Famed Anthropologist On What Really Doomed Brangelina

Photo: James Devaney/Getty Images.
In an ecological niche like Hollywood, for a woman like Angelina Jolie, marriage may be more trouble than it's worth. The same goes for you.

Since news of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s divorce filing broke on Tuesday, we’ve whiplashed from explanation to explanation, hearing:
It’s because he had an affair with Marion Cotillard.

It’s because he smokes pot.

It’s because he drinks.

It’s because they had different parenting styles.

It’s because she’s weird and he’s normal.

It’s because someone has anger issues.

It’s because Brad spends too much time with Angie’s dad.

It’s because she sleeps with women.

It’s because they had crazy travel schedules.

It’s because what do you expect, they’re celebrities and freaks.

Us Weekly was the first publication to assert, based on a “close source,” that “something happened” to motivate Angelina to initiate their divorce. The news broke shortly thereafter that Brad had allegedly been verbally abusive toward and “got physical” with one of their children on their private plane on a runway at LAX. The police were involved. The police weren’t involved. More whiplash.

But even that bombshell of an accusation seems unlikely to slake our thirst and put an end to our questions.

What on Earth, we want to know — even those of us who don’t admit we want to know — really went wrong? What could that something, that inciting incident, that breaker of a 12-year bond and a two-year marriage between Hollywood’s two hottest people and biggest stars, soldered into a single, synergistically superheated supernova — BRANGELINA — be?

Our questions about Hollywood’s most glamorous, contemporary-seeming couple are arguably more profound than they seem, underscoring as they do our culture’s evolving relationship with marriage. Fixating on the whys of Brangelina may be irresistible because it is a nifty tensional outlet for our overarching, nagging anxiety about a massive social shift: the fact that the main trope we have used to organize our world, our individual lives, our families, and our very identities — marriage — may now be more or less irrelevant. Not just for celebs, but for all of us.

This insistence that there must be “a reason”? Could it be that it’s a fantasy, a way for us to hold onto the quaint-as-a-gingham-apron notion that, in an utterly changed-up world, there is only one reason a marriage fails? Obsessing over why Brangelina is no more, worrying at the truth of it, helps us ward off a larger truth: It’s not just this marriage and many marriages that are ending. The end is near for Marriage. In an ecological niche like Hollywood, for a woman like Angelina Jolie, frankly, it may be more trouble than it's worth. The same goes for you.

For so many reasons, we’re just not that into it — in fact, many millennials are no longer married to marriage at all.

In 1960, 72% of adults were married; that number plunged to just over 50% in 2010. Why the free fall? Second-wave feminism, birth control, women entering the workforce, divorce laws, and other radical social shifts contributed to young men and women alike delaying marriage and childbearing. More recently, the recession messed with marriage in a big way, and like the economy, marriage has yet to fully recover. A May 2016 Gallup Analysis found that nearly 60% of people aged 20-36 are single and have never been married, and an Urban Institute study found that the percentage of people in that age group marrying by age 40 will fall lower than for any previous generation of Americans. We increasingly live in a world, these and other researchers tell us, of married haves and unmarried have-nots. More and more Americans are opting out of marriage, either because we don’t feel like it or don’t feel we can afford it.

For many women of this generation, it may be both. “Student loans, living with their parents, reduced job prospects, high rents in the places they want to live — for some millennials, marriage may not be the first thing on their minds,” says Sally Applin, a Silicon Valley-based anthropologist who studies human communication and our adaptations to technology. She adds that documenting each other with mobile phones and social media like Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat can change how people connect and engage romantically, or don’t. And such changes in courtship behavior can impact our attitudes toward marriage. So does living in a world where great strides in gender equality and the rise of trans and gay rights and intersectional feminism mean we question not just the meaning of marriage, but the units of meaning that were once thought to constitute marriage — “maleness,” “femaleness,” “monogamy,” and “commitment” among them.
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“For a lot of my students and people in their 20s and 30s, marriage is viewed as an optional social imprimatur, rather than a necessary rite of passage,” observes Dr. Victor Corona, an NYU sociologist and author of the forthcoming Night Class: A Downtown Memoir. He points out that millennials “cohabitate with their partners for years before planning a wedding when it’s convenient for their careers or school schedules. At their weddings, they are often celebrating a union that they have already sustained for years on their own, rather than suddenly shouldering the expectations of an increasingly brittle institution.”

