“Have you seen those photos of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston?” my sister asked me casually over the long weekend.
Um, of course I had. Logging onto Facebook Sunday night, doing that obligatory “bored-on-the-weekend” scroll, I couldn’t escape the posts about the exes’ backstage run-in at the 2020 Screen Actors Guild Awards. (And I kid you not, at least three of the articles had “breaking news” tags. Relax, news orgs.)
Granted, they are pretty great photos. Let’s recap:
Backstage, congratulating each other for acting-award wins for their respective roles in “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and “The Morning Show,” the former husband and wife were positively beaming.
Alexa, play “The Way We Were.” (There is something vaguely Katie Morosky/Barbra Streisand and preppy Hubbell Gardiner/Robert Redford about the way they look, right?)
“Yeah, I saw them!” I told my sister, pulling them up again just for good measure. “They were everywhere.”
But just as I was getting my Google image search on, I got reality checked.
“Weren’t there all these rumors he cheated on her with Angelina Jolie?” my sister said with the ignorant bliss of a younger sibling who was in elementary school when it all (allegedly!) went down.
Oh, dammit, yeah. Aniston and Pitt broke up in 2005 after five years of marriage and rumors that the actor had fallen for his “Mr. And Mrs. Smith” co-star, leading Aniston to famously tell Vanity Fair that Pitt was “missing a sensitivity chip.” Ouch.
The “poor Jen!” headlines became a tabloid fixture. “Team Aniston”/“Team Jolie” shirts became a weird early aughts pop culture thing. Pitt and Jolie eventually married and raised a family of six before splitting up in messy fashion in 2016. Aniston went on to marry and amicably divorce Justin Thoreux (so amicable, they celebrate Thanksgiving together).
Now, they’re racking up awards for their work and both conveniently single at the same time, much to the public’s glee. (Don’t judge; 2020 is already off to a rough start, news cycle-wise — we need this!)
For what it’s worth, they both seem to be thrilled for each other’s success. When Aniston went up to accept her SAG award for Female Actor in a Drama Series, Brad was seen watching with a big grin on his face backstage:
But, reality check number two: By all accounts, the exes are just friends, have been for years now (Pitt even turned up at Aniston’s 50th birthday last year), and have no plans to return to their 2000s super-couple glory.
That hasn’t stopped people from really wanting a reconciliation to happen. It’s hard not to project with these pics, said Tom Fitzgerald, one half of the fashion-blogging duo Tom & Lorenzo and the co-author of the upcoming book “Legendary Children: The First Decade of RuPaul’s Drag Race and the Last Century of Queer Life.”
“My husband and I never had any dog in this hunt, but even we were surprised by our own reactions to the pictures,” Fitzgerald told HuffPost. “There were literal gay gasps when we saw that shot of him grasping her wrist as she turned away.”
Fitzgerald has a few theories on why the internet responded the way it did. (Besides the fact that knee-jerk histrionics is kind of Twitter’s thing.)
“Part of the reason everyone reacted so strongly is because Brad and Jen are both so iconic now and nearly an entire generation has grown up without seeing contemporary pictures of them together,” he said. “But another reason is because those shots ― especially the wrist one ― were so ridiculously romantic in tone.”
Fitzgerald doesn’t think there’s any romance brewing, though. He’s more inclined to see the moment as “an instance of old friends and lovers simply showing some affection for each other and doing that thing that time tends to do for old lovers: forgive and forget the past.”
That said, the writer gets why people are rooting for a reconciliation. As he pointed out, we tend to view celebrities as avatars for our fears, hopes, desires and perceptions.
“Celebrities become stand-ins or representations of our own emotional states,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s why Jen became this patron saint of heartbroken women in the eyes of the public for so many years. It wasn’t fair to her, but she became a stand-in for how people feel about women who are unlucky in love; whether those people were themselves unlucky or whether they enjoyed judging women who were.”
Sure, it sounds a tad silly, but to see Pitt and Aniston ― “two nearly perfect avatars of the concept of a failed marriage” ― so publicly embrace each other gives hope to the rest of us that it’s possible to mend a broken relationship. (And in this case, it’s extra nice to see Pitt rehab his image and enjoy critical success after getting sober. Aniston, too, is finally getting recognition she’s long deserved for her dramatic work. Why not tack a love story onto that feel-good narrative, too?)
For the romantic realists among us, it’s not so much a desire for them to get back together that most of us feel, as much as a sweet confirmation that the pair are still connected and bonded in spite of everything that allegedly went down, said Katherine Schafler, a psychotherapist in New York.
“Here we have two exes supporting each other, there’s not one winner and one loser, it’s so platonic,” she said. “Their connection reminds us that even when things don’t end the way you were expecting them to, you can still have a happy ending in other ways. In true Hollywood fashion, we all love a happy ending, perhaps that why we can’t get enough of these two. ”
It’s kind of like how you’d be thrilled if your friends who dated for years are finally fine with being in the same room again; no more weirdness at parties!
Collectively, we can leave the past in the past: Pitt and Aniston will forever be the chillest couple to ever chill in Hollywood, a golden pair with golden tans to match. (Seriously, how do two people get so matchy matchy with their tans?)
But for all the diehard fans, there’s always going to be steadfast critics.
Alicia Mintz, the co-host of the pop culture podcast Trashy Divorces (of course they covered the Aniston-Pitt split) is still firmly Team Jen, however the chips may fall.
“My co-host Stacie and I actually hold fast to the controversial hot take that people split up for a reason, and should probably stay that way,” she said. “In our episode on this whole sorry Jen-Brad-Angelina spectacle, I had a very personal message for Jen as she and Brad revived their friendship post-Angelina: Don’t do it!”
Marriages come and go. Old “Team Aniston” allegiances are forever.