Anatomy of the Wife Guy

Not every guy with a wife is a wife guy, and not all wife guys have wives.

In August 2017, the twitter user @i_zzzzzz observed that: “The best days on the internet are the ones where you can refer to ‘the wife guy’ and everyone knows who you’re talking about.” This is true, and anyone who has spent enough time on Twitter will immediately know that. But why is it true? What is it to be a “Wife Guy” and why, when someone is discovered to be one, is it so funny?

In the opening passages of her essay-diary-prose poem “The Communal Mind”, an exploration of the internet as “a place we (can) never leave,” Patricia Lockwood describes entering the internet as if a portal:

“She opened the portal, and the mind met her more than halfway. Inside, it was tropical and snowing, and the first flake of the blizzard of everything landed on her tongue and melted.
Close-ups of nail art, a pebble from outer space, a tarantula’s compound eyes, a storm like canned peaches on the surface of Jupiter, Van Gogh’s Potato Eaters, a chihuahua perched on a man’s erection, a garage door spray-painted with the words ‘STOP NOW! DON’T EMAIL MY WIFE!’”

Nobody quite seems to know the story behind the picture Lockwood is describing here, which dates back to at least 2013. But it became important to what was arguably the seminal Wife Guy moment: the “Email to my girlfriend’s husband,” which in 2016 was picked up and much-parodied by Weird Twitter. “I figure if I’m going to be within shooting distance of you, I better try some diplomacy before I arrive,” wrote the email’s author, @MarkusJ, who proceeded to launch into a bizarre, faux-reasonable account of how he was preparing to move 2,000 miles away with the sole purpose of carrying on an affair with the recipient’s wife. “Life is crazy, and hard, and most unfair of all, short, and these connections and emotions don’t reveal themselves every day, it’d be so self-damaging not to pursue it (my affair with your wife).” For reasons quite beyond the ken of people who do not move 2,000 miles in an attempt to sleep with other people’s wives or girlfriends, he posted the email, on Twitter, in full.

In @MarkusJ’s wake we got the Curvy Wife Guy, AKA Instagram influencer Robbie Tripp, a corny doofus given to authoring drippy, patronizing posts about how much he loves his (obviously and astronomically out-of-his-league) wife both because of and in spite of her “curvy body,” which “won’t be the one featured on the cover of Cosmopolitan but it’s the one featured in my life and in my heart.” Tripp went on to write a self-help book, which Babe.net compared to the Unabomber Manifesto. Tripp later threatened to sue them over the comparison, adding him to another pantheon of online figures: the Extremely Mad and Litigious Guy.

We also got @ElleOhHell, the Man Who Was His Own Wife, who became a semi-popular “female” comedy tweeter by using pictures of his wife as his avatar and doing jokes about getting your period, only to come clean after she divorced him. And most recently we were given ProJared, the Elf Wife Guy, a professional video game player whose wife, a professional elf, revealed he was having an affair with another professional video game player (and pigeon aficionado) after he blocked her on twitter.

A Wife Guy is defined by the fact that they have done something which involves a wife, whether their own or someone else’s — call this a Wife Event.

What unites this constellation of Wife Guys? It can’t be that they all have wives: @MarkusJ was pursuing an affair with someone else’s wife; the Man Who Was His Own Wife and the Elf Wife Guy had both recently been left by their wives. In truth, the Curvy Wife Guy perhaps stands alone in being a Wife Guy who has managed not only to have but to retain his wife (indeed, Tripp recently announced that his Curvy Wife was now “a sacred vessel carrying my seed,” so there’s going to be a Curvy Wife Baby coming soon).

Rather, a Wife Guy is defined by the fact that they have done something which involves a wife, whether their own or someone else’s — call this a Wife Event. A Wife Event can take many forms, but it necessarily involves the internet in some way (a long-distance online relationship; a fake social media account; a prominent Instagram presence) and, when discovered, will be widely discussed online.

The tone of this discussion will typically be mocking. This can sometimes seem a bit iffy because like any Event, especially Events which involve Guys, a Wife Event can be bound up with some pretty dark things: the manipulative behavior of a man befriending women while posing as one; the predatory behavior of an internet celebrity using his position to solicit nudes from 16 year-old fans. But any true Wife Event will also involve behavior that is ludicrous, farcical, pathetic — and the reaction to any Wife Event is sure to revel in the basic ridiculousness of what has transpired.

A Wife Guy, therefore, is a man who has become ridiculous through his involvement in something wife-related and has happened to become known online. But from where does this ridiculousness arise? As far as I can tell: from a particular juxtaposition of the domestic with online.

