Last week, Jennifer Aniston and her husband of two years Justin Theroux announced their separation. Little else is known about the split, and the pair, as you can imagine, are keen to keep details as private as possible. Breaking up is hard enough when you’re not wildly famous and the daily subject of press scrutiny. Everyone wants to know the minute details, regardless of how scandalous or mundane they are, and people instinctively take sides in such (non) battles. You have your teams, your nemeses, and your preferred narratives. Some like an amicable break, while others hunger for the drama. It’s not hard to see which take sells the most magazines. For Jennifer Aniston, one half of arguably the most well-documented Hollywood divorce of the 21st century, this rodeo is nothing new. As we await the revival of those old stories - how long before Angelina Jolie is blamed in some capacity? - it’s worth returning to what made those post-divorce stories so engrossing for millions of people and an industry that feeds on that demand. It’s also worth examining how limiting that experience was for Aniston. Even when she played the game well, as she so often did, she was still a mere prop in a sexist soap opera that wanted her to be equal parts virginal damsel and inanimate toy.
The overwhelming narrative of Jennifer Aniston’s life, from her split with Brad Pitt to her marriage with Theroux, has been defined by two distinct elements: One, that she is ceaselessly heartbroken, and two, that she insists she is fine but we all know the truth. From the get-go, the apparent love triangle involving herself, Pitt, and Angelina Jolie exposed many of the gossip world and our own societal concerns about what we talk about when we talk about women. The differences between Aniston and Jolie, at least from the abstract distance of industry spectators, are stark: The beloved sitcom star, who inherited the mantle of America’s sweetheart versus the vamp of near-mythic proportions, who delighted in public weirdness and international flair. It was blonde versus brunette, pretty versus sexy, warmth versus heat. Brad Pitt often felt like a minor player in it all, as his role in the entire affair - the role of leaving his wife and beginning a relationship with another woman - became reduced to bewildered dude.
This narrative was nothing new and felt like an all-too-familiar retread of the Debbie Reynolds-Eddie Fisher-Elizabeth Taylor love triangle. You had the loveable and approachable sweetheart who was sold to audiences as the relatable Hollywood ideal, and in the opposite corner stood the bombshell of the age, one whose life eschewed notions of normalcy at every turn and who had already made her way through three husbands. It took decades for that virgin-whore complex to be refuted, and for the real shades of emotion and turmoil at play to be understood (Reynolds and Taylor became great friends once again in their later years and worked together onscreen and for charity). Anne Helen Petersen at Buzzfeed wrote about the tabloid battles that followed the split, and it’s fascinating how closely much of it resembles the Sad Aniston narrative. Granted, Aniston never had children with her ex like Reynolds (which added another level of misogyny to the stories), but the papers were wholly dedicated to the story and stuck by it for so long that it began to feel like a meme.
Take any Aniston tabloid cover of the past decade and the vast majority of the time you’ll be confronted with the same stories: She’s miserable and alone, she’s obsessed with Jolie and alone, she’s competing with Jolie for Brad’s attention but remains alone, she’s dating Vince Vaughn but remains devoted to Brad, she’s trying for a baby or having a baby or adopting a baby (and probably doing it alone), and more of the same. When she smiles on a cover - seldom posed for and taken from candids, paparazzi shots of promotional images - it’s in relation to love or babies. But more often than not, she’s tight-lipped to indicate frustration, looking sad or forlorn as if her mind is always on Brad, or in full-on tears. Sometimes, she shares the page with Jolie, and the battle is one of the predator versus the prey. Jolie is smug, fulfilled, and callously destroying poor Jen’s life. They’re always engaged in ‘war’ or facing a ‘showdown’. While this isn’t especially flattering to either woman, the sympathy clearly lies with Aniston, but not in a way that inspires devotion. It’s a showcase of undiluted pity.
There are two major reasons the Sad Aniston narrative has left such a bad taste in my mouth for so many years. The main issue, obviously, is the depressing misogyny of it all. No matter what Aniston - a beautiful, accomplished and award-winning actress with millions of dollars in the bank - does, she will never be happy in those eyes because she ‘failed’ at being one half of America’s power couple. Divorce has been labeled as tantamount to emotional suicide for Aniston, and it denied her agency for a long time. Gossip reveals much about ourselves when we look to our most famous faces, and Aniston (and Jolie) remain the most undeniable examples of how sexism works. You’re either a virgin or a whore; you have too many children or not enough of them and neither option fulfills you; you’re hated by your fellow women or you’re the idol the entire gender has to rest its hopes on; you’re too fat or too skinny; you’re never young enough; you’re never beautiful enough; frankly, you’re never enough.
The other reason I have such contempt for the narrative is that it has denied how much Aniston worked to maintain her own public image in spite of (or, more reasonably, because of) this overwhelming tabloid drama. The day before Aniston and Pitt announced their split, they were photographed on holiday together in Anguilla. They were holding one another closely, looking at one another fondly but with a bittersweet edge, and Pitt wore a shirt that had ‘TRASH’ emblazoned across it. This was a final goodbye, with a last kiss to seal the deal, and it was done within well-focused eyeshot of the press. I struggle to accept that the cameraman’s presence there was a mere coincidence. This was a pair trying to end it on their terms, ready to combat an already overwhelming tide of stories that exacerbated raw wounds. Did it work? Well, not really, but it’s a good sign of Aniston’s savvy. That strong self-awareness continued well into the decade, as she kept reasonably tight-lipped about the split and played her cards close to her chest.
She bared it all for fabulous cover-shoots for GQ, ones where the accompanying interview played up how delighted she was to be single and in control of her life (and stunningly beautiful). In 2016, she wrote an exclusive piece for the Huffington Post that called out the ‘sport-like scrutiny and body shaming that occurs daily under the guise of “journalism,” the “First Amendment” and “celebrity news.”’ It’s a great piece that’s worth your time and shows further how damn good she is at taking on this crap when she has to. So often, she doesn’t, which I don’t blame her for. Would you want to have to add ‘angry bitch’ to the spiel of buzzwords and sexism that surrounds you daily from this stuff? Of course, as the final pics with Brad prove, she can still use the press to her advantage. When her engagement to Theroux was confirmed, the first shots of the pair together in Santa Fe featured her lovingly stroking her new fiancé’s face, massive engagement ring conveniently in the shot. It was a photo everyone wanted - licensed by Getty, who aren’t a paparazzi agency, as Lainey Gossip notes - and she gave it to them.
I don’t mention her press savvy to shame her or claim she asked for tabloid intrusion, nor do I wish to diminish the sheer glut of gossip intrusion she’s faced for years. Lord knows that, aside from grown-up child stars and politicians, she may be the most hounded paparazzi victim in the business. It feels worth mentioning the times she did do the work because the Sad Aniston narrative is one that constantly denied her personhood and the ability to take the reins of her own life. I imagine Jennifer Aniston has been sad a lot in her life. Haven’t we all? Yet she’s beautiful, successful, beloved, a budding entrepreneur, the future star of one of TV’s most buzzed about projects, and for many years of her life, she shared them with men she loved. The ups and downs of real life are seldom as exciting as drama makes them.
‘Sad and female’ remains a disheartening default mode of our society, but as Jennifer Aniston proves, we’ll be fine in the end.
(Header photograph from Getty Images)