Why Are We So Interested In Celebrity Breakups?

Everyone's talking about Brangelina. Why do we care? Is it because we all love gossip? Or, is there more to it than that?

Why Are We So Interested In Celebrity Breakups?

by Vicky Spratt |

Yesterday the official end of ‘Brangelina’ was announced in what has since been dubbed ‘Brexpitt’ by many a witty meme. Yesterday it was ‘breaking news’ and today it was the stuff of front pages. The internet has completely lost its mind as a result of the entire debacle.

It’s not really acceptable to admit that your heart sank as you read the news, you’re supposed to shrug and say that you’re far more concerned about ISIS, Theresa May’s grammar schools, Brexit and world peace. The implication is that there are terrible things happening in the world and you shouldn’t be interested in superficial celebrity gossip.

And yet, people were interested, initially at least. Our collective reactions to the personal lives of celebrities (aka people we don’t know) are as odd as they are uncool so what is it about the love lives of famous people that draws us in? And what, if any, function does knowing the details of the lives of the rich and famous serve in our society?

You might already be over it now, 24 hours later, but when the news broke you may have experienced specific emotions or had a particularly strong reaction and that was completely legitimate.

Chemmie, The Debrief’s Acting Fashion and Beauty Editor, tells me that she did initially feel sad. ‘I don’t necessarily feel sorry for them, for Brad and Angelina – I feel sorry for love – it’s just another thing to make me think love is doomed to fail. They’ll get over it, they’ll be fine. I’m more worried about what this means for relationships in general. It adds to a growing and cynical worldview. Can anyone stay together?’

The rest of the office had mixed feelings. Jess, our Deputy Editor, says ‘it just feels like yet another thing has gone totally wrong with the world. It’s never a good thing for people to break up (unless, obviously, there’s abuse etc. involved). Our Editor, Rebecca is less concerned now the dust has settled but admits ‘I felt sad…you start to think that certain people are a sure thing. Also, perhaps because of the way that their relationship was branded and marketed it did hit home.’ Our Social Media Editor, Alyss, however says ‘I am interested in it and I was definitely shocked by it. But I wouldn’t say that I felt sad. To be honest I think I’m more invested I soap opera relationships than I am in celebrity relationships.’

How different are celebrity relationships to fictional relationships for most of us? Whether it’s the high profile divorce of Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise, the acrimonious split of Johnny Depp and Amber Herd, the breakup of ‘Bennifer’ (Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner) or Brangelina what all of these people have in common is that, to the vast majority of us, they are strangers. They are the characters the play in films and the media personas we see trotting down red carpets, perfectly coiffed. They are not real people, not as we know them anyway. The versions of their lives that we read about are almost as fictitious as the roles they take on.

We might think we know what happened behind the scenes of Mr and Mrs Smith back in the mid 00s when Brangelina was born, but we don’t. We all know that celebrity news is not news, it’s gossip and conjecture - it’s notoriously unreliable. Yet, still we pay attention to it. Does this reflect a serious collective character flaw in our society or is there more to it than that?

If you strip it back, is it really so surprising that we are all – to a greater or lesser degree – fascinated by the lives of others, even if we don’t really know them?

Chartered clinical psychologist Dr Jessamy Hibberd says no. ‘Ultimately we are social animals. We’ve evolved to live in groups, to need to know about other people, to understand them and empathise with them.’

‘We live in groups’ she adds, and because of this ‘it’s really important to know and understand other people. Social support is key to good mental health and getting on well.’ As to how this translates to our interest in celebrity relationships she says although, ‘it might be a very one sided interaction, because you don’t know them. But the point is that you feel like you do. It can also, very simply, be a nice distraction from your own life.’

Is it possible that us lowly non-celebrities are consciously or unconsciously looking for role models? ‘If you think about it’ Dr Jessamy says, ‘it’s not that different to watching a Disney movie or reading a Jane Austen novel. Most songs, books and films play with the concept of happy ever after. Everybody loves a happy ending, why? Because life can be difficult and of course we all want to believe that things can work out. People also love the idea of love itself, you get hooked in and you do care about it. A celebrity marriage or break up is almost like a soap opera playing out. The ups and downs of any narrative are also interesting.’

Our interest in celebrities, particularly when it comes to a high profile break up such as Brangelina can also be rooted in our own personal experiences. The reason we get drawn in, Dr Jessamy says, is because we care, ‘you know how all of those feelings feel. It’s less about the specific people involved and more about the concepts and principals.’

Perhaps we should take solace in our identification with celebrities? ‘There is something helpful or reassuring’ in learning about a celebrity’s break up Dr Jessamy confirms, ‘it’s that you can identify with other people. There’s also something reassuring in things not working out for them. You realise that other people struggle or go through difficult times too.’

However, she points out that our relationship with celebrity relationships is largely based on fantasy and not fact. You might project your own experience onto their situation, even though you don’t know the full details. That’s how you identify with people you don’t know. ‘With Brad and Angelina, ever since they got together and he left Jennifer Anniston, people have had very personal responses to their relationship. It comes down to OK by your standards and what is not ok. How you see it and how I see it will be different because of our own personal experiences and backgrounds.’

‘At the end of the day’ she concludes, ‘none of it is about actual facts. The media feeds you limited facts and you piece it together in your own way based on your own personal experiences and what you want to take from it.’

In terms of evolutionary psychology ‘celebrity’ is a reasonably recent phenomenon, one which was largely born in the C20th and has exploded online and through reality TV in the last couple of decades. We may have evolved to take an interest in the lives of others, but never have the lives of total strangers felt so immediate to us.

This is not necessarily a bad thing. A 2007 study found that gossiping can actually help us to learn and even serves an important social purpose. Belgian psychologist Charlotte de Backer conducted research into celebrity gossip and concluded that we pay attention to it because we may be able to learn strategies for coping with difficult situations that we can then apply to our own lives. We look to famous people as role models of sorts for guidance. Her report also found that because of exposure to the sort of media we have today, some people even ‘misperceive’ celebrities as people who are part of their own social network.

In a 2012 study de Backer demonstrated that the tabloids can be viewed as windows into our own interpersonal relationships from an evolutionary perspective. One of the recommendations in the conclusion of her study was this:

‘Our final recommendation is oriented towards consumers of mass media gossip. Those who read gossip magazines, watch gossip-related television shows, or read gossip articles from Internet sites, for example, may feel guilty about wasting their time on a leisure pursuit. It is important to remember that gossip helped our ancestors survive, and thus by accessing gossip, one is faced with an opportunity to vicariously learn solution to adaptive problems.’

We might tut and shake our heads when people talk about celebrities or tune into the Kardashians. We might proudly proclaim our interest in far more cerebral things. However, if you do find yourself reading the reports – from sources of varying degrees of reputability- about the Brangelina break up, cut yourself some slack. Call it survival, call it catharsis: it’s OK to be intrigued by the inane when you need a break and it’s OK to identify with a celebrity going through a hard time just as it’s OK to put Adele (who, incidentally dedicated her New York concert to Pitt and Jolie on the day the news broke) on when you’re going through a break up and have a massive, long, indulgent cry.

Like this? You might also be interested in:

Jennifer Anniston Is Actually Fine. It's Us Who Needs To Move On

Stop Assuming Jennifer Anniston Is Ecstatic About The Brangelina Break Up

Why Is Society So Affraid Of Women Who Want Children?

Follow Vicky on Twitter @Victoria_Spratt

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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