Exploring the Language of the Stars

How We Break Up

How We Break Up
Credit: Alan Cleaver

Celebrity breakups last an extremely long time.

In most cases they seem to stretch well past the sell-by date of whatever relationship they were originally attached to.

It makes sense, narratively. The part of the relationship where you like someone and hope they like you back, where you obsess over various interpretations of their texts and late-night emoji, where you show up at places you hope they will be—that part of the relationship is hard to package into media-ready news bites.

The part of the relationship where you’re actually in a relationship only goes so far. Happiness doesn’t sell. The public doesn’t want happiness, at least not from their celebrities. We aren’t happy; why should they be? They have money and fame and talent and probably an extremely good selection of snacks at their house, they get to be happy in love as well? No. There are only so many magazine covers you can eke out of two movie stars holding hands on a romantic walk in the park. Gross.

The breakup, that’s the part people can latch on to. That’s the part you can feed to the public in slow, delicious spoonfuls.

Look at the newest chapters in the ongoing tragedy of Selena Gomez and Justin Bieber. You thought the relationship ended months ago? No. It continues to end, increasingly badly. When they broke up and briefly got back together late last year it was like we were waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it dropped, when they broke up again, for good. Fine. Let’s all pick up the pieces of our shattered hearts and move on. But No, Selena said; I have a fuckload of shoes, each to be flung with calculated fury.

First there was a video clip of Selena and her friends dancing to a song called “Everybody Knows (Your Boyfriend Is a Douchebag).”

Why has she gathered these people to perform these dance moves at this particular time? It was hard to read the event as anything other than a crafted and very pointed dig at Selena’s very famous former boyfriend. Look how happily she sings along. She wants us to know that she has firsthand familiarity with douchebaggery.

Good. Fine. Who doesn’t. But then this week, more shoes. An appearance on David Letterman.

Letterman: “The last time [Justin] was on, we got into a conversation, and he said something, and I said something, and he said something, and I said something, and I made him cry.”

Gomez: “Well then, that makes two of us.”

Ice cold, using your national television platform to call out your former partner for having emotions. I thought crying wasn’t a sign of weakness! Rosie Greer said it’s all right to cry.

Weird that this all perfectly coincides with the sputtering publicity machine for her new movie, Spring Breakers. What to believe anymore? What a world, where Justin Bieber is the classy one, taking the moral high ground and tweeting happily about how much fun he’s having in Paris.

Or: Look at the ongoing (the extremely, extremely ongoing) breakup of Taylor Swift and One Direction’s Harry Styles. Hands raised if you remember them ever actually dating. If you weren’t watching carefully it might seem as though they skipped the relationship and went right to the fraught emotional breakup. It would actually make sense, given how busy the average celebrity must be. Why spend time dating when you can get more news cycles out of angry breakups?

For the two months they officially dated last year, we’ve had three months’ worth of fallout from their breakup. There were rumors that her song “I Knew You Were Trouble” was about him, and then confirmations that it was about him. There were references to Harry in her video for “22,” and then a message from Harry’s publicist about his regret at having ever dated her.

The celebrity breakup is like a baby, born from the celebrity romance. The celebrities maintain joint custody of the baby, and they shuttle it back and forth to each other, with nasty little notes pinned to its bib.

This is the opposite of how relationships work for regular humans. For us it’s the waiting to be with that person, the hoping they will return our affection, the wondering if they are ever going to fucking notice how many of their tweets we are faving, that lasts forever. The breakup is the part we just want to be on the other side of as quickly as possible.

Bad enough having to put actual complicated feelings and justifications into the words that will end this thing that had once been so central to your life. And then the terrible exchange of things you left at each other’s apartments. And then the occasional seeing them around at parties or wherever. And then the second-guessing yourself because if breaking up was the right thing to do (I mean it FELT like the right thing to do?), how come you’re so sad and lonely now? But then, at least, it’s done, and you can start not having them in your life anymore. We don’t have to plot the next three moves in our breakup to coincide with media events planned around the launch of a clothing line.

But you never know. Your next ex might have a huge social media platform and an urgent and ongoing need for content. Whatever shitty things Justin and Harry did to Selena and Taylor, don’t do that.