Early this year, the internet sage known as @maplecocaine gifted us a piece of wisdom that becomes more relevant daily. In short, it is the warning to “be careful what you wish for,” rephrased for the attention economy. We dream of renown — but we should fear it.
I can say with complete confidence that the main character of May 9, 2019, is Jared Knabenbauer, who goes by “ProJared” in his public life as a YouTube gamer. I say this because I and many others who yesterday had no idea ProJared existed are now deeply immersed in the details of his personal life — and we are aghast. As with most geek controversy, it’s an extraordinarily messy story that got him trending on Twitter and gossiped about across Reddit, YouTube, Discord and various gaming forums. When the dust settles a bit, Knabenbauer’s biggest worry is likely to be the accusations that he solicited nudes from underage fans, especially coming so soon after another YouTuber, Austin Jones, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for much the same offense.
But here’s what kicked things off the previous night: ProJared announced, via Twitter, a separation from his wife, the cosplayer Heidi O’Ferrall. A fellow gamer, Holly Conrad (aka Commander Holly), replied with a supportive message. Then O’Ferrall tweeted that her husband had been having an affair with Conrad, and — more absurdly — had blocked her on Twitter as he made preparations for a spin war.
The splitting of a high-profile internet couple, with each person massively popular in their own field, was bound to send shockwaves through those intersecting communities. ProJared began to hemorrhage Twitter and YouTube followers (where he slipped beneath the coveted million-subscriber benchmark); he lost control of his own subreddit; other allegations of inappropriate behavior came out; fans used the opportunity to settle scores or revisit tangentially related drama; O’Ferrall continued to air her grievances while unexpectedly defending the size of Knabenbauer’s dick. This chaos could plausibly have tipped into mainstream web discourse on its own merit, but I believe it was ProJared’s decision to block Heidi that took it truly viral. This is what made it accessible to people outside the geek industry, since it marked him as something altogether weirder than “a philandering gamer” — now he was “that guy who blocked his wife.”
Amazingly, the age of wife-blocking had also been foreseen by the prophet @dril:
And the incident gave us cause to wonder, again: What is it about online wife energy?
I’d echo the assessment that we’re drawn to wife-centric digital furor in part because it seems like the husbands involved are lacking any common sense or self-awareness. That these men are even married can feel preposterous, given their grating character, which clues us into the somewhat archaic nature of the partnerships: The wife is legitimizing for a male web celebrity, and particularly advantageous for a guy in the nerd-o-sphere, in the way a mid-century businessman benefited from the aura of stable matrimony. In crasser terms, the Online Wife is a measure of the husband’s influence.
Consider Robbie Tripp, the dude still trying to turn cringingly faux-woke praise of his “curvy” wife into some kind of lifestyle/entertainment brand years after he was outed as racist and transphobic. Look at Eric Trump bizarrely dropping the hashtag “#wife” because he doesn’t know how else to indicate that he’s in a legal union with a normal-looking woman, or his brother Donald Trump Jr. scrambling to date former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle after his own wife, reportedly fed up with his tweets, had filed for divorce. You see it in right-wing debate dude Ben Shapiro’s running joke(?) about having a wife who works as a doctor, which he seems to believe negates any feminist critique of his reactionary politics.
There was the guy so invested in his wife’s value as a social media prop that he assumed her identity for years, tweeting from an account that appeared to belong to a woman, dissolving the ruse only when she finally left him for good. Journalist and author Kurt Eichenwald, in perhaps the finest instance of the phenomenon “Meltdown May,” was mocked for revealing a browser tab of hardcore hentai — and tried to salvage his reputation by explaining that he and his children “were trying to convince my wife that ‘tentacle porn’ existed.” Most recently, noted plagiarist Ben Domenech, who cemented his status in conservative circles by marrying Meghan McCain (whose own pseudo-success is owed to her father’s career in the Senate) went on a homophobic diatribe against late-night TV’s Seth Meyers for lightly challenging some of the dumber things she’s said in public. Afterward, in the interest of damage control, he tweeted an apology that began: “I love my wife.”
That we rarely think of these dopes as “husbands” — even when, as with McCain and Domenech, the woman is better known — shows we don’t see them meeting the responsibilities of the role. It is the wife pulling the weight, pushing toward collaboration, attempting to meet her man in the middle. Even a viral text initially circulated as “email to my girlfriend’s husband,” which candidly described the writer’s plan to pursue an intimate, extramarital bond with the recipient’s partner, turned quickly into “the wife email,” meeting Twitter’s insatiable demand for wives.
To be a wife, at least in the context of the meme economy, is thankless and ridiculous. It’s she who stands to become a victim of the commitment, barely necessary at this point in the Western history of sexual romance, if and when the relationship unravels; she’s the one humiliated for placing her trust in a grade-A dipshit, or else used as a shield when he majorly fucks up. He is an individual, not defined by his attachments, and she is the long-suffering wife, bound forever to his name, never mind whether she eventually moves on. Maybe, in that light, calling her “his wife” is a mercy — as if we protect her identity by redacting it.
Most of all, the wife is caught between opposing, publicizing forces, and there’s no better example of this than the patient zero of contemporary wife content: the infamous “don’t email my wife!!!!” photo. Snapped by a redditor in Illinois back in 2013, it shows a garage bearing this exact demand in red spray paint, as well as the warning “STOP NOW.” What we see there is male-to-male aggression designed for mass exposure — what the wife in question wants or feels or ever did is a mystery, lost in the hilarious though concerning spectacle of an overt feud she no doubt would have preferred to avoid. Such is the misfortune of the wife, whose privacy is demolished by the wild stupidity and selfishness of the men around her.
Heidi O’Ferrall shouldn’t worry too much, though. Soon enough, another wife will be shoved onstage.