Dis Solutions

08.13.12

Kristen Stewart, Katie Holmes, and the Summer of Break-Up Porn

What can we learn from Kristen Stewart and Katie Holmes? Tracy Quan examines what celebrity relationship archetypes we should emulate and which ones we should avoid.

In the wake of a paparazzi-fueled meltdown, Kristen Stewart has become break-up porn’s latest pin-up girl—and Liberty Ross, now seen without her wedding ring, her apparently unwitting publicist.

Break-up porn follows its own rules, according to which Ross—still married to the man Stewart misbehaved with—becomes a player in her own right. But every move Ross makes, especially if she ever were to serve Rupert Sanders with papers, will also shine a light on Stewart. The two women are now linked: Ross’s meeting with Sanders last Tuesday resulted in a KStew headline, if only for Google search purposes: “Kristen Stewart Cheating Scandal: Rupert Sanders…” etc. blared The Daily News.

Because of this development, the Twilight star is acquiring new fans who aren’t blinkered by the partisan concerns of Twihards (who have largely turned on her). On the Road, opening in November, which got a lukewarm review here during the Cannes Film Festival, now seems more interesting to me, thanks to the break-up porn generated by Stewart’s “momentary indiscretion.” Her romantic misstep makes future projects—such as Lie Down in Darkness, based on the William Styron novel—sound all the more intriguing.

The takeaway, for non-celebs in similar situations: Never let a confused man turn you into a propaganda vehicle that bolsters another woman. Liberty can’t avoid this because Stewart is an established star, but you (most likely) have no such excuse. Take the high road and keep the focus on yourself.

Any Ross-Sanders divorce would look like a sideshow next to the Robsten break-up, but let’s get real: Liberty has two children with Rupert. If they separate, you can be sure the kids will grow up thinking of Robsten as the sideshow. If this had happened in your neighborhood, Sanders and Ross are the couple you’d be worried about, not Stewart and Robert Pattinson. But this isn’t your neighborhood, it’s TMZ’s. Or any one of dozens of gossip sites, where KStew’s remorse is thought to be so over the top that she won’t wash her hair.

Which is all to say: like other porn, break-up porn is addictive. These are websites our mothers don’t need to know we’re reading. We’re hooked on celebrity break-ups because we know we can close the screen or turn the page. We can’t do that when a friend calls at midnight to dissect a gnarly custody battle, demanding we take sides. Break-ups hurt and sometimes horrify, but the barrage of break-up porn helps us to manage those feelings by turning divorce and separation into a spectacle.

Celebrities in medias break-up provide us with necessary archetypes to emulate or avoid—cool Katie Holmes, chaotic Demi Moore. A woman betrayed by her own ego, like Stewart, is often pitted against the woman betrayed by a man (Ross). And sometimes celebrities break up in such outlandish ways—remember Woody Allen and Mia Farrow?—that we have to thank them for being that much larger than everyday life. But if their break-ups are instructive or entertaining, beware: so might yours be.

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Paula Froelich takes a tour of Katie's new NYC life

Celebrity break-ups can be tragic, hilarious, ugly, stylish, button-pushing, or bureaucratic. Unlike wedding porn, which hasn’t really evolved beyond the superficial, break-up porn swells with disturbing revelations. To get real insight into public figures, we must watch them uncoupling, reinventing themselves as individuals. In every break-up, there’s something unpredictable about the denouement and the distribution of kudos.

Those tabloid images of Stewart misbehaving were taken without her knowledge, which implies a Garden of Eden type of innocence. In this redo of Adam and Eve, Sanders gets cast as the serpent, thrust into bold print because of his connection to the primordial couple. Stewart is Eve, taking the blame. Pattinson is Adam, garnering an outrageous degree of sympathy from young women who don’t recognize Eve’s plight as their own. (Girls, get a clue!)

Conventional wisdom says Rob—who will appear on The Daily Show Monday to promote his new movie, Cosmopolis—is the wronged half of Robsten. But actually it’s more painful to be, as with Stewart, both the engine and victim of your break-up.

When People ran with her mea culpa (“I love him, I love him, I’m so sorry”), Stewart’s bluntness took my breath away. Public apologies are generally issued by men. So, what’s a girl to do if she finds herself in KStew’s shoes? One option is to deny everything. If that’s not possible, well, just how abject should you be?

Apologetic rogue is a role more familiar to husbands (like Rupert Sanders) who want to stay out of court. When roles get reversed, we’re all on shakier ground. Stewart apologized anyway, forcing us to examine our assumptions about why women, stereotypically, don’t.

Some break-ups require Stewart’s frank self-expression, but Holmes has raised the standard for what we expect from a married celebrity getting formally unhitched.

Saying you’re sorry often creates the temptation to drown in your own guilt, while a wronged boyfriend can become an emotional vampire, assisting in that process. (Indeed, I find Pattinson’s alleged brooding a little ominous, given his CV.) If you fear this apologetic abyss more than you fear breaking up, it’s possible you’re a coward. It’s also possible you have good intuition about the person you betrayed. So, if you lack the courage (or the press contacts) to go the Stewart route, don’t be too hard on yourself.

But women who are brave enough to cheat should perhaps be brave enough to apologize. Time will tell us whether Pattinson can embrace Stewart’s emotional courage.

As break-up porn, Robsten is tantalizing, but unlikely to deliver an obvious money shot.

For that, you must follow two world-class control freaks, Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, who recently gave satisfaction by signing the papers.

TomKat’s mouth-watering dissolution caused a notable spike in magazine sales last month. It was also blamed for distracting us from the LIBOR scandal, which has been called “one of the largest banking scandals in history.”

Break-up porn contributes to the economy bigtime, even if it stops us from thinking about the economy. Still, I could not wait to score my copy of Elle magazine, showing Katie Holmes at the top of her game. The pictures shot while she was secretly planning her divorce do not disappoint. We sense, or imagine we do, the adrenalin pumping through her system and a sly wit informing her thoughts. Clad in sleek leather ruffles from her Holmes and Yang clothing line, she is so clearly the architect of her divorce. Could there be a better outfit in which to quietly plan her next move?

Holmes has restored a 1940s sense of style to the public rituals of marital breakdown. The Elle profile, written before the divorce leak, reveals that Holmes in 2010 “went through five or six car changes” to get to a friend’s father’s funeral unseen because she “didn’t want … a media circus.” In 2012, as the undertaker of her marriage, Katie turned that process inside out, protecting herself (and her daughter) from the Church of Scientology by staying in front of the cameras. Knowing when to join that circus is key.

Some of the smartest break-ups are quietly carried out by non-celebrities who behave like shrewd public figures. In one case, a divorcing wife envisioned herself as a showrunner whose job was to make both parties look good, even though their audience was just a handful of relatives and friends.

A promo for Elle’s iPad application, featuring a cover shot of Holmes, makes divorce look like this summer’s must-have app. This is break-up porn at its most elevated. It’s also the antidote to the messy, sad, buzz-killing divorce of Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.

By re-introducing mystery and intellect, Katie Holmes made celebrity divorce sexy again. Treating divorce as an elegant caper is very much a woman’s game because, at the heart of this strategy, is our self-aware vulnerability. Much as we envy her decisive style, there isn’t one correct way to break-up. Some break-ups require Stewart’s frank self-expression, but Holmes has raised the standard for what we expect from a married celebrity getting formally unhitched. In some sense, she has created a look.

Liberty Ross, either by design or coincidence, has that look.