There has arguably never been a worse month for men whose entire personality is loving their wife. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen two cheating scandals that have become the subject of weeks-long social media debate, specifically because they surround celebrities who would have been popularly described as “wife guys”.
The first came in the form of Maroon 5 frontman, Adam Levine, who was accused of cheating on his pregnant wife, supermodel Behati Prinsloo; the second involved internet personality Ned Fulmer, famously of the YouTube channel The Try Guys, who admitted to a “consensual” workplace relationship with a member of the Try Guys staff.
These two scandals – which happened only days apart – became a major moment in popular culture, in large part due to outrage from fans.
The reason for this has been put down to the personas both Levine and Fulmer had developed over the past decade. Both men, but Fulmer in particular, had built brands out of being vocal women’s rights advocates and for pushing their “wholesome” relationships with their wives.
When the scandals emerged, each man became the subject of hundreds of thousands of tweets, trended for days on social media, and remain the subject of countless think pieces, hot takes, and takedown threads. Fan pages have become riddled with venomous fury over their actions. In an effort to explain the overwhelming fan response to people who had previously never heard of Fulmer, the moderator of the Try Guys sub-Reddit wrote: “[his] whole ‘thing’ is that he loves his wife and kids, he’s our internet dad.”
When a star they have never met does something fans don’t like, or that doesn’t align with their one-dimensional view of the celebrity, the fans’ reaction is complete meltdown – equivalent to an implosion happening in their own lives. What is even stranger is that we don’t find this reaction strange.
Online today, it has become socially acceptable to treat celebrities’ lives as deeply personal to us – viewing their public personae and the messages they promote as emotional anchors. The internet has encouraged these parasocial relationships in which celebrities’ actions are held to an even higher standard than we would hold our most intimate, real-life relationships – or even ourselves.
Over the past few years, many of the internet’s most popular men – often beloved for their feminist, wife-adoring personae – have had their facades crack for one reason or another, and experienced a hyperventilating fan reaction online in response.
Sometimes the anger has been more understandable, such as when it involves alleged offences or transgressions. This was the case in two major moments in 2018: first, when the actor Aziz Ansari became the subject of a viral story alleging he assaulted a young woman (Ansari released a statement saying he remembered the incident, but that it was consensual), and then a few months later when the Catfish host Nev Schulman was accused of sexual harassment, which he denies.
Both of these men had built a global female fanbase in large part due to being extremely vocal about gender equality, and experienced overwhelming fan backlash online as a result. The furious response was often less about the alleged harm done to the victim, and more concerned with fans’ disappointment that these men were not the feminist allies they claimed to be.
However, there have been several other instances in which cheating – and cheating alone – has caused a similar, if not more pronounced, backlash. One example is John Mulaney, the stand-up comedian whose shows had long featured positive material about his wife (and his strong disinterest in having children).
In the spring of last year, when at roughly the same time it was announced he had separated from his wife and was also having a baby with the actress Olivia Munn, with fans finding overlap in the two relationships, the response was chillingly personal – he trended on social media for weeks, the posts awash with the same sentiment: “How could he do this to us?”
This idea that one man’s potential cheating is somehow a crime against his millions of fans is now increasingly seen as acceptable. It is encouraged by social media’s incentives to take everything to a 10, giving extreme messages more traction, and by the echo chamber social media creates, engendering an attitude of “if everyone’s doing it, it must be fine”.
But the belief that this response is appropriate is harmful – not only for the celebrity in question, but also for the fans themselves. It points to an imbalanced moral code being adopted en masse in which we view people who are ultimately strangers through an over-personal moral lens that fails to make room for human fallibility – and suggests mob-like obsession is morally correct.
This phenomenon extends well beyond cheating scandals and wife guys: it appears in any parasocial relationship with a celebrity where this unhealthy attachment can be flexed. Perhaps most acutely, we witnessed it in this year’s Amber Heard vs Johnny Depp trial, in which Heard became the subject of unavoidable social media memes and misinformation, which, while highlighting and often skewing Heard’s behaviour in the trial, served to smoothe over the horrifying, violent behaviour Depp was accused of.
While we should at least consider the enormous negative impact this had on Heard – and on other imperfect victims who come forward against their abusers – we should also consider that the jury was not shielded from this content during the trial.
The same ecosystem is rising again following the details of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt’s divorce. Following her allegations that Pitt attacked both Jolie and his children, which Pitt denies, Jolie is being given the same treatment Heard experienced at the start of this year.
In all of these cases, what ultimately emerges is an alarming dichotomy, where obsession and adoration for a celebrity reaches unfathomable highs, while at the same time, a frenzied intensity dehumanises the celebrity, making it feel like a person is merely a subject; that a human isn’t involved.
The result is a shifted society in which we place a disproportionate amount of stock in people wholly irrelevant to us, while fully believing this has no impact on anyone else – or worse, that someone who does not know us deserves to experience the sharp end of our wrath.
I am not seeking sympathy for any of the people who have been caught cheating or have been accused of bad behaviour. It is healthy to be sceptical of the people who monetise these personae and otherwise enjoy the parasocial relationships their fans develop with them – then often complain about that attachment when it no longer works in their favour.
However, what is clear is that the internet has made it far too easy to spend shameful amounts of our time intertwining our identities with the identities of strangers. It’s not that we should start thinking of them differently, or take more care in how we speak about them online. We should instead – not just for their sake, but our own – simply stop caring about them at all.
Original posted at inews.co.uk