Recently, I Googled a keyword associated with the media coverage of Sophie Turner and Joe Jonas, the millennial power couple who recently announced they were ending their four-and-a-half-year marriage on Instagram following weeks of speculation.
There was a story attributing the split to the couple’s “very different lifestyles,” with a “source with direct knowledge” telling TMZ: “She likes to party, he likes to stay at home.” There was a story, also on TMZ, describing Jonas as being in “dad mode,” taking his two young daughters out to breakfast in L.A. with a woman in a ponytail, described as a “friend helping to take care of the girls.” And there was another story, also on TMZ, quoting “multiple sources” saying that the marriage ended because Jonas’s Ring camera “captured Sophie saying and/or doing something that made him realize the marriage was over.” (The “saying and/or doing something” is doing a lot of work there: Was she cheating? Was she slamming DNCE’s 2022 comeback single? Was she caught watching the season finale of And Just Like That… when she had promised Joe she would wait for him to catch up?)
Apart from the fact that someone at TMZ has likely been taking a lot of calls from Jonas’ crisis PR team, what do these Google search results teach us? They came up as the result of Googling the phrase “bad mom.”
Amid a slew of other news stories about bad mothers — about a woman who got yelled at on the internet when she breastfed after getting a spray tan, or a single mother whose 14-year-old was arrested for stealing a car — Turner has ended up with the same label as countless maligned maternal figures throughout history, from Medea to Mama Rose. Except her only crime, as far as the public knows, is being young, hot, famous, and in a high-profile marriage that appears to not be working out.
Over the course of the past few days, Jonas’ PR team has presumably been working overdrive planting seeds in the media accusing Turner of being a bad mother, without being seen actively accusing her of being one. Understanding this requires some working knowledge of how the celebrity media ecosystem works when a celebrity is in crisis, which usually involves highly paid crisis PR professionals giving tabloids information that pushes their side of the story, usually being cited as an “unnamed source” or a “source close to” the individual so as not to arouse suspicion. (TikToker Molly McPherson, a celebrity crisis PR professional, has a few pretty good videos explaining this playbook.)
This, in and of itself, is not at all that unusual. The Jonas/Turner split is far from the first messy celebrity divorce to play out in the headlines, and it won’t be the last. What is somewhat unusual is the specific messaging the media — presumably, with assistance from the Jonas camp — is using: that the marriage ended not because that is unfortunately what more than half of marriages in the U.S. do, but because Turner was somehow deficient in her child-rearing duties.
“Sophie Turner, 27, ‘felt trapped in her marriage to Joe Jonas and wants to relive her youth’ after marrying and having children young, friends say,” screamed one Daily Mail headline, along with images of Turner doing shots with her costars during a night out in Birmingham, where she is shooting her latest TV series. “Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner Reportedly ‘Agreed’ to Keep Kids in U.S. With Him Because of Her Work Schedule,” one headline in Elle states (again, “agreed” in quotes doing a lot of work there).
The narrative thus far has overwhelmingly been that Turner, who is seven years younger than Jonas, has chafed against the confines of her maternal responsibilities, leaving her two small children behind with her doting husband to focus on her career and partying in working-class U.K. cities. Meanwhile, Jonas, who is on tour with his band the Jonas Brothers, has been singlehandedly keeping the family afloat by taking the kids on tour and juggling his own career with child-rearing — something that eagle-eyed readers may notice is something that mothers have not only been encouraged, but expected, to do for decades. In the photos of him at breakfast with his daughters, he’s seen playing an active daddy role, cuddling them and giving them well-angled high-fives so the paps can get their shots, practically bathed in golden light like a Renaissance Madonna.
There is nothing new or particularly interesting about a hunky male celebrity getting his flowers in the press for fulfilling basic parenting duties — such as, in Jonas’ case, feeding his children. (Consider, for instance, the ejaculatory headlines about Jeremy Allen White’s family man Instagram feed, before The Bear blew up and he dumped his wife and started commenting on Alexa Demie’s Calvin Klein ads.) But it’s rare to see the media being so explicit in its bias against working mothers, or in its insistence on painting Turner as maternally deficient. There’s been no evidence that Turner has endangered or been neglectful of her children in any way; they weren’t with her in the Daily Mail bar photos, nor is it uncommon for a celebrity couple (or any couple, for that matter) to divvy up childcare according to their work obligations.
There is something unnecessarily mean and pointed and angry about the coverage of this divorce, and it seems to stem entirely from the assumption that public sympathies will naturally align with the handsome working dad over the young working mother. It also seems to be coming at a time when many appear to be harboring a tremendous amount of vitriol toward working mothers in general, who research shows are overwhelmingly burnt out and saddled with the vast majority of household labor.
Over the past year alone, there’s been a revolving cast of working-mom main characters who have been excoriated for having the audacity to appear anything other than elated with their circumstances: the cartoonist who was canceled for gently roasting her husband for taking the last peach when she was saving it for her kids, the TikToker who was blasted for having a “martyr complex” when she posted about being burdened with all the household labor while her husband played on his phone. There is this sense, post-pandemic, that the utter impossibility of balancing work with motherhood has been so well-established that, rather than come up with infrastructural solutions for this problem or exhibit any empathy for the millions of women in this position, we should all just shut the fuck up about it. And anyone who doesn’t — or who, as Turner has, publicly chafed against the shackles of domesticity by continuing to focus on her career and having a social life — is summarily penalized.
I have absolutely no knowledge of the circumstances of Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner’s divorce. Though I like both them and their work very much, and found their relationship as documented on social media quite charming, I can’t say I have any unique insight into what happened between them, nor is that lack of knowledge keeping me up at night. It’s entirely possible that Turner is a terrible person who doesn’t give a shit about her children (though I doubt it), and that Jonas is an upstanding father and husband who has assumed an active role in his children’s lives under deeply trying circumstances (though I doubt that too, considering everyone in this situation is rich and has extensive access to quality child care).
But as a young(ish) mother myself, watching another young woman be dragged through the mud for being a bad parent, simply for having the audacity to at least try to maintain a life of her own, does keep me up at night, kind of. It is deeply bothersome that in 2023, the media — and, by extension, presumably Jonas’ team — made a calculated decision to capitalize on decades of right-wing-driven rhetoric bullying women who make a concerted effort to balance work with family, to behave as they are supposed to.
Judging by the not-inconsiderable amount of backlash Jonas has been getting from feminists on social media, who have correctly identified it as a smear campaign, this strategy has not been entirely successful. But it’s working well enough that it’s setting a pretty bad precedent. Not just for women with children, who have enough experience being shamed for any number of reasons that they’re pretty well-attuned to sniffing out the bullshit Turner is going through right now, but also for women who may want to have children in the future as well — who hope against hope, as every ambitious woman who becomes a mother does, that they will be able to hold on to one sliver of their dreams while reaching for another. That they’ll be able to hold on to a part of themselves.
From Rolling Stone US