There are lot of questions one could ask Ariana Grande. The five-foot-two pop diva has a firm and unassailable commitment to only ever showcasing the left side of her face. She is rarely – if ever – seen without her trademark tousled ponytail, a voluminous bouffant of waist-length hair. Over the course of her rise to fame as a child Broadway star, to Nickelodeon teen bopper, and finally to full-blown pop 25-year-old icon, she seems to have race-bended from a pale, wide-eyed floral-tea-dress-adorned ingenue to a heavily-tanned chanteuse who proselytises about ‘hood love’ in her upbeat R&B songs. She courts both extreme youth, having most recently adopted a standard uniform of confectionary pink tutu-like dresses, and the occasional decorative cat-ear headpiece, alongside decidedly adult fetish imagery – her Dangerous Woman album, released in 2016, saw the pop star don black latex bunny ears, singing about being served such intense dick that you can’t walk straight. She is the strangest and most mysterious woman in the world.
Ariana has most recently made headlines for her widely-publicised light-speed romance with Saturday Night Live star Pete Davidson, in which the singer started ‘casually seeing’, then full-on dated, then got engaged to, and finally moved in with the comedian all within a matter of weeks. The whirlwind romance has thoughtfully served as a brief but welcome palliative to the onslaught of horrific political news gripping our world. The Grande-Davidson coupling (or ‘Grandson’, as they like to call themselves) contains, much like Ariana herself, a multitude of mysteries that are both incredibly tedious and deeply fascinating. What is the real timeline of their relationship? Before officially dating, both Ariana and Pete broke up with their long-term significant others, rapper Mac Miller and comedian Cazzie David respectively, only to get engaged to each other (as noted) after mere weeks of dating. Why do they keep insisting on wearing hoodies and boots in the sweltering hot New York weather? How is Pete Davidson, a 24 year-old comedian, able to afford a 90k ring? And finally, what grand, cooked-up plan does Larry David have to avenge his daughter, Cazzie?
For fans – or even just followers – of Ariana Grande, her latest romance is yet another case study in how the Internet, particularly social media, turns joy into trash, ruins what you love, and makes fools of us all. What could have been a sweet, if slightly morally dubious, courtship between two flawed but deeply human public figures, who have candidly spoken about their struggles with mental health, very real past traumas and affection for those around them, has turned into a high-energy shitshow of terrible millennial excess that you somehow can’t quite ignore.
Since becoming public as a couple in mid-June, a new announcement arrived in the tabloids. Ariana and Pete get matching tattoos that say ‘REBORN’ (Pete had to remove the full-face portrait of his ex-girlfriend on his forearm first). Ariana Grande spills to the world that her fiancé is equipped with a solid ‘10 inches’. Seth Rogen lightly teases the couple for their OTT posts on social media – ‘guys seriously’ he writes on Instagram. Pete Davidson gets defensive in response: ‘when ur getting married to the hottest girl in the world you tell me how you’d act’. Ariana defends Pete from fans who discover an old comedy routine of his, that features him joking about the bombing at her Manchester concert. She further shuts down rumours that her engagement is a PR stunt, tweeting the now-infamous slogan, ‘Love is lit’. It is the existential exhaustion of the Royal Wedding all over again, complete with the high-intensity (and low-stakes) melodrama and mandatory emotional investment over every little detail; just replace the tiara with cat-ears, the demure chignons with scalp-defying ponytails, and the rapacious British tabloids with equally rapacious, disapproving teen fans –‘ariana better leave pete fuck him she’ll find herself another 10 inch dick #PeteDavidsonIsOverParty’ says one disgruntled tweeter.*
The Grandson drama brings to mind another high profile celebrity romance of sorts, a coupling between A-list pop star and a seemingly incongruous actor boyfriend. Taylor Swift and Tom Hiddleston’s brief but highly entertaining romance began in June of 2016, when the Sun’s paparazzo ‘accidently’ caught the couple canoodling (yes, canoodling is the best word for it) by a rocky Rhode Island beach. Hiddleswift, as they were called, entertained the world with what looked like highly staged, hilariously over-the-top candids of the two walking along the beach with Tom’s mum; jet setting around romantic trips in Rome, small English villages and Sydney, and engaging in gentle PDA during date nights. Tom even wore a ‘I which he’s later been forced to defend in press junkets. Subtle.
The PR onslaught of these two usually demure celebrities became too much for the general public – who steadily turned the relationship into a punchline – and the two broke up three months later. The rumoured reasons behind the relationship in the first place – that Hiddleston was allegedly was vying for the role of new James Bond and needed a publicity boost, and Swift was looking for a convenient PR distraction from recent revelations that she had thrown Kanye West under the bus – were never quite solved with their raucous romantic romp, anyway.
And yet public approbation has yet to extinguish the flame of Ariana and Pete’s romance. 1 Ariana Grande, after all, is not Taylor Swift. Whatever chances Ariana had of being becoming a comparably squeaky-clean, palatably inoffensive pop star-cum-America’s Sweetheart were promptly and unequivocally dashed when she entered a doughnut store on a day in July 2015, inexplicably took a quick lick at a doughnut on display, before proclaiming ‘I hate America’. The doughnut-lick would cost her a chance to sing at the White House and widespread condemnation across America. It also, in the end, granted her her freedom.
Much like the saying that once you’ve hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up, Ariana Grande’s doughnut-licking adventure saw her commit the absolute worst possible crime that a celebrity can commit in America – denounce the country – and from those ashes, rise to escape the stifling moralising strictures to which former child stars are often bound. She is, surprisingly, one of the most free pop stars alive. She’s supported the Black Lives Matter movement, gun control, Planned Parenthood without incurring the giant public wrath afforded to her post-child star peers, such as Miley Cyrus, who have chosen similarly political stances. (Their peers, Selena Gomez, Taylor Swift, and Justin Bieber have generally preferred silence, or total incoherency.) Her social media demonstrates a filthy, scatological wit that, under any other young celebrity’s name, could be a PR nightmare: What’s your favourite word?’ asked a fan during a Twitter Q&A; ‘Pussy’.
