Jolie-Pitt divorce and the changing nature of celebrity purpose

The world gasped Tuesday as two globe-trotting celebrities – both notable philanthropists – called it quits. Among blockbusters and awards galas, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt moved the needle on things that mattered. As the United Nations General Assembly wrestles generational questions in a world of increasing economic inequality, and diminishing global opportunity, the seismic shift in one of the world’s most powerful couples sheds light on the future of the good these two standard bearers create.

The reveal was choreographed to land with minimal injury to the couple, their family and what they care for most. Jolie’s legal filing uncovered by TMZ Tuesday morning subverted international tabloids, many of which missed their publishing deadlines due to Monday evening print schedules, and are likely rushing to special printings to seize the opportunity this shattering narrative creates. There will be a cottage industry of prognosticating Pitt and Jolie’s fates – most of it will be false, but the nature of their commitment to the betterment of the world at large is unlikely to waver.

The divorce could crater the efforts of a pair who have turned their individual creative exploits and achievements into fuel for transforming the world, and might dim the spotlight both provide on the families, neighborhoods and networks that have benefitted from their generosity and energy. One most notably a special envoy to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, the other building homes first in post-Katrina New Orleans and then beyond, the loss of Jolie-Pitt authentic activism that has captured our public attention for nearly a decade might have reverberating circumstances for the ways nonprofits and causes engage celebrity at scale. Attention is a currency all its own; the NGOs, nonprofits and issues that earned their attention earned ours in turn. Our world needs good guys, and the multiplier of celebrity, to solve thorny challenges – and both Jolie and Pitt’s generosity and thoughtfulness raised the bar.

Fellow celebrity philanthropist George Clooney was shocked by the news as he visited the UN General Assembly. Highbrow and lowbrow media embraced a family’s quiet decision with hope the Lemonade-like drop could capture our collective attention. Yet in the days leading to the divorce filing, Jolie filed a report from a refugee camp in Jordan in her capacity as special envoy, doing the same she has done for nearly five years. Jolie’s reshaped life might even engender further empathy for the families displaced, separated and torn asunder by the refugee crisis and the associated challenges at home and abroad. In making the best decision for her family given her interests and investments personally and across the world, is she not reflecting the same sensibility that has driven Syrians in the diaspora to seek resettlement in Europe and elsewhere?

This is ultimately a net benefit for people who care deeply about solving the world’s problems: the couple won’t waver. Pitt and Jolie have independently set the standard for what celebrity can and should do in the world, elevating the global conversation about the wisdom of preventative surgery in light of a genetic history of breast cancer or eradicating extreme rural poverty. Both in their collective megawattage taught us the sincerity, honesty. They have asked us to measure their contributions not by box office receipts but by the impacts of their giving. This was and is transformative.

After a time, the Brangelina divorce might ultimately serve as a force multiplier for the kinds of giving Jolie and Pitt can do in the world, that by delving further into passion projects, issues and movements that align most with their interests they can become all the more aware, sensitive and committed to escalating these global challenges to our collective attention. As we might interpret from Clooney’s well-telegraphed uncynical response to the news during his work in New York on behalf of the refugee crisis no less, there are far more dire circumstances abroad that deserve our collective attention.

Matthew Spector is a marketing strategist and writer based in Cambridge, MA. Currently at the Harvard Kennedy School and serving as a principal of Bow Bridge Consultants, Matthew has advised in public affairs, strategy and creative messaging for the Obama campaign, UNICEF, UNHCR, and Coca-Cola.