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.
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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.
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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?)
Partly, it's a timing thing. Our cultural expectations about the best time for marriage may be expanding, but we still have a general sense that dating itself has an expiration date. "Marry him!" Lori Gottlieb advised single ladies in the pages of The Atlantic. "Every woman I know—no matter how successful and ambitious, how financially and emotionally secure—feels panic, occasionally coupled with desperation, if she hits 30 and finds herself unmarried."
We don't often talk about it, because it's nicer to emphasize the passion stuff over the practicality stuff, but weddings are paradoxical things. On the one hand—the hand that tends to be highlighted by the literature of religion, and of rom-coms, and of the commercial Wedding Industrial Complex—marriage represents potential: potential for family, potential for the continuity of companionship, potential for, generally, The Future. "'Til death do us part." "For the rest of our lives." "Forever." Wedding bands are circular not just because of the shape of our fingers, but because of the shape of infinity.
On the other hand, of course, weddings represent the exact opposite of potential. They are, as traditionally imagined, about the foreclosure of possibilities—and, particularly, of the possibility of romance with other people. "The one." "Forsaking all others." Etc. This is the subtext of the marriage vow, whether it follows a time-honored script or a unique one: "I am choosing you above everyone else."
And the additional subtext is about timing rather than timelessness: "I am choosing you, now, no matter who else comes along later."
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The Brangelina romance forced us to consider what happens when this time-bound aspect of the marriage vow is broken. And it forced us, by extension, to consider how we see affairs, morally, when the soul mate is also the other woman. As a culture, at this point, many people accept divorce as a potential outcome of marriage. And while Brad and Jen may have had a dog, they didn't have kids. What would you have done, if you had been in Brad's position?
The US Weekly contingent—the self-appointed arbiter of celebrity morality—generally forgave him. It also, generally, forgave Angelina. Team Aniston is still out there, but its vitriol has faded as Jen has moved on and as Angelina and Brad have gone on to build their own team—with six children, both adopted and biological, among its members. The couple, together, created what advocates of traditional marriage say marriage is for: family.
Which brings us back to that weird photo essay in US Weekly—the one that came after Brad and Angelina were engaged, but before they were actually married. The one that, in retrospect, proved that celebrities' meta-cultural status can only be taken so far. You could argue that what the magazine's readers really wanted, in their ongoing interest in the couple's marriage, was a kind of penance from Brangelina. They had forgiven them for what they had done to Jen. They had given them permission to do something they may not have been able to do themselves: to prioritize love over marriage.
But they wanted something in return. They wanted the pair, having found each other—having built a family based on each other—to make the same come-what-may commitments the rest of us do. They wanted Brad and Angelina to stand up in front of their family, their friends, and the world to say, "I am choosing you, now. No matter who else comes along later."