27 May 2024

Harry Styles, Taylor Swift, Bennifer - why do we care so much about celebrity relationships?

8:21 am on 27 May 2024
HOLLYWOOD, CALIFORNIA - FEBRUARY 13: (L-R) Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez attend the Los Angeles premiere of Amazon MGM Studios "This Is Me...Now: A Love Story" at Dolby Theatre on February 13, 2024 in Hollywood, California.   Monica Schipper/Getty Images/AFP (Photo by Monica Schipper / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP)

Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, aka 'Bennifer'. Photo: MONICA SCHIPPER

Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck were the 'it' couple of the early 2000s. Their relationship was a tabloid sensation and the subject of celebrity gossip worldwide - so much so that it formed the basis of Lopez's infamous 2002 music video for 'Jenny from the Block'.

The couple presented a passionate relationship to the public; they were so in love that they got engaged the very same year that they met. So it came as a shock when, just two years later in 2004, Lopez called off the engagement one day before the wedding.

Bennifer had broken hearts around the world.

Nearly two decades later and the couple have found each other again, and this time they've tied the knot. But reports of trouble in paradise have a new generation of internet sleuths just as obsessed with their relationship as people were 20 years ago.

US singer-songwriter Taylor Swift and Kansas City Chiefs' tight end #87 Travis Kelce embrace after the Chiefs won Super Bowl LVIII against the San Francisco 49ers at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, Nevada, February 11, 2024. (Photo by Patrick T. Fallon / AFP)

People see their own lives reflected in celebrity relationships, an expert says. Photo: EZRA SHAW

It begs the question - why do we care so much about celebrity relationships and breakups?

According to Dr Anita Brady, a senior lecturer in media and communications at Victoria University in Wellington who researches popular culture, there are different levels for how we interact with celebrities.

"When we think about celebrity breakups, we can divide it into three ways we might care," she explains.

"The first is on an individual fan basis, where people might have particular celebrities they admire or follow for whatever reason. The second is on a societal level, which relates more to the cultural function of celebrities.

"In the same way we talk or gossip about people we know in real life, we also do the same thing in relation to celebrities. It's the space where social norms get negotiated or disrupted, where we can use the social function of gossiping about someone to establish social bonds with someone else.

"In a celebrity relationship, there might be an aspect of 'who wronged who' or 'who shouldn't have done what they did', and that's a way of testing our shared ideas about how we should conduct ourselves or participate in life."

The third framework might be one we are most guilty of as consumers.

"This one is actually just thinking about celebrities, not really as people, but as cultural narratives or sources of entertainment. We might follow a celebrity story the same way we follow a television show or a film, we're interested in the plot development and twists and turns."

US actress Jennifer Lopez (R) and US actor Ben Affleck attend Amazon's "This is Me... Now: A Love Story" premiere at the Dolby theatre in Hollywood, California, February 13, 2024. (Photo by Robyn BECK / AFP)


While celebrities might fall into each of these categories to varying degrees, a rekindled romance like Bennifer's most strongly reflects the cultural narrative of the third tier.

They are a couple who have broken up, spent time apart, and found their way to each other again.

"The redemptive framework of a happy ending like that gives us hope that these cultural scripts can play out in a way we might want our own lives to play out," Dr Brady says.

People see their own lives reflected in celebrity stories. In recent years, this has heightened the understanding of terms like 'parasocial relationships', where people feel like they truly know celebrities on a personal level.

But is the attention always unwanted, or unwarranted?

Many celebrities have built a brand off of being relatable and allowing fans an insight into their lives.

Taylor Swift fans, for example, feel so deeply connected to her that they'll stake a claim in who she chooses to date, because they just feel that close. Or perhaps it's personal wish fulfillment through someone who resembles them.

"We need to be careful about pathologising that," Dr Brady says.

Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow before their "conscious uncoupling".

Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow. Photo: AFP

"The phrase 'parasocial' gets thrown around quite a lot in online media spaces as a framework of delusion or imagined relationship that isn't really real, which can be framed negatively when it's not always negative.

"The work someone like Taylor Swift puts into being a relatable celebrity and establishing that relationship with fans could be viewed in a positive space; people can look at what she's doing, think about their own behaviour and relationship with what they're doing, and develop their own moral and ethical framework that way. It's a way of thinking through your sense of self, as much as it is a relationship with a particular kind of celebrity."

Sometimes celebrities have even been known to actively feed the frenzy, from calling paparazzi on themselves to cashing in on heightened interest.

In 2024, Bennifer's rekindled romance is the subject of a documentary entitled The Greatest Love Story Never Told. In it, Lopez invites viewers into her 20-year journey to love and self-acceptance. Though it is a real reflection of her journey, it also plays into the nostalgia people hold for Jen and Ben in the 2000s.

The increasing demand for authenticity on social media has also encouraged celebrities to share every update in their lives, in a way they might not have before.

"Celebrities now have an opportunity to intervene into stories and have more ownership over how they're represented," Dr Brady says.

"There's an aspect of it that brings authenticity, but it's not necessarily any more real than it ever was before."

In 2014, Gwyneth Paltrow started a trend of celebrity breakup announcements on social media when she announced her 'conscious uncoupling' from Chris Martin on Facebook. Now, increasingly amicable Instagram statements are the norm.

US actress Jennifer Lopez and actor Ben Affleck arrive for a special screening of "Marry Me" at the Directors Guild of America (DGA) in Los Angeles, February 8, 2022. (Photo by VALERIE MACON / AFP)

Rumours have been swirling that Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez are on the rocks. Photo: AFP

"It's a polished production for the media to protect a celebrity's self-image and brand," Dr Brady says.

"That term 'conscious uncoupling' kind of entered the public lexicon as a result of that breakup and how they managed it. You can see that there's also perhaps an opportunity to frame breakups in a different way than they've historically been represented as these adversarial moments. It serves a social function rather than necessarily reflecting anything real about the breakups of a celebrity couple."

The celebrity 'couple' doesn't even need to be in a real relationship for us to care. PR relationships have always been a strong marketing tool.

Last year, Anyone But You costars Sydney Sweeney and Glen Powell fuelled an entire press run with rumours of an affair, complete with saucy tabloid pictures getting close on set and drama that seemingly spilled in their real-life relationships.

Still image from the 2023 romantic comedy Anyone But You featuring Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney.

Glen Powell and Sydney Sweeney. Photo: Sony Pictures

All of it was later revealed to be a carefully crafted promotional ploy by Sony. The prank didn't seem to bother anyone.

"With the rise of social media, whether it's real or a PR thing, it's an opportunity to interact more directly with celebrities now more than ever."

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