Seventeen years may sound like a random amount of time to spend out of sight, but Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez have decided that if it’s good enough for the cicadas, it’s good enough for them. The couple once known as Bennifer has reunited, according to entertainment news outlets all across the land. After first igniting rumors by hanging out together at the end of April, Affleck, who spent most of the pandemic dating actress Ana de Armas, and Lopez, who recently broke off her engagement to former baseball star Alex Rodriguez, were photographed vacationing in Montana together over the past week. Though neither party has confirmed that they’re back together, sources close to Lopez have pointedly not denied it, telling People that she “had a great time with Ben” and E! that “the chemistry is unreal.”
Reactions to the news have been fairly gleeful, with Jezebel calling the couple’s reappearance “a harbinger of better times to come” and the Daily Beast declaring it a “blessing.” This weary nation apparently wants nothing more than to spend summer 2021 listening to Affleck and Lopez’s mating calls. That’s certainly where I stand on the matter—bring on Bennifer 3.0, I say. Important note from the Affleckists: This is not Bennifer 2.0; that was the name for Ben’s relationship with Jennifer Garner, whom he dated after Lopez and subsequently was married to for more than a decade. To avoid confusion, this time around maybe we should all agree to go with one recent coinage, “Againiffer.”
The level of excitement about Againiffer is a little strange, however, because everyone seems to be forgetting that, uh, we hated Bennifer the first time around. They were kind of a national laughingstock. For the purposes of preserving important cultural history, let’s take a stroll down memory lane, shall we?
The two met while filming a little movie called Gigli. During much of filming, Lopez was still married to her second husband, dancer Cris Judd. Some Hollywood types found it curious, then, that in March 2002, Affleck took out a positively ebullient full-page ad in an industry trade magazine to honor Lopez for an award she’d received: “You have shown kindness, dedication, diligence, humility, graciousness of spirit, beauty in courage, great empathy, astonishing talent, real poise and true grace. … I only wish I were lucky enough to be in all your movies,” it read.
All would make sense when the two were revealed to be dating later that year. The incident has echoes in some of the overtures Affleck reportedly recently made to rekindle the couple’s romance: They were emailing for months before they met in person again, according to TMZ, and the emails referenced her love of his writing, which was also on display in an extremely gushing quote he gave InStyle for a cover story on Lopez earlier this year.
Back to the first incarnation: The two went public with their romance after J. Lo filed for a divorce from Judd in June 2002. They quickly became a tabloid sensation, in an era when tabloids were at the peak of their powers. These days, it’s standard that every real or fictional relationship gets a couple portmanteau, à la Brangelina or Kimye. (RIP to both.) But “Bennifer” was one of the first and most prominent, and the name itself arguably fed into the snowballing of the frenzy around them. (On Twitter, director and frequent Affleck collaborator Kevin Smith claimed that when he directed Affleck and Lopez in the less famous of the two films they starred in together, Jersey Girl, he came up with the name and spouted it off to a New York Times reporter, sparking its rise. More revisionist history! If this piece from April 2003 is the one he’s referring to, the name had already been in wide circulation by then.)
The most important cultural document of the “Bennifer” epoch remains the music video for “Jenny From the Block,” the lead single off Lopez’s third album, This Is Me … Then, much of which was inspired by her relationship with Affleck. Affleck co-starred in the video, which premiered (on TRL, naturally) in November 2002 and consists largely of footage from the perspective of paparazzi trailing Lopez and sometimes Lopez and Affleck together: The two eat, stop at a gas station, and most famously, lounge on a yacht, where Affleck gives J. Lo’s bikini’d bottom a generous rub and a little kiss, gestures that are forever burned into the brains of an entire swath of millennials. But the other rub of the video was that, for a song that was about how J. Lo had stayed true to her roots during her rise to superstardom, it seemed to backfire, as some viewers interpreted the video as pouting from a couple whose fairly unsympathetic complaint was that they couldn’t lead their lavish lives without being hounded by the press. In a smart essay for Mel magazine about the video presciently written a few months ago, Tim Grierson theorized that the video also may have felt emasculating for Affleck, who essentially served as its “video hoe,” in a role reversal of the usual regrettable music video gender dynamic. There was wide speculation it harmed Affleck’s career, and he later said he regretted it. The video was intended to be a commentary on the couple’s overexposure, but it seemed to only result in even more of it.
J. Lo and Ben weren’t exactly keeping their relationship on the down low, obviously: Jennifer revealed their engagement in a much-hyped interview special with Diane Sawyer that November, around the same time the “Jenny From the Block” video came out and that Lopez had been seen rocking a giant pink diamond ring—I’m sure you remember the one, all 6.1 Harry Winston carats of it. It was one of several, uh, bold moves: Affleck never confirmed it, but there were reports in the following months that he gifted Lopez a $100,000 jewel-encrusted toilet seat; it doesn’t seem that far out of the question, considering his apparent fixation on her derrière. The media circus only continued to escalate. People tuned in above all because the two were a compelling couple, possibly more interesting as a unit than they were separately. Some of what was so captivating about them can still be seen in photos of the two from the era, and especially Lopez’s red-carpet looks in them, many of which remain striking. All the attention inevitably put pressure on the relationship, as did the August 2003 release—and utter failure—of Gigli, the movie that started it all.
Gigli had a lot going for it when Lopez initially signed on to play a role that Halle Berry had previously been attached to, and she was set to earn what was at the time a huge salary for her. But terrible reviews, no doubt fueled by Bennifer fatigue, helped transform the couple into even more of a punchline than they already were. It was very bad timing that the two had planned a wedding for September 2003, just a month after Gigli’s disastrous release. They called it off one day before the ceremony was scheduled, citing “excessive media attention.” In a statement to the press, they said they knew things had gotten untenable when they began seriously discussing hiring “decoy brides” to throw off the paparazzi on the day of the event. After the wedding was canceled, the two reportedly reconciled for a time, but by January 2004, they announced their split. Though the studio attempted to hide Lopez in the trailers, Jersey Girl also tanked at the box office when it was released in March 2004.
Affleck later attributed some of the fascination and derision surrounding the two to ugly strains of racism and classism: People didn’t expect a white guy like him to be with a Latina woman from the Bronx. Recent excavations of the early 2000s, notably this year’s Framing Britney Spears documentary, also draw attention to the cruelties of the media ecosystem at the time. Our relationship with celebrity has evolved since then, to the point where now, we’re ready to welcome an Affleck/Lopez sequel with open arms. The reaction to the possibility of Againiffer reminds me a lot of the rapture with which photos of Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt crossing paths at an awards show were greeted when they emerged what feels like a century ago in January 2020. Who knew that long-broken-up celebrity couples still loomed so large in so many of our minds? The monoculture, nostalgia, the fact that we were all younger then, cicada-driven sentimentality—whatever it is, it’s very real. She’s still Jenny from the block, and Bennifer still has a strange hold over us all.