The Public Dignity of Jennifer Garner
Last month, Jennifer Garner picked up her ex-husband Ben Affleck and drove him to rehab. On the way, she stopped for take-out at Jack in the Box. Earlier, Garner had pleaded with the throng of paparazzi waiting outside her ex’s house for them to allow him some privacy as they took their next steps. As evidenced by the many highly discomfiting images they took of this car ride, they did not comply.
The past few months have been a more concentrated form of the extremely public narrative Garner has lived since she married one of Hollywood’s most turbulent stars: The golden boy Oscar winner turned leading man and public joke who rehabilitated his image to become not only a respected film-maker but the goddamned Batman. Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie may have represented the Golden Couple of Hollywood, but Ben and Jen were the pair that seemed more approachable in their loving glow. They went to church together, Jennifer wore sensible shoes and talked of growing produce in her own garden, and as Affleck climbed back into the echelons of industry respectability, the former next action babe of cinema took a step back to let the other half soak up most of the shine. A lot of tabloids made a lot of money off this picturesque version of celebrity suburbia, and it also benefitted both Garner and Affleck enormously. It helped him shake off the playboy image that had grown stagnant following his much publicized split from Jennifer Lopez, and it gave her a new soft edge as the ‘good girl’ who tamed a ‘bad boy’. Hollywood loves labels and it was all too easy to stick them to Ben and Jen.
Since officially splitting, Affleck and Garner’s relationship has become a hotter commodity than ever. They became magazine staples, and it wasn’t as if they were short of headlines before the break-up. Indeed, even after the split, Garner remained the not-so-secret weapon in Affleck’s corner. In a March 2016 interview with Vanity Fair, she talked of Affleck’s many wonderful qualities and called him ‘the most brilliant person in any room, the most charismatic, the most generous. He’s just a complicated guy. I always say, ‘When his sun shines on you, you feel it.’ But when the sun is shining elsewhere, it’s cold. He can cast quite a shadow.’ This is also famously the interview where she said, ‘bless his heart’ in reference to that now infamous back tattoo.
While many took that glorious shade as the crux of the interview, it remains true that the real meat of the piece - which was intended to promote Garner’s latest film but was also timed nicely to coincide with the release of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - is decidedly pro-Affleck. She is generous but does not spoil him. Indeed, she talks of Affleck’s complications in similar ways to his other exes, albeit way nicer. Gwyneth Paltrow infamously said that Affleck ‘was not in a good place in his life to have a girlfriend’ when the pair dated, and that ‘He’d be better off dating a Scores stripper.’
Affleck was on a high when he and Garner split, at least professionally. He signed on to be the new Batman in a deal that would also see him direct himself in a solo movie and his upcoming drama Live by Night had strong pre-release buzz. Early reports suggested a burgeoning relationship with SNL producer Lindsay Shookus (although said reports also frequently implied that their romance began before he and Garner properly broke up). This offered a far better media narrative than the dreaded nanny affair rumours had, a story made all the worse for both Affleck and Garner after said nanny, Christine Ouzounian, giddily appealed to the media for all the scandal was worth. The pair announced their split soon after the nanny story gained legs (and Affleck denied it), but he would still be seen in public wearing his wedding ring and accompanying the family to church on Sundays. This was a couple working overtime to pre-empt the cliché of a celebrity break-up, and to a certain extent, it worked. However, the central issue in camp Garfleck changed rapidly during that period.
Addiction is a difficult disease to deal with at the best of times, but to go through treatment in the public eye, with the knowledge that cameras are around every corner, is its own form of hell. There is nothing audiences crave with callous zeal quite like an old-school trainwreck, a high-profile mess that allows everyone else to play armchair psychologist or vindictive judge. Affleck may have been headlining one of the biggest franchises in Hollywood, but that didn’t make the narrative surrounding him seem any less messy or tragic.
First, Batman v Superman flopped with critics and rumours persisted that it never managed to make back its exorbitant budget. Then came a press tour where Affleck’s seeming sadness led to an array of memes. In late 2017, as the #MeToo movement took form, Affleck had to apologize for two separate instances in which he groped women on camera in the early 2000s, and then was forced to distance himself from Harvey Weinstein, a man whose influence was paramount in Affleck’s first Oscar win. Rose McGowan would later claim that Affleck had known about Weinstein’s many alleged crimes, something he would deny.
Affleck remained a tabloid staple, often looking sad or dishevelled or verging into midlife crisis iconography that we all mocked to varying degrees (The tattoo! The vaping! The public outing with the 22-year-old Playboy model!) It was Garner who grounded him, ensuring the world that they still took vacations together as a family and emphasizing Affleck’s primary role as the father of their three children. This led to a lot of suspicion over Garner’s agenda from some of the more cynical corners of the internet. Some claimed she was just waiting around for Affleck to get sick of the bachelor life so he would come back to her, while others accused her of being nothing but a glorified nanny to her ex-husband. Fingers were pointed at the razor-sharp way she dealt with the press as proof of her nefarious schemes. Why were the paparazzi always there to see her wholesome church visits? What about the time she was photographed smiling and hand in hand with Affleck’s mother? How did she so effectively mould this image of wholesome motherhood, right down to the organic baby food company? Were the Instagram shout outs to Affleck on Father’s Day really necessary?
It is true that Garner is very good at controlling her press narrative and that she has probably done a decent amount of heavy lifting on Affleck’s behalf. But can anyone really blame her for doing so? She was married to him for over a decade, has three children with him, and has been extensively defined by the press as Mrs. Affleck for that period. She has a lot to protect and nobody else was going to do it for her. Former romantic partners of Affleck had dealt with all manner of horrid press treatment. It’s taken us until pretty recently to acknowledge just how much Jennifer Lopez got screwed by tabloid smears during the infamous Bennifer era and the sheer unfairness of her being solely blamed for that relationship’s public nature.
Yet there is only so much one can control the press, and Garner knows that. Even if she has good relations with PR teams and photographers, that goodwill couldn’t stop them from making sure every website and morning talk-show had pictures of a bloated, dishevelled Affleck raking through his burger order in the back of her car. She may be praised for her selflessness in looking after her ex, but that’s nothing compared to the private pain of dealing with a spouse going through alcoholism. She can shield her kids from bad headlines but not the stories behind them. Jennifer Garner has had to be a dignified public presence because to be literally anything else would actively hurt an already painful situation. Being the spouse, former or otherwise, of an addict often involves doing the work of two people instead of one, and when celebrity is involved, one must do what they can to keep the public show to a minimum. In that aspect, Garner is someone I have nothing but the utmost respect for.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.