Yesterday marked the first time I've been genuinely interested in Gwyneth Paltrow in years. From the look of Paltrow's lifestyle blog, which experienced such heavy traffic from gawking celebrity watchers that it crashed after she announced her divorce from Coldplay frontman Chris Martin, I was far from the only one; her website was built with the assumption that a relatively small number of people would give a flying fuck about her advice on how to live a perfectly Paltrow life. It didn't account for how many would suddenly care when that life's perfection cracked.
If you examine public fascination with celebrity break ups and crack ups and divorces, it would be easy to reach a cynical conclusion that part of the reason that celebrity culture is so we can "tear women down." Over at the Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg writes that different public reactions to celebrity divorces, from "IT WAS FAKE ALL ALONG!" to "IF SHE CAN'T DO IT THEN NO ONE CAN!" serve as commentary on how the public really feels about the notion that women can "having it all" — we all know, deep down inside, that being perfectly fabulous and fabulously perfect is impossible, and The Normals derive satisfaction in having that belief affirmed. Reaction to Paltrow's divorce, Rosenberg argues, came with a dollop of extra frothy glee, because Gwyneth's whole thing was kind of telling women that they can, in fact, have it all, like her. And we didn't want to hear it.
The tide of Gwynethfreude that is breaking over the internet is particularly tsunami-like because, since founding her newsletter Goop in 2008, part of Paltrow's business has been telling other women how to live glamorous and complete lives. That her marriage broke up casts doubt on the certainty with which she recommended everything from $425 cleanses to Turkish towels. We can let go of both relationship envy and fear of missing out all in one go!
Part of me is drawn to celebrity imperfection for the same reason I'm drawn to Soledad O'Brien's interviewing style or Daily Show engineered juxtapositions of Fox News sound bytes followed by scientists refuting those sound bytes: there's something immensely satisfying about watching a person confronted with the truth when they're committed to a lie.
No, you're not; nobody is.
Package that sort of truth bomb in a video format, slap a catchy headline on it, and you've got yourself some viral web content. People love seeing liars get caught. We love it when popular lies we don't like are skewered. It's confirmation bias in full effect, in a pink ball gown.
It's not that we hate celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow and want to see them fail; it's that we hate pressure to be perfect and celebrities serve, for better or worse, as proxies for unrealistic expectations as a principle.
And to an extent, I'm sure there's an element of haterism in the glee with which some people reacted to the Paltrow-Martin split, or other very public moments of celebrity foibles, whether they originate from someplace authentic or someplace contrived: Amanda Bynes' spate of erratic behavior, Adele swearing during award acceptance speeches, or those terrible magazines that feature the WORST BEACH BODIES or STARS WITHOUT MAKEUP or gifs of Jennifer Lawrence falling down on the Oscars red carpet. But being drawn to celebrity imperfection like Gwyneth's divorce or Mila Kunis's undereye bags or Angelina Jolie making a weird face isn't all about schadenfreude, or a desire to witness a beautiful, successful woman fail at something. Maybe it's something more positive and hopeful.
As Rosenberg wrote, part of the reason Paltrow's detractors find her so irritating is that she seems religiously devoted to appearing flawless, so much so that she started a whole blog where she offered completely impractical lifestyle advice to help others obtain her level of self-satisfaction, which tells us two possible things about Gwyneth Paltrow: either she has no idea that not everyone is a fabulously wealthy white lady from a Hollywood family or she is acutely aware of how good she has it and created Goop to remind everyone of how good they don't have it. Either way, irritating! Gwyneth's divorce is the first relatable thing she's done since that time she proved she's a shitty rapper on BBC1.
Knowing that someone like Paltrow — with her perfect hair and perfect skin and perfect ability to wear sundresses without having armpit fat bulge out — can have a failed marriage means that failure isn't something that only happens to people who will never be able to afford a Birkin bag or grace a magazine cover or dine at a Michelin-starred restaurant on a Tuesday. Failure is part of the universal human experience no matter how much you work out or how much money you earn or who your parents are, and, in some contexts, it's the best way we have to relate to each other. Gwyneth Paltrow's divorce humanizes her in a way that a thousand conversational blog reviews for expensive artisanal towels never could, and that is immensely interesting to women sick of being told that perfection is possible. Even the woman who was doing nothing wrong couldn't get it right.
Of course, this doesn't mean that aspects of Paltrow's divorce are as totally unrelatable as the rest of the Goopiverse. "Conscious uncoupling" is an awfully smug way to say "breaking up." And I'm sure she'll have only the best lawyers, and only the best rejuvenating spa weekends, and only the best paleo desserts to sad-eat. But, for a second, we all got to look through a crack in the facade, and see ourselves. Maybe what we really want is to relate.
Image via Getty.