Editor’s note: Jill Filipovic is a New York-based journalist and the author of OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind. Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this comment are solely their own. View more opinions on CNN.
After legendary NFL quarterback Tom Brady and supermodel Gisele Bundchen got divorced, the media speculation machine went into overdrive – everyone wanted a reason.
The guesswork is understandable (I, too, want to know why a famous and beautiful couple break up after 13 years). And given the couple’s celebrity status, intruding on a painful and personal moment is to be expected for them, albeit quite naughty and unkind too.
But I suspect the public’s fascination with the Brady Bundchen divorce stems from the fact that this couple’s breakup hits a perfect celebrity sweet spot: These are two people who are totally unlike us, but who nonetheless share a familiarity Gender seem to separate dynamics that are immediately relatable.
Brady and Bundchen occupied a rare arena of fame, as both are among America’s most recognizable personalities, but both are also seen more often than heard. Sure, they made occasional media appearances, but their fame dates back to what seems increasingly a bygone age of American celebrity: when people were famous for incredible talent (or, in Bundchen’s case, incredible beauty and an intuitive sense of how to do something the camera captures it).
In our reality-tv-saturated era, when some of the most famous people in America are TikTok teenagers and self-proclaimed “housewives,” and the dominant celebrity-quick scheme seems to be to radically overexpose yourself on social media, Brady and Bundchen cut 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-nightshade diet, Brady’s fake newspaper, his elementary school bedtime — are the “celebrities” kind: They aren’t like us” details that make them intriguing and somewhere between ambitious and charmingly wacky.
Brady’s apparent reputation as a political conservative and his past friendliness with former President Donald Trump threatened to make him a mere mortal, at least among his more liberal supporters, until he dodged Trump’s offers of public support. The scandal was averted, and the Brady Bundchen unit retained their aura cast in gold.
But her divorce could bring her down to earth in public. The general consensus among speculators seems to be that there were problems when Brady announced his retirement but then didn’t pull out. Bundchen’s public statements suggest that he is concerned about Brady’s health because he plays a dangerous sport and that – after years of sacrifice to succeed professionally – he has a desire to spend more time with her family.
For many heterosexual couples, this dynamic is familiar and frustrating. The woman who withdraws to look after the children and make sure her husband succeeds – and the husband who doesn’t seem to appreciate the sacrifice and pushes himself further professionally when necessary at the expense of his family .
For much of Brady-Bulpen’s marriage, both have been at the top of their respected fields: Bancing is one of the world’s most famous supermodels, and Brady may be the greatest quarterback of all time. But while Bundchen visibly overhauled her professional life when she had children, Brady didn’t. “I made a conscious decision to retire from modeling in 2015 as I wanted to focus more on my family and personal projects,” Bundchen wrote in her memoir Lessons: My Journey to a Meaningful Life.
She certainly hasn’t stopped working. But she retired from the catwalk and focused more on photoshoots. She moved to Boston — not exactly a fashion hub — and then back to Florida for Brady’s career. And it seems that while she was patient and waiting for him to retire at a reasonable point in his career, she was also worried about how much football was taking its toll on his body. “Obviously I have my concerns — it’s a very violent sport and I have my kids and I want it to have more exposure,” she told Elle magazine in September. “I’ve definitely had those conversations with him over and over again.”
Brady, too, has noted that his wife has taken on the lion’s share of managing her life so he can play the sport he loves – but that doesn’t seem to have changed his career choices. “I think my wife has had a handle on the house for a long time,” Brady said on his podcast last year. “And I think there are things that she wants to achieve. You know, she hasn’t worked that much in the last 10, 12 years, just raised our family and kind of committed to having a life in Boston and then moving to Florida. But that’s a problem, and it’s very difficult to reconcile without just saying, “Hey, it’s time to retire.” And I think we’re nearing the end of that as well, so I don’t want to miss any of the kids’ stuff.”
But Brady, unlike his wife, has gone full steam ahead. “I haven’t had a Christmas in 23 years and I haven’t had 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 between August and late January. And I can’t be at funerals and I can’t be at weddings.” Last year, Brady said he believes he’ll be able to play until he’s 50, by which time the oldest children (he has also a 15-year-old son with actress Bridget Moynahan).
In her interview with Elle, Bundchen captured a sentiment I think is familiar to many married straight women who’ve spent their 30s and 40s holding down the home front and supporting her husband’s careers only to see theirs Children are becoming more independent and wondering what’s next? “I’ve done my part, that is [to] be there for [Tom]’ Bundchen said to Elle. “I moved to Boston and focused on creating a cocoon and loving environment for my children to grow up in and support him and his dreams. Seeing my kids succeed and grow into the beautiful little people they are, seeing 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 at it.”
But she added, “I have a huge list of things I need to do that I want to do.”
When women go through this change in life stage and the questions of meaning that come with it, it can be a big adjustment for a family and they need their husbands to fulfill their aspirations, just as women so often stand up so that men can get what they need want in life. But all too often this give and take is just a take.
We don’t know what happened behind the closed doors of the Brady Bundchen household. And it’s unlikely that this divorce happened overnight. Rather, like most marital strife, it’s likely the result of years of minor misalignments, disagreements, and resentments that eventually coalesced into a leaden lump of dissatisfaction that outweighed all other good things.
But part of the human fascination with celebrity is projection and aspiration. Celebrities end up as avatars of our own desires, jealousies, ambitions and insecurities. We don’t know exactly why Bundchen and Brady broke up, and we probably never will — it’s possible that each of them even diagnoses different reasons for the end of their marriage. So what we glean from her public statements and the narratives we hold on to tells us a little bit about her marriage — and a whole lot about the still-unfinished business of equality in American marriages.
Note: This article has been updated to reflect recent developments.