When we look back on 2021, what will we think defined it? Yes, a certain novel coronavirus might spring to mind, but that’s not all she wrote. There’s also been supply chain issues, the Lil Nas X satanic panic, the final socially accepted season of Love Island, the Capitol insurrection, puff sleeves, the Euros that I’m pretty sure – no need to check this – England won. But I would like to suggest that we should also remember this year for something else, something that has occurred in abundance, yet has thus far gone unanalysed. Divorce.
Every year has its crop of high-profile divorces, but 2021 seems to have had more than its fair share. There was the Scenes from a Marriage remake, as well as a movie and a diabolical Netflix musical about Princess Diana and Prince Charles’ doomed union, hot on the heels of the latest series of The Crown in late 2020. Kim Kardashian and Kanye West called it quits, as did Bill and Melinda Gates. We witnessed Mary-Kate Olsen’s Zoom divorce from Olivier Sarkozy. Matt Hancock’s dachshund looked on with grave acceptance as his owner packed a car full of his belongings. Jason Sudeikis attended the 2021 Golden Globes remotely in a deeply divorced tie-dye hoodie. Michael Gove is single now. Some relationships are serious and highly publicised enough that when they end, it is a divorce in all but name, as was the case with Grimes and Elon Musk, who is the goblin king of being divorced, the divorce Wario to Ben Affleck’s divorce Mario.
It’s not just celebrities. The Independent reported data from the UK’s largest family law firm earlier this year suggesting that enquiries from people seeking divorces almost doubled in 2021 as compared with 2020. It makes an intuitive kind of sense. Lockdown tested even the strongest relationships and it seems that by 2021, many people decided that enough was enough. Related to but not quite the same as the sheer number of divorces, though, I feel that there has been a high concentration of a particular kind of “divorce energy” this year.
But first, what is divorce energy, generally? Of course, I’m not talking about the actual down and dirty details of ending a marriage. Not the kids leaking hot tears onto their pillows in the dead of night, not the partially inflated air mattress on the office floor, not the desolate clink of washing up being done in a room still ringing with an argument. And I’m not talking about divorces precipitated by the tragedy of abuse or alcoholism or some sort of unforgivable crime. None of that is fun, is it? I’m talking about people, items and events that give off the essence of divorce as a concept.
Divorce energy is tricky to define because it takes a few different forms. It can be thriving ostentatiously, but it can also be unravelling ostentatiously. Re-invention of the self, for better or for worse, is divorce energy. Whether or not a person is actually divorced has very little to do with whether they have divorce energy. It can be innate. Ricky Gervais has it and he has been happily married for almost 30 years. Inanimate objects can have it too: personalised number plates, red dresses, bonsai trees, rowing machines, whiskey, any book with “F*ck” in the title. The Nextdoor app. All of northern Europe has it to some degree but particularly Sweden and Russia. The state of California. Brands can also have it: Superdry, Rigby and Peller, New Balance since that Times magazine picture of George Osborne wearing a pair came out.
It’s important to note that, fairly or unfairly, there is a marked difference between male divorce energy and female divorce energy. It is the difference between Nicole Kidman rejoicing in the sunlight outside her lawyer’s office and Karl van Houten’s race car bed in The Simpsons. Do we laugh too much at divorced men? Probably. Does this piece intend to redress the balance? Not really, no. The flashy post-divorce glow-up is something that men have not cracked yet. Are women better at moving on? Or is it that society demands that women prove they are doing well after a divorce, while straight men can flail around, sleeping on month-old sheets and wearing threadbare sweatshirts, and still find themselves remarried to someone vastly better than them faster than you can say Rustlers Microwavable Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
More often, with men, there is a too-strong flavour of the tragic. Twitter centrists’ pictures of their pale, unsettling home-cooked dinners. Middle-aged men tagging the Didn’t Happen of the Year Awards in women’s posts on Christmas day. Lawrence Fox’s live performance of his cancel culture anthem on Jeremy Vine. Paul Hollywood in full leathers astride a motorcycle, the masterminds of failed projects on Grand Designs, the “What a sad little life, Jane” guy. Miles Klee has already done a close study of the specific divorce energy that Jeff Bezos has – the pointedly toned physique, the shaven head, the standard-issue rich divorcé gilet – but it was in 2021 when he reached full metal divorce by going to space in a Stetson.
Female divorce energy, on the other hand, affirms the truth that divorce can be chic. This is the sort of asinine thing it’s easy to argue if, like me, you have never been divorced or married, but argue it I will. Expensive? Messy? Melodramatic? All cornerstones of both divorce and chic. Female divorce energy is being divorced the way Liza Minnelli, Elizabeth Taylor and Zsa Zsa Gabor are divorced, with a staggering 20 divorces between them and enough jewellery to sink a yacht. It’s divorce as epitomised by the revenge dress: the one Marilyn Monroe wore to the courthouse in her divorce from Joe DiMaggio, the one Diana wore to the Serpentine Gallery after splitting from Charles, Mariah Carey’s thigh-split dress at the 1997 VMAs. This is the kind of thing that was embodied by Adele this year, particularly by her Instagram Live on the 9th of October, during which a fan asked what her forthcoming album is about and she answered: “Divorce, babe, divorce.”
And, for me, this two-second clip is the event that defines 2021 divorce energy. Divorce doesn’t have to be tragic and the particular type of divorce energy I sense in the air this year is not. Yes, divorce can be terrible. But it’s precisely from our knowledge of the dark and hideous underbelly of many divorces that divorce gets its glamour. The phoenix reborn from the fire, to borrow the sledgehammer imagery of Ben Affleck’s enormous post-divorce back tattoo.
Torrey Peters dedicated her acclaimed 2021 novel Detransition, Baby to divorced cis women: “who, like me, had to face starting their life over without either reinvesting in the illusions from the past or growing bitter about the future”. Rather than being about misery and self-recrimination, 2021’s divorce energy is about the release, about barrelling towards an uncertain but more “fuck it” future. Ben Affleck and Jennifer Lopez getting back together after their respective divorces is 2021 divorce energy, distilled in the precise surface area of Affleck’s palm on Lopez’s ass in that paparazzi shot.
Divorce is usually considered the opposite of marriage, but they’re not always so different. Both can be a momentous step into a new phase of life. Dismantling a marriage can be an act of courage, defiance, liberation. This year’s divorce energy, the one Adele conjured up with those three immortal words, is about allowing yourself a wild laugh in the face of really quite desperate circumstances. It’s drowning out a real and present note of despair with “turning over a new leaf” glamour. And what could be more 2021 than that?