The word “wife,” charged with the frisson of Borat’s lime-green mankini, quietly exaggerates our dependence on fixed ideas of one another.
It might have begun with “Borat.” In that Sacha Baron Cohen mockumentary, from 2006, which was subtitled “Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan,” the protagonist has a particular way of saying “my wife,” which, after the film’s release, became an inescapable catchphrase. For a while, it lived alongside Austin Powers one-liners about being horny as a ubiquitous cultural artifact that made most people wince. But then, several years ago, it circled the Möbius strip of asinine humor and landed on the amusing side: “my wife” was somehow funnier than ever. It was funny to imagine Bob Dylan saying “my wife,” or Al Pacino. It was funny to imagine saying “my wife” so many times that your actual wife divorced you. It was funny to insert the phrase “Borat voice my wife” into pop songs. There was something about the word “wife” itself. It seemed perfectly suited to a man like Borat, who named his son “Hooeylewis” and didn’t believe that women should be allowed to drive. (I haven’t watched the movie in years, but I suspect that it would not entirely hold up in, as they say, the current climate.)
Though I’m a straight woman who has—you hate to see it—organized her life around long-term, monogamous partnerships with men, I’ve always held the word “wife” at a distance. So much so that, though I have been with the same man for the past ten years and hope to spend the rest of my life with him, I do not want to be his wife. (Me? I find myself thinking. A wife? In this economy?) The very word is freighted with a history that I would prefer not to join, one in which women have been asked to conceive of their systemic subservience to men as a pleasure and a calling—to make a badge of honor out of a badge of woe, as the Stanford historian Marilyn Yalom suggests in her book “A History of the Wife,” published in 2001. According to the doctrine of coverture, which developed in the Middle Ages but aspects of which persisted into the twentieth century, “the very . . . existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband,” as Sir William Blackstone put it, in 1765. Women responded in part by carving out their own forms of soft power, and thus the word “wife” took on additional valences. Structurally speaking, the wife was controlled by her husband, but, culturally, the joke was that she controlled him. In the nineteen-sixties, a survey reported the most common joking terms used by men to refer to their wives. “Battle-axe,” “boss,” and “ball and chain” were all close to the top.
Now, decades after the suffrage movement, and women’s lib, and the sexual revolution, the abstract idea of “the wife” still looms large in our cultural imagination—and sanctimony, loyalty, and resentment orbit her like moons. For a stretch, late in the last century and earlier in this one, literary fiction was overrun with titles that featured wives: there was Audrey Niffenegger’s “The Time Traveler’s Wife,” Diane Ackerman’s “The Zookeeper’s Wife,” Amy Tan’s “The Kitchen God’s Wife,” Paula McLain’s “The Paris Wife,” Téa Obreht’s “The Tiger’s Wife,” Anita Shreve’s “The Pilot’s Wife,” and, of course, “The Wife,” by Meg Wolitzer, which was adapted into an Oscar-nominated movie starring Glenn Close. “The Wife” is about Joan Castleman, the long-suffering helpmeet to Joe Castleman, a famous author who builds his legacy by leeching off Joan’s literary ambitions. In public, Joe lavishes praise on Joan as compensation for erasing her. Wife-veneration tastes a bit like imprisonment, even today.
A lot of young people use familial terms non-literally. Around the same time that “my wife” became funny again, teens started calling their favorite celebrities “Mom.” Hot men became “Daddy.” This way of speaking is indebted to queer communities and the informal family structures that ball culture invented and provides. There is, I think, a low-level longing, in this era of atomization and instability, for that kind of kinship. There is also pleasure, often of an ironic sort, in calling someone by a name that connotes indelible connection. The word “wife,” charged with the frisson of a lime-green mankini, quietly exaggerates our dependence on fixed ideas of one another. It highlights a ludicrous aspect of both heterosexuality and our more general desire to possess those we love. And, once you’ve been around it enough, it is fairly irresistible. Four of my wives are coming to see “The Fate of the Furious” with me, I think, selecting a block of seats at the theatre. At a bar, watching a male friend flirt with a stranger, I observe that my cursed father has found himself a bride. Sometimes, out of contextual necessity, I’ll call my boyfriend my partner; more often, in a Borat voice, I call him “my wife.” (The word “husband” has so far proved too stuffy—and the word “hubby” too gross—to really enter the pop-cultural lexicon. There’s never been a wave of husband-based book titles, for instance, although there is a 2016 novel by Jane Corry called “My Husband’s Wife.”)
