It started – as it so often does – with a DM.
“I’m assuming you’re already 15 paragraphs deep on an article Kanye’s behavior…” wrote my good friend Squirrel. Squirrel has long been a sounding board, supplier of memes, Reddit links for column material, and choice, sweet yet devastating dunks delivered in the way that only East Texans can.
So of course, I had to start digging into the latest mess.
I’ll be honest: I hadn’t paid that much attention to Kanye’s latest antics. While I was a passing fan of Kanye West’s music – more individual tracks than entire albums – I’d grown tired of the constant “LOL, ‘ye’s off his meds again” tone from social media whenever it was clear he was having a manic episode. It’s hard to feel good giving any oxygen to the latest point-and-laugh controversy when that person is clearly having a mental health crisis. And when Kanye had rolled a truck filled to the brim with roses to his estranged wife’s house… well, ok, it was an incredibly ill-advised Grand Romantic Gesture in an attempt to get his soon-to-be-ex back, but not really something I felt like diving into.
And honestly, after years of incidents like this, it’s been really easy to just roll your eyes at it all. After all, it’s not as though we haven’t seen West do similar over-the-top and ill-advised stunts, from upstaging Taylor Swift to his bizarre, last-minute presidential bid; you could be forgiven for thinking this is just Kanye being Kanye again.
Except it wasn’t. Those roses were part of an ongoing campaign of harassment against Kim Kardashian, one that’s been ongoing since Kardashian filed for divorce over a year ago… and one, it seems, distressingly few folks have been taking seriously. “He’s fighting for his family!” many have said. “He’s just being a provocateur,” others have said. Many have even speculated whether this was a bid for publicity for the release of Donda 2.
But if we’re all honest, it’s glaringly obvious what this is; the only reason we don’t take it seriously is because of his fame, his money and his fans.
Your ex posts about you to their hundreds of followers in ways that make them look like a great parent and make you look like a negligent, terrible parent, but they have to lie or misrepresent the truth to do it
— Jennifer Drake (@drakejenn) February 17, 2022
Let’s talk about why Kanye West’s behavior is no laughing matter, and why we should be paying attention.
“How Ye Doing? I’m Survivin’…”
It’s an eternal truth: if someone’s Instagram is suddenly all about his ex, his kids and his ex’s new boyfriend, things aren’t going well. If they’re suddenly making accusations of interfering with custody arrangements, encouraging people to yell at his ex’s new boyfriend – complete with new, insulting nicknames – and constantly posting their private messages on social media?
That’s not “dad’s having a hard time with the divorce” energy. That’s not the actions of an artistic provocateur trying to get attention. This is behavior that far too many people recognize and have experienced first hand: an abusive partner who’s attempting to leverage control over someone who had the temerity to leave them.
Since Kim filed for divorce, Kanye has made it clear that he’s not going to take this lying down… and he’s taking his grievances public. Using social media as his primary platform, Kanye has, among other things, accused Kim of interfering with their custody arrangements, attacked her for the way she’s raising their children, accused her of kidnapping their daughter (by not telling him where they were celebrating her birthday), demanded that fans harangue Pete Davidson with cries of “Kimye Forever!”, accused Davidson of having (and spreading) AIDS, threatened Davidson, sent a truck full of red roses to Kim’s house on Valentine’s day and made multiple public declarations about how much he wants his family back together and how God will make it happen for him.
He’s also reportedly trying to stall the divorce itself and prevent Kim from being able to remarry or even just move forward with her life. As far as he’s concerned, it’s not over until he says it’s over.
But because Kanye has positioned himself as the center ring of an ongoing, evolving circus – every week, a new chapter in the Ye Show, roll up, roll up – the public, and the media, have trained themselves to treat it as performance. There’s a voyeuristic thrill to watching a soap opera or telenovela unfold before our eyes across interviews, social media, even music tracks. It’s like taking part in a multimedia extravaganza, an ARG that gives you a front-row center seat to the pageant, a show with everything but Yul Brenner. And hey, you may even be asked to be a part of it all!
