The story has it all – public relations spinning, counter spinning, strategy, revenge and Taylor Swift. A celebrity divorce that has drawn comparison to Game of Thrones due to apparent displays of underhanded tactics and power. Or it could be because it’s between one of its most well-known actors, Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark, the Queen of the North), and Joe Jonas (Disney Channel actor, teen band idol).
In the normal world, when a couple breaks up they only have the artistic mediums of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat to drop hints to their community about what happened. It could be the sudden changing of a profile picture from a joint portrait to just one of the kids or the dog. Or it’s the appearance of vague inspirational quotes in italic font on their feed about “knowing your worth”, “letting go” and “what’s for you won’t pass you”.
Then there’s the less subtle resharing of articles about “how to spot a narcissist partner”, photos of parties out on the town with “free at last” captions and all the way down the sliding scale of indignity is a long rant about your “gold-digging ex” with attached photos of the child support court orders.
These are gifts to the assorted nosey people in the population who eagerly scroll all the way back to the family Lanzarote trip in 2019 looking for clues about where it all went wrong.
But when it comes to famous people splitting up, having a look around the tagged photos of an acquaintance on their work night out to gather information won’t cut it.
In the past, public interest and media reports were more concerned with events and actions in celebrity splits. These gave us the salacious answers to the “why” questions around their break-ups. Was it cheating? Drug use? Sex addiction? Fraud? An inability to drink a cup of tea without smacking their lips after and going “Ahhhhh” after ever sip? More importantly, it satisfied the human urge to immediately pick whose side we should be on in a conflict between two complete strangers who don’t know or care about us. Our need to “take sides” fuels modern democracy and free intellectual debate on issues such as pineapple toppings belonging on pizza.
But it is also exploited by PR spinners to make sure their client looks like the winning side to be on – whether they’re in politics, bureaucracy, corporate or a boy band who once covered a Busted song. In the 2000s, people were able to buy T-shirts declaring they were either on “Team Angelina” and “Team Jennifer” as Brad Pitt left the latter and went on to date the former. The narratives were that two people had fallen in love against all odds and had adopted a child from a developing country together to build their family. Or that a nice blonde girl-next-door-type had her husband robbed by a sexy lady demon. Then there’s the more recent PR war over the Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s separation following allegations that Pitt behaved abusively towards his ex-wife, Jolie, and children on a plane in 2016 resurfacing amid the legal battle over a winery they used to own.
When celebrity gossip outlet TMZ first “broke” news of the impending Turner/Jonas divorce, the news wasn’t seized on and gobbled straight down like other titbits. Instead, press and internet discourse focused around the choice of words “close sources” used to explain the situation.
There were vague references such as “she likes to party, he likes to stay at home” and a mention of Jonas having their children “pretty much all of the time”.
A Daily Mail headline claimed the 27-year-old actor “felt trapped in her marriage to Joe Jonas and wants to relive her youth ... as she’s seen downing shots and £6.50 cocktails in Birmingham”.
Which is when the winds seemed to change. Instead of blasting Turner for being an irresponsible mother choosing cut-price booze, social media users were more interested in finding out where they could still get £6.50 cocktails in a cost-of-living crisis.
PR professionals used their TikTok accounts to dissect what was looking like the beginnings of a smear campaign, while fans went back through old interviews where Turner said she preferred to stay home while Jonas is more likely to go out. Others pointed out that tabloid photos of Turner cuddling up to “another man” was actually cropped in a picture taken while she was filming a scene with her costar.
Soon think pieces appeared in Glamour magazine about “not buying the narrative that Sophie Turner is a bad mom”, while a crisis management specialist in Forbes praised Turner’s “quiet strategy” as the messy rumours flew.
In the age where information is available to almost everyone pretty much all of the time, audiences have become clued-in to a PR sleight of hand. Now they can see the grubby remains of fingerprints of an alleged spin attack, which becomes the bigger story in the end.
And their response was quite funny. One X (formerly Twitter) user said: “They’re trying to say Sophie Turner is an unfit mother for drinking £6.50 cocktails in Birmingham as if that behaviour isn’t the bedrock upon which British society is built.”
Then came the fake TMZ reports trend, one of which said the split happened because Jonas was tired of his notably taller wife “putting the cups in the top cabinet, far from his reach”.
For her part, Turner was photographed out with her ex’s most famous ex – Taylor Swift, a veteran of winning break-ups, using the “saying so much by saying so little unless it’s in a song” technique. To commentators, a picture of the two women together was a determined show of strength and proof it was their mutual ex that was the issue, even though they were just popping off for a bit of food and maybe a wander around Zara after.
As US morning television juggernaut Today reported, Turner had the “opportunity to do the funniest thing possible” and took it. However, Turner then sued Jonas for wrongful retention, citing a Hague convention after claiming their children’s passports were withheld preventing their travel to the UK. Which is decidedly unfunny actually.
As custody agreements continue to be hammered out, it’s a sobering reminder that public opinion “wins” in separations, celebrity or not, come at the expense of children involved.