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Celebrity breakups: why do we care?

'Are we sad, or secretly enjoying their agony?' asks Concordia pop culture expert Matthew Hays
August 4, 2015

Celebrity divorce: Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale

Concordia communications studies professor Matthew Hays offers his take on this week's triple blow to superstar romance: the divorce of 
Gwen Stefani and Gavin Rossdale (pictured above), separation of Reba McEntire and Narvel Blackstock and — perhaps most shockingly — breakup of Kermit and Miss Piggy.

Gwen and Gavin. Reba and Narvel. Selena and Justin. Gwyneth and Chris. Britney and Justin. Melanie and Antonio. Charles and Di. Sonny and Cher. Bennifer.

When news breaks about a celebrity-couple split, web editors and magazine publishers rejoice. After all, there's a bounty of advertising cash in those tabloid spreads and click bait.

For some strange reason, we take the news of such public figures deeply personally, despite never having met any of them. But as we fixate on the latest nasty split, we might do well to ponder the moment: are we sad for the celebrities or secretly enjoying their agony?

It was the brilliant British author Richard Dyer who pointed out that tabloid culture has a sadomasochistic dimension to it. For every joyous moment these gorgeous celebrities provide us with — lavish weddings, beautiful babies, decadent lifestyles — we also like to know that their lives are not perfect. Dyer goes as far to say that tabloid culture offers us a sense of relief: anyone who looks that perfect, that sexy, that attractive, can't possibly be happy.


Consider that tabloid stories usually fall into one of two categories: "I've never been happier!" Cher shrieked in one notable tabloid cover from the '70s, in which she was seen in a photo with her arm around Elvis. (The story said they had just been married. They never were.)

The alternate story is about how dire a celebrity's life has become. The tabloids serve to elevate celebrities to religious figures; they spend as much time and energy tearing them down, reminding us they are mere mortals.

Whenever someone visits from out of town I take them for a drink at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. It's hallowed ground, after all: this is where Liz Taylor and Richard Burton were first wed. And Liz and Dick are the perfect celebrity couple: full of glamour and beauty, but tainted by endless bickering, breakups, reunions — they were married and divorced twice — booze, weight gain and loss. Their legendary problems made them the perfect tabloid couple.

It boggles the mind to consider how much money The National Enquirer alone must have made from Liz and Dick stories (and they didn't even get any residuals).

So the next time you mourn the end of a celebrity couple's relationship, take a moment to ask yourself: are you sad, or are you taking secret pleasure from watching the rich and fabulous suffer for their perfection?

Matthew Hays writes for The Guardian, The Globe and Mail, The Daily Beast, The New York Times and Vice. He teaches courses in film studies at Concordia University and Marianopolis College.

Read Matthew Hays' 10 biggest Oscar snubs of all time.


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