The Celebrity Dating Narrative

Brian Musso and Heather Headley.  Image via mychoicetolove.com.

Brian Musso and Heather Headley. Image via mychoicetolove.com.

Yes, there is a celebrity dating narrative, and it goes something like this:

Performer type–and it usually focuses on people who are actors and musicians by training and profession, not reality-TV stars or usually “internet famous” folks, who are still seen as outliers in the entertainment system–dates, mates, and marries someone, usually another performer type or someone in the showbiz industry. Usually the couple involved are cisgender, heterosexual, of the same stratum of star power, and the same race and/or ethnicity. If they met on the set, so much more romantic.

The more closely the performer hews to this narrative, the higher their prestige and paycheck.

How does it make itself known? Watch what happens when it’s followed–and it’s disrupted.

Since this is SBF, I’m going to bring up a legendary screen star that we may know from our young adulthood: Warren Beatty. When some of us think of him, we remember him as one of Madonna’s boyfriends, as seen in her concert documentary, Truth or Dare. Maybe a few of us remember his awkward foray into racial-justice filmmaking, Bulworth. But he’s had a long and celebrated career as an actor, director, and Lothario. Then, at 55, he married his Bugsy co-star Annette Bening, who was 34, and they have three kids. They’re still married, and Bening has a great performing career in her own right, whereas Beatty doesn’t show up in the spotlight too often nowadays. George Clooney would be Beatty’s contemporary heir to the acclaimed actor/director/rake mantle, though Clooney remains single.

Even though stans may freak out about their pairings, think of contemporary couples that were and/or are “on-script”, whether the pair is together or not: Ryan Reynolds and his two wives, Scarlett Johansson and Blake Lively; Justin Timberlake and Jessica Biel; Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman (or, more suspiciously, as far as public opinion was concerned, Katie Holmes); Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston (hold on to Pitt for a minute). One reward of this is getting into mainstream celebrity publications, which have a most White and female readership. And sometimes that arrangement is intentional, like Timberlake and Biel giving People exclusive photos of their wedding.

And it’s not just White entertainers who follow this narrative; showbiz people of color do the same. Some people may not accept their relationship due to the circumstances under which they may have gotten together, but people have calmed down regarding Gabrielle Union and Dwayne Wade. Of course, there was Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony. Oprah Winfrey and her steady beau, Stedman Graham. Jet Li and his current wife, Nina Li (as his first wife, Huang Qiuyan). Like people outside of Hollywood, quite a few actors tend to date and marry within their racial and/or ethnic groups, as well as their socio-economic class. That’s real–and the narrative rests on the belief that it’s an assumption about the performers. (Kind of how that presumption works outside of Hollywood with the rest of us.) Unlike White ones, though, I’ve noticed that some Black entertainers, whether single or coupled up, have shouted out their love for the brothas and the sistas in the press without too much rancor, especially in places like Essence, like Sanaa Lathan did in a 2006 interview:

If you’re wondering about her flavor du jour, Lathan, who fell in love and date a White man for two years during her grad school days at Yale, insists she does have a type. She does have a preference, though. “I don’t discriminate, but I tend to gravitate toward Black men,” she admits. “Maybe it’s something that they have, like their weight or rhythm, but being with a brother just feels like home to me.”

Now, what happens when a famous actor disrupts that narrative?

I remember when, for example, actor Julia Roberts broke up with then-fiance Kiefer Sutherland (at the time he was hot in the pop-culture landscape because of the late 80s vampire flick Lost Boys and the Sutherland/Roberts supernatural drama Flatliners) then first married alt-country crooner Lyle Lovett (a lot of “Who’s that?” and “Why? He’s so unattractive!”) and, after divorcing him, married her present husband, cameraman Daniel Moder. After the public vented their outrage over how Roberts and Moder got together–Roberts was dating actor Benjamin Bratt at the time; Moder was married, then divorced his wife and married Roberts–the next questions were “Who is this guy? She couldn’t stay with Bratt, who was wildly popular because of his role on Law & Order, partly because the press at the time played his mixed-ethnic self as the oh-so-exotic ‘tall, dark, and handsome’ boyfriend? She couldn’t find another famous actor?” Translation: she couldn’t find someone “of her league”?

Another, more famous example: let’s go back to Brad Pitt. The celebrity press–and quite a few fans and folks–went wild when Pitt and Aniston married because they were both fit the all-American physical ideals of being fit, blond-ish hair, and blue eyes, and they were both wildly famous and rich. And when Pitt got together with Angelina Jolie? Celebrity magazines are still playing out the drama of the love triangle between the “innocent” Aniston, the “seduced” Pitt, and the “temptress” Jolie, even though Aniston just got engaged and Jolie and Pitt have blended their multiracial family for a good while. (But still keep Brad Pitt in mind. We’ll get back to him soon enough.)

