Breakup as a performance art

What Happened to Breakup Icons in Hollywood?

I never anticipated A-Rod to be at the pinnacle of his development, yet here we are.

When my boyfriend became my ex-boyfriend, I did not publicly recognise our separation. Given how little of our connection had been made public, this was a very simple task. His mom had tagged me in several Facebook photos, and I believe I had tweeted a hilarious thing he’d said a couple of times. We weren’t one of those couples that took delight in being purposely offline. It never occurred to me to memorialise our time together.

Perhaps you’re thinking that’s a red sign. Except this was seven years ago, shortly when there was no alternative but to subsist nearly totally on your phone. Besides, for the majority of our relationship, I was using a phoney BlackBerry that couldn’t do much more than text. In addition, I was unaware of micro-influencing as a possible job route.

Anyway, once the relationship ended, he moved out, and I began to share more about myself on social media. My sister and I talked about my employment. And now and again, I’d nod to my newfound single status, saying, “Tinder is so horrible!” Isn’t it true that I’m on Tinder? I shared photos of my travels to areas like Des Moines to let folks know I was “getting out there.” Navigating my raw singleness on social media didn’t seem comfortable, but I had accepted a certain set of facts: Our lives were going online, therefore our breakups had to as well.

Because our lives were becoming more digital, our breakups had to follow suit.

That grew even more true in the years thereafter, during which time I became something of a cultural anthropologist of social media breakup performance, with a special focus on celebrities, dubbed the pioneers of turning personal news into capital-C Content. And, bless them, who among us doesn’t want to know every detail of that divided level? Who is above debating whether a celebrity’s PR staff gets the first crack at the news or which of them will continue to manage the dog’s Instagram account? I find myself scrutinising every aspect of these decouplings, and not to minimise what they’re going through, but…we’re living in an extraordinarily fertile period for field study.

The Record of Processing Breakups has recently added some absolutely top entries, as it did last year. Heartache has been expertly sublimated into emotional catharsis slash some pretty powerful crap in public, notably in the music genre. I’m still wondering how Jake Gyllenhaal is doing since Taylor Swift’s 10-minute scorched-earth rerelease of “All Too Well,” and I’m still crying whenever Adele’s “Easy on Me” plays on the radio. Let me be completely clear about “Driver’s License” and all the other irresistible, wonderfully petty smash tracks on Sour: Olivia Rodrigo, I will never get over it.

But, if my investigations are soundtracked with 2021 breakup music, the blue-check crowd’s moving-on behaviour is a dissertation subject in and of itself. There are articles that are supposed to stoke the fires of conjecture (see: Bachelorette Katie Thurston and Blake Moynes’s debacle) and PR playbook moves that are meant to entirely block off the oxygen supply (which never…actually work). A brutal grid cull, a bloodless “wish them all the best” remark, an outfit worn for a post-breakup interview: Everything cries out to be dissected. Nothing can be said if it isn’t said. Oh, my gosh, he’s denying the divorce? Wow.

Messy Breakup 2
Messy Breakup arch

The fact is that when you’re emotionally distraught and Very Online, you do have some off-the-shelf alternatives, even if you don’t know what to say. There are memes to recirculate, as well as numerous types of “revenge” content, ranging from viscerally vengeful to sugary personal growth stories. There are sterile alternatives to the truth that you haven’t washed since Tuesday and today is Monday: graphical affirmations and widely disseminated poetry.

However, a well-placed meme can only go you so far. And conveying the dimensions of your breakup sadness necessitates delving into the particulars of your situation. That’s why we have a common vocabulary for the joyful parts of relationships—”soft launching” a significant other; announcing an engagement or a kid (soon, we did it!)—but not for our more complex thoughts about ending relationships.

Now it’s time to get to the Alex Rodriguez section of the narrative. I’ve never been more committed to him than after his breakup with Jennifer Lopez when he alternated between publishing thirst traps and sombre tributes to their love. I adore chaos, to paraphrase Marie Kondo, and I should definitely be under FBI monitoring given the number of times I’ve seen Alex pan through a graveyard of J-Rod images (and what seems to be one lone snap of Judy Garland and Barbra Streisand, for unknown reasons) while Coldplay’s “Fix You” whines on. You might attribute my devotion to a certain kind of joy at witnessing a hulking MLB Hall-of-Famer act so endearingly goofy, or you could argue that his post was premeditated. But it’s the one-of-a-kind show of heartbreak—which, for 10 seconds, ignores the “performance” of grief and captures how it really is—that gets me. Expressing vulnerability, regardless of who you are, is a risky proposition in terms of eliciting empathy. As they say, feeling noticed is a form of reward.

Explicitly exhibiting vulnerability is a risky move in terms of eliciting empathy.

It’s not necessary to be overt about it. Anna Marie Tendler’s TikToks has been a subtextual master lesson in the art of going forward, even when all you want to do is lie down on the floor. After being caught off guard by comedian John Mulaney’s divorce petition, the artist released her first video in October, in which she delicately walked viewers through the notoriously inconvenient process of putting on a duvet cover; the next day, she used a vegetable peeler to perfectly butter a slice of cinnamon raisin toast in a follow-up life hack. The subtle resilience in her excellent management of household activities is what impresses me about this material. Making your own bed and having breakfast by yourself are two things that you can do on your own. These are the mundane yet excruciatingly painful tasks we do alone when the person we used to do them with is no longer with us.

Messy Breakup
Messy Breakup

For some reason, the first photo I shared following that split was a perfectly composed vignette of craft-store trinkets: anchor-shaped bookends, one little package of fake doughnuts, a pair of porcelain lemons, and three large wooden letters spelling “YES.” Yes, my four-year-long relationship with my partner ended lately. And, yes, in a digital format, this bizarro still life is how I’ve chosen to express my views about it.

“In this edition of Mia Buys Things Impulsively,” I try to defend why I need a little box of doughnuts to a cashier at Michaels.” #yes #lemons #bookends #donuts #thisisacryforhelp” (spoiler alert: I don’t). The last hashtag—yes, we still hashtagged on Instagram back then—was a self-deprecating jest as well as a genuine SOS. I wanted everybody who was following along to be aware that I was going through a difficult time. I didn’t want to become involved in it, though.

That is, in fact, a falsehood. I really wanted to. Whether I recognised it or not, what I wrote was a bat signal for precisely what I needed: affirmation from pals who could read between the lines and see what I was going through. Even if I didn’t know how to communicate it at the time.