It didn’t take long for news of Joe Jonas and Sophie Turner’s divorce to turn ugly.
News began swirling Sunday that Jonas had retained a divorce lawyer. By Tuesday, the pop singer had filed paperwork in Florida’s Miami-Dade County stating that his relationship with the actress is “irretrievably broken.” And by Wednesday, a hoard of tabloids and internet sleuths had spun a web of theories about the couple’s marital woes — citing anonymous sources, past interviews, paparazzi photos and social media posts as “clues” of trouble.
Reports became so dizzying that the pair broke their silence Wednesday, releasing a joint statement on the divorce: “There are many speculative narratives as to why but, truly this is a united decision and we sincerely hope that everyone can respect our wishes for privacy for us and our children.”
Such “speculative narratives” are an unfortunate side effect of how public obsession with celebrity manifests online. Multiple tabloids, including TMZ and the Daily Mail, cited anonymous sources to characterize Turner, 27, as a partygoer who felt trapped in her marriage and wanted to live out her youth. Meanwhile, Jonas, 34, was painted as a dutiful father, solely caring for their two young children even as his band, the Jonas Brothers, is on tour.
Some have speculated about who was making these allegations, while others have sympathized with Turner — further highlighting an era in celebrity breakups where intense fan bases, blind items and unsealed court documents are used to sway and control public opinion.
“We have a long history of developing factions in celebrity culture fandoms,” said Erin Meyers, a professor at Oakland University in Rochester, Mich., who has studied celebrity culture. “Getting us angry is a surefire way to get us to click on things and engage with things, and so that, I think, relates to and bleeds into celebrity culture.”
But some members of the public have become too savvy for alleged spin and clickbait strategies.
“I think I’m supposed to gather from all the carefully placed headlines that she’s a partier and thus a bad mom, while he is the hero dad making sacrifices,” Jezebel’s former editor in chief Laura Bassett wrote in a viral post on X (formerly Twitter), “but no one seems to question why he at 30 decided to marry a 23-year-old and thought she’d suddenly turn into a tradwife.”
Others similarly came to Turner’s defense by digging up an interview she gave early on in the pandemic on Conan O’Brien’s talk show: “I’m an introvert, I’m a homebody,” she said in April 2020. “If I could stay at home all day I would, so this is great for me.”
The media’s focus on Turner’s parenting and purported nightlife interests show how the archetypal role of mothers is far more entrenched in society than the role of the fathers, said Sara Petersen, a writer and author of “Momfluenced: Inside The Maddening, Picture-Perfect World of Mommy Influencer Culture.”
“We still presume a good mother to adhere to mid-century gender norms, and we will accept pretty much anything from a father,” she said.
“Like even if she does like to party … that has nothing to do with her ability to care for a child, make a child feel safe and secure and loved, and provide for a child. It has absolutely nothing to do with her mothering capabilities,” Petersen added. “Nor does the assertion that [Jonas] is a homebody have anything to do with his capabilities as a parent.”
Turner and Jonas began dating in 2016 and married during a small Las Vegas ceremony after the Billboard Music Awards in May 2019. They share two daughters, born in July 2020 and July 2022, whom they have famously shielded from the public eye — a decision that Turner has had to justify to the public and implore her followers to respect, highlighting the outsize scrutiny moms face, Petersen said.
“It points to the need for her to defend her actions and to explain herself, and I’m not sure that would be the same for a man in that position,” she said. “It falls to mothers to justify their parenting identities and choices in a way that it doesn’t for fathers.”
Like Turner, other celebrity women have endured years of scrutiny and speculation about their love lives and parenting choices. An especially nasty narrative spread in the aftermath of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s divorce, with tabloids reporting as recently as last year that sources close to Pitt accused Jolie of launching a “smear campaign” against him with claims of physical abuse.
The advent of digital media brought a shift in celebrity culture as gossip blogs started to emerge in the early and mid-2000s — and women felt the brunt of that change, said Meyers, whose books and research articles examine the intersection of celebrity culture and the media.
Meyers said a common thread in these celebrity stories are the bigger questions it raises around certain social issues — from what constitutes sexual abuse in Amber Heard and Johnny Depp’s case to how parents may be grappling with postpartum depression and mental health in Turner and Jonas’s. (On Thursday, TMZ alleged Jonas was “less than supportive” when Turner struggled after the birth of their second child.)
“People are more willing to engage with complexities,” she said. “The celebrity is just a conduit for these discussions and for people’s intense feelings about particular social issues.”
For Petersen, the discourse also mirrors the Depp-Heard defamation trial, in which public sentiment was weaponized to support Depp, she said. Though in Turner’s case, Petersen said she’s been heartened by growing commentary from the media and the public pushing back against mom-shaming narratives about the actress.
She pointed to a story in Glamour magazine that called out the “bad mom” narrative against Turner as thinly veiled misogyny.
“This does feel different, in that progressive lefties are really being loud about this really quickly, which I think is interesting and good,” she said. “It does feel like somewhat of a reversal of the way any sort of accusations of bad womanhood or bad motherhood usually go, which is that that narrative usually becomes the loudest one.”