It only took one lover calling me "crazy" to make me fearful of expressing myself. It's been ingrained in women for centuries to keep our hearts off our sleeves and in our chests. Society narrows its eyes at us when we're expressive or candid, tells women to keep their feelings in their journals and out of their relationships. Women who are openly sexual and passionate are labeled as excessive, too much, out of line.
And even in the eyes of the modern men I've dated, with contemporary ideals and flexible expectations in a partner, I've seen that provincial judgement. There have been so many times that I've opened myself up to someone, shown them my colors with confidence, only to see it observed as "too much" in their eyes.
When I began my foray in the dating pool, I felt hopeless. I thought I had two choices: be myself and be alone, or hide myself and find a partner. Rejection made me feel ashamed of my dimensions. It made me feel isolated and peculiar. I felt underrepresented in books and films. I could not relate to Juliet. I was not soft like her, but I knew that didn't make me any less of a woman — though it made me worry I was unworthy of a big love. And then I saw my first Angelina Jolie film, Gia.
Jolie brought this character to life with an explosively empathetic performance. She pulled every internal element of the female psyche out into the open and demanded they be seen and embraced. And I couldn't look away. I couldn't not see myself. Gia was everything society told her not to be. She challenged behavioral standards, femininity and social constructs. She wasn't afraid to be deserving. She wasn't interested in someone buffing her edges. That film made me feel like I was in my own societally constructed captivity. It made me feel like I deserved to get out. It made me want to hold my head higher.
Through Angelina's characteristically dynamic and gallant roles over the years, she acted as kind of mentor and spirit guide for many young women. She became an unofficial and sometimes unwilling representation of the emotional complexity of women. On screen, she could harness her feelings, making them tangible for her audience. Off screen, she allowed herself to be flowing, intangible, raw. She was a Mustang, galloping though life at full speed, making the media's heads spin and lenses flare.
In a 1999 interview with Access Hollywood, when asked about the media's interest in her sex life and relationships with women, she said, "They've summed it up and not made it the beautiful thing that it was ... they'll make something nasty out of something that's so beautiful." The media thrived on slapping labels on Jolie like "wild" and "outspoken" and "sexual". They considered those traits as colors that were outside of the lines of a woman, but hers was a much more important narrative than that — she showed me that women can draw themselves freehand. They don't need preexisting molds to squeeze inside. They don't have to be "tamed" be lovable.
And when she loved, she loved fast and hard. Her public relationships were chaotic and intense. She opposed any convention that felt inauthentic. She dated people who shared a similar sense of spirited freedom. Together, they were still individual, passing through relationships like affairs, seemingly uncommitted yet completely immersed. She wore love well, but I don't think she ever imagined she'd wear a wedding dress one day.
In the days that that they met, Brad was the kind of actor that was so bright on screen, he washed everyone else out. He was beautiful, earnest, convincing. He was equal parts romantic heartthrob and scheming assailant. It was easier to believe that off screen, he, who didn't show much of his personality to the media, was an impalpable being. His graceful composure, his divine features, his tight lip intrigued us. As his career rose, he became more of a stallion, too powerful and spectacular to be groomed into anyone's notions of him.
It never struck me before, that two people, so unabashedly themselves, so individual and peculiar and intoxicating, could have room for each other. And yet, when they started dating, their combined audiences nearly imploded with praise and affection. It was easy to love their love. They gave me hope that I might be able to ignore the chains of the past and the dimensions of conventional courting, I could hold on to myself while giving myself to someone else. In the beginning, skeptics waited for them to crash and burn. The were too bright, too powerful, too much to sustain. The combination of two entities so illustrious seemed unsustainable. Someone would have to change.
But as far as the public eye could see, no one did change. Together they empowered each other. They celebrated each other. They created a pen of stability around themselves in which they could run free, together. They made me believe that for true love, you don't have to compromise who you are.
But on an even more personal level, their love made me believe that I would find a partner one day who didn't make me feel like I had to apologize for myself. All of my exes who called me "crazy" faded into a bucket of obscurity. They didn't know what real love was. I would hold out for my Brad, for my Angelina — the partner who said, "I see your honesty and vulnerability, and I raise you my own." The person who made me feel like it was safe to be myself.
And after over a decade of dating and building a family together, when they did marry, they did it their own way — without negotiating their ideals. They remained authentic to themselves and their love. Over the years, as tabloid stories came out with attempts to deface their love and reduce their combined value, I ignored them. They were not a fairytale, but something much more meaningful than that. They were the real deal. I didn't have to worry about them falling victim to mortal circumstances like deception or divorce. Their love would outlive us all. Angelia Jolie and Brad Pitt obliterated every algorithm every matchmaker throughout history attempted to calculate. Every time I saw them together, I felt more firm in my resolve.
Today, as I'm faced with the denouncement of their love, I feel forced back into myself. While I know what they're going through is beyond me and all the other hopeless romantics out there, it certainly still feels like a blow. In a time when grief and terror pile on top of each other, each news cycle out-grueling the last, I want to believe that true love exists. I want to believe that people like Angelia Jolie and Brad Pitt are immortal purveyors of love, and I can be, too. I want to believe that in the end love trumps all. But today I have to swallow a hard yet unavoidable pill: love, like people, is vulnerable. It is susceptible to destruction.
But while the end of their love will leave an unexpected hole in its wake, it also leaves its original blessing behind. The news of their divorce will not make me any less open, any less truthful, any less jagged — any less like the person I am now. I'm not going to let go of the notion that women don't need to be docile and smooth to play leading ladies in our own love lives. I can be textured and vibrant, loud and expressive, unafraid of my impulses. In just witnessing their love and the honest, vulnerable nature of it over the past decade, I no longer feel like I have to behave like a wide-eyed princess to make my dreams come true — even if those dreams don't necessarily last forever.
Image: HBO Pictures; Getty