Why leaving Tom Cruise makes Katie Holmes a feminist hero

VIDEO: National Enquirer suggests actor settled divorce quickly to protect Scientology.
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For all the disdain aimed at them, the popsicle-colored celebrity tabloids—online and on newsstands—periodically throw up timely parables that readers ignore at their peril.
I met my best-loved pop parable in 2007, a few years after Us went Weekly. Out of nowhere, it seemed, Britney Spears appeared in story after shocking story, channeling a British alter ego, rolling with two-bit grifters and shaving her head like a shrieking 19th-century madwoman. How had the high-fructose Louisiana mouseketeer tapped this particular vein of punk-gonzo performance art—so much more muscular than the entropic, wasted tantrums of Courtney Love or Charlie Sheen? The lessons lay too deep for words.

But even then an even more powerful celebrity parable was underway; it too had Victorian coloring. It concerned Katie Holmes, that self-serious tomboy from "Dawson's Creek," and her peculiar liaison with Tom Cruise. From the start, the queer TomKat romance had a gross fame- and age-asymmetry that augured badly for its longevity. The squeamish-making differences between Tom and Katie augured well, however, for sinister marital intrigue.

Howling about his newfound potency on Oprah Winfey's couch in 2005, Cruise meticulously impregnated Holmes, who was soon portrayed in the tabloids (and even in fashion magazines) as Rosemary in "Rosemary's Baby"—a zombified vessel for Cruise's cultish designs. Cruise, of course, is an avowed Scientologist, a soldier in that madcap confederacy for showfolk, and their dupes. Scientology has a goofy cosmology and an extremely ungoofy policy of hair-trigger litigiousness and extortion. The combination is frightful. ( See Tom Cruise's own promo.)    

At the same time, Scientology's austerity about drugs, and its emphasis on personal responsibility and religious ritual might have appealed to Holmes, a small-town Ohio girl from a Catholic family, who had just broken off her engagement to Chris Klein, a bad-boy actor with a history of addiction and DUIs. Maybe Tom Cruise, soberly preaching marriage and family, struck her the way he struck Rob Lowe in the 1980s: someone who was " open, friendly, funny and has an almost robotic, bloodless focus." After a string of hotblooded American suitors, bloodlessness could have come to Holmes as a relief. And he was Tom Cruise.

Reader, she married him. Had his baby. And instantly the light left her eyes, or so it seemed in photo after tabloid photo. Holmes was peaked, malnourished and overly chaperoned—again recalling Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby." Conspiracy theories proliferated about Suri, and Katie, and how Scientology controlled them both. And yet Holmes also made movies, sort of, and fashion; maybe she was getting her part of the bargain. Though it was hard to imagine this normal-seeming sweetheart enjoying a Faustian bargain. I came to think she'd defied her parents, married for starstruck love and found herself just stuck.

But then Tom Cruise started getting featured on he-sucks lists, and suing about them; he looked especially warped on an ultra-mean site called Men Who Look Like Old Lesbians. Cruise's learning disability, which he has said Scientology cured, resurfaced on various TV appearances in which he used the broad cadences of an action hero with tongue-tied palaver.

Tom Cruise wasn't Tom Cruise anymore. Like many superstar spouses—like everyone—he was getting old, addled, even jowly. That might have made Cruise more lovable if he allowed age to introduce some humanness to his pose. But instead he doubled down on wacky Scientological jargon and—recent reports of duct-tape-over-security-cams suggest—he locked down Katie Holmes even more drastically. In the gothic novel, he might have soon shot her and himself, or otherwise kept her eternally hostage. But that's when the twist came.

Katie Holmes is not just a Catholic daughter of Ohio, a straight-A Catholic-school student who attended Columbia, and an ambitious actress and designer. She is also shrewd. And her father, Martin Holmes, is shrewder still—and a divorce lawyer.

" Marty believes there are only two sets of rules: the rules of the court and his rules, and he carries himself that way," says a Toledo lawyer who has worked with him, according to People magazine. Martin Holmes had been skeptical of the match from the beginning, the tabloids reported; now he's said to have "helped orchestrate his daughter's sudden split" from Tom Cruise using thriller-like tactics, including disposable phones.

Perhaps it's Martin Holmes who foresaw that the divorce—Holmes and Cruise had a prenup, so money questions were forgone—would turn on a so-called spiritual custody dispute. "Spiritual custody" is a fascinating phrase; it refers to a child's education and environment—the set of facts, beliefs and practices they're modeled and taught. Holmes's lawyers were especially strict about Katie keeping control over family's choice of nanny and what Cruise could say to Suri about her mother's status as a non-Scientologist. Jeffrey Shulman, a professor of law at Georgetown, told the Los Angeles Times that a judge could intervene if the religion was used to turn Suri away from Holmes because she was not an adherent. (Shulman believes the law should protect children better against religious coercion.)

She got out! She's free! The tabloids, which have been rooting for Katie from the start, now post—nearly every hour—photos of Holmes looking radiantly happy. Like actually sanguine and not actress-sanguine, with her rose-red daughter and her proud Catholic mom. In a flash, Holmes is divorced and has full custody (Cruise gets a "meaningful relationship" with Suri)—along with a contractual say in what Cruise can do with his daughter.

As celebrity disputes go, Holmes has pulled off the biggest rout in memory. What Tina Turner did for battered women by breaking away from Ike, Katie Holmes has done for spouses and children suffering from religious abuse and coercion. She fought bullying with bullying. She beat Tom Cruise. She beat Scientology. It's not too much to call her a feminist hero.

Cutaway shots of Cruise in Iceland show him looking grim but handsome again, especially for 50. He's filming a movie called "Oblivion," and he appears more robotic and focused than ever.

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