Even young people who are choosing to marry are doing it in a more whimsical way, reinventing the institution while they’re at it. “It’s increasingly seen as fun, a chance to get dressed up, dance with friends, and appease more traditional parents,” says Corona. While many of my fortysomething Upper East Side girlfriends politely blanched upon my disclosing, when talk turned to weddings, that my husband and I had eloped to Vegas (I wore Pucci, and we said our I Dos in the garden gazebo of the Tropicana, with my eight-months-pregnant best friend as matron of honor), my younger friends don’t blink twice — they are more likely to like their weddings with a side of irony.

In an ecological niche like Hollywood, for a woman like Angelina, marriage may be more trouble than it's worth. The same goes for you.

And yet for millennials in particular, Brad and Angie’s divorce stings bitterly. They seemed, after all, to embody what a modern, happy, post-Marriage married couple and family could be: dual career, high profile, glamorous, and pointedly, self-reflexively, even assertively nontraditional. They were the Gen X trailblazers who were going to reinvent the institution for future generations by example. Brad left Jen for Angie because, well, sex. He supported Angie when she adopted kids as a single mom, then adopted them himself. Cool. Angie also gave birth to three kids, the twins, it was speculated, with some help from modern medicine. Their family, shuttling between the South of France, New Orleans, and various refugee camps, was a multi-culti bricolage, rangy and hip and socially engaged. The whole world was the children’s classroom. When Shiloh decided she wanted to dress like a boy, her parents went with that. They travelled the world for their movies and their causes. They were presumably nonmonogamous, and Angelina at one point publicly refused to renounce her bisexuality, even acknowledging that her attraction to ex-girlfriend Jenny Shimizu didn’t end when she married. Angie transitioned from an actress to a director and producer. She lost her mother. She chose to have and then underwent a double mastectomy and a hysterectomy, embodying, quite literally, female strength, autonomy, and empowerment in one’s 30s and 40s. And in the ultimate statement, Brad and Angie delayed marriage until everyone could marry, finally exchanging vows under pressure from their kids to do so. They didn’t need to marry. Like sociologist Corona’s millennial students, they did it, they told us, for others.

So why divorce?

The truly disquieting question may be, why not? Who needs marriage?

After all, marriage is no longer the only acceptable context for childbearing. Increasingly, couples in the U.S. elect to cohabit rather than marry (and in Scandinavian countries like Sweden, these couples are less likely to break up than are married couples in the U.S.). Many of these cohabiting couples are also, like Brad and Angie, having children outside marriage. And owing to women’s increased economic power and the rise of reproductive technologies, more women can and do elect to have children outside of marriage and even outside of the structure of coupledom entirely.

And for a woman like Angelina Jolie, not only economically independent but staggeringly wealthy in a communal-property state, marriage may prove to have been an affirmative disadvantage. Even a disaster. She now faces a custody battle and, should she wish to do anything other than divide her assets evenly with Pitt, a fight on that score as well. Not to mention the emotionally taxing and personally exhausting slog of duking it out in a PR battle for our hearts, minds, and sympathies. What has marriage brought her, really, that she didn’t already have with Brad and her family, other than risk?

As we mourn the passing of Brangelina, we may really be mourning the passing of a time when marriage was necessary and meaningful, when it provided shelter, support, and an undeniable (if in many instances highly imperfect) upside for non-working women with dependent offspring. When monogamy was a clear path and heterosexual normativity was normative. Things are messier now, and less clear. Why marriage? And who are we and who might we become — personally and as a culture — without it? How might we continue to alter it to suit how we are now, rather than simply endure its presumed requirements passively and without question?

Transitions can be dizzying, terrifying even. But for women especially, the end of marriage as we knew it may also be a beginning.

Wednesday Martin, PhD, is a social researcher, cultural critic, and author of the instant No. 1 New York Times best-seller Primates of Park Avenue. Untrue, her new book on female promiscuity, will be published by Little, Brown.
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