And of course, it’s easy to dismiss this as cheap publicity stunts or, worse, to say that Kim deserved it. After all, Kim Kardashian is a literal household name, the star of a reality TV series that made her entire family fodder for public consumption. Why should we be surprised that their drama is just as public? Why shouldn’t we assume that this is just sauce for the goose, the consequence of a life lived in front of the world? After all, having seen so much of Kim’s life – including the infamous sex tape – why should her divorce or relationships be sacrosanct? Is it absurd to say that this isn’t fodder for entertainment when so much of the rest of her life has been? Isn’t this relationship public because, as Kanye says, “they’re public figures?”
Except this framing is disingenuous at best. While yes, all of the Kardashians have made their lives into content, Keeping Up With the Kardashians may be unscripted, but it’s not reality; everything about the show was very firmly controlled by the Kardashian family. Nothing happened by chance or without having been cleared first. Their lives may have appeared public, but it was a very curated, very controlled view of their lives.
And therein lies the central issue: control. Kanye doesn’t like feeling out of control, especially over what he’s deemed as “his” and Kim committed the most grievous of sins: she took control away from him.
Now, like so many others, he wants it back. And he doesn’t care how much he hurts her to do it.
Grand Romantic Opening/Terrifying Closing
I’m going to go on a tangent for a moment, but stick with me.
In 2017, Luke Howard hauled his piano out into Bristol’s College Green, arranged some signs and began to play. His ex – nicknamed “Rapunzel” for privacy – had left him and was refusing to answer his calls or return his texts. Since he wasn’t ready to give up on her, he decided to take his pleas public. He was going to make a spectacle of himself, something she couldn’t possibly ignore, and play his piano until either he collapsed or she saw and took him back.
When asked about the breakup, Howard said: “It wasn’t anything nasty or bad, it was just life getting in the way. If it was anything bad why we split up then I wouldn’t be doing this, but it’s the only thing I can think of doing. It just seems life just got in our way.”
If you’ve watched a movie… pretty much, ever, really, then you’ve seen a scene like this. Love has been found, love has been lost and the earnest lover finds himself resorting to heroic feats of endurance and outrageous bravado to prove how much he cares. Because he’s made such an unbelievable show of devotion, the object of his affections feels the ice melt from her heart and she can’t help but take him back. True love wins, because love meant refusing to give up and being willing to go over the top to show how much they cared.
In the movies, it’s a sweet, even welcome gesture, with bonus points for tying it to some aspect of their history together. To the audience, it’s romantic; somebody feels so strongly, so passionately that you can’t help but be swept off your feet by it. Who doesn’t want to be loved like that, to have someone who cares so much for you that they’ll move heaven and earth in order to make your love work? Who doesn’t want that someone who’s willing to put themselves out there so profoundly that they’re willing to break themselves to pieces to prove their love?
Well… damn near anyone who’s actually been on the receiving end of those gestures, actually. Under the best of circumstances, Grand Romantic Gestures like this are frequently embarrassing, inviting the world (or at least, your neighbors) to witness what was previously a private relationship. Howard’s “Rapunzel”, for example, didn’t ask to be made into a news story; she had been very clear that she didn’t want to see or hear from Howard ever again. And yet there he was, dragging her into the mess, making her part of an international news story; even under the fig leaf of a pseudonym, Howard’s antics all but guaranteed that Rapunzel’s friends, family and co-workers – anyone who might know she and Howard had a brief fling – would be able to put two and two together.
It’s bad enough having an ex who refuses to accept your break-up or respect your wishes to be left alone and acts a fool in front of your nearest and dearest. Imagine having the world up in your divorce and your ex’s antics making your incredibly difficult decision fodder for public consumption.
And then imagine what it must feel like when Kanye buys the house next door to Kim and drives a truck full of roses in front of her house on Valentine’s Day.
Part of what makes Kanye’s behavior so familiar – and so insidious and so easy to dismiss – is how much it plays to our understanding of romance and stories. But what’s significant is what these gestures obscure. Let’s go back to what the lovelorn pianist said about his break-up for a moment: “It wasn’t anything nasty or bad, it was just life getting in the way. If it was anything bad why we split up then I wouldn’t be doing this, but it’s the only thing I can think of doing. It just seems life just got in our way.”
