The early 2000s were, objectively, a pretty rough time. It was the peak of post-9/11 jingoism and everyone was either aggressively championing the Iraq War or making terrible concept albums protesting it; people were still using terms like “gay” pejoratively, to the point that Hilary Duff had to make a PSA about it; and it was impossible to find a dating-age male who could refrain from quoting Anchorman. Yet for whatever reason, the early Aughts occupies a cherished place in the cultural imagination today: Juicy Couture sweatsuits are selling out on resale sites, Paris Hilton has been rebranded from pampered party girl to shrewdly self-aware girl boss, and even George W. Bush is now remembered by zoomers more for his bathtub self-portraits than for his proto-fascism.
In such a nostalgia-happy context, the resurgence of Bennifer is almost painfully on brand. Earlier this week, Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez, who famously broke off their engagement just three days before the scheduled nuptials in January 2004, were photographed together gallivanting around Montana, where Affleck owns a home; while neither party has confirmed a renewed relationship, sources close to Lopez have told tabloids that the chemistry between the two of them is “unreal.”
On social media, people were elated by news that the couple had gotten back together. The reasons are slightly puzzling, considering that, as Slate pointed out, Bennifer was wildly unpopular in the press during its first incarnation. The couple drew opprobrium for their lavish public gestures (Affleck took out half-page ads in trade publications singing her praises, and it was reported, though never confirmed, that he once gifted Lopez with an $100,000 bedazzled toilet seat) and their cringey PDA in the music video for “Jenny from the Block,” featuring an infamous shot of Affleck kissing Lopez’s beige-thong-clad derriere on a yacht. They seemed an altogether unlikely pair — he the ruggedly handsome yet laid-back Bostonian, she the glitzy Latina pop superstar. As the sexist mores of that era of tabloid journalism dictated, she bore the brunt of much of the negative press, with Affleck recently calling out the “mean, sexist, racist” coverage of her at the time. But it was also press they undoubtedly courted, as evidenced by the fact that when they did eventually announce their engagement, it was on an ABC primetime special with Diane Sawyer.
The fervor is also a little confusing given that, when you really think about it, the reunion between the two megastars isn’t all that surprising. Both Lopez and Affleck are recently on the rebound — Lopez from her relationship with baseball superstar Alex Rodriguez, and Affleck from Cuban-Spanish actor Ana de Armas — and the two reportedly reconnected after Affleck messaged Lopez to check in on her following her breakup with Rodriguez. Jet-setting to Montana and hiring out Escalades aside, such behavior is reminiscent of that of a lonely divorcé who has a few too many Molsons and slides into his college ex-girlfriend’s DMs after she changes her Facebook status from “married” to “it’s complicated.” For middle-aged straight people, checking in on former sexual partners after a major life change is simply part of their habitus, like buying Rae Dunn pottery or reading signs out loud during road trips.
And yet, people reacted to the news of Bennifer 2.0 with unabashed surprise and glee, mirthfully tweeting about how they never expected to cross off the reunion on their 2021 bingo cards. It didn’t seem to occur to anyone that Bennifer didn’t work out for the first time for a reason (the couple cited the press intruding on their privacy, but at the time, tabloid rumors abounded that Affleck had cheated on J.Lo with an exotic dancer while partying with Christian Slater in Vancouver). Nor did it appear to make a difference that both Affleck and Lopez have gotten bad press as of late: Affleck for messaging a young woman he matched with on the dating app Raya, and Lopez for reports of diva-esque behavior like mistreating airline employees circulating on Instagram gossip accounts. Apparently, after 20 years of serious consideration of the subject, we had all reconvened and reached the conclusion that Jen and Ben belonged together.
In recent years, there’s been a trend toward reappraising and reevaluating previously reviled cultural phenomena; think the repositioning of the narrative surrounding Hilton or Britney Spears, or the newfound vilification of Justin Timberlake for failing to defend Janet Jackson from the fallout of the Nipplegate scandal. For the most part, this is a good thing: It prompts us to be more keenly attuned to our own biases and those of the media, and theoretically gives us a framework for developing a more nuanced view of current events. But it also leads to a reflexive sense of nostalgia or appreciation for things that maybe do not merit it. For all of her gifts as a savvy self-marketer, Hilton is also guilty of encouraging a generation of young women’s worst materialist or capitalist impulses; similarly, as a member of a generation of women who developed mild to moderate eating disorders from being inundated with images of Mischa Barton and Nicole Richie in low-rise jeans, I would be perfectly happy to see that particular trend left in the past.
It’s understandable that, on the heels of a year marked by tremendous trauma, suffering, and disappointment, people would be comforted by a reminder from their past in the form of the reunion of an extremely high-profile celebrity couple. But frankly, the prospect of once again tracking the indulgences and over-the-top displays of affection of an extremely hot pair of middle-aged people on the rebound sounds exhausting. Early-2000s nostalgia can only take us so far. If there must be a Bennifer 2.0, let it be Affleck and his ex-wife Jennifer Garner. She seems lovely, and maybe she can finally convince him to get rid of his phoenix back tattoo.