At the beginning of her long affair with Harold Pinter, Antonia Fraser was warned by her brother, “You are a woman and a strong character yet you want your husband to be stronger. Women with strong characters who want to dominate are always fine because there are plenty of weak men around. Also plenty of strong men for weak women. But yours is a special problem.”
It is because of this special problem – this particular affliction of being an alpha female looking for neither her master nor her mutt but her perfect equal – that I reacted with a dismay not usually reserved for celebrity gossip at last week’s more plausible than usual reports that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are separating. The end of this power pairing isn’t yet another Hollywood meltdown; to me, it will be the combustion of the only modern relationship paradigm that I find truly desirable.
In recent years, I’ve found myself drawn to Jolie, an unlikely role model – too famous, too contemporary to truly analyze, and hounded by public obsession and private demons both. I find something very inspiring in the way in which, as a woman of a highly dysfunctional nature, she has turned her life around without ever losing the essence of her idiosyncrasy. In creating her family, she has revitalized the idea of the matriarch, updating the archetype without losing its noble connotations. Her advocacy has helped people around the world, and her artistic body of work shimmers with a certain aptitude. But it is her partnership with Pitt that ties this all together – it is an alliance that subverts the notion that intense, eccentric women cannot be partnered, at least not in any significant non-disastrous fashion. Like Jolie herself, it originated in scandal and evolved into something admirable, intriguing and undeniably powerful.
There is a danger in suggesting this, because it is an admission that mating is important – a very conservative idea for some. But more draconian still is the denial of passion, devotion and basic need – these are human impulses, not just female ones. I am interested in the idea of romantic partnership as collaboration, and have long puzzled over why there are so few examples of successful pairings that involve an unusual, forceful woman.
I read somewhere once, “Who could Madonna possibly date? She’s Madonna. Jesus, maybe.” The punchline, years later, is that she did date a man named Jesus, but the underlying contention remains: a theoretically post-feminist society has come to accept many things, but the virago with a domiciliary instinct is not one of them. This is neither a fault of the movement nor of the establishments it challenges. The notion boggles our minds simply because there is no existing marital script, at least in the archives of the collective psyche, to offer a successful example of such a couple.
Brangelina is the closest we have ever come to it. I want them to stay together not because of any vicarious tabloid satisfaction, but because they represent to me a sort of hope, a trajectory upon which to chart my own path. Can a woman be mother, martyr, magnate, mad – and still have her mate? Like Jolie, I intend to have my cake and eat you too – and hers is the only recipe I know so far.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express. “The Venus Flytrap” is my column in the Zeitgeist supplement. Previous columns can be found here.