Over the last few days, since Puck News reported an update on the Freedom of Information Act lawsuit filed anonymously by Jane Doe (aka Angelina Jolie) against the FBI, I’ve been wondering how the mainstream media and major entertainment outlets would handle the situation. Both Angelina and Brad Pitt are major movie stars. And the allegations against Brad in the case files are disturbing. This is a celebrity who has been – as Angelica Jade Bastien noted – “cunning with his star image” in the management of his brand and reputation. For multiple decades now he’s been one of the most popular figures in pop culture. He is white, he is handsome, he is cool, he is super successful – at least that’s how he is perceived – and has been working pretty hard lately on building public goodwill, to sell his movie but also to offset the mess that’s been happening in his personal life. This, then, is a stress test of the power of celebrity.
News agencies, following Puck’s lead, have now accessed the FBI case file and are publishing the details about what was alleged to have happened on that private plane between Brad, Angelina, and their children back in September 2016. TRIGGER WARNING: In short, Brad allegedly became violent towards Angelina, verbally attacked her and at least one of their kids, injured Angelina after she tried to protect one of their kids when he lunged for them by grabbing onto him, and that he kept ranting and raging throughout the flight while drinking. You can read more details about the flight at ET - TRIGGER WARNING.
All of this is obviously much more detailed than what was first reported back in 2016 when it all went down. Back then it was known that something happened on that flight, and it was speculated that it had to do with Brad and one of the children, but most of the specifics (in comparison to what’s in this FBI report) were contained and we’ve spent the last five years watching Brad’s PR team ensure that the flight story stay out of the spotlight until now. The Pitt PR team’s strategy now, seeing as how the flight story is back on the front page, is to suggest that Angelina is once again trying to villainise Brad, because she’s a resentful, bitter bitch.
A source tells PEOPLE that Angelina is “trying to inflict the most amount of pain”. That’s a direct appeal to the MiniVan Majority readership and it puts Brad Pitt’s pain at the forefront, it centers his feelings, it prioritises his reputation. Which is classic “himpathy”, a term coined by Kate Manne in her book Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny to describe “the excessive sympathy shown towards male perpetrators” of misogyny, intimate partner violence, and sexual violence. Johnny Depp recently weaponised “himpathy” in his case against Amber Heard, in combination with DARVO, positioning himself as the victim. And similarly, Brad Pitt’s supporters are framing Angelina as the aggressor and Brad as the person she is intentionally harming. That PEOPLE article does some of that work – and that’s the takeaway that the readers are supposed to internalise.
So if Brad’s pain is in the foreground, then Angelina’s pain, and their children’s pain, is naturally secondary… if even that. Because when himpathy is activated, the experience of others and their goals and priorities are minimised in favour of the male. Right now, Team Brad’s PR message is to convince people that Angelina’s motivation here is simply to f-ck him up so that no one considers the possibility that her focus is not actually on him but on the kids and on a system that has already been shown to disadvantage women and children.
Because even though people are assuming that Angelina leaked this as her own PR offensive, the fact of the matter is that she filed her complaint against the FBI anonymously, as Jane Doe. And remember, it wasn’t TMZ and PEOPLE or Page Six that broke this story, it was Politico!
Politico doesn’t concern itself with Hollywood for Hollywood’s sake. Politico covers politics – so their reporting here initially, back in April, would not have been targeted at Angelina but at the FBI. Given the situation between the FBI and that criminal who used to be the president of the United States, you can understand why a Freedom of Information Act suit filed against the FBI would have been of interest to Politico. And then, presumably, they ended up stumbling on this Jane Doe case and it turned out to be Angelina. Which of course is when everyone else picked it up.
Angelina’s been involved in the push to support the Violence Against Women Act over the last few years, and seeking to understand why the FBI and the US Attorney’s Office declined to pursue her case lines up with her advocacy for this legislation, considering that part of VAWA’s intention is to improve investigative and judicial processes to better protect victims and survivors of domestic violence. Her personal situation then was a case study. While Brad Pitt’s supporters claim that she was filing for documents she always had access to, her attorney has said that what she was specifically asking for was an explanation for how and why the decision was made to not proceed with charges, and not simply to read back her own testimony.
But will the court of public opinion actually consider that she might have other reasons – like her children’s healing process and her own, and further research for the improvement of domestic violence procedures – for pursuing this case other than targeting Brad Pitt? Or will himpathy continue to dominate?