Amy Poehler Can’t Have It All

You’ve heard the news: Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are separating after 9 years and 2 kids together.

Last week, when I posted a blind item from Lainey Gossip alluding to as much, I was somewhat taken aback by the response.  I love Amy Poehler and Will Arnett (I especially love Amy Poehler, but we’ll get to that), but I didn’t realize that so many other people did as well.  We’re talking profound investment in this relationship — far more than one would expect, especially given that the two are not, by any means, tremendous stars.  They’re television personalities, they’re tremendously talented, but movie stars they are not.

And it’s not just fans: The AV Club declared the very “concept of love” dead; over at Gawker, “Amy Poehler and Will Arnett are Separating So Go Home and Break Up with Your Boyfriend Because ‘Love’ Is a Lie.”


Reactions fall into three general categories:

1.) I’m never invested in celebrity relationships, but I’m invested in this one, and this sucks.

2.) They seemed genuinely happy; this is sad.

3.) If Poehler can’t do it, no one can.


Granted, I concede that most of the sadness is flowing through the conduits of my Twitter and Facebook feeds, along with the comments on The Hairpin, Gawker, The AV Club, and similar publications.  In other words, people who consume/love Poehler/Arnett products, which is a rather specific demographic.  To spell it out: educated, upper middle-class, media-hipsters (a different category than the normal hipster; we consume hip media but are not actually hip.  God knows I’m not hip.  I just watch Louie and love Ron Swanson.)

With that in mind, here’s what I think is happening: this quirky, intelligent, companionable couple can’t make a relationship work long-term, and it highlights the tremendous challenges to maintaining a similar relationship in our “real” lives.

Let me take a step back.

Amy Poehler’s image = Intelligent, feminist, tremendously hard-working.  Success on her own terms.  Beautiful in a non-traditional who-needs-to-be-a-supermodel-I-mean-seriously way.  Powerful friendship with another powerful woman.  When asked by Seventeen how she got boys to notice her when she was young, she responded “I had no idea how to get boys to notice me.  I still don’t.  Who cares?”

Like many television personalities, her image is very closely aligned with her television character.  In my mind, Poehler is Parks and Rec‘s Leslie Knope, minus a bit of the neuroses.  Like Knope, Poehler’s worked very hard to reach a position of power; she does something she loves.  She’s a feminist who is unafraid to be unpopular.  She thinks women are important and awesome.  I mean, Galentine’s Day!

Unlike Knope, Poehler also two (very adorable, very normal looking) children, and didn’t seem to have Knope’s struggle between desiring romance and following her life-long ambition.

….Until, seemingly, now.  Amy Poehler “had it all.”  I realize how problematic that phrase is, and it has been problematized thoroughly in recent months following the publication of Anne-Marie Slaughter’s “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” in The Atlantic.  Slaughter pointed to why “it all” is impossible; others pointed to why “it all” is ridiculous.  But star images embody concepts that don’t exist in real life, but which we nevertheless strive for: Marilyn Monroe was innocent sexuality; Angelina Jolie is domestic, exotic sexuality.  And Amy Poehler was “having it all” — intelligence, fame, respect, equitable partnership, children.

The fact that the two of them are both comedians also makes it seem possible to PLAYFULLY “have it all” — and even professionally collaborate! To great success!  I always forget about the their performances in Blades of Glory.  Perfection.


But Mallory Ortberg (handle: Melis) got it right in the comments on The Hairpin:

She’s being somewhat facetious, of course, but she’s right: a lot of us (me, you, others who read this blog) identify with Poehler or Arnett and their particular negotiation of “having it all.”  We know very, very little of their actual relationship.  What we do know is what it seemed to represent, and what its demise seems to represent.

I’m rewatching Season 4 of Parks and Rec right now, and it’s no spoiler to say how painful it is to watch Poehler’s character torn between her affection for Ben and the fact that her run for city council makes that relationship legally impossible.  It tortures Leslie, and it tortures me — in part because the show is literalizing the tension many women feel in their own careers, only toss in the desire for a baby or two as well. To see that tension spread to Poehler’s extra-textual life makes it all the more poignant.

