October 26, 2013

Celebrity super-couples: Pervasive vs. minimal presence over time

Browsing the archives at Blind Gossip has alerted me to how many fake celeb relationships and marriages there are today. The sham couple is cooked up by a PR office, and negotiated between publicists and agents, to Maximize Brand Value for each star. It'll be pure synergy, baby, you can't lose.

I knew of the most famous ones, but not caring about the celeb world, the majority I was unaware of. And even some of the ones I'd known about, I didn't suspect that the palpable lack of chemistry was due to the relationship being 100% phony, chalking it up instead to them being typical asexual Millennials, like that guy and girl from the Twilight movies.

The Wikipedia article on super-couples points out Will Smith and Jada Pinkett, who married in 1997, as the earliest of the current wave of cynical sham spouses. Who knows, there could've been a somewhat earlier lower-profile case, but let's say the wave began no earlier than the mid-'90s. Obviously it shows no signs of abating as of 2013.

When was the last high point? How else could it turn out -- the mid-century. E.g.:

Clark Gable and Carole Lombard
Tracy and Hepburn
Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball
Bogie and Bacall
Cronyn and Tandy
Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe
Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee
Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward

As with today's mania, several of those couples were not just any two stars in the movie industry, but were on-screen as well as off-screen couples.

There are some counter-examples from the rising-crime Jazz Age -- Burns and Allen, Fairbanks and Pickford -- and the rising-crime New Wave Age -- Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, Johnny Cash and June Carter. But they appear to be the exception rather than the rule, and none of the listed couples were married in the '70s or '80s. (At the end of the post, I'll take a deeper look at icons of the '80s and show that there really was no obsession with super-couples back then.)

Why were super-couples the thing during the mid-century and Millennial eras? The view from today would point to greed, careerism, eagerness to exploit fans, etc. But that would seem to come from a rising-inequality attitude, and they had the opposite attitude during the mid-century -- you were supposed to play down your greedy careerist ambitions. Also, we should've seen a surge of super-couples during the '80s, yet we didn't.

It matches the cocooning / rising-crime trend instead, and it's not hard to explain the desire to see super-couples as part of a cocooning mood. You're too afraid to interact with others, develop relationships, and share exciting experiences in your own life, so you might as well try to live vicariously through a super-couple whose romance is in the public eye and whose details are available for cheap consumption through the ubiquitous celeb gossip magazines. That also explains why they have to be on-screen couples as well -- audiences could try to ignore their non-relationship off-screen, but it sure would be easier to keep the illusion going if they were involved on-screen too.

But while cocooning leads to voyeurism and make-believe rather than approaching and participating., socially connected and fun-loving people couldn't care less what's going on in the love life of the singer on the radio, or the star of the movie they're watching with their main squeeze. Their life already has meaning, belonging, and satisfaction.

That's on the audience's side, but let's not overlook the effects of the zeitgeist on the stars themselves. I think each industry gets more incestuous during cocooning times, and they're more hesitant or fearful to date and marry outside their industry -- including so far outside that the other person is not even a big-name celebrity at all. In the good old days, the lead singer of a rock band would be dating some model, not another pop music star. Lower trust these days means be wary of people outside the industry, hence John Mayer and Katy Perry getting together.

Now let's take a look back at who was married to who in the '80s, a period that gets nothing but vile slander poured on it for being one of materialism, greed, and superficial obsession with fashion. If that view were true, then PR offices could have pushed celeb super-couples on audiences, and they would have been only too happy to lap it up. Yet it's nearly impossible to find super-couples from the big names of the time.

I'm going to stick with 1984 so that I don't have to examine every single year in detail, and because that was such an iconic year for American culture. I'm also going to look only at women, since society is more anxious about whether they're married yet and to whom, and to cut down on my work load by half.

Start with the top-grossing movies of 1984. Ghostbusters star Sigourney Weaver is not dating Bill Murray, but gets married that year to an avant-garde theater director you've never heard of. Kate Capshaw, the love interest in Temple of Doom, only marries the director Steven Spielberg 7 years later, and is not part of a celeb couple. Phoebe Cates from Gremlins isn't involved with co-star Zach Galligan off-screen, but will marry actor Kevin Kline in '89 (by which time she isn't still in the limelight enough to qualify as a super-couple, and she retired from acting not long afterward). How about Ralph "The Karate Kid" Macchio and Elisabeth "Ali with an I" Shue? Nope, and she didn't marry until 10 years later, to director Davis Guggenheim. Kim Cattrall of Police Academy was married to a German architect who you haven't heard of.

None of the cast from Footloose were dating each other; Lori Singer was married to some guy who doesn't have a Wikipedia entry. Kathleen Turner was not dating Michael Douglas, her co-star in Romancing the Stone -- that year she married a real estate entrepreneur. Did Daryl Hannah run around with Tom Hanks to shamelessly promote Splash? No, and it doesn't look like she was dating anyone big in the industry at all. And so on and so forth.

It seems like actresses were allowed to have their own lives in the '80s. They felt trusting enough to date and marry far outside their industry, and audiences were too busy sharing experiences with their own somebody special to escape into movie-land for vicarious fulfillment.

