There’s nothing wrong with being interested in the lives of celebrities. It’s a human instinct that stretches back to the Greeks and Romans, and probably even further if I had the energy to Google that.
These are people prettier than we could ever imagine ourselves, living existences of luxury and privilege we could never afford, with at least marginal levels of talent or luck we all wish we had. This was once attributed to gods with their various powers to manipulate the universe. Now, it’s people capable of looking beautiful while reciting tearful monologues, men who fill out spandex superhero suits, and personalities with massive Instagram followings… and how they use those powers to manipulate the universe.
Or if not the universe, then at least the mere mortals who fawn over them.oThere are, of course, many among us who scoff at putting any stock in celebrity life. But those who do, especially lately, have gone all in. The rise of social media has granted unprecedented access, if not always directly into the lives of these celebrities, then to a venue for sharing our feelings about them—and imposing those feelings onto them.
But recently it’s become more than just imposing these feelings onto them. It’s attacking them with them. Bullying them with them. Suffocating them with them. In effect, strangling the ones fans purport to love.
You could argue that we’ve always been unhealthily obsessed with celebrity couples, to the detriment of the celebrities themselves. Tell-alls over the years have revealed the lengths to which stars of the Hollywood studio era kept up appearances in failing or fake relationships in order to conform to a narrative fans wanted to see, thus ensuring their own continued popularity.
Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck have spoken about how tabloid-generated public hysteria contributed to their relationship’s demise. “We didn’t try to have a public relationship,” Lopez told People in 2016. “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.”
The Jennifer Aniston-Brad Pitt-Angelina Jolie tabloid circus is still going 13 years strong, itself sparking a cultural conversation about how society judges and demands certain things from a woman’s personal life, and the problematic ways in which coverage of the trio has exacerbated our culture’s worst gender norms and the media’s most ostentatious rabidity.
We internalize a fairy tale happy ending when a couple marries—people flew to London to breathe the same air as Prince Harry and Meghan Markle during their nuptials—and weep their obituaries for the death of love when a couple that seemed particularly aspirational or adorable breaks up: Ben Affleck and Jennifer Garner, how could you? Et tu, Anna Faris and Chris Pratt?
“Shocking Split!” reads the gossip rag headline for every celebrity break-up, as if we have any idea whether the split was truly shocking at all. Especially as the tabloid cycle hit the blogosphere and social media took the “Stars, They’re Just Like Us!” reassurance to an even more familiar level—we see their thoughts and photos on Twitter and Instagram, so, basically we know them!—there’s a growing assumption that we know what’s going on behind closed doors, because we feel like we’ve been granted that access. But we haven’t.
Fans’ interest in their pairing is, as we said earlier, normal! She’s one of the biggest pop stars in the world. He’s on SNL, a comedian who relishes his reputation as an odd duck, and the kind of person one doesn’t traditionally imagine paired with such a pop star. The unusualness of it all adds intrigue: Julia Roberts and Lyle Lovett! Marilyn Manson and Evan Rachel Wood! Kid Rock and Pamela Anderson! Chelsea Handler and 50 Cent!
Then the unusualness kicked into overdrive. After just a few weeks of dating, the two babies—just 24 years old!—got engaged. It had also been just a few weeks since their respective break-ups with rapper Mac Miller and Cazzie David. It made for the perfect social media storm, which gained strength with every new development.
Two days after People announced they were “casually dating,” they got matching tattoos. Whoa! They posted an Instagram photo roasting marshmallows together on Memorial Day. Aww! Less than a month into the relationship, he had the initials “AG” and Grande’s famous “Dangerous Woman” bunny ears tattooed on him. What? They got engaged. Holy shit!
They start to feed right into the fascination with their relationship, and the celebrity news cycle responds in kind with daily headlines on the latest updates.
She puts a song named after him on her new album. Their social media accounts are exclusively reserved for love letters, cute photos, and gushing. They sing "Evanescence" together at karaoke. Both go on a press blitz—she promoting her album, he supposedly promoting the new season of SNL—and it generates quote after quote (and headline after headline) about every intimate detail in their whirlwind relationship. She tweets about his apparently huge penis. The Big Dick Energy phenomenon is born. SNL devotes three entire segments to their relationship. They adopt a pig.
The pace of it all felt exhausting, and public interest reached a deafening pitch. But this is where the interest in celebrity couples can begin to transcend normal. Harassment is not normal. Death threats are not normal. Adoration is one thing. Vilifying is another.
Grande and Davidson are not the only ones with fan armies. Early in the relationship, both Grande and Davidson were compelled to respond to a fan who blamed Grande for Mac Miller getting a DUI after she “dumped him for another dude.” When Davidson was caught giving the middle finger to paparazzi, a fan of Grande accused him of flipping off her followers, causing Grande to respond with a message about how the fans’ vitriol and interest in their every move has gotten out of control. In an interview, Davidson said that he received death threats when he started dating Grande.
The innocuous fun of celebrity fandom has always edged precariously close to the line of abuse. But the age of social media and the hateful discourse it has helped normalize has almost erased that line completely. Fawning over aspirational love and harmful, baseless hate speech now co-exist with little delineation or regulation.
In the report over the weekend that Grande and Davidson have broken up, a source told People that “it was way too much too soon” and “it’s not shocking to anyone.” It’s hard to argue at least with that earlier statement. The speed of their celebrity couple rise and downfall was astonishing, lasting little more than four months and yet producing more news cycles than the ones we just recapped.
It would be difficult for any relationship to withstand that, let alone one that found the pair navigating how to deal with the death of Grande’s ex the year after the terrorist attack during her Manchester concert—all that pain, and in the public eye, so much attention and vitriol.
This is not to insinuate that fans’ obsession with their relationship or extreme reactions to it are to blame for their breakup. But it is to blame for the toxicity of their time together. The past few months have exposed our worst instincts when it comes to celebrity culture and gossip, turning into blood sport what had previously just been a fascination. An intrusive fascination, sure, but one that had yet to escalate to a level this exasperating, extreme, or harmful.
The dust will settle on the Grande and Davidson news, and we’ll move on to another couple to obsess about. God help whoever those young lovers may be.