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Cheating scandals hit different right now

Cheating hasn’t changed. But post Me Too, our reactions have.

The Try Guys (from left, Eugene Lee Yang, Zach Kornfeld, and Keith Habersberger) address cheating allegations against former co-worker Ned Fulmer in a YouTube video released Monday.
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Cheating scandals have always been with us. When Zeus stepped out on Hera, the Greeks turned his every affair into literal legend. When Eddie Fisher stepped out on Debbie Reynolds with Elizabeth Taylor, we turned a messy real-life breakup into a classic love triangle narrative, with an ugly virgin/whore conflict at its center. When Beyonce shaded Jay-Z for cheating on her, we opined that even a woman who seemed so close to perfection had to deal with a trifling husband — while also letting our speculation over “Becky with the good hair” run rampant.

When celebrities cheat, it’s an opportunity for gossip and tawdry sensationalism, often fueled by longstanding gender stereotypes and tabloid tropes that may be easily consumable entertainment but bear little resemblance to reality. In other words, cheating scandals say more about the pop cultural narratives we superimpose upon them than they do about the people involved in them.

Yet a recent string of high-profile cheating scandals, all involving high-profile straight men who cheated on their successful wives, suggests that the public’s relationship to these tropes, and perhaps the celebrities themselves, might be changing. Out: slut-shaming and victim-blaming. In: interrogating toxic masculinity.

Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine drew massive backlash after an allegation surfaced last month that he had cheated on his pregnant wife with an Instagram model half his age. A few days after news of Levine’s cheating scandal broke, actress Nia Long grabbed headlines when the Boston Celtics suspended her husband, head coach Ime Udoka, for one year following an investigation into his alleged relationship with a junior member of his staff. Once again, the public backlash conveyed shock and outrage that such an ideal woman could find herself with a philandering spouse.

The most personal public response yet arrived when the world learned last week that Ned Fulmer, lately of popular YouTube group the Try Guys, had cheated on his wife. Although they’re much lower-profile compared to the other celebrities in this rundown, the Try Guys have cultivated a deeply loyal fan base by building a brand based on their relatability and relative wholesomeness. Fulmer in particular had branded himself in partnership with his wife, building their professional work around their idyllic marriage. Consequently, the Try Guys cheating scandal fully subsumed social media in collective shock, hurt, and mourning. When the rest of the Try Guys (Keith Habersberger, Eugene Lee Yang, and Zach Kornfeld) finally spoke out on Monday to confirm that the allegations were true and that they’d parted ways with Fulmer, their fans quickly valorized them.

On their face, each of these scandals seems pretty different. Yet each has culled a level of public concern and moralism that feels like a shift from the cheating scandals of the past, which were essentially tawdry cautionary tales and little else. When we look at them more closely, we see a set of competing narratives about power, gender, and relationships that don’t always align with reality — but do tell us a lot about ourselves.

Power dynamics and parasocial relationships make cheating scandals trickier these days

On September 19, 23-year-old model Sumner Stroh came forward on TikTok to accuse 43-year-old Levine of having a year-long affair with her. After cheating on his pregnant wife, Victoria’s Secret angel Behati Prinsloo, Levine allegedly DM’d Stroh to ask if he could name the baby after Sumner. As creepy as that is, Levine looked even smarmier once three other women also spoke out to accuse Levine of sending flirty texts like “I may need to see the booty.” In an Instagram post, Levine later denied having a physical relationship with anyone, but admitted to utilizing “poor judgment” and “cross[ing] the line during a regrettable period in my life.”

These accusations ranged widely in scope. One woman basically accused Levine of disrupting her life by sending her a single flirtatious text and then ghosting her in 2010, four years before he married Prinsloo. Another failed to produce anything more shocking than texts revealing that Levine is an ass man. Still, they all had the basic theme of Levine behaving inappropriately, usually with much younger women — and they introduced a theme that ran throughout the subsequent discourse around the other cheating scandals as well: the imbalanced power dynamic of these relationships.

