The media’s ‘happily ever after’

Why are women like Jennifer Aniston portrayed as sad and lonely if they aren't married?

In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

Jennifer Aniston is one of the wealthiest women in the entertainment industry. She has appeared in 27 feature films, starred in the hit sitcom Friends, owns a film production company, and just secured her own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But the poor woman only found happiness after she got engaged.

For “proof,” just look at the headlines. USA Today: “Has Jennifer Aniston finally found her happy ending?” Huffington Post: “Jennifer Aniston engaged: Insiders hope she ‘has finally found Mr. Right.’” ABC news, in an online story, led with this: “It looks like America’s sweetheart may finally be getting her happily ever after.”

But why does the media—do we—consider “happily ever after” to equal marriage? Perhaps it’s because women are still in constant danger of being reduced to their roles as wives or mothers (you’ll recall that dust-up last month over news that new Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer is pregnant). It’s as if, once married or pregnant, women can’t focus on anything else. As if they can’t be anything else.

Relationships and children are important and make many women happy and fulfilled, of course, but so do lots of other things, from spiritual practices to career success to creative challenges. Yet the tale of Jennifer Aniston is an example of a story in which a woman’s accomplishments are eclipsed by a cultural need to see an unmarried woman as a woman who is lonely and desperate.

The story of “America’s sweetheart” pre-fiancĂ© Justin Theroux went like this: Aniston and Brad Pitt were married for five years. They got divorced. Pitt went on to have a happy, child-filled life with the darkly sexy Angelina Jolie (and perhaps fell for her on the set of Mr. and Mrs. Smith while he was still with Aniston.) But Aniston? She couldn’t hold down a man! She regretted losing Brad! She was locked in a duel with Jolie! And, at 43, she still wasn’t married or pregnant. Clearly, before she became engaged, Aniston’s life was sad and ruined, despite her career success.

The thing is, this narrative fed to us by both the tabloids and the legitimate media just isn’t true. Aniston has said so herself. In 2009 she told Elle magazine wearily, “If I’m the emblem for ‘this is what it looks like to be the lonely girl getting on with her life,’ so be it. I can make fun of myself, and I’ll bring it up as long as the world is bringing it up.”

That article, written by Aniston’s friend and colleague Kristin Hahn, noted that Aniston is surrounded by a warm circle of friends. “I think of the irony of all those magazine covers that borrow Jen’s face to tell a soap opera about a lonely girl who just can’t catch a break,” Hahn wrote. “What those of us who’ve been close to her for so long know is that she can’t catch a break from the media’s perception of who she is and the projection of what our culture seems to need her to be.”

Funny how even the most successful women can be reduced to their marital status, huh? Although male celebrities are often forced into media narratives as well, they are rarely ones in which a longing for spouse and baby obliterate talk of all other achievements. Says Jezebel:

I duly note that people are also incredibly obsessed with George Clooney’s love life. But with him, it’s always about which young woman he’s been showing off and what a great life he has as the single man about town. Don’t get me wrong, I admire him and his politics. But there is never an air of desperation in the stories about him. His stories are about freedom.

Happily, some in the media stepped back to look at the big picture around Aniston’s engagement.New York speculated that we are fascinated by Aniston because she is divorced, and a “divorced woman past the age of 40 still elicits disappointment and disapproval—no matter how rich, beautiful, and independent she is or how girl-friendly culture becomes.”

And a delightful piece in the Atlantic Wire made fun of the whole thing. “Saints be praised. After nearly a decade of wandering this old blue globe like a keening ghost, lamenting lost love and scorning those that stole it from her, world’s loneliest and saddest woman Jennifer Aniston has finally found someone to settle (down) with after losing Brad Pitt.”

It’s of course part of our culture that we care about the love lives of celebrities—I’m not saying journalists shouldn’t report on them. But we in the media should be careful about lazy reporting that assumes the popular (tabloid-driven) narrative is the true one. Though romantic comedies may be focused on marriage as the only possible happy outcome, in real life, women find success in all sorts of ways. It’s wonderful that Jennifer Aniston is engaged. But she was successful—and likely happy—way before she found someone to share her life with.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: , ,