Editor’s note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions in this comment are solely her own. See more statement on CNN.
You’ve probably heard by now that legendary NFL quarterback Tom Brady and supermodel Gisele Bündchen are divorcing. Already, the media speculation machine is in full force and everyone wants a reason.
The guesswork is understandable (I also want to know why a famous and beautiful couple would break up after 13 years). And given the couple’s celebrity status, intruding on a painful and personal moment for them is to be expected, although it’s also rather rude and unkind.
But I suspect that the public fascination with the Brady-Bündchen divorce comes from the fact that this couple’s split hits a perfect celebrity sweet spot: These are two people who look absolutely nothing like us, but who nevertheless seem to break up over a familiar gender dynamic that is immediately relatable.
Brady and Bündchen occupied a rare arena of celebrity in that both are among the most recognized people in America, but both are also more often seen than heard. Sure, they made the occasional media appearance, but their fame harks back to what feels like an increasingly bygone age of American celebrity: When people were famous for incredible talent (or, in Bündchen’s case, incredible beauty and an intuitive sense of how to make the camera capture it).
In our reality-TV-saturated era, where some of the most famous people in America are TikTok teenagers and self-described “housewives,” and the dominant get-famous-quick scheme seems to be to radically overexpose yourself on social media, Brady and Bündchen put on a far more dignified profile.
We honestly don’t know much about their day-to-day lives (I had to Google how many kids they have), and what we do know—the no-nightshades diet, Brady’s fake newspaper, his elementary school bedtime—is that kind of “celebrity : they’re not like us” details that make them fascinating and somewhere between hopeful and charmingly sassy.
Brady’s apparent reputation as a political conservative and his past friendliness with former President Donald Trump threatened to relegate him to mere mortal status, at least among his more liberal fans, until he bypassed Trump’s nudge for public support. The scandal was averted and the Brady-Bündchen unit retained their cast-gold aura.
But their divorce might just bring them down to earth in the public mind. The general consensus among the speculators seems to be that problems arose when Brady announced he was retiring but then didn’t actually retire. Bündchen’s public comments suggest a concern for Brady’s health playing a dangerous sport and a desire — after years of sacrifices to thrive professionally — for him to spend more time with their family.
For a whole lot of heterosexual couples, this dynamic is familiar and frustrating. The woman who steps down to look after children and make sure her husband succeeds – and the man who doesn’t quite seem to appreciate that sacrifice and continues to push professionally far past when he needs to, at the expense of his family.
For much of the Brady-Bündchen marriage, both have been at the top of their respected fields: Bündchen is one of the most famous supermodels on the planet, and Brady is possibly the greatest quarterback of all time. But while Bündchen visibly reworked her professional life when she had children, Brady did not. “I consciously took a step back from modeling in 2015 as I wanted to focus more on my family and personal projects,” Bündchen wrote in her memoir, “Lessons: My Path to a Meaningful Life.”
She certainly didn’t stop working. But she retired from the runway and focused more on photo shoots. She moved to Boston—not exactly a fashion center—for Brady’s career, and then back to Florida. And it seems that while she was patient and waiting for him to retire at a reasonable point in his career, she was also concerned that football was taking its toll on his body. “Obviously I have my concerns – this is a very violent sport and I have my children and I want him to be more present,” she told Elle magazine in September. “I’ve certainly had those conversations with him over and over again.”
Brady has also noted that his wife has taken on the lion’s share of managing their lives so he can play a sport he loves – but that doesn’t seem to have changed his professional decisions. “I think my wife has, you know, kept the house down for a long time now,” Brady said on his podcast last year. “And I think there are things that she wants to accomplish. You know, she hasn’t worked that hard in the last 10, 12 years, just raising our family and kind of committing to being in a life in Boston and then move to Florida. But that’s a problem, and it’s a very difficult problem to reconcile without just saying, ‘Hey, it’s time to retire.’ And I think you know we’re coming to an end here, too, so I don’t want to miss any of the kids’ stuff.”
But Brady, unlike his wife, remains full steam ahead. “I haven’t had a Christmas in 23 years, and I haven’t had a Thanksgiving in 23 years,” he said on a recent episode of his podcast. “I have not celebrated birthdays with people I care about who were born from August to the end of January. And I’m not able to be at funerals and I’m not able to be at weddings.” Last year, Brady said he believes he’s able to play until he’s 50 — at which point the oldest children (he also has a 15-year-old son with actress Bridget Moynahan) will grow up.
In her interview with Elle, Bündchen captured a sentiment that I imagine feels familiar to a great many married straight women who spent their 30s and 40s holding down the home front and supporting their husbands’ careers, only to see their children become more independent and wonder what’s Next? “I have done my part, i.e [to] be there for [Tom],” Bündchen told Elle. “I moved to Boston and I focused on creating a cocoon and a loving environment for my children to grow up in and to be there and support him and his dreams. To see my children succeed and become the beautiful little people that they are , to see him succeed and be fulfilled in his career—that makes me happy. At this point in my life, I feel like I’ve done a good job with that.”
But she added: “I have a huge list of things to do that I want to do.”
When women go through this life stage shift and the related questions of purpose arise, it can be a big transition for a family and they need their husbands to step up to their aspirations as women so often step up so men can get what they want in life. But all too often this give-and-take is just a take.
We don’t know what went on behind closed doors in the Brady-Bündchen household. And it’s unlikely that this divorce happened overnight. Rather, like most marital splits, it is likely the result of years of minor quibbles, disagreements, and resentments that eventually coalesced into a leaden lump of unhappiness that outweighed all the other good.
But part of the human fascination with celebrity is projection and aspiration. Celebrities end up as avatars for our own desires, jealousies, ambitions and insecurities. We don’t actually know why Bündchen and Brady are splitting up, and we probably never will—it’s possible that each of them could even diagnose different reasons for the end of their marriage. And so what we glean from their public statements and the narratives we cling to tells us a little about their marriage—and a whole lot about the still-unfinished business of American marriage equality.