In “The Communal Mind,” Lockwood writes about the scale of the transformations the internet is causing our consciousness to undergo:

“She lay every morning under an avalanche of details, blissed: pictures of breakfasts in Patagonia, a girl applying foundation with a hardboiled egg, a shiba inu in Japan leaping from paw to paw to greet its owner, white women’s pictures of their bruises — the world pressing closer and closer, the spider web of human connection so thick it was almost a shimmering and solid silk… She had become famous for a tweet that said simply: Can a dog be twins? That was it. Can a dog be twins? It had recently reached the stage of penetration where teenagers posted the cry-face emoji at her. They were in high school. They were going to remember, Can a dog be twins? instead of the date of the Treaty of Versailles, which, let’s face it, she didn’t know either.”

“Previously,” Lockwood later writes, “communities were imposed on us along with their mental weather. Now we chose them — or believed we did. A person might join a site to look at pictures of her nephew and five years later believe in a flat earth.” She tells stories of a man in cowboy boots who posts pictures with more and more of his balls visible in the background every time; of a “windburned Midwestern man... holding all his happiness in his face” who proudly announces his foot fetish; of telling an audience that “Garfield is a body-positivity icon” in a lecture at the British Museum. “I used to laugh at actual jokes,” a tweet will say every now and then. “Now I only laugh at stuff like this.” Which is followed by an image of some spinach labelled ‘SPINCH’

In Wife Events, we get a sense of the internet penetrating domestic space. In Wife Events, not only is the internet happening: it is happening to somebody’s wife. Of course, wives are often very much online: they are influencers; forum users; prominent professional elves. Thirty-nine percent of heterosexual relationships in the U.S. now begin online: the internet is, if anything, our most important source of wives.

But something about the quality of the word “wife” continues to feel like it belongs to the old, pre-internet world. Mention “online” and “wife” in the same sentence and one starts to imagine a man attempting to hide the internet from his wife, like it’s a scene from a classic stage farce, the Wife Guy rushing on from stage left to stash the internet in a closet, which he must now dedicate all his energies to preventing his suspicious wife from opening.

Twitter bard and my nomination for the Nobel Prize @Dril understands this, as he understands most other things about online. His book, Dril Official “Mr. Ten Years” Anniversary Collection contains a whole section entitled “Wife,” which includes such gems as “judge refuses to award my criminal ex-wife ANY of my retweets or favs in the divorce proceedings #BLAMMO” and “my watch beeps whwich [sic] means its [sic] time to stand in front of my ex-wife’s house and play “Hit The Road Jack” while dacning [sic] and licking her mail.” (Personally, I’m still hoping to convince my partner to allow me, at our wedding, to have it read out in full.)

But in time, the Wife Guy will surely become impossible. We are used to thinking of the internet as somehow separate from offline. The British writer Olivia Laing, for instance, recently had an essay published in The Guardian in which she speaks of social media as if it were some sort of dangerous supplement to our “real” experience of the world:

“That year I slept with my laptop on the pillow beside me, waking multiple times in the night to check my feed. Twitter was my constant companion, the lens through which I watched the EU referendum, Brexit, the American presidential campaign and Trump’s election. I couldn’t look away. Even though I suspected that the speed and strangeness of events had something to do with social media, I still believed social media was the place to find out what was really going on, hours before the ponderous newspapers caught up.
I wasn’t so much addicted to the spectacle as to the ongoing certainty that the next click, the next link, would bring clarity. I felt like if I watched everything, if I read every last conspiracy theory and threaded tweet, the reward would be illumination. I would finally be able to understand not just what was happening but what it meant and what consequences it would have. But there was never a definitive conclusion. I’d taken up residence in a hothouse for paranoia, a factory manufacturing speculation and mistrust.”

Laing also goes on to liken the “numbing” effect of information received via social media to the way in which the Nazis desensitized both victims and perpetrators during the Holocaust — a comparison of such obvious and egregious crassness that it must lead even the most sympathetic reader to question the rest of her analysis. In truth, Laing has got it all wrong: the internet is not an alien intruder on our everyday experience, it is instead merging with it. As the generations who still remember a world without the internet pass, the internet will become completely inseparable from everyday experience, just as fields are inseparable from countryside. Even Laing, as she notes in her essay, met her husband online.

You cannot remove yourself from the internet any more than you can remove yourself from history. The humor of the Wife Guy stems from the residual myth that one might.

Tom Whyman, a contributing writer at The Outline, is a writer and philosopher from the UK.