You can’t truly describe the year 2018 without talking about Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson.
Like so many inexplicable pop-culture sensations, Grande and Davidson’s relationship — engaged after three weeks, broken up after about six months, resulting in Grande’s self-acceptance smash “Thank U, Next” — was a spectacle. It was something to be dissected and gawked at and joked about, by everyone from casual fans to Davidson’s fellow cast members on “Saturday Night Live.” That is, until it wasn’t funny at all.
In December, Davidson posted on Instagram about the consequences of the newfound attention, particularly “getting online bullied and in public by people for 9 months.” A couple weeks later, after a convoluted Twitter argument between Grande and Kanye West, Davidson posted an alarming message: “i really don’t want to be on this earth anymore. i’m doing my best to stay here for you but i actually don’t know how much longer i can last. all i’ve ever tried to do was help people. just remember i told you so."
Shortly after, the New York Police Department confirmed it made contact with Davidson after a wellness check; Davidson appeared briefly on SNL that night. Since then, he has deleted his Instagram account and kept a low profile. Davidson has talked openly about his mental health, and this was an especially stark reminder of the stakes involved when pop-culture figures are simply seen as entertaining distractions, as opposed to a reflection of people’s own anxieties and struggles and beliefs.
This proved true repeatedly throughout 2018, as celebrity news was intertwined with some of our culture’s most urgent issues, particularly involving mental health. Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade committed suicide in the same week. Demi Lovato, outspoken about her addiction issues, overdosed and went to rehab. The already-fractured political world was thrown into a frenzy when West, who addressed his bipolar diagnosis on his album this summer, visited the White House.
But no two entertainers found themselves the subject of a wider variety of news stories this year than Grande and Davidson. What seemed at first like a little diversion from the “real world” quickly turned into one of the best ways to understand the real world.
In August, after performing at Aretha Franklin’s funeral, Grande experienced “a #MeToo sexual-harassment moment in progress,” as The Washington Post put it. The officiating pastor put his arm around Grande with his hand against the side of her breast; Grande stood rigidly and laughed politely as the pastor spoke, but was unable to move away.
“This casual harassment, of faint boundaries tested and crossed, is what keeps society blind to the greater abuses at play. It is what gaslights women and the people around them into thinking that they imagined the offense,” The Post’s Kate Woodsome wrote. “But this time, it was caught on tape.”
A week later, Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller, whom Grande dated for two years, died at age 26; officials said the cause was a mix of the powerful opioid fentanyl, cocaine and alcohol. While headlines about the opioid crisis have gone on for years, the Pittsburgh City Paper noted, “With another high-profile death thrusting the problem to the forefront, advocates are renewing calls to take action to end the epidemic.” The paper added the epidemic is “particularly stark” in Allegheny County, where Miller grew up.
Grande disabled her Instagram comments soon after, as trolls flooded her account to blame her for Miller’s death. A few weeks later, she and Davidson called off their engagement; the tabloids reported that while they had other issues, Miller’s death put a “strain” on their relationship.
In November, Davidson ignited controversy when both sides of the political aisle agreed he went too far with a joke about congressman-elect Dan Crenshaw (R-Tex.), a former Navy SEAL. On “Weekend Update,” Davidson talked about Crenshaw, who wears an eye patch: “You may be surprised to hear he’s a congressional candidate from Texas and not a hit man in a porno movie,” he said, adding, “I’m sorry, I know he lost his eye in war or whatever.”
Crenshaw made a surprise appearance on SNL the following week, and Davidson apologized to him in person. They tried to turn it into a teachable moment. “There’s a lot of lessons to learn here. Not just that the left and right can still agree on some things, but also this: Americans can forgive one another,” Crenshaw said. “We can remember what brings us together as a country and still see the good in each other.”
It was somewhat wishful thinking, as the year continued to hammer home the fact that social media abuse has never been worse. This month, Davidson — who has talked about being diagnosed with borderline personality disorder and having suicidal thoughts for years — revealed some of the horror he received. “No matter how hard the internet or anyone tries to make me kill myself. I won’t. I’m upset I even have to say this. To all those holding me down and seeing this for what it is — I see you and I love you,” he wrote.
Soon after, Grande posted on Instagram and asked her fans to “be gentler with others, even on the internet.” She has also been a vocal advocate for erasing stigmas around mental health. After she dropped her November single “Thank U, Next,” which preached self-acceptance, a fan joked on Twitter, “who is ariana’s therapist and are they accepting new clients.”
Grande saw the tweet and topped it off with a response, which has since been retweeted 93,000 times: “In all honesty therapy has saved my life so many times,” she wrote. “if you’re afraid to ask for help, don’t be. u don’t have to be in constant pain & u can process trauma. i’ve got a lot of work to do but it’s a start to even be aware that it’s possible.”