This summer’s most bingeable rom-com isn’t another Gen Z reboot, nor is it streaming on Netflix. It’s not starring twentysomething influencers. Instead, it’s been playing out on Jennifer Lopez’s Instagram.
The plot began after Lopez’s messy spring breakup with Alex Rodriguez. Pictures started trickling out of onetime flame Ben Affleck leaving her house, of the couple ostentatiously making out, and then meeting each other’s kids.
And since then, the rebirth of the early aughts tabloid tale known as Bennifer has turned into the millennial internet’s most clickbaity love story. Most recently, the pair stoked curiosity by seemingly winking at us with some St. Tropez yacht pics, specifically echoing a scene from Lopez’s iconic 2002 hit “Jenny From the Block.”
In the era between, say, Cher and Kim Kardashian, Lopez was the most consistent headline-grabbing, content-creating star.
In both the original music video and the new images, Lopez lies down in a bikini while Affleck lovingly pets and kisses her much-mythologized backside. The scenes of her body being worshipped on her terms were, like the bop itself, a reclamation of her image at the time. “I’m in control and loving it,” she sang, “rumors got me laughing, kid.”
Watching the “Jenny From the Block” video now, it’s striking how even back then Lopez managed to turn the celebrity gossip swirling around her into her own irresistible content. She and Affleck dated for less than two years after the video, breaking up after some movie flops and cheating rumors in 2004. They both moved on and have enjoyed plenty of career — and relationship — highs and lows since.
The fascination with Bennifer’s social media rebirth is, on the one hand, part of the aughts nostalgia that had people yearning for an Aniston–Pitt reunion earlier this year. But it’s also a reminder of why Lopez’s iconic green dress in 2000 took over the nascent internet to the point that it compelled Google to create the popular Google Images search function.
In the era between, say, Cher and Kim Kardashian, Lopez was the most consistent headline-grabbing, content-creating star. And that’s precisely why this crowd-pleasing tabloid romance — of old lovers reunited — feels oddly uncanny yet on brand.
Lopez’s celebrity was always invitingly meta, mixing real life and show business. She became a Hollywood megastar by playing a real-life Latina who never got her crossover moment: Selena. And she used that movie role to ride in on the so-called Latin crossover boom.
From choosing the title of her first album, On the 6, and onward throughout her early career, Lopez always presented herself as the girl next door: a Nuyorican who rode the subway from the Bronx to Manhattan. It was a relatable persona that powered bops like “Love Don’t Cost a Thing” and “I’m Real.”
That quasi-autobiographical narrative of the working-class Latina made good also served as the foundation for the plots of some of her biggest hits, from the Latinx Cinderella remake, Maid in Manhattan, up to Hustlers. (Plus all of these movies were self-produced through her own company, Nuyorican Productions, that she started alongside Julia Roberts’ former agent Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas.)
The tabloids began to track her busy romantic life as she dated P. Diddy and created the green dress Grammy moment that we now only remember as being about her and not with him. She broke records in 2001, when her album J.Lo went to no. 1 the same week her movie The Wedding Planner opened at the top spot.
It’s funny now to think that Lopez and Affleck could set off a miscegenation panic.
Lopez had just become J.Lo in 2001 — itself a fan-given moniker (“I'd go to MTV or wherever and there would be kids carrying signs that said J. Lo,” she later said) — when she met Affleck. Her second marriage to dancer Cris Judd was on its last legs, and part of the initial fascination with Bennifer was the result of fans wondering whether she had cheated with Affleck while they worked together on Gigli.
“We didn’t try to have a public relationship,” she said recently. “We just happened to be together at the birth of the tabloids, and it was like, ‘Oh my god.’ It was just a lot of pressure.” But the relationship was more public than usual from the start.
He took out trade ads praising her professionalism as they filmed Gigli. She publicly debuted her relationship with Affleck at the restaurant Nobu, where she wore pants with her own name inscribed on them. They became the first celebrity couple of the aughts to have their own tabloid brand — Bennifer — because they were both willing to play along with the attention, especially Lopez at first. She gave a primetime interview to Diane Sawyer to talk about the relationship while promoting her album This is Me… Then, inspired by Affleck and featuring “Jenny From the Block.”
Affleck proposed at his mom’s home in Boston with a $2.5 million, 6.1-carat Harry Winston pink diamond while her song about him, “I’m Glad,” played in the background. By the end of 2002, Affleck landed the cover of People as “Sexiest Man Alive” next to the subhead: “What his mom thinks of JLo.”
