News broke yesterday that the 11 year marriage of Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman is over. The couple have two adopted children (Connor and Isabelle), have appeared in several movies together, and are quite popular actors. Nicole was born in Australia and has lived here for most of her life, and, as such, Tom has become our "favourite adopted son".

Newspapers, television news programs and magazines are having a field day with the information. It's front page news in rural, regional and city papers and the lead story for news shows. Almost every article or piece includes a filmography of both actors, as if their previous works may be important in the break-up.

But the real question is: Why is there such an interest in the split? Were they the depiction of the true 'modern couple', both working, successful, beautiful, and, if so, does the separation threaten the image of success the public has built? Or is it just curiosity, sticking our noses in other people's business, into the business of two people we'll probably never meet but most people want to be? Do we need to know everything that's going on in these superstar lives to make our mundane lives a little more exciting? Voyeurism is very now, darling.

And why is the media so concerned with the split? There are two points of view on the subject, both of which echo popular and oppositional arguments of the role the media plays in society:

  • a) That the media sets the agenda and tells us what we will be interested in. This view claims that the public is nothing more than what the media, and hence the institutions which run it, want it to be: ie, "the ruling classes keep the lower classes down, man". In this case, the Tom and Nicole split would be published in an effort to remind lower classes that a life too glamorous for them exists beyond their reach, and that humans are supposed to be entertained by stories of faraway people and places, because, ultimately, that will sell papers and earn advertisers' money in the long run. This argument (vastly simplified here) claims that people are programmable, and that the media fulfils this role.
  • b) That the media reflects what people are naturally interested in. This runs on the notion that people have an inherent interest in the world around them, and that myths, stories and other forms of entertainment fill the voids which may exist in other parts of their lives. In the past, people have been interested in the private lives of public figures, and as such, have proved that human curiosity raises revenue for publishers. Hence the broadcast of information about the Tom and Nicole separation will merely prove old economical theories which are intertwined with sociological ideologies.

So why do we care? Really, what is it about this 'golden couple' that has caused such a ruckus? Are we trained to be interested, or is it just our wacky human nature?

Or am I the only one who gives a shit?

We care a lot, and for one simple reason: Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman belonged together. They were joined in holy matrimony and they ended it, shamelessly and without remorse. It's a travesty, I tell you! A shocking and repugnant travesty!

When I heard this news, I, for one, was utterly distraught. The shock and pain was too much for me to bear. Tom Cruise, for years the most beautiful man in Hollywood, and Nicole Kidman, that voluptuous Australian vixen with whom he'd appeared together so, so many times -- they were the very icon of modern marriage. They were the king and queen of all that was good and wonderful about humanity today, providing entertainment and happiness to endless millions throughout the Western world. Individually, they conquered. Together, they ruled. And now... today... that Tinseltown royal family is no more.

We need celebrity marriages to succeed in our modern, enlightened twenty-first-century society. They represent all that is good and wonderful about America (and Australia) today, and we need to know that if they can overcome poverty and human frailty to become the magnetic sex symbols they are today, then they are strong enough to overcome any petty differences they might have in their personal life as well! The rich and famous are obligated, nay, needed to provide solid, consistent role models and moral strongholds for all who know and love them! Modern civilization depends on it!

Because if these beautiful, wealthy people, so widely loved and admired thanks to the magic that is the silver screen, cannot make their union permanent and lasting -- well, what hope is there for the rest of us? Why should I go on with my own marriage, continue to show affection to my own family, if these renowned actors are unable to maintain the fires of passion in their own relationship?

I'm sorry, I think I need to go jump off a bridge now.

TV shapes our culture, it helps us to share experiences and codify them into stories and moral values. The ancient Greeks had mythology and sagas, such as the story of Ulysses sailing the seas, or Daphne turning into a laurel tree for fear of being raped by Apollo; with the advent of mass publishing in the 15th century we saw the development of novels, essays, newspapers; today, we use TV as a medium to share stories, real or fictitious, and we do this out of a need to relate our own experiences to those of others.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, or rather, their public image as it appears in the papers and on TV, are like the ancient Greek gods and heroes: unreal and untouchable, but at the same time, only humans like you or me. They are icons; the stories of their lives are used as parables, vehicles that help us evaluate our own lives.

There may be more profound ways of doing this: real life contact with family, friends, or your local community; religion; good old literature; but I do think it accounts for our fascination with stars and their personal lives.

In the 50s through the 60s we were treated to movies and TV sitcoms which portrayed “white picket fence” families who reflected the ethnos of the times. Starting in the 50s we had Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, The Donna Reed Show, The Danny Thomas (father to Marlo) Show, the Petries on the Dick Van Dyke Show with their separate beds. We were treated to responsible and loving widowers—The Andy Griffith Show, the Rifleman, A Family Affair. My recollection of the first depiction of a single mother (widow of course) was the Lucy Show—I Love Lucy sans Ricky and Fred. In the late 60s there was Julia, starring Dianne Carrol, a breakaway comedic drama about an African-American (Negro then) widowed nurse raising her son. Even the most unrealistic TV families—the Beverly Hillbillies for example—demonstrated “family values”.

In the late 60s and early 70s, the changing social sensibilities of the Vietnam War era brought liberal producer Norman Lear to the forefront. He almost single-handedly created a cottage industry of dysfunctional family TV fare. We had All in the Family and it’s spin-offs—Maude and The Jeffersons. There was Bonnie Franklin in One Day at a Time. White widowers began to adopt smart-mouthed ghetto-bred black orphans (the incredibly annoying Different Strokes).

The two-parent functional TV family was deconstructed as cynical liberalism became the ethnos of the day—or at least in the major media. To multiply our appreciation of the dysfunctional, we saw the creation of the ensemble drama/sitcom—Hill Street Blues, Cheers, Night Court, L.A. Law, Dallas—which allowed for an even more varied view of dysfunctional intimate relationships. Children began to disappear from prime time unless they were Bart Simpson-styled smart asses who made fools of adults. The Cosby Show was an attempt to hold back the tide of dysfunctional TV families, but was eventually run over. More recently we are more likely to see sitcoms sporting groups of dysfunctional dim-witted, dating single losers with no visible means of support (see Three is Company, Friends, Jerry Seinfeld). In the new sitcom a basic plot line is the visiting idiotic, clueless, whining parent who comes to visit and has to be shipped off before they upset the usual dysfunction present in the ungrateful child’s home.

Do you think maybe I watched too much TV when I was growing up?

Now, the children of divorce, the illegitimate children of the artistic elite and the trailer park, have to do an awful lot of channel surfing to find any white picket fence models. So naturally our attention moves to real life icons of family bliss who themselves are being overshadowed by new crops of single actors and actresses, who when they are not in rehab, are adopting children so that they will not have to be bothered with actual intimacy or the physical distortions caused by pregnancy.

So, Tom and Nicole, as strange as it may seem, was as close to a “normal” family in the media with high visibility. They were an “everyday” couple who just happened to be beautiful, who happened to be in the movies, who happened to have more money than they could spend in a lifetime. In our desire to see one functional family in the major media we looked with hope to Tom and Nicole. Alas.

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