What Howard is saying here is that he doesn’t accept the break-up because he didn’t approve of the reason for it. If it had happened for reasons that he could agree with, then hey, he’d let this all go, no harm no foul. But since he doesn’t see the reason as being legitimate, he doesn’t see any need to go along with it. And since he can’t get Rapunzel to respond to him, he’s going to make sure she can’t ignore him. He, quite literally, wants to control who gets to break up with him, who gets to ignore him and why.
Now consider how much control you could have over the narrative and the relationship if, say, you have tens of millions of fans, the attention of newspapers and tabloids and riches beyond dreams of avarice.
Imagine the sort of attention you could drive towards your ex, the amount of pressure you could bring to bear if you had that level of power and influence.
And, for that matter, imagine if you could convince the world to play along.
Public Relations for Private Relationships
A man – even someone as famous and influential as Kanye – taking a divorce badly is not exactly a novel experience. Nor is seeing your divorce play out in the tabloids; drama and gossip surrounding celebrity relationships, especially divorces, are quite literally older than steam. However, the advent of social media changes the math in a significant way.
While previous scandals came at a remove, allowing the hoi polloi glimpses of the rarefied air of the glamorous elite, social media has a democratizing effect. Now instead of getting the crumbs and morsels that gatekeepers chose to dole out to the churning masses, we can hear from the celebrities directly. Now the people who were as distant from us as the stars give us the insider’s view, talking to us directly and letting us share in their lives. Rather than being at the mercy of the gossip rags, they’re free to tell us the truth themselves and let us know what’s really going on.
And in a very real way, they often invite us to play along.
It’s hardly unusual for folks going through tough times to take to social media, especially now; at a time when we all are feeling more isolated than ever, that desire for a connection, to vent and to be heard is palpable. But this desire to speak to the crowd – while understandable and relatable – has its dark side. Many, many survivors of toxic and abusive relationships have fled their abusers, only to find that they haven’t escaped, not fully. Their former partners take to social media to air dirty laundry, to make accusations, attack their exes, garner sympathy and control the narrative.
In fact, this is so common that there’s a term for it: post-separation abuse, where an abuser continues to wield power over their victims afterwards in order to punish them, maintain control and ultimately “win” the conflict. Even if the abuser can’t get them back, knowing that they defined the break-up in their favor can be satisfying to say the least.
And to be sure: it’s not as though Kanye doesn’t have a history of similar behavior, making his grievances public and dragging his exes whenever possible. Amber Rose, who dated Kanye from 2008 to 2010, has said on that Kanye publicly bullied her for years even after their break-up – famously saying that he had to take 30 showers after dating her and calling her a prostitute during a campaign rally.
But by posting constantly to Instagram and Twitter – sharing private texts, telling people what to say, even addressing his fans directly – Kanye’s behavior has gone beyond boorish and well into abusive and harassment. Unlike many of his exes, who could be eclipsed by his fame, Kim is a Kardashian. Unlike Amber Rose or Julia Fox, Kim’s ubiquity and fame puts her on a level equal to Ye’s, even possibly above his. After all, Kim’s a literal billionaire in a family of billionaires, with an empire of her own. He can’t relegate her to the dustbin of history and assume that her own fame (correctly or incorrectly) was intrinsically tied to his. He can’t discard her and assume that she’ll fade to relative obscurity; she is out there having her own life, making headlines and having new relationships without him. She’s not his ex-wife, he’s her ex-husband.
For someone as famously egotistical and prickly as Kanye is, that’s got to sting. The fact that Kim had been ignoring him and sticking to her guns has to burn like fire. And there’re few things more dangerous for a woman to do than prick a man’s ego.
Like young Luke Howard, Kanye has been determined to get his ex’s attention and guarantee that she can’t ignore him. Unlike Howard, however, Kanye has been successful. By playing to the crowd, especially to his fans, Kanye’s ensured that it’s virtually impossible not to have an opinion on his impending divorce and his push to get Kim back.