I can’t speak to what upsets men about the end of this relationship.  I imagine it’s not altogether dissimilar: it might be historically easier for men to “have it all,” but most of the awesome men that I know want their partners to “have it all” as well.  For these feminist men, their own version of “having it all” means equitable having-it-all-ness: something, again, that Poehler and Arnett’s collective image representative.  (Please, Disappointed Men, elaborate/expand in the comments).

There might not be such a thing as taking news like this “too personal.”  Remember: what we talk about when we talk about celebrities is, as ever, ourselves.

19 Responses to “Amy Poehler Can’t Have It All”

  1. Mallory says:

    Wait I demand further clarification on the concept of “domestic, exotic sexuality”!!!

  2. Mallory says:

    DEMAND RESCINDED as I now realize you mean “domestic” as in “housebound and momming” not, like, “of the United States.” Carry on/this was great!

  3. Angela says:

    I find it interesting that the story being put about is that the split is amicable. Somehow that makes it easier to deal with losing the beautiful dream they represented.

  4. 'stina says:

    My husband and I are huge fans of Up All Night, and a lot of it has to do with Will Arnett. (In part, because Chris on the show is remarkably similar to me.) We convinced ourselves that his awesome character on the show is informed by his relationship with Poehler.

    Angela, a celebrity gossip site I follow said “amicable” is code for “that this was a long time coming and except for the rumblings kept everything pretty quiet and managed to settle what needed to be settled.”

    • Angela says:

      I want to believe that is not the case, but someone on the Hairpin (I think) mentioned rumors that he was having an affair with Christina Applegate. I love Up All Night and wouldn’t really have a problem with their pairing based on that, but I would hate Will for doing that to Amy.

  5. Gabrielle says:

    I’m so there with you. It’s funny because I was just reading Mindy Kaling’s book & she even mentions Amy & Will’s marriage and how much she admired it, how she wanted something just like it. So even to the people closer to them, they seemed to “have it all,” persay. I’m just sad because they did seem genuinely happy, and breakups suck.

    • Erin says:

      Yes–I was going to mention this, too. I think we all (including Kaling! Who has actually met them! AIYEEEE!) think of them as relatively “normal” even though they’re famous. Other celebrities may break up and make up and I barely notice, but this feels like your best couple friends just split and now you feel weird and can’t ask either of them to dinner and you wish you had more couple friends and GOD WHAT IS THE WORLD COMING TO?!

  6. Jason says:

    I am a man made disappointed by this news, and my disappointment aligns largely with what you wrote. There are certain celebrities we invest in or root for because we want them to succeed, we want the things/ideas/qualities/talents they represent to succeed, we want the world in general, and the people in our lives specifically (including ourselves), to become more like these people. Tina Fey/Liz Lemon is another of these, and I imagine I would be equally disappointed to hear that she and her husband were divorcing, even if I don’t know her husband’s name. To many of us, no matter how progressive we may be about social issues in general, divorce is still a sad, bad, unfortunate thing, and to some discernible degree it’s a taint on the divorcees. When the divorcees are celebrities who represent an ideal of some sort, an ideal we are invested in supporting and spreading, then the ideal, too, is tainted in a way, or so we feel, even if we think feeling that way is ridiculous. After all, even if we are ambivalent about divorce, we don’t want to spread it; we don’t want our friends or family to get divorced; we don’t want to get divorced ourselves. My own experience is that it becomes harder to maintain my enthusiasm about an ideal once I know there are fractures it can’t protect against. Which is pretty silly because nothing is perfect, but that’s the way this kind of thing works: it’s fun, escapist, and probably even healthy to invest in ideals, and a fractured ideal is not really ideal. It’s something less. Sometimes it’s much less and sometimes, as I suspect will be the case here because Amy is so awesome, it’s only slightly less, but it’s less nonetheless.

    My disappointment comes not from the fact that these two human beings got divorced – their individual happiness is important, too, right? – but that a favored archetype, the woman who has it all (and makes it seem easy), suffered a setback of some sort. Because let’s be real, this has very little to do with Will Arnett. We would likely feel this way about Amy Poehler no matter who she was divorcing; the same is just not true for her now ex-husband. We only care about Will getting divorced to the extent that it’s Amy on the other side.

