I don’t know if you’ve heard, but Selena Gomez is free, and it’s time to party. The hashtag #SelenaIsFreeParty popped up shortly after news broke that ex-boyfriend Justin Bieber was engaged to on-again, off-again fling Hailey Baldwin. Suddenly, all eyes were on the “Back To You” singer, who had briefly reunited with her teenage sweetheart just eight months ago. However, it wasn’t feelings of pity that Gomez provoked while relaxing on a yacht in NYC or walking the city streets with her friends, but triumph. In the eyes of her fans, Bieber’s engagement was a reason to celebrate. Specifically, it was a reason to celebrate her. Over the past several years, fan culture has broadened to allow room for more than just “shipping.” In fact, a fair amount would rather do away with the relationship drama and rally behind something different: independence.
Gomez isn’t the first notable ex-girlfriend of 2018. That title arguably belongs to Cazzie David, the former flame of Pete Davidson. The Saturday Night Live comedian basically broke the internet when he announced his split from David and almost immediately started dating Ariana Grande. The couple got engaged, and then, predictably, broke up,* but David has not faded into the background.
In fact, there’s more attention on the daughter of the Curb Your Enthusiasm star Larry David than ever before. While she previously made splashes due to a viral Instagram photo and her recent web series, she’s become a symbol of the jilted ex who returns triumphant, the phoenix of heartbreak, and she has the fans to prove it. In October 2017, when she was still comfortably in a relationship with Davidson, she had 95,000 Instagram followers. Now, single and carefree, she has almost double.
David’s first appearance post-breakup was via an Instagram photo that gave a cheeky nod to the fact that her ex boyfriend had just started dating one of the most famous pop stars in the world.
“Been in Africa, what’d I miss ??” she captioned a casually gorgeous photo of her hair blowing in the wind in the back of a car. Her followers, as well as presumably those who had come over to her page to rubberneck the breakup, ate it up.
“Well played,” one commented. “You handled this with the perfect amount of grace, wit, and a touch of sarcasm... however painful it feels, no one can take away how you handled it.”
“You’re the queen of everything and nothing else matters,” another wrote.
She received similar sentiments on her photo posted the same day as news of Davidson and Grande’s engagement.
“You're so brilliant...And better off,” one commenter declared.
“bbg you’re too good for what he did to you!” another gushed. “luv you hun”
Every couple of days, David will drop a carefully curated photo, and people will go wild. Here she is looking amazing eating a snack:
Here she is looking amazing on the beach:
And the comments (“Ur beautiful. What was he thinking”/“Hey Pete. Big mistake”/“You have that sexy dodged a bullet glow about you”) spin madly on.
For Gomez and David, it’s not just fans who are obsessed with their newly-single status. The media is also taking a similar approach to its coverage of these women. Glamour called for David to be the next Bachelorette, and Cosmopolitan reminded everyone that she was much more than her relationship with Pete Davidson. They also described Gomez as “unbothered” on a boat, with Vogue insisting that we need to stop worrying about the “Bad Liar” singer.
You may remember that the media was not always this kind to famous exes. Jennifer Aniston is the quintessential example. Her 2005 split from now-ex-husband Brad Pitt inspired a veritable lifetime of demeaning and belittling headlines that constantly paint her as the heartbroken victim in a classic love triangle (with Pitt and Angelina Jolie). TODAY reported that she was “picking up pieces.” Tabloids repeatedly described her as “broken” and “betrayed” and maybe, “finally pregnant.” If you only ever got your news by scanning headlines at grocery store checkouts, you’d think she was constantly walking around Hollywood wailing, leaving behind her a trail of discarded pee sticks. Aniston, Pitt, and Jolie fueled the love triangle narrative that tabloids had been clinging to since the trope solidified over half a century ago, when Eddie Fisher left Debbie Reynolds for Elizabeth Taylor. So what finally changed?
A good amount on this shift can be blamed on what is sure to be the title of my memoir: feminism and memes. Hardly a new concept, feminism left the fringes and found itself fully accepted (and somewhat commodified) in pop culture over the past ten years. The fact that our knee jerk reaction to a woman becoming single is one of exhilarated empowerment rather than pity or dismay shows that minds have been changed, even slightly. And this change in mindset opened a whole new door for the internet to reinterpret women and relationships through viral content.
Nicole Kidman divorced Tom Cruise in 2001, long before social media was a thing, and before exes became the objects of specific awe they are today. It makes sense, then, that the pictures of her apparently leaving her attorney’s office after finalizing said divorce didn’t go viral until earlier this year.
Face triumphant, hands outstretched, the photo embodies the exact feeling of freedom that fans now love to applaud.
But perhaps the biggest player in this shift is Rihanna, whose story of resurrection and power occurred a little bit before the world was ready to embrace it. In 2009, Rihanna could have easily become the face of victimhood, having become a survivor of domestic abuse at the hands of Chris Brown. Intimate photos of the aftermath of the abuse circulated all over the internet. Rihanna’s career was forever changed. Rather than allow the incident to define her, her legacy is made purely of what came after, how she stood up even taller and dominated the entertainment industry (and, now, the beauty industry). Her image became one of independent sexuality. She was single, but don’t you dare think she wants it any other way.
“I’m not looking for a man,” Rihanna famously said in 2014 at her Male Rogue fragrance reveal. “Let’s start there.” Now, the moment lives on in GIFs that are still used to this day.
Even as recently as this week, Rihanna continued that narrative. While she may be dating billionaire Hassan Jameel, her independence shines through. Paparazzi photos of the singer appearing to yell at Jameel went viral, because everyone stans a queen who takes no shit from a man — even if it ends up just being about soccer.
It’s not that people have turned against relationships. Pete Davidson and Ariana Grande’s extreme PDA still incites excitement, and couples like Emily Blunt and John Krasinski remain on a pedestal. Instead, it just seems women celebrities can now trust that the end of a relationship won’t result in ostracization or martyrdom. While they may privately grieve and mourn, Twitter and Instagram won’t be waiting with tissues. They’re the friends ripping off the duvet and pouring shots, because they never liked him anyways.