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Coverage of the Brad-Jen-Angelina Love Triangle Was a Morality Play About Infidelity and Motherhood

And the way the tabloids framed each character, especially Aniston and Jolie, was not very good for women

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Bennifer. Britney. Brangelina. The celebrity gossip of the 2000s is well-documented, but what was it that kept us reaching for copies of Us Weekly and People? On Just Like Us: The Tabloids That Changed America, Clare Malone dives into the era’s celebrity obsession—from the magazine newsrooms, to the paparazzi boom, to the rise of reality television—to tell the stories behind the gossip, and what the tabloid sensation says about American culture. In Episode 3, we’re looking back at the tabloids’ influence over the Jennifer Aniston–Brad Pitt–Angelina Jolie love triangle narrative.

Us Weekly readers were young, relatively affluent women with a median household income of over $72,000 in 2005—that’s over $100,000 in today’s money. They were sophisticated media consumers. They wanted quality and good dish.

In 2003, Janice Min took over for Bonnie Fuller as Us Weekly’s editor-in-chief. At 33, she was her target demographic: She had two degrees from Columbia University and she had her first child while working at the magazine. Her former colleagues and numerous profiles describe her as a very chic New York lady. Think pin-perfect Prada.

During her tenure, Us Weekly’s circulation rose by 350,000 a week, and she was reportedly paid close to $2 million a year. That would put her on par with the reported salaries of big Condé Nast editors like Graydon Carter and Anna Wintour.

That’s a lot of money. But remember: Print was king in the mid-2000s. The cash flowing into and out of magazines, particularly one like Us, was pretty wild by today’s standards. And that enabled the kind of reporting that I’m about to describe to you, which in turn enabled the juiciest celebrity coverage around.

Which made a certain kind of worldly young woman want to shell out for her weekly celebrity gossip—because it was perfectly calibrated to feel both escapist and entirely relevant to her life.

Let’s turn things back to the Brad-Jen-Angie love triangle. Sure, it was definitely about cheating. But the whole thing had such a life—I mean, years of coverage centered on these three—because it turned into a story about motherhood. Who deserves to be a mom. Who’s screwing up their life by missing out.

Hollywood and the media might get a lot of flack for being liberal shills, but let me tell you, the values of the tabloids are pretty damn traditional. At least on the gender norms stuff.

One of the more unexpected entrants into the celebrity mom canon was Angelina Jolie.

In 2002, Jolie adopted her son Maddox from Cambodia. It was quite a turn in life narrative, especially since the year before, she’d been talking vials of blood and her sex life. Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton divorced pretty soon after she adopted Maddox. In 2003, she said that she hadn’t had sex in a year—she was a full-time single mom in a new phase of life, though still an oversharer.

Hollywood and America were perplexed by Jolie the mother, all the more so when she ended up in the midst of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston’s breakup. It was like our brains couldn’t handle the idea that someone could do something immoral but also have the desire to be a loving mother. The three-dimensional-ness of it was overwhelming. Tabloids deal best in a one-dimensional woman.

Jen was the good girl, the one who deserved to have Brad’s babies. Angelina Jolie was settling down and getting everything that Jennifer Aniston, the good girl, deserved. It was, we should say, kind of an anti-feminist nightmare on the motherhood front, no matter how you felt about the whole cheating thing.

The whole motherhood discourse—which is incredibly powerful, particularly for working women in their 20s and 30s, a.k.a. Us Weekly’s readership—was so compelling. And also, I would say, not very good for women.

For one thing, it narrowed the scope of who “deserves” to be a mom—specifically, not a non-cuddly lady like Angelina Jolie. There was a loaded quality to our fascination with her adoptions. Why was she adopting all the brown kids? As a statement of cool? Misplaced adventurism masquerading as motherhood?

And of course, forever tying Jolie’s fertility to Jennifer Aniston’s put Jennifer Aniston in an unwinnable position: She was doomed to a decade of headlines about how she couldn’t get a man to give her kids.

Later, of course, Jen’s baby narrative would curdle a bit, and she’d be accused of not wanting kids, thus conveniently placing the blame for the breakup on her head, not lovable old Brad’s.

And she was treated to years of cringe-y interviews trying to shoehorn in the question of motherhood. Here’s Diane Sawyer trying to force a connection between Aniston’s 2005 sexy thriller, Derailed, and the prospect of having babies:

The Aniston-Jolie mommy wars of tabloid creation were also, to be fair, complicated by the fact that Jolie and Pitt kind of played up their family image from the get-go. Though they were a controversial couple, they didn’t really hide from the press. Or I should say, they ended up using the press in a strategic way.

Probably to counteract this kind of coverage.

Here’s our girl Diane Sawyer again, talking with Brad Pitt in 2005:

This interview took place in the weird period before Pitt and Jolie officially came out as a couple, but after they had been very famously photographed on a remote beach in Kenya with Maddox. Those first exclusive pictures appeared in the May 9, 2005, issue of Us Weekly.

OK, so … these photos were almost definitely set up—that’s what a couple of people in the paparazzi world told me. It’s basically impossible to confirm at this point—I couldn’t track down the photographer who took the actual photos—but Diani Beach in Kenya, where the photos were taken, is very out of the way and located on a private beach resort. It’s not the kind of place that professional paparazzi just hang out at, hoping a good celeb will wander in. Someone almost certainly tipped the photographer.

Those photos were taken in the spring of 2005. That summer—though they had yet to confirm they were together—Jolie and Pitt did a photo shoot for W magazine that was basically a caricature of domestic bliss. She dressed as the sexed-up suburban housewife, he as the hunky hubz, with a gaggle of kids in tow. It was … in slightly bad taste.

Jennifer Aniston certainly thought so. That was what she meant by her quote to Vanity Fair about Brad missing a sensitivity chip.

But it was only the beginning of a years-long tabloid obsession with the Jolie-Pitt children.