Pete Davidson would like you to know that he is alive, though the past three years of his time spent in the public eye would indicate that his intentions were to disappear completely. What remained after his relationship and breakup with Ariana Grande was not much more than the sum of its parts: a dismissive anthem, a rumor about the size of Davidson’s dick, and unresolved feelings about the aftermath of catastrophic fame. Davidson has chosen to parse those feelings in the same public space where his relationship blossomed, in Alive From New York, a tight 49-minute show that lacks the tick-tock rhythm of a comedy special and feels more like a therapeutic happy hour. In sorting through his emotions, he manages to find a few nuanced observations about the power dynamics of fame.
Davidson’s affect is that of Tri-State area dirtbag with a slow smile, constantly in possession of good weed. As a comedian, though, he’s a storyteller, armed with punchlines and meandering setups. The meat of what the viewer surmises from his special is that his specific and irrefutable privilege as a white man got supplanted by Grande’s position in the celebrity matrix—an extremely powerful position for her and one that created a crisis of identity for Davidson. His masculinity, a brand that is perpetually in peril, was threatened by the existence of a woman whose fame eclipsed his tenfold. When Grande takes advantage of her pulpit, be it Instagram, Twitter, or a Vogue cover story, she is lauded; the same level of adoration won’t come for Davidson, and he’s deftly pointing out the limits of his own power as a man and grappling with the fallout, however discomfiting that process might be. “There are certain rules for certain people,” Davidson says. “She has her songs and stuff, and this is what I have.”
The vignettes Davidson shares seem clearly engineered to stoke rage on Twitter, a platform that, he says, is best utilized for hasty apologies. In a teaser leading up to the special, he joked about the liberties gay men can take in their interactions with straight women, a bit that overshadowed other, more pointed cultural observations he makes about the nature of fame from the point of view of a plebe. The Davidson and Grande breakup has been dissected in the press. But Davidson’s own analysis shows the inherent imbalance of power in a celebrity relationship when one high-profile figure decides to hitch their wagon to a relative normie. The injustice of a relationship’s end is that one person gets to control the narrative, but it is distinctly terrible when that person is extraordinarily famous and makes a hit breakup song that, as Pete Davidon’s grandfather acknowledges, is “a slap,” as in a song that sticks with you.
When Grande appeared on the July 2019 cover of Vogue, she categorized her relationship with Davidson as an “amazing distraction.” “It was frivolous and fun and insane and highly unrealistic,” she said, “and I loved him, and I didn’t know him.” This revelation, which tracks for the relationship the two appeared to have, is Grande’s right to say, but the venue she chose does not go unnoticed by her ex. His reaction to the comment reads like sour grapes, but it is notable. “Can you imagine if I did that?” He asks the audience of Grande’s Vogue cover. “My career would be over tomorrow. If I spray-painted myself brown and hopped on the cover of Vogue magazine, and just started shitting on my ex?”
The least generous interpretation of this bit is that it’s the kind of post-breakup jab typically shared between friends. But it is also reflective of the kind of publicity Grande wielded in relation to his own. Being with her launched Davidson into a specific, immediate kind of fame for which few are prepared. But most remarkable about this shift was how the power dynamic within their relationship immediately bent specifically in Grande’s favor.
What Davidson is incapable of admitting but is gesturing towards with large, baseball mitt-sized hands, is emasculation. Consider his take on Grande’s assertion that he has a very large penis—an allegation that he vehemently denies: he claims the dick isn’t that big; Grande just has “little hands.” Sharing with her 71 million Twitter followers that Davidson’s dick is that sizable was not a compliment in his eyes, but a tactic for humiliation. “She did that so every girl that sees my dick for the rest of my life is disappointed.”
It is easy to cast this joke and the others he makes about the breakup as immature sniping, but it is more useful to consider these bits as the output of a man who is grappling with ideas about manhood in 2020. When the standards of propriety have traditionally worked in your favor, change is difficult to endure. It is not emasculating to tell a man that it’s not okay to pinch a woman’s ass at work, even if it was acceptable in a mailroom in 1954. But men are currently wrestling with what it means to be good in a world where their continued dominance has been threatened. To say that masculinity is in a free fall or state of crisis is to wash our hands of the entire mess and cast men aside as a failed experiment. It is easy to do so when ironic emasculation (for example, the marketing of male tears) sells on Etsy and performs well on social media. But disregarding the concerns of men, as shallow and elementary as they might seem, isn’t useful. Everyone has the capacity to be an asshole. It is difficult to muster sympathy for a famous man with money, but Pete Davidson lives in his mother’s basement and appears to be stumbling towards a definition of what it means to be a decent person. Maybe his conclusions about manhood will spark revelations, a way to cling to protective measures like comedy and bravado while also acknowledging that underneath the façade is a real pain.
There are other salient parts in the special that point to Davidson’s progression toward clarity. “I think women should tell guys how to make them come, like before sex,” he says, before riffing on the mechanical nature of a man’s sexual response versus that of a woman’s. It sounds like something a lazy asshole would say before boning, but laboring under the misconception that a partner will know how to get you off the first time around is a recipe for disappointment. Assuming that Davidson is thinking that hard at all about gender roles and the pleasure gap in the bedroom is giving him too much credit, but what stands out is that he is publicly processing.