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J.Lo and Ben Affleck
via Instagram (@jlo)

What does Bennifer say about our post-Covid appetite for celeb culture?

Leaving his Sad Boy era to embark on the ultimate Hot Boy Summer, Ben Affleck’s redemption arc and rekindling romance with J.Lo is a moment of 00s-inflected joy

Where were you when you saw the photos? Did you glimpse them while scrolling, before looking again to check your mind wasn’t playing tricks on you and, yes, that really was Ben Affleck touching J.Lo’s butt on a superyacht in the year of our Lord 2021? Stop the press, stop the clocks: the celebrity couple so super they spawned a portmanteau as epoch-making as ‘brunch’ has returned. ‘Bennifer’ is back, with a butt-clutching, internet-breaking bang. 

What is it about these reunions we crave so much? Why do god-tier supercouples make us collectively lose our minds and beg for reconciliation when, down in the mortal realm, getting back with an ex should generally be avoided at all costs? In January 2020, backstage at the SAG Awards, Brad Pitt’s hand lingered on Jennifer Aniston’s wrist for an instant and Twitter went into meltdown and a rip opened in celebrity space-time.

Yet, the return of Bennifer is in a different league to the ongoing ‘will they, won’t they’ frenzy surrounding ‘Braniston’. Because those photos don’t just represent a too-good-to-be-true reunion, but a grand redemption story. Because, crucially, Ben Affleck has had a rough time of it.

In many ways, Affleck’s narrative arc has mirrored that of celebrity culture more broadly. In 1999, David Kamp called the then-upcoming decade the ‘Tabloid Decade’, referring to the heightened sensationalism of gossip magazines and relentlessness of paparazzi. And in this new, candid world, Affleck flourished as the quintessential clean-cut Hollywood star, who just happened to be accompanied by the hottest woman on planet Earth while strolling down the boulevards – a woman so hot that she wore a dress and launched Google Images

The paps had struck gold. Affleck himself has linked Bennifer’s fame to the burgeoning tabloid industry, saying on a podcast in January 2021: “Me dating Jennifer Lopez happened to be that tabloid story at the time when that business grew exponentially. When they realised there’s actually a ten times bigger audience for our product than we are selling to.” In 2002, People magazine awarded Affleck Sexiest Man Alive; he seemed untouchable. 

But, the tabloids’ appetite was insatiable, and, like an animal eating its young, the industry first devoured then spat out its stars. “At first it was an infatuation, what an interesting couple,” Affleck reflected. “And then there was a ton of resentment.” In 2003, Bennifer called their wedding off with just days to go, due to “excessive media attention”. In 2004 they split, seemingly for good. Then Britney shaved her head, Twitter and Instagram were invented, and celebrity culture changed forever. 

Everyone was a potential paparazzi now. And, instead of untouchable boomtime gods, what we wanted was post-crash relatability; not gloss but mess. And, obligingly, Affleck seemed to go from hero to zero; from Sexiest Man Alive to saddest man alive, just in time for the Sad Boy era to begin.

The 00s men-of-the-moment became meme fodder. Ben Affleck smoking on a doorstep, his anguished expression akin to a crucified Jesus, is the depressed descendent of Keanu Reeves sitting on a bench, eating a sandwich, staring at nothing. They’re wearing ill-fitting jeans; they’re wearing blue jumpers that scream ‘M&S Christmas sale’; they’ve given up shaving because, hey, what’s the point of anything these days. They’re outside just taking a moment – a moment that stretches into eternity. And we loved them for it. Looking at Ben trying and failing to keep a grip on his Dunkin Donut trays, or smoking in despair, or standing in just his towel for just a bit too long, we saw ourselves at our most abject, our most exhausted, our most ‘dear god there’s even more of this?!’ We looked at Ben Affleck succumbing to ennui and thought, yes, it really is like that. 

But, just as there was nothing more relatable than the existential angst of a dude spilling iced coffee as he fumbles for his keys, there is now nothing more satisfying than a dude with a phoenix inked on his back rising out of his flop era, to gently cup his perfect ex’s perfect ass cheek (seriously, Google Images). Ben Affleck is having a Hot Boy Summer beyond all wildest dreams. 

So, is this the end of the Sad Boy? Does this mean that, as we tentatively imagine a post-Covid world, what we want to see is not dejection, but optimism, joy, and unbridled lust? Do we want celebrities to be happy? Surely, at the very least, this suggests the desire for celebrities to appear “relatable” is waning. After 18 months of stars insisting, from their mansions and swimming pools, that Covid proves they are just like us, sympathies are wearing thin. Instead, it seems what we want is a really good story. And, Ben Affleck, Sexy Sad Boy of the century, is giving us the oldest one in the book: redemption. 

“In this story, there is no ‘one that got away’. Everything broken can be fixed. Ben touched J.Lo’s butt and was redeemed, and we were redeemed with him”

In this story, the protagonist is flawed, suffering from a deep inner struggle, but eventually overcomes all obstacles to find genuine happiness. Redemption arcs remind us there is always a chance for forgiveness. Redemption arcs matter because of what they represent: hope. And god knows, we could use some of that right now. 

So, look at Bennifer canoodling. In this story, there is no ‘one that got away’. Everything broken can be fixed. Ben touched J.Lo’s butt and was redeemed, and we were redeemed with him. We’re back in 2002 – Covid doesn’t exist, the financial crash hasn’t happened, you’re lying on your tiger print rug listening to Avril Lavigne’s Let Go for the first time on your boombox and, god, it feels so good. Later you might go to the cinema and share popcorn while watching Bend It Like Beckham. Maybe that kid you like will like you back. If Ben Affleck can tap J.Lo’s ass again, just imagine what else might be within reach. Maybe you’ll buy a house when you’re older. Maybe Britney will be free. The last few years have been bad, they’ve been painful, but perhaps, if we’re lucky, it might all turn out just peachy.