This summer, a very public display of affection (PDA) between Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck confirmed the news that everyone had been hoping for; that almost 19 years after their first relationship, the couple – or Bennifer as they were affectionately known by fans – was back together.
The rumours started back in May after Affleck was spotted wearing the same watch Lopez gifted him in 2002 when he starred in the music video for her hit single “Jenny From The Block”. Fans went wild for the prospect of a reunion, and this week, they gave their reignited relationship the ultimate seal of commitment in the celebrity world, by walking the red carpet together.
Arriving at the screening of The Last Duel at the Venice Film Festival, they posed side by side before kissing for the cameras. Photographs of the pair, either engaged in a smooch or gazing lovingly into one another’s eyes quickly went viral. Then, as if the internet wasn’t already obsessed enough, they engaged in the most 2021 PDA of all time: kissing through their face masks at the Met Gala.
Bennifer isn’t the only couple making headlines with their out-there lip locking. More than a year after confirming their relationship in July 2020, Megan Fox and Machine Gun Kelly have looked loved up as ever at various celebrity events. After Kourtney Kardashian and Travis Barker made their relationship red-carpet official by touching tongues in front of the cameras at Sunday’s MTV 2021 Video Music Awards, Kelly and Fox joined them in the men’s bathroom to reenact the same pose for a couples’ shot. The PDA bug has even bitten the usually low-key Avril Lavigne, who was also spotted kissing her partner Mod Sun on the red carpet for the first time at the awards show.
Simone Bose, a counsellor at Relate, says PDA is mostly a healthy thing to engage in with a partner because it keeps you connected to each other whilst around other people. It also has a calming effect, she says, because it reduces the body’s primary stress hormone, cortisol, and increases oxytocin, also dubbed the “love hormone”. But it can also be less about how each person in the relationship feels about the other, and more about how their relationship appears to the outside world. “It has a sense of showing you are a unit. Some people need public validation. They need to have their partner show that they are proud to be with them and vice versa,” Bose says.
For us laypeople, the gap between our private lives and public lives is much smaller, and much of what we do in public goes unnoticed and undocumented, so engaging in PDA is a much more unremarkable behaviour that isn’t given much of a second thought. But for celebrities who are constantly scrutinised, displaying affection becomes another part of an “image management tactic”, Dr Madeleine Mason Roantree, a relationship psychologist at The Vida Consultancy says.
This is heightened on a red carpet when celebrities know they will be photographed and seen by millions across the world. “For celebrities, it’s more of a statement, and it’s thought out as a performance,” Bose says. “They are trying to say that they’re wildly in love, that they’re having an amazing time and that they are proud of their relationship,” she adds.
While celebrity PDA is hardly a new phenomenon, nor are red carpet relationship debuts, social media culture and restrictions on social interactions imposed during the coronavirus pandemic have certainly changed the way celebrities are publicising their relationships.
As the pandemic brought a standstill to many celebrity events, notable red carpet soirees like the Cannes Film Festival and Met Gala were cancelled in 2020, while the 72nd Emmy Awards took place virtually. And, without an upcoming red carpet event to announce new relationships via the press, many turned to social media.
Fox and Kelly confirmed their romance by getting matching manicures, while Travis went as far as to get Kourtney’s name tattooed on himself. Kelly and Fox even faced backlash last week after she hinted that the couple had sex on a dining table in an Airbnb in a post on Instagram. The actor shared a photograph of herself leaning back against a large table, with the caption: “When I tell you that the table at this Airbnb saw some things.” All but confirming what she was alluding to, Kelly commented: “I’m really glad that’s not our table anymore.”
Roantree says that this willingness to share so much of their relationships could suggest that “the divide between public and private life has become more porous amongst more celebrities” during the pandemic. “Many couples have spent so much time together in lockdown that they were able to be more physically affectionate, so perhaps their social boundaries when it comes to public displays of affection are blurred,” she says.
Bose says the sudden increase in displays of affection between many celebrity couples now that real life events are back on the table, could simply be to show off a new relationship that they weren’t able to during lockdown. “Take Ben Affleck and J-Lo, that’s planned in some way. Why is it that we are always seeing them kissing? They want to establish themselves as a couple because as we know, couples can be quite powerful together in Hollywood,” she says.
Arguably, one reason celebrity couples may be engaging in so much PDA as of late is the positive response from the public. A possible Bennifer reunion was the subject of headlines for weeks before pictures of them kissing sent the internet into a complete frenzy. The buzz around the couple could be credited to the public’s penchant for a rom-com-esque storyline of an old love reignited, or because good news during a pandemic has been hard to come by. As one Twitter user admitted: “Yes I am obsessed with Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez‘s reunion. Joy is hard to come by these days alright. I take it where I can get it.” And, with celebrities more than familiar with trolling and cancellation – we can hardly blame them for taking the good when it comes.
As the response to that video of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain at the Venice Film Festival suggests, people simply love love, and celebrities know it. Isaac and Chastain, who are co-stars of a new drama series, Scenes Of A Marriage, put on an affectionate display on the red carpet, with Isaac stroking her arm before gently kissing it. “God bless the person who decided to slo-mo this video of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in Venice,” one person tweeted. “The tender arm stroke, eyebrow raise… they are giving us the red carpet chemistry that we didn’t even realise we needed.”
Chastain and Isaac are both married to other people – Isaac to Danish film director Elvira Lind since 2017 (who was present at the festival and watching the actors from the side), and Chastain, to an executive at fashion brand Moncler. Their display, therefore, appeared as the affection of a platonic friendship – and what can be more pure than that?
As the relationship experts suggest, this sudden influx in public displays of affection between celebrities – whether platonic or not – could be the result of a pandemic that gave them enough time away from the media that the lines between their private and public lives became somewhat blurred. Or perhaps the greater autonomy over the narrative of their lives, afforded to them by social media, has inspired Hollywood’s stars to take back control of how their relationships are perceived by the public.
Or, as I’d love to believe, there’s a much simpler explanation: that even Hollywood stars aren’t above the desire for closeness to one another that we yearned for more than ever during the pandemic. After more than 18 months of social restrictions, maybe there’s just more love to go around.