In ancient times — i.e., in the early 2000s, before it was possible to get dragged on Twitter — celebrities could engage in a type of manic-pixie-dream-girl romance that wasn’t socially acceptable again until recently. It’s how Angelina Jolie got away with having a Billy Bob Thornton tattoo (and how they both got away with wearing vials of each other’s blood on the red carpet) and Brad Pitt was allowed to morph into the spitting image of each of his girlfriends, changing his hair to match theirs.
There’s perhaps nothing more cringeworthy than a celebrity couple who insist on sharing the inner workings of their extremely unrelatable relationship. Like PDA couple Camila Cabello and Shawn Mendes. The image of their paparazzi-inviting, bizarrely styled walks around the block during lockdown will forever be burned into my brain.
But up until now, we’ve mostly been living in the era of the Instagram couple, where influencers share their very wholesome, healthy, and carefully curated romances online with an emphasis on only showing us a highlight reel (as is the nature of Instagram). It makes sense, however, for the trending ’00s comeback to bring with it the return of a slightly more unhinged and less self-aware version of the celebrity couple. After all, actual Y2K couple Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck did get back together this year.
The 2021 prom king and queen of cringe are, of course, Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly. This month, their GQ interview, and Fox’s accompanying Instagram caption, explained their “solar flare of a romance” as being filled with “lots of blood” and “night terrors” but also “green smoothies.” Even their first kiss (which was actually just breathing in front of each other’s lips) sounded like a scene out of Twilight. “Everything I’ve learned about Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly has been against my will,” read one viral tweet on the romance. And yet we continue to lap it up, making the return of the cringe couple perhaps the most divisive trend that’s come from the Y2K renaissance (even more than low-rise jeans).
Speaking of punk-goth whirlwind romances: Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker. The newly engaged couple soft-launched their relationship with a hand-holding photo at the beginning of this year and have filled our timelines with kissing photos ever since — including on a boat, in front of a plane, and even in the desert. “May we destroy each other completely,” read a note written by Kourtney that Travis Barker posted to his Instagram stories in February. For cringe couples, very public displays of affection aren’t shied away from, and there’s an emphasis on appearing as madly in love (or co-dependent) as possible. Just look at Kravis’s Hot Topic–meets–The Bachelor (in a good way!) engagement photos, complete with red roses and black nail polish.
“The dark-romance ideal might be worse than the Instagram couple because it doesn’t invite people to keep themselves in check and ask if they’re love-bombing someone or giving too much of themselves to the relationship,” says dating coach Alexis Germany. “A life without you is worse than death, put a bullet in my head if we have nothing left,” Machine Gun Kelly captioned his and Megan’s recent GQ shoot on Instagram. Okay then!
While celebrity couples seem more intense at the moment, so too are our own dating lives. “I’ve definitely noticed people expecting their partner to be more invested and involved than before the pandemic because there was nothing else to do over lockdown,” Germany says. “Couples have been communicating constantly, spending more time together, and this type of dating doesn’t work out long-term because it’s not sustainable.”
For those who are single, these celebrities serve as a reminder of everything that’s corny about annoying couples. We’ve all been stuck talking to a couple at a party who come out with something as outrageous as Megan Fox telling GQ that MGK told her “I am weed” when they first met. And yet, for all the many, many, many trend stories of millennials rebuking traditional adulthood and romance, the rise of this outwardly messy, antithetical couple may be just what’s needed to provide some necessary contrast. “We’re seeing the anti–Meghan and Harry because we all secretly want these celebrities to have more room to be messy,” says Lexx Brown-James, a sex therapist based in Pennsylvania. “Millennials were told we were supposed to grow up and get married, but we rarely saw happy marriages.”
That’s the thing: The cringe couple is so divisive because it’s all of us. While most of us won’t wear vials of blood around our necks or call each other demons, we can relate to being in love and seeing the most vulnerable and embarrassing sides of ourselves come out. At least now celebrities are doing it out in the open again for us all to collectively roll our eyes at.