Shortly after the split of the century (Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's divorce, in case you've just got back from a remote ashram with no outside communication), I jokingly commented that Jolie's next romantic move should be with a powerhouse female academic with whom she can run around saving the world. The fantasy was met with general approval among my friends, for several reasons; Jolie is one of the most high-profile queer women in the world, meaning that her healthy same-sex relationship would be one of the most visible and normalizing in history; and we embrace the idea of the famous with the non-famous as a reflection of our own possible chances, however unrealistic. As time goes on, though, this joke has become more of a spectator sport: tabloids are now claiming that Jolie is "leaning on" Johnny Depp in the wake of her incredibly recent split, a situation that appears to be based on taking two randomly selected, recently single famous people and mashing them together like Barbies. So why should we lay off fantasy-romancing Jolie with the nearest famous person?
Jolie (whom I do not refer to as "Angelina," because a woman who is a visiting professor at the London School of Economics and spends a lot of time working for the UN deserves to be called her last name like a serious human) is going through a traumatic period. This would be true of any person who had recently announced their divorce, let alone a woman whose entire romantic history, including the middle names of her offspring, are known in encyclopedic fashion by the American public. My grandmother would have called it "gauche" to hover around jokingly pairing her up with other famous people when the ink is barely dry on the magazine articles about her divorce. But beyond simple bad manners, there's something a bit more disturbing in the whole mania to set up Jolie with other people. Are we just really discomforted by the concept of single, powerful women?
Spoiler alert: yes.
The Single Woman Has Had A Rough Enough History
For most of European history, through the absence of divorce and separation as legal parts of family law, there were two types of single women: ones who weren't married, and widows. I've written about virgins as slightly problematic figures in Western historical civilization before; they were seen as lacking the fulfillment of a woman's basic job, which was as wife and mother. They could be intensely powerful figures (nuns, for instance, were often highly educated and nobly-born women), but they never truly fitted into the mould of female societal success. Widows, on the other hand, had done the marriage thing, and perhaps had children too. In the context of Jolie, while Brad Pitt is still alive, this is the mould into which she most clearly fits, and it's one that gives us a very interesting perspective on how we view the woman post-man.
Widowers in many contexts were expected to remarry quickly for the sake of the care of their children, which across Europe was largely seen to be a female's duty. If a woman died, another had to be hurried to replace her. Widows, on the other hand, operated in a slightly more complicated way. Sources from early modern Europe indicate that widows of powerful men could become powerful unto themselves, owning property, litigating in court and maintaining businesses; but there was also a host of centuries-old stereotypes, including "the lusty widow, the scheming widow, the masochistic widow, or the widow as imbecilic victim," that indicated that a woman released from the bonds of marriage was not deemed as exactly societally acceptable. (One classic "lusty widow" tale from Roman author Petronius involves a husband's corpse being stolen while his widow has sex with the guard sent to protect it in the graveyard. No, really.)
In the medieval period, the Church and secular authorities, according to experts, believed that widows had only two viable options: chaste withdrawal, possibly to an abbey, or rapid remarriage. The idea of a woman living by herself and running her own house was, clearly, a very worrying one, and could only be achieved with a lot of societal resources. A woman was meant to stay married; failing that, she needed to get herself under the legal protection of another man immediately, or remove herself from society and sexual life. The rhetoric of fantasy around Jolie's "next hookup" is, for me, a little reminiscent of this.
Post-Divorce Life Is Not A Waiting Room
Post-divorce life is also not meant to be an interim period during which a woman either embraces sainthood or chases another partner. It's valid unto itself. While the rhetoric of Pitt's romantic life outside of the relationship appears centered on affairs or lack thereof, the betting agency Paddy Power was up until recently taking bets on "Angelina's Next Boyfriend". We are constructing distinct narratives for both partners: the male is having dalliances, the female is inevitably heading to another relationship. It's a marker of the way in which we tend to define women, still, in terms of their romantic status, which was for a considerable period the main marker of a woman's safety and societal value, and relationships to others. Jolie is a lone actor, returning to her independent state. Setting up fantasy boyfriends and girlfriends makes that state look like a stepping-stone to something "more worthwhile."
Jolie's Life Has Enough Value On Its Own
Press narratives around the romances and marriages of the famous are always going to be fiction. They're fictions in which we participate, and which, in many ways, the celebrities themselves construct and attempt to influence. These fictions can be exceptionally revealing. In this case, we're hurrying to connect Jolie with other "suitable" people (read: celebrities whose fictions conveniently converge with hers) as a demonstration of priorities: in our culture, the end of the story, for women specifically, is meant to be happy marriage. It's not designed to accept a woman running around the world, trying to create social change, and raising her six children as a separated parent as the end game. (Hell, it's not designed to accept a woman who adopted a kid on her own or is openly bisexual, either.) Jolie is supposed to move from the tragedy of her failed marriage to the redemption of a new relationship; that's the way we understand and validate female happiness.
Well, screw that. This is a chance for us to challenge that conception. Jolie's next romantic forays will obviously attract significant press attention. Can we at least try to give equal weight to her future as a woman on her own, by resisting the temptation to throw speculative lovers at her and see what sticks? (Let's also try to stay away from painting her as lusty, scheming, masochistic or a victim, since those age-old models clearly don't do a lot to render female experience properly.) Powerful women post-divorce aren't just ping-ponging between marriages like lost pigeons. Jolie likely doesn't conceive of herself as in a waiting room between the different important stages of her life. Neither should we.
Image: British Library/Wikimedia Commons