Brangelina: What’s the big deal?

In a deeply and wildly commercialised culture, the private lives of Hollywood stars are public property.

Brad Pitt and actress Angelina Jolie [Reuters]
Brad Pitt and actress Angelina Jolie [Reuters]

What is this fascination all over the world, from your local tabloids to major respectable news outlets around the globe to the Dalai Lama himself, with “Brangelina”?

What is “Brangelina” anyway? Well, it is a brand name created by the indexical fusion of the two other brand names of two Hollywood actors, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, now getting entangled into a very public marital problem.

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But why should the world care, why does it matter, what is the big deal? Don’t people have better things to do than follow the minutest details, factual or fantastic, of a “celebrity couple”? There’s the rub. 

Public fantasies

The drama of Brangelina began more than a decade ago when the high voltage couple met while shooting a film, Mr & Mrs Smith (2005), in the course of which they “really” fell in love and got married and went to live “happily ever after”.

The matter was newsworthy among other reasons because at the time this very Brad Pitt was coupled with another actress, Jennifer Aniston, whose separation and divorce was reportedly a result of the union that later became known as Brangelina. 

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Since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton – and even before them, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall – these super Hollywood couples have been the bizarre fixation of public fantasies on which loose cannons known as “paparazzi” and their gossip tabloids heavily bank and are lucratively rewarded.

Since Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton - and even before them, Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall - these super Hollywood couples have been the bizarre fixation of public fantasies on which ... 'paparazzi' and their gossip tabloids heavily bank and are lucratively rewarded.

But why, you may wonder, do people care about such private dramas of otherwise very public figures? 

These “stars”, as they are rightly known, are moderately talented but blessed with a certain provocative presence for which they make astronomical money for the ludicrously low maintenance work they do – singing, dancing, frolicking for fake in front of a camera, and then hope to melt into the thin air of their mansions in Bel Air.

“Not so fast, Mister,” their notorious “fans” say. 

Facts for fantasies

In the abiding logic of the market in which these fantasies are manufactured and sold, the public that buys them don’t think they “got their money’s worth” in those rare 80 minutes or so in which they get to see them acting in front of the camera. 

They feel positively cheated out of seeing more. So they start making up stories and scenes on the mere suggestion of a paparazzi picture here or a gossip tabloid there. 

Of course actors like all other human beings are entitled to their private lives. But that very logic of private property was forfeited long ago when they struggled very hard to abandon their private lives and become globally recognisable faces.

Now, the public that has enriched them in the first place demands and expects to see more – and the more flamboyant their screen persona, the more bizarre adventures the public imagines or conjure up for them. 

As stars, these artists ceased to be private or even ordinary human beings the instant they deposited that fat cheque in their bank accounts. In that very instant, they entered the Wild West of public fantasies and there and then, they become public icons, public allegories, and in a deeply and wildly commercialised culture, they in effect become “public property”.

Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in 1965 [Getty]

Here, in this “Wild West”, the public does with them as the logic of capitalism commands them to do with their own private properties.

They have willingly, voluntarily, and lucratively ceased to be human beings and yielded their person and persona to what the public wishes to do with them.

They have become like lifeless dolls that must now sing and dance, kick and scream, cry and laugh as any other lifelike toy this public buys after a Disney movie in their local toyshop. 

Stuff dreams are made on

These anthropomorphic lifelike dolls suddenly wake up one day with real issues of marital conflict, family dramas, parental abuse, spousal rancour, etc and declare and demand to be left alone precisely at a moment that the public has just started watching them “act” in a new “movie”.

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They are either naive or ignorant as to how the human fantasies work. When they are on screen, they do their damnedest to convince the world the lines they are reciting or lives they are living are real. Now that very logic is reversed. Their reality is fantasified.

Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in 1946 [Getty]

On your ways in and out of any grocery store, you see these props of public fantasies continue their onscreen lives deep into their private lives now lived very publicly.

You see them crying and laughing, kissing and cuddling, gaining and losing weight, falling in and out of love, on the front page of one tabloid competing for attention with 10 more. 

Aren’t these the very stuff their movies are “made on”, as the great master dramatist himself once put perfectly into mouth of Prospero in The Tempest (Act 4: Scene 1, 148-158):    

Our revels now are ended.

These our actors,?

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and?

Are melted into air, into thin air:?

And like the baseless fabric of this vision,?

The cloud-capp’d tow’rs, the gorgeous palaces,?

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,?

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,?

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,?

Leave not a rack behind.

We are such stuff?

As dreams are made on; and our little life?

Is rounded with a sleep. 

Melting “into thin air” the public fantasy will not allow to happen here. That dream, as the wise bard realised centuries ago, moves on and unfolds space in what has long since stopped being “real life”. 

The bard’s tongue-in-cheek insistence that “like the baseless fabric of this vision … all which it inherit, shall dissolve” contains the truth that it does not and will not dissolve, that the fantasy becomes factasy. 

The logic of capitalism will not be compromised: William Bradley Pitt becomes “Brad Pitt” (™), Angelina Jolie Voight become “Angelina Jolie” (™) and they both metamorphose into Brangelina (™) – two commercial brand trademark “for the price of one”, fusing the fact and fantasy of their whereabouts to live their lives far beyond their own mortal coils and deep into the Wild West of their merciless fans’ fantasies. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policies.

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