Then, in 2003, Gigli flopped, there were cheating rumors, and by early 2004, they were over. “Our relationship was written about so much that it just alienated people,” Affleck told Rolling Stone in 2004. “We were thought of as two different kinds of people, not just racially but culturally.”
It’s funny now to think that Lopez and Affleck could set off a miscegenation panic. But given that he’d previously dated a woman so white she thought she’d invented yoga, it makes sense that Lopez’s image as a hip-hop adjacent Nuyorican would make her and Affleck seem incongruous for the middle American audience of minivan majority tabloids. (Even the Primetime interview with Sawyer played on the supposed incongruity of the matchup: “They're completely different people, or so it seems. She the racy, impetuous pop star with that flashy ex-boyfriend, not to mention two marriages. He the towering actor who romanced an uptown goddess, the brainy guy who grew up in the working-class part of Boston.”)
Part of why we can unproblematically revel in aughts nostalgia with Lopez is because unlike the younger women (like Britney or Lindsay) who were slut-shamed at the time, or even others who got boxed into tabloid narratives of forlornness (like Jennifer Aniston), it was Affleck who became just one more character in Lopez’s ongoing tabloid narrative.
She started dating Marc Anthony within months of her relationship with Affleck ending, had kids, and her career entered something of a downturn as rom-coms and her style of hyper-choreographed MTV pop fell off the radar in mainstream culture. She did a Spanish-language album and then reemerged for the reality TV era as a judge on American Idol. "I got to speak for myself for the first time, and that changed everything,” she told InStyle in 2019, looking back at how reality television transformed her career.
The Bennifer reunion feels like a coming together of older, wiser, yet still carelessly passionate stars.
Social media also provided a way for her to reclaim her image. “Now at least I can show you who I am a little bit,” she explained. “Back then you just believed anything you read on the cover of a tabloid.” And Lopez became an enthusiastic sharer on Instagram, accruing her current 162 million followers with constant posts. While younger celebs like Ariana Grande might have more followers (255 million), Lopez still dwarfs other pop star contemporaries like Mariah (10 million).
Her entire relationship with A-Rod played out on her Instagram. She announced the engagement by sharing the ring there and used the app to reshape his image. "Now people get to see that this guy they thought was this hard-nosed athlete is, like, a goofy dad who loves his kids and celebrates his girlfriend,” she told a magazine last year.
The breakup was also messy. Rodriguez shared an Instagram story showing framed pictures of them with Coldplay's “Fix You” in the background. And tagged her. She liked an Instagram post with a quote: "Don't make her think you care / When you have never given a f*** about her.”
In an interview discussing Lopez’s relationship with Rodriguez, her film producer mentioned Affleck and how the iconic video now making waves again probably helped inspire the backlash to their overexposure. “Jennifer and Ben were asking for it with that video," Elaine Goldsmith-Thomas said. "It's 16 years later. I'm sure Ben Affleck is more mature, too."
But Affleck hasn’t been shy in their time apart. He went to rehab, married and divorced Jennifer Garner, shared his girthy attributes with us, became a sad meme, and clapped back at reports of his sad iconography. During the pandemic, he seemed to single-handedly keep the dying tabloid industry in business with his Ana de Armas relationship.
The Bennifer reunion feels like a coming together of older, wiser, yet still carelessly passionate stars. (Like Lopez, Affleck even went through his own Oscars snub.) And the old school tabloids are cashing in on the nostalgia, rushing out cover stories as other brands are hijacking the moment with their Bennifer-inspired ads.
In May, amid reports of the first pictures of the couple, her fans sent the “Jenny From the Block” album, This is Me… Then, racing up iTunes and she thanked them on Instagram. “You realize that it’s such a personal journey that people are on with you,” she told a magazine. “They made me go back and listen to that record. I hadn’t listened to it in so long.”
It’s not surprising that, as yearning for the aughts celebrity era has become something of an online trend, Lopez would get in on the action. But maybe it’s less calculated for her. Talking about the 2002 album, which has the most diaristic-sounding title of her catalog, she said it would always be important to her.
“It will always represent to me the time in my life where I finally started to figure things out and get it right,” she said.
It’s unclear if the latest yacht pictures celebrating her birthday with Affleck are art imitating life or life imitating art. It actually looks like they were being taken for her Instagram, probably to do another celebratory relationship (or album anniversary) post. She shut down questions about the relationship in a Today interview. So is it all real or, as the more conspiracy-minded corners of the internet believe, part of some promotional gimmick? Knowing the J.Lo brand, the answer is: yes. ●