibited the same characteristic shyness I’ve come to expect of young influencers when the cameras are off. I asked them what kind of videos they made, and they told me “couple goals.”

“Couple goals” accounts are a crucial part of TikTok World: If the idea of a collab house is the joy of watching your favorite TikTokers hang out together, imagine the ecstasy of watching them kiss. The first few major TikTok couples — Charli D’Amelio and Chase Hudson, Addison Rae and Bryce Hall, Josh Richards and Nessa Barrett — were shining examples of the form, revealing just enough on-camera flirtation to make their followers root for the relationship, but keeping enough a mystery to drive speculation within the exploding influencer gossip industry.

No pair captivated TikTok more than Sienna Mae Gomez and Jack Wright. Gomez, a 17-year-old body positivity influencer, and Wright, an 18-year-old dancer and Hype House member, began posting videos of themselves hugging and kissing last October, but left their followers perpetually guessing whether they were officially dating or not. Both were beloved for their senses of humor, displaying the casual cool of the popular kids who you’d actually want to be friends with. When the gossip account TikTok Room held its first awards last year, Gomez and Wright won “Best Ship,” devoted to the couple audiences most wanted to get together.

But after videos showing the two together began to slow down this spring, a friend of Wright’s made an explosive statement on Twitter: that Gomez had allegedly sexually and verbally assaulted Wright. The post, as well as several others made by Wright’s twin brother and his friends, were deleted, and Gomez repeatedly denied the accusations. I’m not going to linger more on what did or didn’t happen between the two of them; they’re teenagers, and I doubt one more person weighing in would be at all helpful, but one part of Gomez’s statement stood out.

In her video addressing the allegations, she painted a picture that redefined the golden-hour-on-the-beach portrait of her and Wright’s relationship. Essentially, she said that she’d felt used for content. “If I wasn’t around for the TikTok kiss or the TikTok video, I wasn’t important to him,” she said. “Two weeks ago I asked him to film a video with me for my mental health’s sake because I couldn’t move on with everyone thinking we were still together. He told me it wasn’t healthy for either of us because this would mean losing his online girlfriend.”

It’s almost verbatim what Trisha Paytas, the YouTuber who’d once been a part of David Dobrik’s Vlog Squad, told me when I asked about her former relationship with fellow member Jason Nash. He’d use her in YouTube videos with “girlfriend” in the title, yet only show affection when they two were on camera. He broke up with her, she says, once he’d decided she was no longer “useful” for his content.

Celebrity PR relationships have existed since long before the internet, but there’s something deeply cynical and sad about newly microfamous teenagers orchestrating one themselves. Consider, for instance, the number of apparently straight teens on TikTok making content that many have considered queerbaiting (though could, on the other hand, be an earnest means of exploring their own sexualities). Even if you’ve never been in love before, it’s easy to mimic the outward appearance of a romantic relationship, and it’s even easier when both parties understand that doing so successfully will grow their following.

You tend to see this dynamic a lot with married couples on social media too, pairs who build giant audiences by posting “relatable” goofs with their spouse, airing petty annoyances and pulling pranks but assuring viewers that actually, being married rules. (Except, of course, when they break up, as was the case for TikTok’s most famous husband and wife duo, Mike and Kat.) There’s a discomfort in watching some of these types of videos; often you start to get the sense that these two people might actually hate each other yet both feel trapped, not only in the marriage but in the algorithm — the fear that if they no longer post content together, they won’t matter anymore.

All of this is to say: No one should compare their own relationship to those of influencers who bank on presenting the view that they are very much in love. Everyone likes to look at pretty people kissing, but perhaps that’s all “couple goals” accounts really need to provide. I can’t help but think of one comment I read on a TikTok video of two silhouettes slow dancing in an achingly beautiful aquarium, set to twinkly, misty jazz. It read something like, “ok whose friends actually take videos of them like this,” and I laughed because the answer is obviously “no one’s.” The couple clearly tilted their phone on the side of the wall and filmed it themselves because they knew it would look extremely cute and would get a lot of views from envious people. Which is sort of embarrassing, honestly! Like, imagine being in an actual aquarium and having to wait for all the parents and kids to leave the hallway before you can film your corny TikTok and act like some magical fly on the wall just happened to have a camera phone?

For what it’s worth, none of the couples mentioned in this column are still together. Well, except one: While the TikTok house they were part of ultimately broke up, the shy, neon-haired kids I met last year are happily still dating. According to their TikToks, they seem very much in love.

This column first published in The Goods newsletter. Sign up here so you don’t miss the next one, plus get newsletter exclusives.

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