I’m not going to pretend I’m different: Like countless Internet denizens, I tuned into the “Ned Fulmer cheating” scandal and watched it hungrily.
For those unfamiliar, the drama centers around a popular YouTube comedy channel called “The Try Guys,” run by four ex-Buzzfeed employees who try goofy challenges. One of the Try Guys, Ned Fulmer, spent years accumulating fame and renown, largely because of his much-publicized, “aww”-worthy relationship with wife Ariel Fulmer. The Try Guys published videos like “every time ned fulmer says ‘my wife’” and “ned and ariel being absolutely perfect.” The couple even published a cookbook together. However, when photos leaked that Ned had cheated — with a Try Guys employee, no less — all hell broke loose.
It didn’t matter that I didn’t know who Ned Fulmer was before the scandal, or that I had never watched a “Try Guys” video before, or that I only had a vague awareness of who all these people were. My friends and I scrutinized it all with a morbid fascination, rooting for the wronged wife, booing the philandering husband.
As a non-fan, I was surprised by my own reaction. Cheating, in my eyes, constitutes the most fundamental moral wrongdoing in a relationship, and here I was reading about the whole situation with the lurid fascination of colonial America reading the Reynolds Pamphlet. It’s another simple, satisfying narrative to watch and enjoy, my eyes glued onto the Try Guys’ interpersonal dynamics as they turned into public entertainment.
I mean, “consensual workplace relationship” — come on.
Ned Fulmer is a prime example of the “wife guy,” a new, refreshing flavor of the archetypal heterosexual man. Cultural critic Amanda Hess defines this phenomenon with scathing accuracy for the New York Times: “The wife guy exists at the intersection of relationship status and influencer branding, and he exhibits a heady combination of privilege and desperation … The wife-guy identity is often not just a personal choice but a professional gambit.”
The wife guy’s fame and career stems from the fact that he makes his relationship a thing of virtue, of abject goodness. He becomes something like a people’s champion, in a world where celebrity culture is all-encompassing, and our choice of idols defines our allegiances. Who we choose to venerate, especially online, becomes a key part of our identities. As sexual misconduct allegations have in recent years darkened the image of many prominent male celebrities, famous men have become subject to a greater level of scrutiny in their personal lives than during the presidency of Bill Clinton — who remained president even while Monica Lewinsky faced a years-long firestorm of hatred.
The Try Guys, in their heyday, were extremely popular among those who rejected sexist mainstream celebrities. Therefore, the status of “wife guy” served as a way for this straight male archetype to build and sustain his fanbase. His doting affection for his wife cloaks him from fourth-wave feminist suspicion.
In the entertainment industry, straight men who unabashedly love their domestic lives have become something of a novelty: something new, something interesting, something marketable. Young adults, many jaded by their parents’ failed relationships and tired of mass media feeding them decades of content about the endless pains of heterosexual marriage, have been primed to be the audience. Look: This is how good a straight man can be.
The “wife guy” doesn’t challenge our culture’s predominant narratives but instead presents a wholesome alternative. He is happy to watch other celebrities gripe about their nagging wives because it ultimately provides him with more clout. He’s not like them, you see. He is elevated by the existence of the “non-wife” guys, the lesser people who don’t place their wives on impossible pedestals and use their presence for fame.
His feminist laurels come pre-packaged with the wedding ring. Our society adores straight men for doing the bare minimum; but he goes above and beyond by actually celebrating the woman he’s dedicated his life to — how noble.
Most Gen Z and millennial college students like myself still have years to go until we seriously consider marriage for ourselves. However, the way that this relationship scandal was splattered across social media should give us pause. In an age where the Internet is so integral to our daily lives, where we are all consumers, it is important to apply critical thinking to our online engagement. What makes someone worthy of heaping praise? How genuine is a relationship in which displays of affection become marketable content?
Perhaps we shouldn’t develop parasocial attachments (unbalanced relationships in which fans obsessively dote on someone unaware of their existence) with celebrities. However, that may be too lofty a goal. I offer another possibility: Perhaps we shouldn’t applaud men for the bare minimum of loving their wives.