Tuesday 20 September, at 4pm, a hush – the likes of which hadn’t been heard since Brexit – fell over the Stylist office. “It’s over,” exclaimed an editor quietly. “Brad. Ange. They’re over.” American celebrity website TMZ was reporting that Angelina Jolie had officially filed for divorce from husband Brad Pitt. Comments like, “Oh, that’s awful,” and “God, there’s no hope for anyone,” echoed in offices across the country. Facebook statuses – crying emoji, sad emoji, shocked emoji – proclaiming the death of all love, ever, began to filter into our feeds and quiet disbelief (“It can’t be true”) turned to outrage (“2016 is just awful”). Even Adele dedicated her NYC concert to the couple that night.
Does all this emotion about two strangers seem slightly over the top? Well, yes, it is a bit. But it’s also all undeniably real. We feel invested in their relationship and affected by its unhappy ending. A well as being sympathetic, most of us have expressed varying levels of surprise, sadness or schadenfreude at the split. We feel emotional – not quite grief nor betrayal but something – despite never having met them. But the question that remains is why?
Psychologists believe we’re subconsciously – and evolutionarily – programmed to care about individuals we’ve never met. “‘Para-social relationships’ [one-sided relationships where we aspirationally relate to strangers who don’t know we exist] have been studied since the late Fifties,” explains Dr Shelley Cobb, co-author of First Comes Love: Power Couples, Celebrity Kinship And Cultural Politics. It was found that, with the invention of the TV, people were increasingly forming connections to the fictional characters beamed into their homes. “We began developing an unbalanced sense of intimacy with those we felt we could relate to in some way – unconsciously looking to those in the public eye for guidance, and lived vicariously through their experiences.”
As psychological therapist Emma Kenny points out, “We’re a compassionate species that is hard-wired to crave social connection.” Logically, we know that when a celebrity writes a personal essay about women’s rights or gives a speech about refugees that they’re not speaking to us specifically, but that doesn’t stop us from developing a deep-seated affinity towards them.
It may sound naïve, but so-called ‘prestige theory’ backs this up. Developed in the last 15 years, scientists believe our ancestors evolved to recognise, reward, imitate and idolise the members of their community who had superior skills in their field as a means of pioneering and picking up new techniques for survival. In other words, when celebrities are elevated to fame and fortune we’re programmed to look to them for validation and inspiration.
The current state of society plays a part too. “We’re living through a hyper-capitalist economy of individualism,” explains Dr Cobb. “Marriage rates are going down, more people are single and we’re all living very different lifestyles. The whole 2.4 children, male breadwinner, familial stereotype doesn’t exist any more – and while that’s a great thing on many levels, it means it’s harder to know what kind of ‘Happy Ever After’ to aim for. It’s not surprising if we’re subconsciously looking to celebrities to map out a new family structure.”
Still, even if we are programmed to relate to celebrities, when a character is killed off or two actors announce a shock divorce, can we honestly say that whatever prickles of emotion we feel are equitable to the grief we might feel over the equivalent situation happening to a close friend?
“Well, in so much as the celebrities fulfilled our collective need for a fairy-tale, then yes, absolutely,” argues behavioural expert Marisa Peer. “Every culture in the world has a variation of this story – someone talented and hardworking is rewarded with great wealth, renown and a happy life. As a species we want to believe in this happily ever after, it gives us purpose. We look at someone who is beautiful, who has ‘made it’, as an example of what our own success could be. But when it goes wrong, it disrupts this narrative: if the ‘perfect’ couple can’t make it (or a celebrity dies young) then what chance do we have to attain our dream? It can be a painful realisation.”
Psychotherapist Anita Adams agrees. “Celebrity culture is like playing with a doll’s house,” she says. “You watch their lives from afar, and they provide a great outlet for your hopes and dreams. Brad and Angelina represented particularly magnificent dolls to peg your ideas on – despite a rocky start. They gave hope that we could also skip off into the sunset.”
Whatever you feel about the divorce, psychologists believe celebrity culture serves an important purpose. Their lives provide a narrative that enables us to publicly express our opinions about private matters (love, divorce) and engage with the people around us. “Along with talking about the weather, [celebrity culture] binds society together,” explains Cobb.
And whatever our response to it all, it’s presumably much harder for the celebrities who are going through it.