Soraya Roberts | Longreads | December 2018 | 8 minutes (2,007 words)
She looks like your mom. The way she does when you’ve fucked up. She’s already shaking her head before he comes out. He knows he’s done something wrong. She does too. And when he finally shows up her anger is as hot as the arterial hue of the set around her. “Take Me Back Cardi,” says the flower display he has rolled out into the middle of her performance — a request, but not really. This is a declaration, the kind of display you see in a children’s parade. Because that’s what this is: infantile and garish and impersonal. And when Offset advances, his head bowed, holding a bouquet of white flowers I could never afford, his wife, mid-concert, is not having it. You can’t hear her, but you can see her holding up that index finger, and you can read those lips: “Stop.” But the damage is done.
Though the circumstances vary, within days of each other three famous men — Offset, Pete Davidson, and Kanye West — expressed what could be uncharitably characterized as the male version of hysteria (prostacea?) this past weekend. And in each case, the women who love them — Cardi B, Ariana Grande, and Kim Kardashian West, respectively — bore part of the burden. All three of these famous women showed up to defuse the situation, whether they were still with the man in question or not. Because, despite their celebrity and their power, social mores restrict all of them to a familiar script: when men act up, women clean up.
* * *
It took less than a year for Offset to fuck up. In December 2017, a sex tape surfaced purportedly showing him in bed with a woman who was not his wife. In a Rolling Stone cover story published soon after (he appeared alongside his group, Migos), he refused to discuss it. “It’s my real life,” he said. “It ain’t no gig. It ain’t no fucking game, you know what I’m saying?” What Offset was saying was that he could choose not to say anything, while his fiancée was bombarded with questions — “didnt he cheat on u like 14 times (this year)? ” “yoooo why is cardi b still with loser ass offset how many times does he need to cheat on you sis” — about why she continued to be with an unfaithful deadbeat. And it was said wife, Cardi B, who finally addressed it in her Cosmopolitan cover. “I’m going to take my time, and I’m going to decide,” she said. “It’s not right, what he fucking did—but people don’t know what I did, ’cause I ain’t no angel.” But she wasn’t the one with a (reportedly) leaked sex tape. And the issue wasn’t really misbehavior. It was that a man in a public relationship was once again messing up and leaving the woman to tidy up after him.
Nor did it seem entirely true that Offset didn’t consider it a “fucking game.” Earlier this month, Cardi B posted a video on Instagram stating that the couple had split. She spoke diplomatically — “I guess we just grew out of love” — and praised her ex despite the circumstances. Offest issued a glib comment in response, “Y’all won,” which appeared to shift the onus from him to the public. A few days later he tweeted at this nebulous populace again: “FUCK YALL I MISS CARDI.” He then posted a birthday video in which he stated his one wish was to reunite with Cardi B along with one of those I’m-sorry-you-felt-bad non-apologies: “I want to apologize to you Cardi, you know I embarrassed you, I made you a little crazy,” “I apologize for breaking your heart.”
A day later Offset crashed his wife’s gig headlining the Rolling Loud festival (she was the first woman to do so). “All of my wrongs have been made public,” he tweeted, “i figure it’s only right that my apologies are made public too.” The calculus smacked inconsiderate — Offset seemed to be only thinking about himself, how gracious he was being, and not about Cardi B, how his intrusion affected her, how it interrupted her work, how it dumped his emotional distress on her doorstep. That was for her to worry about.
The predominant public reaction to Offset was that he was being manipulative, swiping the spotlight and interrupting a woman on the job — “It’s toxic because it is somebody who has created the negativity in the situation trying to control the situation,” actress Amanda Seales said on Instagram — while a minority of famous men, including 50 Cent, The Game, and John Mayer, argued that Cardi B should take him back. Once again, she was left to handle the fallout. Even before she had removed her costume, the exhausted “Be Careful” rapper went on Instagram live backstage to defend her ex. “Even though I’m hurt and I’m like going through a fucked up stage right now,” she said, “I don’t want nobody fucking talking crazy about my baby father neither.” That same night, she posted another video in which she mentioned Pete Davidson, who had written what many assumed to be a suicide note earlier in the day: “I wouldn’t want my baby father to have that feeling because of millions of people be bashing him every day.”
