To begin, there is the incredible proliferation of mass media, the huge amount of coverage on celebrities and the self-exposure stars are willing to endure -- even prefer -- these days. "Stars" have changed from glamorous, unfathomables, to "friends" we follow on Twitter, in intimate, unguarded photos in entertainment magazines (which we don't even have to buy; the headlines and pictures capture us in our doctors' offices and at the check out counter).
We turn on the TV talk shows and learn more than we should as heartbroken or apologetic celebrity guests share details of their romantic misadventures.
Women like Jennifer Aniston become girlfriends, or friends of friends, who we listen to, judge, identify with and commiserate with. The wall separating us from stardom has been replaced by a penetrable surface, with celebrities just one tweet or book group away. She is no longer Jennifer Aniston, the star; she is Jennifer, a friend once removed and we talk about her among friends as if she were one of us.
She is not, though, so why do we feel so strongly about what happens to a movie star who has no apparent connection to our lives? Two reasons.
First, we know enough about her romantic travails before her marriage to identity with her and project ourselves into her situation. Here is a woman, who, like many of us, has wanted someone very badly, made mutual vows of fidelity and loyalty, and had that person leave for another lover -- in this case, an exceptionally talented and gorgeous woman, who now lays claim to everything she (or we) ever wanted. There are few women who haven't lost someone they loved -- and they immediately take up her cause, and her feelings, as their own.
Secondly, we follow her life because in a strange way, it comforts us. If a man could be unfaithful to such a lovely, successful and nice woman, we can know that perhaps we weren't left because we weren't pretty enough or sexy enough or witty enough, but because some men just fall in love with someone else.
We can see that regardless of why our own mate left, there was nothing about it that should wipe out our self-esteem and there wasn't necessarily anything we could have done that would have saved our relationship. Peering into various celebrity real melodramas rather perversely cheers us up!
In 2008, millions of women were riveted to the divorce trial of Christie Brinkley, whose husband, Peter Cook, betrayed her with a teenage employee. Well, we thought, if a man could do that to Christie Brinkley, of course we shouldn't feel that a husband or boyfriend left us for not being pretty enough or sexy enough. Look what happened to one of the most gloriously gorgeous women on Earth!
Then there is an additional twist in Aniston's story that long reassured us. Her failed marriage says to us that someone even more glorious than ourselves can be left, but her new marriage tells us that there can be a Cinderella story at the end of the road: a mate who truly loves us, who wants to create a family, who will deliver security and unconditional love at last. Sure, it may last as long as the next headline, but we deeply hope love stays the course for her, because we want to believe that our own dreams will result in triumph over disappointment.
This is why we care in a seemingly unreasonable way about what happens to Jennifer Aniston.
Nice girls might not finish last. Justice might prevail. Sure, we care about Jennifer, but we follow her life, and the life of other celebrities, mostly because they are now in our "friendship circle," however illusory this perception is.
Aniston's "fairy tale ending" is a stand-in for the fairy tale ending we want for ourselves.
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