“At the time, I was young, I was naive, and, I mean, quite frankly, I feel exploited,” Stroh stated in her TikTok about the alleged affair. “I was very easily manipulated.” Other onlookers expanded on Stroh’s point, including actress Emily Ratajkowski. “I don’t understand why we continue to blame women for men’s mistakes, especially when you’re talking about 20-something-year-old women dealing with men in positions of power who are twice their age,” Ratajkowski stated in a pointed, since-deleted TikTok. “The power dynamic is so skewed, it’s ridiculous. It’s predatory, it’s manipulative.”

Remaining aware of the power dynamics at play was also a priority for the staff who dealt with the fallout of the other scandals. “We as an organization have a responsibility to support [female staff members],” Celtics executive Brad Stevens stated in the wake of Udoka’s suspension, noting that many of them had been “dragged unfairly” into the social media gossip about the scandal. (Udoka apologized in a statement “to our players, fans, the entire Celtics organization, and my family for letting them down.”)

Meanwhile, the Try Guys were so sensitive to the optics around the Fulmer scandal that they spent Monday’s clarification video discussing their efforts to completely erase Fulmer himself, literally, from their videos and merchandise. While the rumor mill is flowing with numerous anonymous allegations that the other members of the Try Guys team witnessed Fulmer’s sexual misconduct in person multiple times, the men confessed themselves deeply shocked and hurt by the scandal, saying they had no idea. “We refused to sweep things under the rug,” Yang stated. “That is not who we are and it’s not what we stand for.”

It’s not just the Guys who are focused on the optics. All of these scandals seem to reflect a major shift in how the people involved and the general public think about the parameters of a cheating scandal. For what may be the first time ever, we’re seeing an emphasis on more than just “who did it” and “who’s the villain.”

Historically, the cheating narrative has always been inherently misogynistic, reifying our tropes about the evil other woman, hammering away at the virgin/whore dichotomy, questioning the behavior of the spurned party, and rarely if ever focusing on the cheating partner. The “Jolenes” of the world were given a witchy mystical ability to steal even the strongest man, while marriage, even monogamy itself, tended to be framed as a confining prison for women, forced to either pine for men who would never change or evolve beyond them into independence. If a man stepped out of his wife and the public learned about it, the prevailing cultural attitude held that she had failed to adequately perform any of her many wifely duties as home manager, housekeeper, mother, caretaker, and fully accommodating sexual partner.

This pattern arguably began to shift with Beyonce’s 2016 stunner Lemonade, which largely centered around her feelings and reactions to husband Jay-Z’s cheating. Instead of shifting those feelings onto the proverbial “other woman” (the aforementioned “Becky,” who drew attention but wasn’t the focus), Bey transformed the anger into a narrative of personal empowerment. She also initially released the whole album on the streaming platform owned by Jay-Z, so Lemonade ironically became a way of consolidating their power couple status. The Lemonade narrative was perhaps the most successful narrative yet at forging a new path between “fruitless pining” and “I don’t need a man.” And, crucially, it didn’t have to destroy another woman to do it.

In 2017, the cheating narrative gained another element of complexity, this time at the expense of Joss Whedon. Whedon’s longstanding image as an outspoken feminist creator had been deteriorating for some time in his post-Avengers era, but it took its biggest hit yet when his ex-wife Kai Cole alleged that his feminism was just a front for years of cheating. Whedon, Cole alleged, preyed on much younger women, usually women he worked with. These were relationships with seriously imbalanced power dynamics, and Cole emphasized that Whedon used his feminism as a way of masking his manipulative tactics and gaslighting women who would question them, including Cole herself.

Cole’s narrative about her relationship with Whedon arrived right before the Me Too movement and preceded what would soon become culture-wide conversations about imbalanced workplace relationships. By confronting the idea that her husband’s cheating was dually a form of emotional abuse and a form of predation, Cole created an approach to talking about infidelity that broke away from the “wicked adulterer” trope and aligned with more complex Me Too themes. Me Too awoke us, culturally, to countless reductive and gendered stereotypes around the ways we discuss everything from sexual harassment to monogamy. Inevitably, the conversation around cheating began to focus on the man at the center of the scandal.

