So for a few moments, the corner of cyberspace that I tend to hang out in was all abuzz with the recent announcement that actress Gwyneth Paltrow and musician Chris Martin were splitting up. Hearing about it made me sad, because I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for her since “Shakespeare in Love” and an equally soft spot in my heart for him since the video for “Yellow”, and a synthesis of those soft spots for both of them when I learned that he wrote the song “Fix You” for her, following her father’s death. Ten years and counting seemed a pretty decent chunk of time to be married for a celebrity couple, with two children and not a lot of publicity seeping into the mainstream, so I had my fingers crossed for them, when I stopped to think about it.
But what really caught my eye was not the actuality of the announcement of their divorce, but the words that Paltrow chose to share the news – and the backlash that came from those words.
It actually was a pretty respectful announcement, in my opinion. For those who only have heard the buzz phrase, here’s the entire announcement:
It is with hearts full of sadness that we have decided to separate. We have been working hard for well over a year, some of it together, some of it separated, to see what might have been possible between us, and we have come to the conclusion that while we love each other very much we will remain separate. We are, however, and always will be a family, and in many ways we are closer than we have ever been. We are parents first and foremost, to two incredibly wonderful children and we ask for their and our space and privacy to be respected at this difficult time. We have always conducted our relationship privately, and we hope that as we consciously uncouple and coparent, we will be able to continue in the same manner.
Gwyneth & Chris
Ok, so they’re calling it quits. Happens all the time. Shrug, and move on, right?
Except this time, there was a hoopla, not so much about the actual divorce, or what might have brought it about, or the mudslinging or the trolling for a public airing of dirty laundry or the ferreting out by the media of as much dirt as could be dished or the celebrity obsessed public pushing to know all the sordid details – but because of the words “conscious uncoupling”.
As a wordsmith, I was delighted with the expression (if not the reality) of “conscious uncoupling”. I felt it was a wonderful way to invoke separation with a lingering tenderness. It seemed graceful and sensitive, without being cloying. My writer’s sensibilities nodded in approval when I heard it, feeling that it was a very erudite way of looking at a situation which is often equated with the tawdry and the sordid instead being a delicate untangling of what had been a very close but no longer viable relationship.
So it therefore took me totally by surprise that the phrase has been viewed as something quite different by many others. While I acknowledge that not everyone has the same sensibilities as I do, I was not ready for the vehemence of the response against “conscious uncoupling” and the person who had dared to express it.
“Pretentious” is the word that is probably the most widely word in response to “conscious uncoupling”, and certainly is less vitriolic than many of the other charges flung at the phrase and at Ms. Paltrow for coming up with it. I don’t know how many diatribes I read about the audacity of the rich and pompous to impose their vain, simpering whininess on us poor, hardworking nobodies – and I don’t even follow Hollywood gossip flows. It became a free-for-all in celebrity bashing, an across the board indictment of snobbishness and entitlement on many different platforms.
Perhaps Ms. Paltrow is pretentious. Perhaps there are reasons beyond her announcement that caused such a unilateral drubbing, I don’t know. Like I said, I tend to insulate myself from celebrity gossip. And to be honest, I might have had such a strong knee-jerk reaction to the pushback because there were so many sweeping indictments of the entire acting profession in what I read, whereas I know so many hard working actors, even well known ones, who struggle to make a living pursuing their art and don’t deserve to be lumped in with the few who seem oblivious to the emotional and physical toll that working in such a mercurial industry takes. But that’s a sidebar to my true bone of contention.
Words are all around us. Those of us who make our living – or at least include wordsmithing in our livelihood – are constantly searching for ways to share our thoughts, or ways to portray our characters or move forward our actions, that are fresh and, as far as they can be, unique. When I read a literary work, whether it be a novel, a short story, a poem or an essay, I look for clarity of voice, but also for an author’s ability to express that which is mundane in a way that is fresh and engaging. Folks who are able to use language in unconventional yet appropriate ways are called poetic and captivating; many of us strive for that, in our work and in our lives.
So please, from one word lover to another, don’t denigrate a phrase that is new and evocative, especially when it achieves what it has set out to do. “Conscious uncoupling” will no doubt be used derivatively, and will be fodder for countless late night television jokes for weeks and months; most likely it will be parroted facetiously and ruthlessly, and it does not deserve that treatment. There are so many other manipulative phrases that get free reign, that are not held to such scrutiny as this well meaning attempt to treat a difficult situation in a sensitive and gracious way.
It’s a shame, albeit a small one in the grand scheme of things. Still, I felt compelled to speak out in defense of a wonderful phrase caught up in a negative situation. I’m sure most folks will feel this is a tempest in a teapot, and I would even agree to an extent, but then, words are very important to me. They are my lifeline, and I revel in them.
Ah, well. At the very least, I appreciate the opportunity to speak my mind, even about something as diminutive as a simple phrase. It’s too late for “conscious uncoupling”, I’m afraid, but there’s always next time. After all, tomorrow is another day. (Now, there’s a phrase for the ages, eh?)