Jennifer Aniston: A Monomyth

Why do we care so much about Angelina and Brad getting married? Here's one theory.
Brad and Angelina arrive at the 86th Academy Awards in Hollywood, California in March 2014. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

In 2012, US Weekly ran a photo essay depicting the wedding of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt.

Well, the "wedding." Of "Angelina Jolie" and "Brad Pitt." The essay was actually the work of an artist, Alison Jackson, who imagined, via extremely effective doppelgangers, what it would look like were the couple of seven years to make the thing official.

The whole essay was creepy, and funny, and, above all, revealing. So desperate was the world for Brangelina to become Mr. and Mrs. Brangelina, it seems, it stepped in where reality had faltered: We just made up our own version of their wedding. 

However! Today brings, for Brangelina watchers, an end to such strangeness: Their wedding no longer needs to be imagined. Over the weekend, the couple made their union a matter of law, via a small civil ceremony at their chateau in France. People have been freaking out accordingly. And while the source of the freakout is obvious—ritual! pseudo-royalty! what did her dress look like?—the source of the ongoing interest is more complicated than the typical voyeurism we might experience for, say, a Kardashian affair. Celebrities always have a meta-cultural quality—this is partly what makes them celebrities in the first place—but Angelina and Brad seem to have an extra dose of it. Their relationship seems at once to occupy and to transcend accepted ideas of what relationships are in the first place.

So why do we care so much about the pair who are, in the end, just another celebrity couple? Here's one theory.

* * *

It starts in 2005. Brad was married, at the time, to Jennifer Aniston. They had had fireworks, and 50,000 flowers, at their wedding. They strolled on beaches. They shared dog-walking duties. She made him, as promised, his favorite banana milk shakes.

Jen-and-Brad, in other words, were fairly adorable. And they were fairly relatable. Their romance seemed real. Or, well, as real as romance can seem, as it unfolds on the pages of People.

And then came Angelina. She and Brad were thrown together—by some combination of fate and the studio executives at 20th Century Fox—when they costarred as the leads of the romantic spy comedy Mr. and Mrs. Smith. Angelina was the opposite of Jen in pretty much every obvious way: brunette to Jen's blonde, tattooed to Jen's peaches-n-cream. Angelina wore stilettos, and also a lot of leather. During her marriage to Billy Bob Thornton, she wore a pendant containing his blood. You could totally imagine her shooting Jack in a biker bar.

And, as the story goes, her connection with Brad was intense, and instant, and insistent. These two people—these two souls, if you want—just clicked. They made sense in a way that seems fitting of our self-appointed stars: Though they probably had their awkward moments, and though they probably bickered, there was also something about the whole thing that seemed almost cosmically ratified. There was something that seemed, especially in retrospect, almost meant to be.

Except, of course, there was also something about it that was very much not meant to be. The fated love was also an affair. Angelina was The Other Woman to Jen's Girl Next Door. And the people who follow People promptly broke into passionate factions: Team Aniston vs. Team Jolie. The breakdowns weren't neat, in part because Angelina stubbornly refused to fit the established Other Woman mold. She was ethereal, yes, but she had also gone through a Goth phase. She was sultry, yes, but she also did charity work. She had a sword collection. She was interesting, and complicated, and weird. She was, in other words, inconveniently human. 

And that made the Angelina/Brad/Jen love triangle itself interesting, and complicated, and weird. And yet the whole thing also had a tangential whiff of monomyth. There was something universal, and primal, about the story as it played out in 2005 and beyond. Because, thematically, what you had with the whole Brangelinajen drama was a tale as old as time: a person who realized that his spouse and his soul mate were two different people.

* * *

That could well be the matrix of our obsession with the Brangelina marriage. The Campbellian dimensions of the thing—the post-wedding soul-mate-ing—is a circumstance that has been, at one time or another, on the mind of anyone who has married or considered it. Getting Anistoned: In a society that tries, valiantly if awkwardly, to unite the pragmatisms of marriage with the passions of romance, this is a simmering fear. (It goes both ways, too: Is this the person? Is she the one?)

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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