Jennifer Aniston and husband Justin Theroux have announced their split after six years together. Their statement – affectionate, clear, unmistakably barbed – said, “Given that the gossip industry cannot resist an opportunity to speculate and invent, we wanted to convey the truth directly… This decision was made mutually and lovingly at the end of last year… Above all, we are determined to maintain the deep respect and love that we have for one another.”
The ink had barely dried on their joint statement when the tabloids opened the filing cabinet, dusted off the manila folder marked “Poor Jen” (for this might as well be her name) and gleefully listed the many reasons the marriage was doomed from the beginning. “She paid for everything!” they said, as if anyone worth circa $147m might not routinely pick up the tab. She has “masses of baggage”, they explained, presumably referring to Aniston’s two divorces – the same number as Johnny Depp, one fewer than Tom Cruise and Harrison Ford. Some journalists, untroubled by facts, suggested she’d been “dumped again”, others have wondered aloud whether the two were even legally married, while more still are reporting that she’s fallen into the comforting arms of Brad Pitt, the man she married 18 years ago and with whom she is now barely even in touch (Aniston’s publicist says reports of a reconciliation are “complete fabrication”). Across the board, “Why can’t Poor Jen hang on to a man?” is the vibe, and one we’ve been dancing to since we grew out our Rachel-layered cuts.
Her latest tragedy couldn’t have come at a better time. At the height of the #MeToo movement – when women are demanding greater respect, equality, safety and dignity in showbiz and other industries – a simple, retrograde story like this is a gift from the tabloid gods. Poor Jen, sad-eyed, sperm-chasing poster girl for the suffering and underachievement of the single, unsuccessfully married or childless women of the world, is divorcing again. But, this time, Poor Jen has been cast by the tabloids in a slightly different role. No longer merely humiliated by cheating men and thwarted in her desperate need to be a mother, Aniston’s newly updated character in her soapy, tabloid narrative is a jaded, slightly brittle, reclusive “middle-aged” woman, whose ovaries are finally a lost cause and whose homebody lifestyle was too dull for her younger (by three years), hipper, “highly intelligent” husband, Theroux.
We don’t know Jennifer Aniston. Probably only a handful of people really do. We have no evidence that she’s desperately unhappy in her life beyond the occasional pap photo that could well have been taken three seconds after she discovered a parking ticket or trod her best trainers in a semi-masticated Hubba Bubba. We have no actual evidence of her personal woes, outside of an ancient divorce and a seemingly very amiable separation, beyond that of “sources”, which, in my limited tabloid-mag experience, means some LA stringer who buys cocktails in nightclubs for any desperate Hollywood blabbermouth who’ll say what they want to hear. We don’t even know that Aniston has ever longed for children. There’s nothing in my personal experience which suggests that earning millions of dollars per film, shagging a string of attractive men and marrying two of them might be something to pity in a woman. Aniston is a brilliantly talented comedic actress, beautiful, intelligent, independent. In fact, the only thing I know is definitely wrong with Jennifer Aniston is either her taste in film scripts or agents (I mean, did you see The Bounty Hunter?). And, yet, the wall of noise surrounding this tragic, long-suffering, former spinster of the parish is so loud that I’m not sure we often remember what’s behind it: flat-out sexism and old-fashioned gender stereotyping.
Just as with Princess Diana, we and the media ostensibly like Jennifer Aniston, as though our affection for her mitigates the relentless gossiping
“Chill out. It’s just daft celebrity gossip,” people say, meaning it. “It’s just some light relief, we know it’s probably nonsense, but it’s fun to read at the hairdresser’s.” (Delete your browser history now.) But, if we are to regard Aniston – the real person – as fair game, and the speculation about her as part and parcel of her otherwise charmed life, we should perhaps think twice about buying into double standards that harm us, as women, as much as they do a remote Hollywood figure. As the actress herself once wrote, “If I am some kind of symbol to some people out there, then clearly I am an example of the lens through which we, as a society, view our mothers, daughters, sisters, wives, female friends and colleagues.”
In depicting Aniston as incomplete and tragic without husband and baby, as a victim without agency in the personal trajectory of her own life, we’re saying that’s a perfectly OK thing to assume about any woman. In implying a woman can never be happy unless married, nor secure and at peace when a relationship ends, we are disregarding not only Aniston’s personal successes, but those of all our single friends. By charting Aniston’s assumed unhappiness through her relationships, fertility and tiny changes in her body shape, we are subjecting all women to the same reductive analysis. These are narratives we simply don’t see about men in the same “harmless” tabloids. While Aniston has become a figurehead for despairing, childless, perpetual singletons, her divorced or single male peers, like Ben Affleck and Jon Hamm, are simply good-time guys having way too much fun to settle down again.
Just as with Princess Diana, we and the media ostensibly like Jennifer Aniston, as though our affection for her mitigates the relentless gossiping. She is rarely criticised or vilified (unlike Angelina Jolie, who is depicted as some vixen who steals husbands against their will using her voodoo powers and, if Theroux meets someone new, then she, too, will inevitably be positioned as a thief). But our treatment of Aniston is the most insidious kind of trolling – it’s a head in a permanent side-tilt of sympathy (I’d sooner a kick in the shin), a “there, there” back-pat for the poor, beautiful millionaire who’s still little more than a scorned wife and some unharvested ovaries. Never mind that she’s never given the slightest indication that she needs our pity. We’re just looking out for the poor lamb, while she cries, peeing on fertility sticks and praying that the third time’s a charm.
The trolling of Jennifer Aniston isn’t confined to celebrity stories in tabloid sites or weeklies – you’ll see her, similarly patronised, behind an intellectual smokescreen in many a broadsheet. But, wherever it all began, one can clearly see in action the self-perpetuating nature of Aniston’s media narrative – and, as much as it’s easy to blame the hacks, we’d do just as well to look in the mirror. We should no more pardon those most responsible for her continuing presence on the cover of gossip mags and sidebars of shame: us, the readers. Because, until we start saying, “No, it just doesn’t matter, I don’t care,” about the perceived roundness of her abdomen, or the fleeting, ostensible look of distress on her face, or the flimsy account of a tiff with a friend, or an improbable evening with an ex, then the media will continue to report on it as though it’s a matter of vital importance and unequivocal truth. Don’t buy into the Poor Jen narrative, don’t click on the latest fictional instalment and instead of asking “When will she find happiness?”, ask yourself how on earth you’d know and why you’d even care.