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.