People have very different reactions to celebrity gossip. Some of us are brazen celeb-watchers: the kind of people who always buy a stack of tabloid magazines before embarking on a long train journey, frequently fall into a Sidebar of Shame spiral at work, and have spent ever-so-slightly too much time pondering Larry Stylinson conspiracy theories (that’s the rumour that One Direction’s Harry Styles and Louis Tomlinson are Secretly In Love, obvs).
Others like to consider themselves slightly above that kind of nonsense. Not for them heated dinnertime debates about whether Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes were ever really a couple. No, thank you. These serious-minded folk would rather discuss the future of the Labour Party, the pros and cons of fracking, and whether grammar schools are the answer to anything.
But even if you fall into the latter camp, there are some celebrity stories that are simply impossible to ignore: those pieces of Hollywood gossip that come bulldozing into your consciousness like a car crashing through a shop window, and keep small talk ticking over in the office kitchen for weeks.
We’re referring, of course, to the collapse of Brangelina. Ever since the news broke last week that Hollywood’s most famous beautiful couple are getting divorced, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive. Brad Pitt was having an affair with Marion Cotillard! (Um, probably not, as she’s pregnant with her second child.) Angelina Jolie is being “comforted”, somewhere, somehow, by Johnny Depp! Jennifer Aniston is thrilled/in turmoil/indifferent!
Logically speaking, we shouldn’t be interested in this kind of tabloid speculation. The inner lives of celebrities like Jolie and Pitt have next to nothing to do with us, after all: we’re unlikely ever to meet them, and their romantic relationships have no bearing on how our own lives unravel, down here in the ‘real world’.
And yet we are interested. The celebrity gossip industry was worth $3bn a year in 2011, according to the New York Times, and most of us are at least slightly fascinated by this sort of mad tabloid speculation – even if we’re reluctant to admit it.
But why? What purpose does gossip serve? What function is it fulfilling in our collective psyches? Put simply, why do we care?
Listen and learn
One explanation for our fascination with the lives of celebrities is that human beings are, as a species, obsessed with stories of all kinds. Whether they’re factual, fictional, or (like most celebrity gossip) somewhere in-between, it’s through stories that we learn about and make sense of the world. In his book The Moral Animal, Robert Wright observes that the themes of the tales we’re most gripped by – “who is sleeping with whom, who is angry at whom, who cheated whom”, and so on – tend to line up “with the sorts of information conducive to fitness”.
Psychologist Dr Hamira Riaz, who specialises in the concept of success, agrees. “We learn lessons about the human condition through storytelling, and [Jolie and Pitt’s] is one of the biggest stories of our time,” she tells Stylist.co.uk. “It has all the elements of myth-making, of a fairy tale: the most beautiful man marrying the most beautiful woman.”
It’s true that Jolie and Pitt’s extreme good looks, particularly when combined with their outrageous financial fortune and career successes, inevitably make their divorce more fascinating.
“Human beings have always compared each other to other relationships that are, from a Darwinian point of view, biologically sound,” says consultant psychologist Nadine Field. “Ultimately, we’re all working towards our own happiness and our own survival, and so we look and learn at other couplings and think, well, they’re very successful; this is how we could be successful.”
The bigger they are, the harder they fall
But of course, this chapter in Jolie and Pitt’s story isn’t about success; it’s about a marriage’s ‘failure’. And we do tend to find gossip about people messing up infinitely more gripping than stories about how everything’s going just fine.
Field observes that some people find it reassuring when celebrities ‘fail’. It reminds us that nobody’s life is perfect – despite how it might have been presented in the press.
“Celebrity is fantasy,” she says, “and [Pitt and Jolie’s] relationship was a fantasy ideal in many people’s imagination.” They travelled the world, had beautiful children, owned gorgeous homes, and pursued careers that seemed exciting and rewarding. “It’s a life which many people imagine would be wonderful and terrific, losing sight of the fact that these are just two human beings in a relationship. And, like the rest of us, sometimes that doesn’t work.”
When a celebrity relationship comes to an end, says Field, it almost functions as a “de-mystifier… [It provides] a frame of reference for when things go wrong. People think, ‘Well, that can happen even to people like that’.”
Alternatively, says Field, celebrity gossip allows people to “self-refer and say ‘Oh, it’s not just me’, or ‘Gosh, that’s where we went wrong too’.”
Dr Riaz says that the collapse of celebrity marriages invites us to interrogate our own assumptions about some of life’s major themes, from love and beauty to happiness, success and money. In the aftermath of Pitt and Jolie’s split, she says, many people will have found themselves pondering some big questions.
“If you’re beautiful, marry another beautiful person and create a big beautiful family, how long are you guaranteed contentment? If you’re highly talented and fabulously wealthy, are you more likely to find happiness?” she asks. “If you’re an A-lister and you have grown into a person of substance above and beyond what made you famous, as [Pitt and Jolie] have shown themselves to be, does that make for fulfilment?”
Ultimately, says Dr Riaz, the Brangelina split was shocking – and therefore interesting – because it proves that “there is no guaranteed formula to happiness and fulfilment”.
It’s a love story
While we might be interested in Taylor Swift’s feud with Kim Kardashian, or in Madonna’s thorny relationship with her teenage son, the most compelling gossip almost always involves romantic love. This, says Field, is because our standards for romantic relationships are generally much higher than the ones to which we hold family relationships and friendships.
“With friends and family, we all accept there are going to be squabbles and fights,” she says. “But when it’s an intimate relationship, we have this idealised concept of enduring partners, enduring love: a hope that we will find someone with whom we’ll be perennially content.”
Combine a romanticised perception of love itself with our idealised image of celebrities, and it’s hardly surprising that we find it so fascinating when that illusion of perfection is shattered.
Dr Riaz describes romantic relationships as “one of the primary psychological means by which human beings work through the emotional baggage they carry forwards from childhood”. In the hyper-connected world in which we now live, she observes, the near-constant drip-feed of celebrity gossip means that “it's easy to live vicariously through strangers.... celebrity romantic relationships can act almost as a proxy vehicle for exploring the wounds to our psyche.”
There’s nothing noble about our obsession with celebrity gossip, but it does seem as though it’s somewhat inevitable. It’s human nature to be interested in what people on the top rung of the social ladder are doing – and in 2016, that space is occupied largely by the denizens of Hollywood.
However, it’s worth remembering occasionally then people like Pitt and Jolie are, despite everything, just that: people.
“I think we risk losing sight of who these human beings really are,” says Dr Riaz. “They’re going to be lost within the caricatures of who we want and need them to be.”
Images: Rex Features