One of the big celebrity stories that broke yesterday was about Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie and the ongoing custody case. The media coverage is a story unto itself. The timing is certainly curious and some of the coverage has been misleading. Let’s start with how the information was released over the course of the week.
The ruling news that came out yesterday wasn’t actually the first recent update. A day before that Page Six reported that Angelina submitted a court filing on Monday saying that Judge Ouderkirk “declined to hear evidence …that is relevant to the children’s safety and well-being before issuing a tentative ruling”. Apparently the children were not allowed to testify. Per Page Six:
“Her new filing says the judge has “refused to hear the minor teenagers’ input as to their experiences, needs, or wishes as to their custody fate,” citing a California code that says a child 14 or over should be allowed to testify if they want to.”
Given what we know now, or at least what’s been reported now, that story was the setup to the main story – which is that Judge Oudenkirk seems to have ruled in favour of Brad. At least that’s how it’s been presented in the media, with Page Six the first to report yesterday that Brad “wins joint custody of kids”. Page Six, if you’ve been following, has published a number of Pitt-friendly stories and exclusives in the years since Brange was broken, including this one. Which surprises me because usually when it comes to California court cases, TMZ, based in California, is all over it.
The thing is though… the order of all of it is weird, at least to me. Because Judge Oudenkirk’s ruling happened a few weeks ago, not yesterday. It was just yesterday that it was reported on. So why is Page Six leading first with a story about Angelina filing court documents complaining about the judge before reporting on the actual ruling itself? Why not roll it out in chronological order?
Page Six may have gotten the jump on the situation but PEOPLE had their own exclusive on the custody dispute yesterday and their wording was subtly but significantly different. Here’s how they put it:
“Angelina Jolie's ongoing issues with the judge ruling over her divorce from Brad Pitt continue, with the actress objecting to Pitt tentatively winning more time with their children.”
Winning “joint custody” and “winning more time” is different. The children live with Angelina full-time. Brad Pitt over the years has had visitation rights. They’ve been negotiating the amount of visitation time and what that visitation looks like. You’ll recall, the visitation was under supervision. So these are the details in the ruling that Angelina appears to be contesting. As PEOPLE’s source clarifies:
"…joint custody is not the issue that Angelina objects to, there were other issues of concern, but the court proceedings are closed and sealed."
Confirming that Brad has actually won joint custody then is premature, and not just because Angelina is appealing. It is possible that the ruling doesn’t necessarily grant him joint custody but “more time” with his kids and how specifically that time is spent, either with or without supervision. And that remains key – why Angelina is insisting on having the children be heard so that they can weigh in on their own situation.
This is the nuance that’s missing from much of the coverage about the case which has pretty much simplified the story into “Brad wins” and “Angelina loses”. It’s obviously much more complicated than that, though, especially since in her court filing that was, again, submitted on Monday of this week, which is weeks AFTER Judge Oudenkirk’s ruling:
“The actress also said the judge “has failed to adequately consider” a section of the California courts code, which says it is detrimental to the best interest of the child if custody is awarded to a person with a history of domestic violence. Her filing did not give details about what it was referring to, but her lawyers submitted a document under seal in March that purportedly offers additional information.”
Ronan Farrow referred to the lack of nuance being reported in this case yesterday on Twitter:
Haven't covered this case and can't speak to the intricacies. But I will say in my experience, as a reporter and as an attorney, when you see a round of publicity pushing stories about a victory in one side of these disputes, there are often still a lot of unanswered questions. pic.twitter.com/JsvyUBALSi— Ronan Farrow (@RonanFarrow) May 26, 2021
Interesting that his name came up in my feed because I’ve been thinking about how Angelina Jolie intersects with Mia Farrow since I watched the Allen v Farrow docuseries on HBO a couple of months ago – specifically in the episode when they introduce the controversial concept of parental alienation. Which is what both Angelina and Mia have been accused of. In Angelina’s case, those who are pro-Pitt have perpetuated the narrative that she’s an angry, bitter, scorned bitch who’s turned her children against him and has concocted a lie about domestic violence. Parental alienation comes up a lot in custody disputes, and mostly the accusation is leveled at women, the mothers are the ones who are supposedly turning the kids against the fathers. And we are so historically and socially conditioned to accept this stereotype of the vengeful woman that more often than not, as the research bears, the official courts and the court of public opinion will turn on the woman, the mothers, in favour of the men, even when there’s an abuse allegation – that’s how powerful and deeply ingrained the Mad Woman trope is.
Parental alienation is probably familiar to most of you; it has permeated the culture and has become a widely accepted truth, simply because it’s been talked about so much and as explored in Allen v Farrow, there was a deliberate campaign to publicise it and make it common knowledge. In reality though, and this is MUCH less known, and I only really learned about it from watching that documentary, parental alienation has been WIDELY DISCREDITED. The person who developed the theory did not have the research and, what’s worse, propagated some other alarming theories, and is seen by many in child abuse victim advocacy circles as someone who seriously set back any progress that was made to put through better practices to protect children. If you haven’t seen Allen v Farrow and don’t want to here’s an article that summarises the parental alienation controversy.
This is a major concern because even though, again, parental alienation is not formally recognised and there is no evidence to suggest that it happens nearly as often as the theory claims (in fact, it is found that most of the time, the women and mothers who come forward about abuse are in fact coming forward about abuse, and when the courts believe the parental alienation theory over their claims, the children are even more traumatised) and has even been discredited, it is still used as evidence in family court.
So to reiterate, even though many experts have dismissed parental alienation as bogus, a large part our culture, as we have seen in this case with Brad Pitt, is inclined to minimise or even overlook that there were allegations of domestic violence in this divorce and instead lean into the angle of the woman scorned making up the story. And since these are two such high profile people, it only further entrenches the belief that parental alienation is some kind of rampant societal evil. This is dangerous on so many levels. Something to think about as this celebrity divorce story continues.