This change arguably happened not only because of the Me Too movement, but also because of our increasingly intimate parasocial relationships. We’re far removed from the peak era of the Hollywood idol, when stormy celebrity relationships could happen mostly far away from us. Now, they often play out on social media among famous people who feel like our pals. We got our first real taste of this, culturally speaking, when John Mulaney cheated on his wife of six years, artist Anna Marie Tendler. Like Fulmer, Mulaney had become known for being a “wife guy” — a dude whose personality presents itself, rightly or wrongly, as “I love my wife!” Like Fulmer, Mulaney’s often ironically banal comic style had won him the kind of audience whose parasocial relationships with him led them to feel deep outrage and betrayal over the idea that he could have cheated on a woman he spent years publicly adoring. But unfortunately, neither Mulaney’s nor Fulmer’s “wife guy” brand could stand up to reality.

The parasocial aspect is arguably the last new piece of the cheating scandal’s evolution, but it’s one of the thorniest. It also indicates how complicated some of our conversations around cheating have become — maybe even to their detriment.

The conversation about cheating has changed — but has it changed that much?

The problem with our newly woke awareness of cheating is that the old cheating narratives haven’t disappeared. They’re still with us, bound up in all the typical stereotypes about broken relationships — only now they’re competing with a barrage of endless social media takes that turn these individual scandals into parts of much larger conversations about gender. All the while, the women who come forward with these allegations still endure the brunt of the public’s anger.

Current conversations still incorporate “the other woman is evil” trope, this time abutting the “how could a man cheat on this perfect woman” outcry. The public conversation still too frequently relegates women to flat caricatures of themselves, even if the caricatures are supposedly positive.

Then there’s the overexposure of the people involved and the treatment of the scandal itself as newsworthy beyond its actual merits. The fact that all of this happens online and on social media makes the scandal feel like homework for many people. “I’ve never heard of the Try Guys in my life,” a friend told me in the wake of the Fulmer allegations. “Now they’re everywhere. Do I have to know who these people are?”

The performance of public outrage can feel exhausting — and in some cases, like Levine’s banal sexting, like a throwback to Victorian-era sexual politics. Because of the ongoing advance of purity culture across the internet, it’s become far too easy to conflate being scandalized and shocked that a guy cheated on his pregnant wife with being scandalized and shocked that a guy likes sex at all, or that two adults were — gasp! — flirting.

At the same time, because of our newfound awareness of the elements of coercion, power, and manipulation that can accompany cheating, our outrage often conflates “cheating” with far more serious sexual transgressions like much more aggressive nonconsensual behavior and sexual misconduct.

Amid all of the gossip and discourse, the speculations about who the involved parties are and wife guy jokes and “consensual workplace relationship” memes, we have to ask: Ultimately, is any of this our business? Is any of it really newsworthy? Is it all just an excuse to gawk at celebrities and put their lives under a microscope of extreme moral scrutiny?

Behind every celebrity scandal are real people trying to cope with serious life circumstances — and even if they seem trivial to us, the onslaught of public opinion attaching to a public figure can make any situation 10 times worse.

That said, we know from long study that our relationships to celebrities have more to do with what we project upon them than the celebrities themselves. The cheating scandal too often turns women into scapegoats for the behavior of cheating men, and too often allows the public to demonize them. Now, while the cheating scandal has in some ways become more black and white than ever, it’s also started to crystallize many of the ideas Me Too raised. We’re starting to ask what drives people to cheat, and in what ways cheating can be used to reinforce creepy power dynamics and emotionally abusive situations. Those conversations are good for us, even if they lead to an overwhelming onslaught of takes and social media fatigue.

It also seems clear that the public interest isn’t dying down soon. So, no, you don’t need to know who the Try Guys are. Just know that this cheating episode, like all of them, holds a mirror up to our own relationships and invites us to peek inside — if we dare.

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