Nostalgia is a powerful thing. It’s the catalyst behind any number of television reboots, movie sequels, and oral history articles. It’s the perennial rose-coloured lens society loves to look through when times are tough. In the past few years, especially, it feels as if reboot culture has trickled down from TV and film to actual people, most recently in the case of Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck. The pair, known as “Bennifer”, were engaged in 2002, starred in two movies together (the critically reviled Gigli and Jersey Girl), broke up in early 2004, and now, 17 years later, are rumoured to be back together. We truly do love to see it.
But why? Why does news of a Noughties power couple (potentially) getting back together send us into a collective frenzy? Some of this boils down to a heightened need for the rush of good feelings nostalgia can produce. It’s no secret that the past few years have been fraught with increasing political divisiveness, economic uncertainty, and public health calamities. Every day, for what has felt like forever, has brought another avalanche of bad news, challenging our collective mental health and making us long for the past, when things appeared simpler.
The world of 20 or 30 years ago was not exactly uncomplicated. But comparatively speaking, the overall global mood, at least in Western countries, did not feel in a permanent state of decline. For US millennials especially, who came of age watching Bennifer round one, their worldview was still one of possibility: work hard enough, and you can achieve anything. That optimism has been dimmed by two once-in-a-lifetime recessions and a pandemic. So it makes sense that gobbling up Bennifer reunion content would feel like a warm, cuddly reminder of a time when the American dream still felt possible.
Lopez and Affleck are not even the only Noughties couple we’ve rooted for in the past few years. When Jennifer Aniston and Brad Pitt, who were married from 2000 to 2005, appeared in a live-read of Fast Times at Ridgemont High last year, the internet exploded into mass hysteria as the one-time couple fondly interacted with one another during a particularly sexy scene. Pitt and Aniston never actually got to the point of a post-split romantic getaway, unlike Lopez and Affleck, who were photographed in Montana recently. But that doesn’t stop the media from gulping back tears of joy every time Aniston and Pitt are spotted in a room together (remember when he grabbed her arm at the 2020 Screen Actors Guild (SAG) Awards?).
Another nice thing about Lopez and Affleck’s apparent reunion is the overwhelmingly joyful tone from onlookers. The same couldn’t be said of their many appearances in 2002. If anything, “Bennifer” was often the butt of pop-cultural jokes. On Saturday Night Live in 2002, Tina Fey cracked: “Jennifer Lopez announced her engagement – it’s the first marriage for Affleck, the third for Lopez, and the last for neither.” Plus, the couple’s relationship was perhaps unjustly overshadowed by how poorly their 2003 film Gigli was received. (The film on which Lopez and Affleck met now currently holds a six per cent score on Rotten Tomatoes, and related Google queries read: “Is Gigli the worst movie ever?”)
“I think the worst, probably lowest point was the whole Gigli era. It was pretty tough,” Lopez admitted on HuffPost Live in 2015. “It was a very badly reviewed film. I was in a high-profile relationship at the time that fell apart in a really bad way, and so the kind of mix of those two things and the tabloid press had just come into existence at the time, so I was like a poster child for that moment. I was in the tabloids every other week about how my life was falling apart. It was a tough time.”
“I think Jen and I made a mistake in that we fell in love, we were excited and maybe too accessible,” Affleck said in a 2008 interview. “I don’t think either of us anticipated the degree to which it would take on a world of its own.”
Happily for everyone, Gigli has been in the rear-view mirror for many years. What’s more, thanks to the whiplash-inducing Framing Britney Spears documentary, we’ve done a major rethink around our overall treatment of celebrities. Not unlike Spears, who was regularly eviscerated by the rapidly expanding Noughties tabloid market, Lopez and Affleck experienced their share of non-stop paparazzi hounding, followed by consumer chatter and judgement. Yes, it could be that Bennifer welcomed the media attention a little too hungrily, and it came back to bite them. But what are romantic reunions, anyway, if not a chance to show the other person that you’ve grown?
Also, who among us hasn’t secretly wanted to reconnect with an ex at some point in our lives? It’s only human to hang on to relationship regrets and, on some lizard-brain level, crave a second chance. The idea of rekindling an old flame is the stuff of romance novels and rom-com grand gestures. And what are celebrities, really, other than people on which to project our fantasies?
Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if Lopez and Affleck are truly in it for the long run this time, or if they just happen to be two old friends catching up. (And, as The Cut recently pointed out, they could be using the media to their advantage, knowing full well how beneficial a romance arc can be.) But it helps to be aware of why their reunion makes us so happy. Yes, Noughties nostalgia is having a moment, and that no doubt factors into the equation. But maybe, given how badly we treated them the first time around, it’s also a chance for us to make amends, too.
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