The figure of the wife has also become an important trope within a specific, baroque type of Internet-based humor, and this isn’t accidental. Like Borat, the online world is profane and disorderly and constantly agitated; the wife, on the other hand, is imagined as sacred, eternal, controlled. When these two things connect, the idea of the wife starts to glitch. It now takes just a minor breeze of Internet attention for a wife to catch fire as a meme. An early example of the phenomenon dates to 2013, when a mysterious photo emerged on the Internet of a suburban garage door on which someone had spray-painted “STOP NOW! don’t e-mail my wife!!!!” (The image is one of the first things cited in an essay by the poet Patricia Lockwood about her experience of the Internet; in a recent piece about “the online wife,” the writer Miles Klee identified it as “patient zero of contemporary wife content.”) Another important wife meme entered the lexicon a few years later, when a man sent a message to a Facebook account shared by a married couple. “—DAVE DO NOT READ THIS—,” it began, and then, after a block of blank space, “Tara…hello.” In 2016, a man tweeted a screenshot of an outrageously confident e-mail he had sent to his “girlfriend’s husband,” insisting that he and this man’s wife had been “bowled over” by “a deep wellspring of powerful emotions” and saying that he was moving to somewhere in their vicinity so that he could be close to her. He added that he hoped she would be able to “grow and explore in other ways that she can share with everyone she loves.” Soon, there were song parodies. (“Is this the real wife / Is this just fantasy,” etc.)
If you want to avoid becoming a meme on the Internet, it is a mistake to display exorbitant possessiveness over a romantic partner. In 2017, a man named Robbie Tripp went viral when he posted a picture on Instagram of himself and his swimsuit-clad wife, which he captioned with two hundred and sixty-eight words that were intended to prove his enlightenment but came off as howlingly sanctimonious. “I love this woman and her curvy body,” he wrote. “As a teenager, I was often teased by my friends for my attraction to girls on the thicker side.” People began attaching the text to any picture whatsoever. In January, a rumor made the rounds on Twitter that there had been a falling-out among a group of men who ran a popular meme account called Da Share Z0ne, one of whom had angrily removed everyone else from the account because another member had been “talking to his wife.” In February, a minor Twitter personality who used a female avatar confessed that he was not a woman but a man pretending to be his own wife, who also happened to be in the process of divorcing him. In May, a popular YouTube gamer announced that he was separating from his wife, a professional elf cosplayer. His wife then tweeted that he had been cheating on her for months with another gamer—and that she had not been able to read whatever announcement he had made, because he had blocked her on Twitter.
It is getting increasingly absurd to observe intimate relationships filtered through the machinery of social media. (Imagine a married couple sitting meekly in therapy, the husband vowing to interact more intentionally with his meme account’s Twitter D.M.s.) Late last month, a Snapchat celebrity who goes by Shonduras earnestly tweeted, “i watched my wife fall off a cliff,” appending a nineteen-plus-minute video in which he and his wife, whose name is Jenny, tearfully discussed the aforementioned fall off a cliff, which can more accurately be described as a tumble down some rocks. Shonduras never stopped filming: he captured her fall and her tears, and put it all on the Internet. On the Internet, Jenny became Cliff Wife and achieved instant memedom. (“It goes like this: the fourth, the fifth, I watched my wife fall off a cliff.”)
In all of these Wife Events, as Tom Whyman termed them, at the Outline, the Wife Guys had actively taken steps to embarrass themselves and their life partners. These stories, in other words, ultimately revolve around the needs and neuroses of men. And yet they are, nonetheless, a gratifying pleasure to behold. The wife as she has historically been understood isn’t made to exist in a world of Wife Events. She will have to change—and she is changing. The online wife is unbiddable, like an escaped llama or a trickster god. She cosplays as an elf; she tweets that her husband blocked her. You can e-mail her if you want to. The wife, as you read this, is gently rolling off a cliff.