When Angelina Jolie — actress, humanitarian, one half of the most scrutinized couple since Sam and Diane — announced earlier this week that she had undergone a preventative double-mastectomy, a strange thing happened. The Internet, the great and terrible sea of bile, was nice. Supportive, sensitive, kind. I guess the matter was just too serious to make snide jokes about, or to gush on with whispery speculation about the rest of her personal life. No, people instead seemed pretty reserved, respectful of the fact that Jolie was so public about about such a serious private matter. I'd say the response was gracious, not a word you often hear about celebrity coverage on the Internet.
Of course the period of civility won't last long. In fact, it may already be over. This morning, Britain's Daily Mail posted an article suggesting that Jolie's wedding plans have been accelerated now that she's made it through the procedure and has recovered. Is this true? What is the sourcing on this? Well, it doesn't really matter, of course. That's not the point. The point is simply filling up pages with guessing, because we sad stare-machines just can't stop clicking. As someone who relies on the celebrity gossip industry to do part of his job, I can't really condemn the whole industry without being an eensy bit of a hypocrite, but there is something a little dismaying about the fact that this particular story, this incredibly humanizing thing, probably won't really make much of a difference.
Yesterday, Kat Stoeffel of New York's The Cut posted this depressing piece, a look at what tabloids were saying about Angelina while she was undergoing and recovering from surgery. Of course they didn't know that at the time, and that's the whole point. There was some intern at Hollywood Life who said this about a woman who managed to get dressed up while in between surgeries: "I personally miss seeing the star in something sultry. Even though Angie is a multi-tasking mom she should still freshen up for the red carpet." I mean, it's a silly thing to say no matter what, but in this particular instance, our retroactive knowledge highlights just what an absurd thing this whole industry is, how clueless and arbitrary the coverage.
I guess that's the other depressing thing about this, that it takes something as serious as massive surgery to remind so many of us that, oh right, these people are human beings who, y'know, have stuff going on behind closed doors that probably resembles nothing of what is written about them. I'm sure more people than not were already aware of that fact, but there are plenty of us out there who treat these people like characters. (Myself included, of course!) Essentially all that wondering about weddings and fashion and fights and feuds and whatever else is fanfiction, all make believe stuff made more accessible and exciting by its faint suggestion of reality and familiarity. Which is pretty sad. And sadder still that not even a delicate disclosure of seriously personal matters like Jolie's can dissaude some people from doing what they do.
Maybe it's just as dumbly presumptuous to write a serious thing about this as it is something frivolous. But the way the conversation shifted so quickly, from blithe speculation to concerned support, like a flock of birds darting in a sudden, new direction, was weird to watch. And, of course, to participate in it. I don't know. Maybe because it was such a big celebrity and such a surprising reveal, in the future people will be a little more cautious about assuming they've got a stranger's life figured out? Nah, probably not.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.