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What Those George Clooney Jokes Know About Red Carpet Culture

Actor George Clooney and his wife Amal looked pretty good on the red carpet.
Jason Merritt
Getty Images
Actor George Clooney and his wife Amal looked pretty good on the red carpet.

At Sunday night's Golden Globes, Tina Fey said this about the new wife of award recipient George Clooney: "Amal [Alamuddin] is a human rights lawyer who worked on the Enron case, was an advisor to Kofi Annan regarding Syria, and was selected for a three-person U.N. commission investigating rules of war violations in the Gaza Strip. So tonight, her husband is getting a Lifetime Achievement Award."

Variations on this sort-of-a-joke about Clooney and Alamuddin have circulated since their wedding in September – one favorite headline from the wedding was "Internationally Acclaimed Barrister Amal Alamuddin Marries An Actor." It makes for a particularly pointed and effective reminder that the adulation afforded to actors is not based on merit, that the celebrating of their careers doesn't hold up to much scrutiny, and that a woman being glamorous and gorgeous and married to an actor doesn't make her, first and foremost, that.

The caveat to this is, of course, that you don't need to be an acclaimed international lawyer to be a good demonstration of the dangers of thinking of celebrity spouses as red-carpet accessories. George Clooney is not the first actor to marry a really smart woman, nor can he possibly be the first actor to marry someone who probably has a better claim to a Lifetime Achievement Award than he does. Because this is an extreme and now well-known case involving a very well-known longtime single man, and because he married someone so accomplished in a realm that's also highly visible to the public, it sticks out. But it's not as if up until now, actors really were married to people with no interior lives. This marriage, and these jokes, aren't about how celebrity culture is stupid as applied to this couple, but that it's stupid as applied to all couples. Not all celebrity spouses work for the U.N., but many are great parents, great friends, business owners, or actors/writers/directors who are just as talented but don't happen to be as famous. The way they recede even when they're in plain sight is alwaysarbitrary if you want to talk about being a quality person.

These aren't really jokes about Clooney; they're jokes about an entire narrative of Suave Gorgeous Actor who, at some point, some lucky person manages to snag. And they're jokes about how the assumption that Alamuddin was lucky to get Clooney to propose and give up his long string of gorgeous girlfriends contrasts with the assumption that Jennifer Aniston, for instance, pines away waiting to get married, desperately hoping she can stop settling for her long string of gorgeous boyfriends. (She's still not married, but she was at the Globes with longtime beau/fiance Justin Theroux. Should we send her a card, poor dear?) And, a little, they're jokes about the unfair tendency to act surprised when George Clooney, who seems to be a smart person, marries a smart person. Yes, a gorgeous person, but also a smart person. Why wouldn't he? Do we assume when we see an attractive young woman on somebody's arm that she's normally a dummy? If so, why is that?

Taken as jabs about Clooney specifically, these cracks are no more significant than the jokes about somebody's temper or somebody else's accent. What makes them feel more substantive is that they go to the heart of a bunch of things at the same time: the way even actors know deep down that actors are societally overvalued and overattended to, the way men and women age differently (and do almost everything else differently) in the traditional public gaze, the way lots of these people have unseen spouses and partners who make their lives possible and are treated like purses or cufflinks, and the way every publicist, assistant, camera person, and plus-one on that red carpet has a story that's just as likely to be interesting as Clooney's fear that he'd never find love.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.