Like a nation of Jewish mothers, Jennifer Aniston fans are breathing a sigh of relief at the news that, after seven years of worrisome singlehood, she is finally getting married (again) to Justin Theroux, a guy who seems not skeevy (like John Mayer) or thuggish (like Vince Vaughn) but, actually, nice. “America has been really worried about Jen,” kvelled Bonnie Fuller on the Today show. “They want her to find happiness, and now it looks like she has.”
If that’s true, then America’s marriage hypocrisy is showing. NBC’s Olympics commentators have just finished heralding the Year of the Woman, leading us in a group cheer for female strength and independence, discipline and accomplishment. Magazine writers are questioning aloud the need for men, the relevance of the institution of marriage. And yet, amid all this celebration and recognition of female autonomy, Aniston’s lack of a husband has somehow been deemed a matter of such concern that when she announces her engagement, Juicy Couture, the official outfitter of the Real Housewives set, is impelled to tweet her its congratulations.
Ever since Aniston was publicly dumped by Brad Pitt, she has played the tabloid sad sack to Angelina Jolie’s cartoon vampire dominatrix. And she has been perfectly honest about how crappy the whole thing has made her feel. “Am I lonely? Yes. Am I upset? Yes. Am I confused? Yes. Do I have my days when I’ve thrown a little pity party for myself? Absolutely,” she told Vanity Fair in 2005. “But I’m also doing really well.” By all material standards of success, she is: Aniston earned $28 million in 2010–2011, which, by some estimates, is $5 million more than Jolie took in that year. Post Friends (and Brad), she has been nominated for a DGA Award, an Emmy, four People’s Choice awards, and, for good measure, three Teen Choice awards. Her face is plastered, humungously, all over the billboards and bus ads hawking Smart Water. She is an international brand worth more than a hundred million dollars. So what if she dated a few losers? This is hardly a person who deserves to be the loser of the year for nearly a decade.
It is possible that what has really concerned Jen fans is not that she was single in general but that she is divorced, something that’s become more, not less, of a rarity among white women over the past 25 years. Thirty-six percent of white women in Jen’s age group (which is, shockingly, 40 to 49) have been divorced, compared to 41 percent in 1986. A divorced woman past the age of 40 still elicits disappointment and disapproval — no matter how rich, beautiful, and independent she is or how girl-friendly culture becomes. Twice divorced, Angelina has inoculated herself against disapproval by appearing to be head over heels — still — for the person who was crowned the sexiest man alive a full dozen years ago. And, of course, by surrounding herself with all those kids, like Mother Hubbard. Aniston, who sold herself (or let herself be sold) as Ms. Unlucky in Love, was a women to feel bad for, if not toward.
Money doesn’t buy love, nor guarantee companionship in old age, though Aniston may genuinely believe she’s found both. In that case, her marriage to Theroux may be the happy resolution to all of her public heartbreak and soul-searching. (And 43, as so many celebrities have demonstrated, is hardly too old to start a family.) But Kathleen Feeley, a historian at Redlands University who studies popular culture, is cynical. In an e-mail, she writes:
“These celebrity couples are the protagonists in modern-day fables and fairy tales. They are set up for happily ever after. And they are set up to fail. Beyond the archetype of the good girl, the evil temptress, and the boy who is tempted exist flawed and complex actual human beings who live messy and ongoing real lives. And they are also people with jobs. Those jobs sometimes require them to use their coupledom to sell a product … It’s easy to critique the producers and consumers of celebrity couple gossip as troubled or pathetic, but let’s bear in mind that the couples themselves are often producers of such gossip. They spin a particular narrative about their coupling. But they almost always lose control of that narrative.”
The celebrities, in other words, are as uncertain about the value of marriage as their fans are. Let the divorce-watch begin.