In its own way, it’s kind of diabolical; by leveraging his millions of fans, he has horde who are ready to amplify his message and shape the narrative how he wants. Because Kim is frequently seen as a less-than-perfect victim – she’s a sexually assertive woman of color who flaunts her body after all – it’s that much easier to rationalize her as the villain who’s being unreasonable. And by framing it as man fighting to win his wife’s love back, he ensures that he’s cast as the hero. After all, who couldn’t appreciate someone fighting so hard for love and his family?
But there’s another aspect to this behavior to consider…
Crowdsourced Terrorism and Stochastic Harassment
People love the idea of fame. What they often never think about is what fame would mean. Imagine how it would feel if thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people were very, very invested in some aspect of your life. Imagine, if you will, that there is a guy. A guy that you may have only ever exchanged a couple of sentences with one time at an IHOP. You never gave him your name or your number. But he decided that he couldn’t get you out of his head. And then, suddenly, the Internet is extremely sure that you should date him. It doesn’t matter that you may not be someone who sleeps with men; thousands of faceless strangers not only tracked you down, but provided your information to this erstwhile suitor. And now they are very interested in the outcome.
How free would you feel to refuse them? How conscious would you be that turning this dude down and, in the process, disappointing this giant mass of strangers who’ve demonstrated they know how to find you, could be bad for you?
Now imagine if this wasn’t a harmless lark, a bunch of people who thought it would be cute to play Internet Detective. Imagine if this crowd was riled up like whacking a beehive, then having that beehive yeeted into your lap by someone who had a history of histrionics and carrying grudges for decades. Someone who, say, has issues with control and a deep and abiding anger at you.
It takes shockingly little to get people emotionally invested in your story, and barely more to encourage them to become active participants. Look at TikTok; the vague opinion of strangers convinced thousands that a random man was cheating on his girlfriend, turned more into amateur sleuths who were determined to get involved to the tune of millions of views and likes. Everyone wants to feel like they’re part of the story; they may not have been the main character, but they can at least contribute. Maybe they’ll be the one who becomes key to to solving the mystery or bringing about the long-awaited reunion!
When you mix in a love story with all of its highs, lows and inherent drama, then you’ve got a recipe for an eager army of volunteers who’ll be looking for any way they could help. And who doesn’t want to feel as though they were an intrinsic part of, say, the happily ever after of your favorite hip-hop artist?
Kanye’s actions would be bad enough if it were just him acting like this. If all of his actions were strictly in person and offline – the calls, the insults, the stalking and demands on Kim’s attention – that would be bad enough. Stalking was a horrific enough experience when the modern Internet didn’t exist. But being able to project your actions across the world, to millions, instantly, changes everything. It has the potential to raise the stakes by orders of magnitude.
Social media – whether 4chan and Reddit or Instagram, Facebook and Twitter – isn’t just a force multiplier. It’s also a massive pool of volunteers, folks who are ready, even eager to help, to amplify and especially to take part. And if those volunteers get invested in a particular outcome or a particular narrative, the possibilities become positively horrific. I mean, it’s not like the Internet hasn’t been weaponized in a break-up before…
What makes Kanye’s behavior significant – and potentially dangerous – is how much he has played to the crowd, a crowd that loves him and is primed to buy his side of the story. By posting about how heartbroken he is and how much he prays for God to bring Kim back to him, he frames himself as the love-lorn hero, fighting in the name of True Love. Accusing her of keeping their children from him, mistreating them and insisting that he hadn’t even seen the divorce papers when she filed them, he frames her as every castrating bitch who left a good man, took the kids and poisoned them against him – every MRA’s wet nightmare come true.
And, of course, by spitting constant venom at her new boyfriend, he sets Pete Davidson up as the villain, the obstacle who stands in the way between him and the Happily Ever After he deserves with his wife.
He’s outlined the target and stated what he would like to have happen, leading to the distinct possibility that someone will take him up on it – what’s known as stochastic terrorism. In short, he’s created the perfect circumstances for something horrific to happen by telling someone to do it, and he knows it.
