Hearts and Stars is Slate’s pop-up blog about celebrity relationships.
Jennifer Garner and Ben Affleck announced their separation on June 30, 2015, a day after their 10th wedding anniversary. “After much thought and careful consideration, we have made the difficult decision to divorce,” the couple wrote in a joint statement issued by their publicists. “We go forward with love and friendship for one another and a commitment to co-parenting our children.”
In the more than three years since this announcement, the exes’ relationship has remained a tabloid staple. Minidramas covered in the tabloids include Affleck’s alleged affair with their nanny, Garner’s vague disapproval of many of his decisions, Affleck’s living in the couple’s guesthouse for almost two years after their separation, Affleck’s purchase of a $19.2 million home less than half a mile from Garner’s, Garner’s “new life,” Affleck’s 2017 rehab stint (which he acknowledged in a statement thanking “my co-parent, Jen”), and Affleck’s relationship and breakup with Saturday Night Live producer Lindsay Shookus.
Those stories may have had certain details wrong, but they were all based on at least some kind of reported evidence, and for a casual gossip consumer, they all passed the smell test. Meanwhile, in an alternate universe, less reputable gossip magazines have been following a much different arc. These are some of the cover stories published after the couple’s split:
· November 2015: “Back Together! … They’re already trying for another baby!” (Star)
· May 2016: “Jen’s Pregnant: The Divorce Is Off!” (Life & Style)
· June 2016: “Pregnant Jen: It’s a Boy!” (OK)
· December 2016: “Jen & Ben Renew Their Vows!” (Star)
· April 2017: “Jen Pregnant & Alone! And the Nanny Is Back!” (OK)
· June 2017: “Secret Bahamas Reunion!” (Us Weekly)
· March 2018: “Jen & Ben Spending Nights Together! Second Chance” (Us Weekly)
· July 2018: “Ben’s Wife & Mistress: They’re Both Pregnant!” (Star)
Reconciliations have been conjured out of less. And the straight-up fabrication of celebrity couple reunions is a longtime tabloid standby. Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston separated 13 years ago and still find their images Photoshopped together on tabloid covers suggesting they’re secretly back together. In Touch spent most of last year spinning an arc in which Pitt was “in love with Jen again,” with Aniston then “breaking down” over his confession of love, culminating in a reunion cover in November: “Brad & Jen: A Second Chance at Love.” In August, the magazine touted, “Brad & Jen: Honeymoon in Italy! … They want to start a family ‘right away!’ ”
Aniston, like Garner, has been declared pregnant with her ex’s baby over and over. Magazine covers draw arrows to her belly, supposedly swelling breasts, and “curvier booty” as evidence. A 2009 Star cover suggested that “Brad convinced Angie” to let him “help” impregnate her. Over the years, the angle became her supposed fertility treatments and in vitro fertilization attempts, resulting in a series of “miracle” pregnancies. In 2016, by then 47 years old, Aniston wrote an exasperated essay for the Huffington Post lamenting “the sheer amount of resources being spent right now by press trying to simply uncover whether or not I am pregnant (for the bajillionth time… but who’s counting).”
Both Garfleck and Paniston are perfect emblems of the cultural hunger, rabidly fed by tabloids, for stories about the romantic reunion of a long-suffering, age-appropriate “good girl” and a handsome male A-lister who can sleep with anyone he wants. Affleck has appeared to flounder in his personal life since the couple’s split. Garner, meanwhile, has assumed the role of “one of the most respected public mothers in America,” as a Vanity Fair cover story put it in 2016. The actress documents cute parenting moments on Instagram; paparazzi wait for her outside her church on Sunday morning and at the farmers market. Her “brand narrative,” BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen wrote last year, is “goodness, innocence, and, by extension, trustworthiness.” She has had no public relationships since Affleck.
In August, Garner swooped in to drive Affleck to rehab, after the recovering alcoholic was photographed receiving a liquor delivery at his house. There’s a photo from that day that is more poignant than any magazine story—true or false—written about the couple’s tortured relationship. Garner is in the driver’s seat, reaching backward with a sack of takeout. She’s wearing sunglasses and her hair is scraped back into a severe ponytail. She’s looking down, away from Affleck and the paparazzi. Affleck, too, has his eyes cast down as he receives the sack of food. He looks drunk or hungover, disheveled and bloated and sad. Garner is feeding him and driving to get help.
Affleck had been photographed at the Jack in the Box drive-thru just a few days earlier, in much different circumstances. This time, he was in the driver’s seat. In a video taken on the scene, he ordered a cheeseburger and joked with the paparazzo. In the passenger seat was … a 22-year-old Playboy model. Her name is Shauna Sexton, and she was halfheartedly shielding her face from the cameras, her shiny hair in an adorable messy updo. Tabloid coverage quickly turned her into a character in the drama, following her as she “flaunts stunning bikini body on Malibu beach” as Affleck headed back to rehab.
If this were a movie, the denouement of this drama would be Affleck getting clean and returning to Garner’s waiting arms. She’s the mother of his children, the apparent great romance of his life. She’s the happy ending. In real life, however, he has reportedly continued to see Sexton throughout his stint in rehab. People reported recently that she has been seen leaving the facility where he is receiving treatment, and the pair are “getting to know each other.” The cover of OK, meanwhile, held out hope: “Jen & Ben Back Together! Garner’s Marriage & Rehab Ultimatum.”
The Pitt/Aniston and Affleck/Garner stories have a few things in common. For tabloid readers, seeing these couples get back together would mean that men can be motivated by something higher than lust: loyalty, stability, shared life experiences, “true love,” an attraction to something besides sheer youth. To see a powerful, handsome man choose anyone other than a 22-year-old Playboy model counts as a “Man Bites Dog” story. It’s easy to see why tabloids would want to snooker their largely female readerships into believing that these reunions might happen. It’s also easy to see that they likely won’t.