While her peers and their PR teams were busy chasing the squeaky-clean, inoffensive and personality-lite brand of stardom valorised by holdover Bush-era Disney executives, Ariana – cast out from the possibility of ever winning over ‘mainstream America’ – chased her off-the-wall passions, widely documenting her love for Harry Potter, macabre Halloween death imagery, Pokemon Go and NASA. Her latest relationship with Pete Davidson, offers another example of how she’s grown completely immune to the (ever-shifting) tides of public opinion. Their constant oversharing, much to everyone else’s exhaustion, comes across as less coordinated PR stunt à la Hiddleston, and more the natural and sophomoric expressions of two kids very much in love.
That Ariana Grande is in any sense, ‘free’, may be surprising to people accustomed to her Lolita-like hypersexualisation; her rapid physical transformation and inability to be seen in public without a heavy full-face of makeup and trademark, sky-high ponytail. Shouldn’t a woman’s readiness to hyper-sexualise oneself in order to appeal to the male gaze – and reluctance to be seen otherwise – be a sign of disenfranchisement rather than emancipation? In a review of Dangerous Woman, an album whose lead song featured Ariana in a latex bunny uniform, singing about her readiness for a good fucking, Bustle questioned whether the album was feminist, observing that throughout “Her sense of self seems obscured by her obsessive fixation on her man.” Nevertheless, Bustle conceded that it may, in some vein, be ‘empowering’, citing Sheryl Sandberg’s observation in Lean In that women can consciously ‘choose’ to be homemakers: “if we really believe in this interpretation of feminist values, then Grande as a broken, obsessive girlfriend shouldn’t be any less valid than her as a fulfilled, fully evolved individual who doesn’t rely on anyone.’
Celebrities are more interesting when examined as value-laden signifiers of our cultural moment than as genuine people unto themselves – this is the Faustian pact they make with fame; your public image comes at the expense of your humanity. Ariana’s feminism – or rather, what Ariana Grande can teach us about feminism – performs the same function. The popular cultural panic around her image reveals more about our public panics around feminism, than the actual person herself. In this case, it is our culture’s demand for Ariana to perform a moral consistency between her rhetoric and her image; to heed the widely-accepted understanding that as a self-proclaimed Feminist, to recognise that it is decidedly Unfeminist and Morally Bad for a woman to court the male gaze – never mind looking like a very young, but very hypersexualised, girl when doing so.
But to what extent is this moderation of one’s self-presentation – and personal desires – for political consistency fruitful, or even possible? Writing about the struggle of trans women to negotiate their attraction toward traditional femininity, Andrea Long Chu notes in n+1 that “When the airline loses your luggage, you are not making a principled political statement about the tyranny of private property; you just want your goddamn luggage back”. Chu’s own transition to womanhood was spurred by a desire for gossip and compliments, lipstick and mascara… for Daisy Dukes, bikini tops, and all the dresses, and, my god, for the breasts”. These are elements she concedes that certain radical feminists would deem ‘trappings of patriarchal femininity’ and she reflects, “perhaps my consciousness needs raising. I muster a shrug.”
Desire, sometimes, is just desire. We can try to temper certain personal inclinations that may cause others harm – and, of course, should – but any project that demands us to exorcise all ‘Unfeminist’ elements of our psyche in the name of an ascetic political ‘empowerment amounts to a fruitless self-struggle session that will lead us nowhere but self-hatred. Anti-imperialist women of colour will still marry white men; trans women – who are women – will continue to covet signifiers of femininity; self-declared feminist pop-stars will continue to wear thigh-high boots, pink frilly dresses, and densely-drawn cat eye eyeliners.
To accept the limits of policing desire is not to endorse a form of meaningless moral nihilism, in which one’s political beliefs can be completely separated from one’s personal self-presentation and lived values. It is, rather, to leave a space for personal contradiction, failure, and absurdity that does not heed the black-and-white Manichean righteousness of self-assured political rhetoric. Sometimes that means really going for it and getting married to the dorky, conventionally ‘unattractive’ SNL comedian from Staten Island who you’ve only been seeing for weeks, in spite of all the press and popular indignation towards stupid young people engaging in stupid young love. Contemporary variants of feminism, philosopher Jacqueline Rose has observed, suffers from its disproportionate demand that women ‘enter the corridors of power’ through the power of reason. Instead, she posits, ‘there’s a darkness to the human psyche’; with genuine emancipation, ‘you won’t have to wipe it out, you won’t have to stamp on it, you won’t have to re-repress it in the name of some harmonious form of psychosocial identity’.
We would do well to heed this directive about embracing the darker, less knowable recesses of the human mind. in After all, Ariana has. Responding to criticisms about her feminism, and her readiness to present herself as scantily-clad, ponytailed sexual object adorned in designer clothing, she tells Billboard; “I’ll be in the produce aisle, naked at 95, with a sensible ponytail, one strand of hair left on my head and a Chanel bow. Mark my words. See you there with my 95 dogs.” It’s the humorous and bewildering battle of cry of a young woman who is both incredibly commodified, and yet also free.
1. ↑ THE TWO CONTINUE TO LEAVE THIRSTY COMMENTS ON EACH OTHER’S INSTAGRAMS; WEAR MEMORABILIA COMMEMORATING EACH OTHER’S PARENTS, AND SHARE INSTAGRAM STORIES OF THE TWO ENGAGING IN HARDCORE PDA.