    By the way, I am uncomfortable with the idea of anyone, woman or man, needing to “have it all” to be happy or successful. The reason for this is well-captured in the irony here, which is that Poehler might well be happier now than she was when we thought she “had it all”. I had a friend who got divorced recently and I made the mistake of telling him I was sorry. He responded, “For what? We got divorced because we weren’t happy. What’s there to be sorry about? I’m happy now. You should be congratulating me.”

    • Rachel Benoit says:

      Well said. I too think it’s probably healthy to invest in ideals. But perhaps the ideal of married life is really not the end-all we imagine.

  7. Ann Marie says:

    When we talk about amicable divorces, don’t we simply mean “NOT-Alex Baldwin and Kim Bassinger-style” divorce? Especially when children and custody is involved, the public evisceration of one’s former spouse is something to avoid in the TMZ, voicemail hacking, scandal-ridden age.

    I think that term of art says little about the relationship itself, and a lot about how the end of the relationship will be portrayed in the media.

  8. Tasha says:

    Have you listened to her awesome interview with Marc Maron? The way she described meeting and falling in love with Will only adds to the sadness, speaking as a fan. You’re so right about how the extra-textual elements all contribute to this representation of their love, especially when celebrities take part in its construction through interviews and so forth. But it’s interesting (or maybe ironic?) how much we want to believe that certain celebrities can “have it all” when in actuality they seem the least likely to be able to achieve this. Celebrities don’t exactly have great track records when it comes to marriage…

    Btw love the term “media-hipster”! I can thoroughly identify with that. :)

  9. Lauren says:

    In order to be less sad, you all should visit her youtube channel.

    There’s a great ep on a young feminist, but all of it is so worth it.

    • irieagogo says:

      You will still be saddened because when they end the episode like they end every episode: DANCE PARTY! You will see Will Arnett peanuting with his ipod earphones, and you will think once again how cute Amy & Will are and how much fun they must have together, and will say to yourself, look, he’s supportive of the Smart Girls, too.

      Sucha bummer.

  10. Bia says:

    When I saw the AVClub Newswire article the first thing I thought was “Man, it must suck to be going through a divorce and see people react to it like that.” I mean, I’m sad too, but Poehler and Arnett must be going like “You think love died because we split up? I was already feeling crappy, now I’ll be alone forever and spreading the sadness around.”

    I know they’re smarter than that, but it must suck.

    • Lindsey says:

      THIS. They never offered themselves up as the embodiment of the perfect love that will never die. We don’t have the right to put that burden on them. They’re only human.

  11. Luna11 says:

    I don’t know. I doubt Poehler and Arnett, if they are reading any of the media coverage of their divorce, are taking such headlines seriously. Does anyone? “Media hipsters” should probably be used to ridiculous headlines that use wild exaggeration in an attempt to be funny. It’s an interesting question, though. How much should celebrities expect the public to invest in their lives? Does it relate to how much they choose to share, how “big” their careers are, what demographic they appeal to, etc?

  12. Luna11 says:

    Ooops, that last comment was meant as a reply to Lindsey

  13. [...] Why we’re all so upset about Amy Poehler and Will Arnett seperating. [...]

  14. Cory22 says:

    Did anyone else, uh, kinda forget they were even married? Maybe it’s just that I’ve been so enamored with Parks and Rec these past couple seasons — and that Poehler has done such a fantastic job of keeping her public image fixed on her work with that show as opposed to her family — that I think many people are jarred by the news simply because it feels like such a weird intrusion on their personal lives. I guess the ‘having it all’ question is a bit more complicated; in my mind, that question is almost always an economic one — not just ‘how do we balance work and family’ but ‘how are we going to afford balancing work and family? who works more? who works less? who saves to pay this loan/who spends on mortgage, food, etc.?’ and it’s hard to see any celebrity, let alone two successful and well-respected ones, having to spend much time worrying about this version of ‘it all.’ amy poehler is able to have it all, and probably will for the rest of her life, because she has the resources to do so.