Same thing with singers of the top songs of the year. Tina Turner had split with Ike. Deniece Williams wasn't being promoted by a producer who she was with. In general, one-hit wonders cannot be part of a super-couple, and the '80s was full of them. Multi-hit wonder Cyndi Lauper was not attached either, and wouldn't marry until '91 (to an actor you probably haven't heard of). None of the Pointer Sisters was part of a celeb couple. Laura Branigan was married to a lawyer, and didn't dump him for a pop singer when she hit it big. Sheila E. was a protege of Prince, so I assume he banged her, but they were not marketed as a visible super-couple. Annie Lennox of Eurythmics was married to a random Hare Krishna dude. Olivia Newton-John that year married an unknown backup dancer from Xanadu who she'd met during filming in 1980.

Pat Benatar was married to her guitar player, though he was not a rock celeb in his own right, so they were not a super-couple. The brunette babe from Bananarama would later date the other guy from Wham!, but not at this point in time. Belinda Carlisle was not married, though in 1986 she would marry the future producer of sex, lies, and videotape -- but who was not a big name in any field at the time. Christine McVie had divorced her bandmate in Fleetwood Mac, and would marry her keyboard player shortly -- again, he being an unknown, and so not forming a super-couple.

And what about the Queen of Pop herself? During her rise to fame in '84, Madonna had not even begun dating Sean Penn, who she wouldn't marry until '85. She did date the mostly unknown producer Jellybean Benitez, but was focusing her energies more on, well, inventing Madonna and taking the world by storm. Even when she began dating Penn, he was not an A-list star -- more or less known only for playing Spicoli in Fast Times back in '82. Penn wouldn't become a big name in Hollywood until the mid-'90s, after Carlito's Way and Dead Man Walking. He'd begun dating actress Robin Wright several years earlier, after breaking up with Madonna in '89. Penn and Wright would qualify more as a super-couple, and they weren't an item until the early '90s, marrying in '96.

As it happens, the entertainment world did take a stab at marketing Madonna and Sean Penn as a super-couple by making a movie, Shanghai Surprise (1986), starring them both. Can't say I've seen it -- in fact, I'd never heard of it until I researched this post. It flopped in theaters, was panned by critics, and won the Golden Raspberry for Worst Actress (Madonna). Audiences back then just didn't care about, "OMG, that real-life couple is hooking up on the big screen! My dream has come true, and my life finally has meaning!" The Eighties had its fair share of ditzes and airheads, but not so many dorks and losers.

(Related: this post pointed out the lack of celeb obsession surrounding Madonna in 1985, when she was interviewed for Seventeen magazine, yet only given a small blurb on the corner of the cover, squeezed out by a huge close-up of an anonymous teen model.)

It's wild to think how free everybody was to live their own lives back in the Reagan years. Only socially isolated folks desperately glom onto celebrities to vicariously feel a sense of direction and achievement, and celeb super-couples to fill the void in their romantic life left by profound distrust of the opposite sex (whether they're single or in an emotionally distant relationship).


  1. "cynical sham spouses"

    I don't think that phrase accurately describes Tracy and Hepburn (they famously had an affair that was hidden from the public) or Newman and Woodward (they were happily married for 50 years -- although he did leave his first wife for her).

  2. Right, since today's are more cynical publicity stunts, and yesteryear's were not (not obviously anyway), the cause can't be cynical PR offices. It must be more like disconnected audiences demanding the best vicarious experiences, and actors not trusting people outside their industry for dating and marriage.

  3. Only socially isolated folks desperately glom onto celebrities to vicariously feel a sense of direction and achievement, and celeb super-couples to fill the void in their romantic life left by profound distrust of the opposite sex (whether they're single or in an emotionally distant relationship).

    I think there is some work on the association of Big 5 personality traits with celebrity worship, within our society, rather than over time.



    Describes a survey scale called the Celebrity Attitude Scale, which apparently breaks out into three separate factors, "Entertainment-social (ES)" - interested in celebrity for the purposes of gossip and as social glue, "Intense-personal (IP)" - interested in celebrity and "Borderline-pathological (Path)".

    Under the Eysenckian 3 Factor Personality Model, entertainment-social positively relates to trait extroversion, while intense-personal relates to trait neuroticism and borderline-pathological with trait psychoticism. This appears to replicate under the Big 5, except that as there is no factor representing anything like trait psychoticism, only weak relationships with Openness are present with pathological interest in celebrities.

    Shyness tends to show up as a mix of low trait extroversion and high trait neuroticism - some shy people don't get that much out of people so don't approach or interact much, while others get lots out of others, but have a lot of crippling inhibition and negative emotions that prevent interaction (and mixes of these traits).

    Assuming no trait interactions, I'd expect the archtypical celebrity obsessed person, in a generalized sense, to be high trait extroversion and high trait neuroticism. They want lots of social connections and get lots out of them (they are "people loving persons") and like to talk about relationships. But they are rather insecure and negatively emotional. So interpersonal relationships don't work out for them very well, and they haven't got many personal relationships to discuss. Neuroticism also seems to bias people towards an interest in other people's negative emotions and tragedies, as it biases people to be "in feeling" with them. Therefore the turn to celebrity.

    Emotionally stable, introverted persons, in contrast, would be the least obsessed or interested. For a given amount of celebrity worship, high trait extroverted people are more healthy, but low trait extroversion people are less celebrity obsessed.

    That might help explain differences between women and men in celeb worship - women aren't more extroverted than men, but they are more interpersonal relationship oriented, and also have higher trait neuroticism.

    The increase in our time does seem more plausibly related to increases in mental illness (neuroticism linked).


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