Angelina Jolie: Motherhood Over Marriage?

22/09/2016 12:44

Within hours of yesterday's news that Angelia Jolie had filed for divorce from Brad Pitt, media and public speculation was in overdrive. There were claims that the announcement had 'broken' the internet, an accolade previously reserved for the latest revealing photograph of Kim Kardashian or the infamous black and blue (sorry white and gold) dress. Memes showing a gloating Jennifer Aniston immediately began to do the rounds, as did speculation as to the 'real' truth behind the statement of 'irreconcilable differences'. There was the odd voice calling for restraint (the mental health and body image campaigner Natasha Devon tweeted 'U don't know Aniston, Jolie or Pitt. U don't know what really happened. Stop projecting. There are kids involved. It's distasteful') but this was lost in the media storm. The break-up even made the headlines on the BBC's flagship Six O'clock News and as I type, the women in the booth next to mine at the coffee shop have just begun talking about it too.

I can't claim to be above such gossip and speculation. I was at my parents' when the news headline flashed up and we stayed glued to the set for the report. Later in the evening I also checked out the first articles emerging on the story. Maybe it was the sources I was looking at, but the reports were largely respectful and focused on studious analysis, such as Peter Bradshaw's reflection on By the Sea, the 2014 film starring Jolie and Pitt as spouses in a disintegrating marriage. Although Jolie denied it at the time, was life imitating art? Likewise this morning I read a great piece by Jean Hannah Edelstein on why we have invested so much in the couple's marriage. What does our obsession reveal about us? I believe that our focus upon the Brangelina coupling has disguised the continued emphasis upon motherhood over marriage in both Jolie's life and work.

Think back to Jolie's days in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (2001). At that time, she literally embodied a specific kind of male fantasy. While being lusted after by teenage computer geeks the world over, the wider public reception was somewhat frostier. Stories of her early life, especially tales about her father's desertion of the family, fed into narratives of the actor as damaged and dysfunctional. Evidence confirming this assessment seemed readily forthcoming, from bizarre red carpet behaviour with her brother to wearing a vial of her then-husband Billy Bob Thornton's blood.

The burgeoning celebrity media, online and in print, both fed and encouraged our fascination with this new star. Women's reactions to her often combined fascination with hostility. Her undoubted beauty was an allure, but her position outside of acceptable boundaries of female behaviour felt like a threat. Perceived danger seemed to become real in 2004, with widespread speculation over whether an affair between Jolie and Pitt, who was married to Jennifer Aniston, began when they were filming Mr and Mrs Smith. Whatever the exact timing of their relationship, two camps clearly emerged, with clothing available to indicate whether you were 'Team Aniston' or 'Team Jolie'.

The vitriol expressed about Jolie during this period is arguably the clearest example of hostility towards the actor but it is not the only instance of attack and ridicule. Like Madonna, Jolie's adoption of children from various places in the developing world was initially mocked, smeared with similar accusations do-gooding dilettantism.

This is hard to imagine now as the discourses surrounding Jolie have changed so dramatically. Over a decade on, Jolie is taken seriously on a number of levels. At a time when the cult of motherhood is again being exalted to great heights, Jolie's status as a birth and adoptive mother of a large tribe makes her a figure to be admired if not emulated. She is also accepted and widely praised for her work as a kind of symbolic mother, acting as a special envoy of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and pictured next to politicians at a 2015 summit to end sexual violence in conflict.

Motherhood has also been a theme in a number of Jolie's films over the last decade. In The Changeling (2008) she played a grief-stricken mother. Maleficent (2014) provided a semi-autobiographical account of the redemptive power of motherhood, with Jolie and Pitt's daughter Vivienne even playing the young Princess Aurora in the film. The story focuses on the mother/child relationship, with heterosexual relations positioned as a source of danger.

This perspective is echoed in Jolie's personal life. She refuted the 'Brangelina' phenomena, for example, refusing to work with US celebrity magazine People if they used the moniker (Dìaz 2015). Furthermore Jolie assigned the decision to marry in 2014 as due to pressure from their children rather than a specific personal desire. This is perhaps unsurprising given her openness about being bisexual, but as a public we have been too keen to overlook this aspect of her identity in favour of a more conventional tale of love and marriage. Yet her decision to divorce 'for the health of her family' suggests that Jolie herself continues to privilege the role of mother over the status of marriage.

Reference: Vanessa Dìaz, '"Brad & Angelina: And Now ... Brangelina!": A Sociocultural Analysis of Blended Celebrity Couple Names', in Shelley Cobb and Neil Ewen (eds.), First Comes Love: Power Couple, Celebrity Kinship and Cultural Politics (Bloomsbury: London, 2015), pp. 275-294.