Ariana Grande is to Pete Davidson what Cardi B is to Offset. The 25-year-old pop star has been mythologized as a maternal figure ever since her response to the Manchester bombing. At that time, there was a patronizing tenor to the accolades she received about her grace, as though she were as responsible as the president to heal a nation. And she embodied that same spirit for her ex. In early December, Davidson, who was recently diagnosed with borderline personality disorder, posted an emotional message on Instagram about his state of mind in the wake of his split from Grande (they started dating in May, were engaged in June, and broke up in October). “I’m trying to understand how when something happens to a guy the whole entire world just trashes him without any facts or frame of reference,” he wrote. Grande, whose last boyfriend Mac Miller died in September of an accidental overdose, shared the note and politely reminded everyone to be kind, despite having just one month prior been annoyed with Davidson’s Saturday Night Live joke about their failed engagement. “i care deeply about pete and his health,” she wrote. “i’m asking you to please be gentler with others, even on the internet.” Then, just this past weekend, Davidson, who has been open about a past suicide attempt, set off alarms with another demonstrative Instagram post. “i really don’t want to be on this earth anymore,” it read. “i’m doing my best to stay here for you but i actually don’t know how much longer i can last.” Grande, who had been blocked by her ex on social media, rushed to the SNL set. “I know u have everyone u need and that’s not me, but i’m here too,” she tweeted. (Davidson reportedly refused to see her.)
Perhaps the most beleaguered constituent of celebrity coupledom is Kim Kardashian West, though she claims to simply be returning the favor: “He’s put himself up against the world for me when everyone told him, ‘You cannot date a girl with a sex tape. You cannot date a reality-show girl. This is gonna ruin your career.’” But even if a relationship can be measured as a series of transactions, she has paid off her debt to Kanye West multiple times over. Earlier this year Kardashian West defended her husband, who has claimed he was misdiagnosed with bipolar disorder, as a “free thinker” amid reports that his mental health was in disarray following a split with his manager and lawyer. When West more recently ranted on Twitter about Drake, claiming that the Canadian rapper had threatened him, his wife tweeted at said rapper, “Never threaten my husband or our family. He paved the way for there to be a Drake.” She has even defended West against mere trifles: after he was called out for using his phone at a Broadway show, Kardashian West explained that he was just taking notes. But her most labor-intensive support followed West’s controversial visit to the White House in October, red MAGA hat in tow. In an interview with CNN’s Van Jones, the reality megastar was tasked with interpreting her husband’s “confusing” meeting rather than talking about her own work. “I feel like he’s very misunderstood and the worst communicator,” she said. Jones praised her for her devotion, dubbing her “the Kanye translator.”
* * *
“I am not a babysitter or a mother,” Ariana Grande proclaimed in May. She tweeted the pronouncement after she was blamed for ex Mac Miller’s car accident (the charge: she had broken up with him and moved on to Davidson). Grande was not having it: “shaming / blaming women for a man’s inability to keep his shit together is a very major problem.” This problem will be familiar to those who are aware of the gendered reality of “emotional labor,” a term coined by sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1983 to refer to the management of feelings in the context of paid employment (the service industry, for instance). Though the expression has become a catchall for every type of emotional admin performed by women, Grande is referring specifically to another Hochschild term, “emotion work”: This is the support women provide, primarily in their close relationships, that causes needless distress to them. “In general, we gender emotions in our society by continuing to reinforce the false idea that women are always, naturally and biologically able to feel, express, and manage our emotions better than men,” sociologist Dr. Lisa Huebner told Gemma Hartley, who expanded this line of thinking in her 2018 book, Fed Up: Emotional Labor, Women, and the Way Forward. “We find all kinds of ways in society to ensure that girls and women are responsible for emotions and, then, men get a pass.”
Within this paradigm, a number of famous women have defended not just their significant others but their male friends over #MeToo claims. Most recently, a number of actresses have emerged to support NCIS star Michael Weatherly over sexual harassment claims made by actress Eliza Dushku. Lena Dunham has also apologized for defending Girls writer Murray Miller against a sexual assault accusation after claiming “insider knowledge” she didn’t in fact possess. “I had actually internalized the dominant male agenda that asks us to defend it no matter what, protect it no matter what,” she wrote in The Hollywood Reporter, introducing the issue she guest edited. The converse rarely applies — unruly women, like Azealia Banks or Amanda Bynes, are rarely publicly defended by men. To this day, Sean Young is remembered primarily for her alleged harassment of James Woods in 1988 rather than her performances. Other women, like Lindsay Lohan and Amber Heard, must defend themselves. I’m sure there are men who have supported women who act out the way Cardi B supports Offset, Ariana Grande supports Pete Davidson, and Kim Kardashian West supports Kanye West, but I consume media for a living and I literally can’t think of any.
This phenomenon is not restricted to celebrities, of course. It contaminates every realm, from politics (see Ashley and Brett Kavanaugh) to tech (see Grimes and Elon Musk). Emotion work implicates all women in the downfall of their significant others (when men triumph, women are rarely given the same credit) and monopolizes the time and energy they could be providing their own work — it compromises women not only personally but professionally. Which is not to say that emotion work should transcend gender: rather, it should not be the norm for anyone. By taking responsibility for our own behavior, we release those around us from a life of hard labor on our behalf. “The solution is not for men and women to share alienated work,” Hochschild told The Atlantic. “The solution is for men and women to share enchanted work. These are expressions of love.”
* * *
Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.