In things that make me feel old, have you done the math and figured out that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have been together for almost ten years? According to Pitt, they “fell in love” while filming Mr. and Mrs. Smith, which would have wrapped principal photography circa 2004 in order to be ready for its summer tentpole release. I actually remember where I was when I heard that “Brangelina” was a thing, and I couldn’t believe it. Jen and Brad were such ingrained pop cultural icons as a couple that thinking about them separately (way back in the aughties, when we were so innocent) was just strange.
Thus, I understood the media firestorm at first, which every successive tabloid article fretting over the demise of their relationship. However, throughout their nuptial dissolution in the media, the PR onus was hardly on Brad Pitt, who was always portrayed as happy, healthy and successful, living the dream with his new insta-family. The Pitt-Jolies were like a family you would create on the Sims, except that we didn’t torture or starve them for fun or set their house on fire, just to watch it burn. They were computer-generated perfection, furthering Pitt’s untouchability. At the time, he was more like a Prom King than an actor.
Instead, the media eye solely focused on Jennifer Aniston, and what a sad, lonely life she has now that she’s a sad, lonely single. The media fervor over her bachelorettehood moved from the passive “When Will Jen Find Love?” to “John Mayer Breaks Jennifer Aniston’s Heart Again” to “You Can’t Be Happy Because Jennifer Aniston Isn’t” to “Her Pussy Must Be Made of Razor Blades” to “Shit, Just Get Married Already” to “Jennifer Aniston Is Going to Die Sad and Alone, Half Eaten by the Fact That NO ONE LOVES HER.” What’s sad is that this is barely an exaggeration. If you’re bored, Google “Jennifer Aniston Sad and Alone” and see what you come up with. Remember: this is the world we live in.
I have to say: I don’t understand how this signifies “romantic loser.” If Aniston’s the face of sad singledom, clearly I’ll be doing fine. Bring on spinsterhood.
We’re so invested in “Sad Jen” that it’s hard to see her outside of the perspective of her relationships. Jennifer Aniston, without asking for it, was the original Taylor Swift, someone defined not by her work but who she was dating. Swift asks us to do this by making it part of her own celebrity narrative and always singing about it, but this role was thrust upon Aniston, who had that identity created for her. Although Aniston has often attempted to break out of her discourse by choosing roles outside the romantic comedy genre — like Nicole Holofcener’s great 2006 indie Friends With Money. However, that got half as much attention as her roles in The Break-Up or He’s Just Not That Into You, both of which bank on the idea that someone as gorgeous as Aniston would be anything less than desirable.
Between Horrible Bosses and her one-off appearance on 30 Rock as Liz’s party-girl ex-best friend, Aniston has shown herself to be an actress with surprising range and an unexpected flair for dark comedy. Although her part in Horrible Bosses wasn’t my favorite — because it asks us to find male sexual abuse funny, when sexual abuse is never funny — Aniston is dynamite in it, giving an unexpectedly committed performance to what is seemingly a light trifle. Critics lauded her work, but she hasn’t been able to sustain a career in anything outside of movies about her love life. Even in non-rom com Bruce Almighty and Office Space she played the girlfriend character.
What the media has done to Aniston is representative of a lot of the strange biases we have against women in our society. Despite having been a lead in a number of highly successful films (six that grossed near or over the century mark at the box office), Aniston is labeled as “box office poison” and usually blamed when one of her films flops. It’s not that the script was awful (in the case of Rumor Has It and The Bounty Hunter), that it got no publicity (see: Derailed), that the marketing campaign was confused (like the muddled Love Happens) or that the movie was just buried (did anyone see Management?). It’s that people hate her.
Conversely, when one of her films is a success, Aniston gets none of the credit. The critically reviled Just Go With It quietly grossed over $100 million back in 2011. As an Adam Sandler vehicle, box office pundits automatically expected that it would reach that point. Sandler’s previous nine comedies all reached the Century Club, the benchmark for box office success in Hollywood. Young men love Adam Sandler films, and he’s considered one of the most dependable earners in the business. Even a movie as universally reviled as Jack and Jill somehow eked out $74 million.
But what people neglected to mention was that on opening weekend, 58% of the audience was female, showing that they might not be turning out for Sandler, whose movies skew heavily male. Men are his audience. They were there for Aniston, and they loved it. The film’s Cinemascore was an A-. Aniston gets all the blowback when her films don’t perform, but she gets almost none of the credit when they succeed. Now she knows how Nicole Kidman feels.
This “Poor Jen” narrative was created from the moment that Aniston became single and Team Jen and Team Angelina became a thing, and she’s not the only person it affects. When Katie Holmes left Tom Cruise, we couldn’t accept that Holmes made a calculated decision to marry a man the world universally recognized was a raging psychopath. She had to see that Oprah interview. Girl knew what she was signing up for. However, we had to believe that Holmes was a victim. If she wasn’t a sad single, it didn’t give us a reason to root for her. It’s the only way we could accept her.
Like Holmes, who can’t open a play without being Tom Cruise’s ex, Aniston will be forever tied to her relationship with Brad Pitt, even though she’s been separated from him longer than they were actually together. Despite that fact, tabloids still can’t stop bringing it up. They’re having an affair and Angelina is jealous. Jolie kicked him out. Aniston’s in therapy to get over Brad Pitt. She told an unnamed source that she’ll never love anyone as much as she loved him. Now that she’s getting married, the media has slowly begun to change the conversation on Aniston, but only because she’s becoming Mrs. Justin Theroux. She’s even taking his last name. Without a man, she’s nothing.
Aniston is clearly doing fine (and has been for some time), and I highly doubt she cares what Hello magazine or OK! think about her. My interest in Jennifer Aniston is not for her own sake but the billions of women that this discourse reflects, ones who are consistently told that you are only defined by the men you date. No matter how much you achieve or what you do, no one will be able to grasp your identity outside of the confines of this one relationship or aspect of your being. You are only as good as the man who is inside you. Everything else you do is poison.
Jennifer Aniston has moved on. Now why can’t we?