And when White showbiz folks go “off-script” racially? It gets complicated–and often ugly. For all of the scorching Tony Goldwyn and Kerry Washington do on Scandal, the celebrity press frames the dating out of popular White male performers part of their “bad boy” image, like Colin Farrell, Kid Rock, and Michael Fassbender. But if they marry or become engaged outside of the race? Well, depending on their careers’ trajectory, the relationships are rarely mentioned–how often do I see the articles about famous White male entertainers in interracial relationships with, for example, Black women on sites geared mostly toward Black women but nothing similar in mainstream celebrity media outlets (and this is the point where you can bring Brad Pitt back in because he was involved with Robin Givens while she was divorcing Mike Tyson in 1988 before his own career took off)–or they’ve had to fend off stereotypes about their partner, like Ben Affleck had to do with then-fiancee Jennifer Lopez; or they’ve been harassed, as in the case of Sex and the City’s Chris Noth and his new wife. Singer Robin Thicke is an exception to this, since he started in R&B and has been viewed as “marrying the music” by partnering with actor Paula Patton, though that reflected light is diminishing as he stays opening his mouth and putting his foot in it. And David Bowie is also an exception because he and his wife Iman are such icons in their respective fields that folks don’t have their names in their mouths.

What does it look like for actors of color who “step out” their race to date, mate, and marry? For some Black women in particular at a certain pinnacle of fame, they make it a point to reassure their Black fan base that they’re still down with The Community. Actor Halle Berry said as such in a 2011 Ebony interview:

Well, first thing I want to say is that I’m very connected to my community, and I want Black people to know that I haven’t abandoned them because I’ve had a child with a man outside of my race and I’m dating someone now outside my race who is Spanish and French. I have never been more clear about who I am as a Black woman[…] And who I really am is a Black woman who is struggling to make my race proud of me, who is struggling to move Black women forward in the profession I’ve chosen, and those relationships have actually helped me identify more clearly[….]The truth that it’s taken me a long time to learn how to love myself, and color isn’t really a part of what I look at when I’m deciding who I want to spend time with. I look for the soul, the person, the evolution, what he believes in, who [he is as a person] and how does it affect me in a positive way.

taye-diggs-240

Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel. Image credit: Michael Becker/FOX/WireSearch.

Or The Black Community™ gets the blame for the woes of interracial couples, as expressed by Taye Diggs, who implied that Black women won’t support movies and TV if the couple presented is not Black or a Black male actor has a specifically white love interest. Or the press–or the celebrity–was generally quiet about their relationship. Unless you’re a stan, you may not know that, say, Kerry Washington was engaged to actor David Moscow for three years before she married NFLer Nnamdi Asomugha. The same holds true for actor Russell Wong, who partnered and had a child with African American dancer Eartha Robinson.

And what happens if a showbiz person dating someone who’s not hetero or cis? Even though gay rights activists and activists for transgender people’s rights are slowly moving US society to accept same-sex loving people and those who love trans people and gender non-conforming folks –and performers have helped with that movement–what happened with White Collar’s Matt Bomer brought up an old fear that kept actors from self-identifying as anything other than straight for a very long time if they wanted to make it in Hollywood. Author and screenwriter Bret Easton Ellis stated Bomer shouldn’t be cast in the film version of the best-seller 50 Shades of Grey because “he’s openly gay…I think he comes off totally gay on White Collar.” And the recent controversy with radio personality Mr Cee being caught on tape soliciting sex from someone perceived as a trans woman–he resigned from his job at Hot 97 after the second publicized bust, but the resignation wasn’t accepted–generated and deepened conversations about sexual attraction, transmisogyny, and masculinity within hip-hop and Black folks attached to and outside of it, which both trans activist Janet Mock and hip-hop podcast host and thinker/writer Lenee Voss eloquently address.

What’s the difference between The Celebrity Dating Narrative and the dating narratives those of us who live outside of the red-carpeted, designer-clothed, multimillion-dollar fishbowl are exposed to daily? Nothing, in a way, because, performers date and mate like the rest of us, complete with socially influenced preferences. Their fishbowl, like the rest of society, is built with the same institutional structures–and strictures–regarding love and marriage. But, in its mundaneness, the narrative, thanks to the media-driven star system that includes celebrity mags, also reinforces those structures and strictures and, more loosely, our own choices of mates. For those performers who participate in it, they are rewarded–and punished–with prestige and the paycheck.

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