Since March of this year, I’ve found myself fascinated by the domestic strife of one Gisele Bündchen and her ball-throwing husband. While I’m not above a bit of harmless Schadenfreude, especially when it comes to the exorbitantly wealthy and powerful among us, I should note that I don’t find any measurable joy in a family’s suffering. But something about Gisele and her crumbling relationship with husband and longtime NFL quarterback Tom Brady has felt worth digging into.
On Tuesday, things shifted from innocent speculation to a fully waged war, as Page Six reported that Gisele and Brady had both retained divorce lawyers. TMZ reported Tuesday night that the marriage was “seemingly over,” with the hunt for lawyers spanning several weeks back and the pair having lived separately for the last few months. The couple are reportedly discussing joint custody of their children and preparing to divide their $26 million property portfolio. Page Six noted that Brady’s estimated overall net worth sits around $250 million, while failing to mention that Gisele is worth around $400 million.
To me, the writing on the wall has been clear over the last six months. There was the period of missed Buccaneers training camp in the summer—unheard of for the leader of a football team barring a family emergency or death. Just after rumors of the couple’s separation dropped in early September, there was the prickly Elle cover story in which Gisele dropped conspicuous nuggets like, “I’ve done my part, which is [to] be there for [Tom]” and “I feel very fulfilled, as a mother and as a wife. And now it’s going to be my turn.” Less than a week later, Brady was caught throwing a tantrum on the sidelines, chucking his helmet and a team tablet onto the manicured turf. Then, there was that gaunt press appearance mid-September in which Brady appeared haunted by the spirit of an ancient woman once scorned. On September 26, the pair’s kids attended Brady’s first home game of the season without their mother—a rare sighting.
Beyond the obvious celebrity hook, I’m fascinated by the Americana of it all. Tom Brady is, by most accounts, the figurehead of all-American manhood. He’s paid millions of dollars per year to participate in a sport that paints helmet-to-helmet violence as a glittering display of strength and chutzpah, and gamifies the role of man as protector. His coveted job as a leader on the football field became a metaphor for men in the wider world, enabling fans to project God-given morals onto the other realms of Brady’s life, too. He’s classically handsome. He had one of the most iconic international supermodels on his arm—an objectively stunning martyr, standing dutifully by his side through the losses and the moves and the brain-crushing tackles—and several adorable children, to boot. The proof was in the pigskin: Brady had it all.
But if marriage is really about power—about the ability for men to own, control, and profit off of women, their bodies, and their finances—well, here’s a man who has all the power and control in the world, and still, he cannot keep her.
Unlike some of the flashiest Hollywood divorces of the aughts, there are no rumors of infidelity, abuse, or cash grabs in the undoing of one of the sporting world’s most highly regarded couples. All the cringing anti-feminist takes are null here. Gisele isn’t after his money; she has her own. She’s not riding the coattails of his career; she has her own. In divorce court, and in the court of public opinion, there’s always one party who has the upper hand, and in this case, despite defying all the sexist laws of social order, that person is undoubtedly Gisele.
When you have a league as dominant as the NFL, which regularly reaches 184 million fans (more than half of the American population), the story of a woman leaving a man like Tom Brady challenges society’s ideas about what the perfect man or marriage or family is supposed to look like.
For more than a decade, Gisele played second fiddle to her husband, performing domestic labor in their home and raising their kids, while Tom flew around the country to play games. No one questioned that decision, of course, because he’s the quarterback, the man of the house, and the default leader. But by leaving Tom Brady, Gisele leaves in her wake a powerful blueprint for millions of American women who are tired of sacrificing their own dreams to take on the lion’s share of caretaking and accepting the monotony and mediocrity of many heterosexual marriages. To paint this cultural moment as the one in which Brady lost his invincibility cheapens its impact—this is about Gisele shattering the image of the perfect nuclear American family.
Maybe it just didn’t work out, you say. Sure, maybe! My friends at Deadspin have assured me that Brady is the comeback king—that perhaps this is just a tremor at the faultline. But it already feels like some kind of earthquake to me.