I was happy to read over the weekend that Jennifer Aniston, who since her 2005 divorce from actor Brad Pitt has been the subject of tabloid speculation over her relationship status and feelings about said status, had become engaged to her boyfriend of more than a year, actor, screenwriter and director Justin Theroux.
It wasn’t just that I was pleased for Aniston, who has given me many hours of enjoyment as an actress, and who now is out from under the burden of being America’s Favorite Sad Single Lady. It’s that for one brief moment, the news of her engagement beats the tabloids, who have tried so hard to define Aniston on their own terms, giving them a story that’s better than anything they can make up, and making me feel momentarily less terrible about a truly guilty pleasure.
Gossip magazines are the last bastions of American journalism unfettered by the normal constraints of the profession. People magazine may retain some of its respectability, and gets its share of exclusive coming-out stories and celebrity wedding and baby pictures, but its competitors remain footloose and unencumbered by the facts.
No touching? No problem: Us Weekly read the fleeting expressions on their faces with all the voraciousness and certainty of augurs picking through entrails. Sources are “close friends” with the stars in question, or “in a position to know.” Health experts have never treated the celebrities they analyze.
It’s no wonder that fan fiction is such a big deal in America — we’re used to paying for hard copies at the airport or reading them at the hair salon (my two favorite methods of indulgence). There’s something hilarious about the fact that we look askance at individuals who treat fictional characters and real people as if they’re paper dolls, whether subjects of their online writing be Harry Potter characters or members of the American men’s Olympic swim team, when we effectively have an industry dedicated to selling us those same fictions with a veneer of credibility.
Unlike most things we call guilty pleasures, gossip rags are something it’s actually possible to feel bad about consuming: we know that the paparazzi are invasive, that the bodysnarking these magazines feature put real pressure on real women, that paying for stories and access does not do anything to enhance journalistic ethics.
I wouldn’t be in favor of importing the stringent press laws that give celebrities more ground to sue tabloids in the United Kingdom, but opposing legislation to regulate the tabloids doesn’t make them virtuous.
But for this one news cycle, at least, the actual, real details of Aniston’s life are more valuable than the speculations, and the tabloids will have to report the reality instead of inventing and selling a fantasy. Five days ago, Star splashed that she and Theroux had broken up on the cover, a story based on images of Aniston getting into a car with her hand in the general, paparazzi-foiling vicinity of her forehead. Now, there’s a fact-based narrative available that readers feel good about, particularly because years of Sad Jen coverage have conditioned us to enjoy seeing her happy. For one day, everyone has to, and will, run Theroux’s statement that “Justin Theroux had an amazing birthday on Friday, receiving an extraordinary gift when his girlfriend, Jennifer Aniston, accepted his proposal of marriage.”
The speculation will start up again immediately, of course. When will the wedding be? What will Aniston wear? Will Aniston bestie Courtney Cox be her maid of honor, and what will she wear? Is she pregnant? Will Brad and Angelina attend? Whatever will this do to the Eternal Jen-Angelina Feud? Will Kristen Stewart replace Aniston as the Sad Celebrity Lady Cash Cow? But for one day, at least, what’s good for Jen is good for journalism, and good for gossip junkies, be we clandestine or professed. It’s nice when true guilty pleasures can be a little bit less sinful.
Alyssa Rosenberg, a frequent contributor to Slate, is the culture blogger for ThinkProgress and a correspondent for TheAtlantic.com.