No, he literally knows that. Like, Kim has specifically told him that’s what he was doing.
Even if the threat of physical violence has been taken off the table – and it’s worth noting he said “nobody do anything physical to ‘Skete’” – Kanye has upped the pressure on Kim and her family. By taking his grievances directly to his fans, he’s directly involving them in his divorce. By airing his dirty laundry in the public forum, Kanye ensures that Kim’s privacy is even more notional than before. Now she has to worry about being seen in public with Pete; who knows what might happen? Will Kanye lose his shit again? Will fans yell “KIMYE FOREVER” while they’re out on a date? Or will something worse happen?
And of course, because he’s riled up his fans and pointing them at Kim, he has turned them into an extension of his own grievance. He’s transformed his fans into a tool for controlling his ex wife. And of course, this gets him what he’s always wanted: her attention. She can’t ignore him now, can she?
We Don’t Meme About Kanye
Part of why Kanye’s behavior has been allowed to reach this level is… well, because Kanye’s prone to grandiosity and over-the-top antics. Kanye famously suffers from bipolar disorder and refuses to take medication for it; it’s all too easy to assign his oh-so-wacky behavior to his condition. After all, the guy ran for president four months before the election! He leapt on stage to upstage Taylor Swift, and says the most absurd, head-scratching shit in interviews. Surely we can take all of this as Ye Being Ye and blame it all on the bipolar, yeah?
Well, no. Yes, he has an emotional disorder. He also is harassing and abusing his ex-wife, just as he abuses and bullies his other exes. The two aren’t mutually exclusive; having a mental health disorder doesn’t mean you’re incapable of being an abuser, nor does having bipolar disorder make you abuse people. That his condition is apparently poorly controlled is a shame. The fact that he doesn’t have friends, loved ones or even staff who can help rein him in or help mitigate his manic episodes is a tragedy.
The fact that he’s abusing and harassing his wife and leveraging his fame and influence to do so is a choice he has made. The responsibility of that choice lies entirely upon him.
Now it must be said: Kanye has since made a public apology and deleted his Instagram. However, I’m going to be honest: I don’t believe he’s actually sorry. Performative contrition is a well known part of the cycle of abuse; the abuser swears up and down that he’s sorry, that he’ll never do it again and things will be different now. This encourages his victim to come back; after all, how heartless could you be to not accept their apology? Don’t you feel like you owe it to them, to your family and to the vows you took to give him another chance?
To be sure; for a little bit, it is better. However, it’s just the calm before the storm. Before long, the abuse starts again; sometimes in small ways, sometimes in explosions. But the cycle always repeats – especially when the abuser has the money, power and influence to insulate himself from any consequences.
So while it’s nice that Ye apologized and covered his ass… it remains to be seen what happens if and when Kim doesn’t take the bait and continues to pursue a legal dissolution of their marriage.
Odds are it won’t be pretty.
But that inherent ugliness is precisely why it’s important to take this seriously, rather than to make memes and jokes. Kanye may act absurd and do foolish, even ludicrous things… but the harm he’s causing to his family is real. The hell he’s putting Kim through is real – the woman he supposedly loves, remember.
It’s just as important to treat this seriously from Kim’s perspective as well. Yes, there’re plenty of folks who dislike Kim Kardashian and her family. Not a single tweet, news story or, hell, Instagram post can go without someone getting in a dig about her father defending OJ, about the sex tape, her sexuality, speculation about whether she’s had a butt-lift, comments about Paris Hilton or her supposed stupidity. The fact that she’s wealthy doesn’t mean that she deserves this. The fact that she’s famous doesn’t mean that she doesn’t feel pain. And most importantly: nobody deserves to be abused.
We’ve all seen the jokes, the memes, the pithy hot takes. Odds are good we’ve made a few ourselves; God knows I have.
Kanye may act like a fool, but making jokes only serves to normalize this behavior. When it’s acceptable to make abuse into a joke because of the status and fame of the abuser and the abused, we make it that much easier to take it less seriously when the victim is less insulated and protected, and the abuser is less wealthy and less influential.
It’s no laughing matter.