The “Try Guys” scandal, and the Fragility of Public Friendship
As Rolling Stone reports, YouTube sensation the “Try Guys” have fired one of their members after a revelation he had had an extramarital affair. (The “Try Guys” are four affable, happily married men who engage in mild hijinks and promote an anodyne wholesomeness online. Go figure, people like them.)
According to the group, it took 11 days for them to kick (the adulterous Ned) Fulmer out, and only after consulting with multiple outside HR and PR professionals, and lawyers. They also said there are several videos with Fulmer they simply will not release, even though it has cost them “a lot of money.”
For those on Twitter, the most surprising part of the statement was how quickly and thoroughly such a sensitive matter was handled — especially one that involved a man they publicly called their best friend. The group was praised for how they handled the situation, while others called their response a valuable learning lesson for bigger companies.
I’m not sure how an editor at Rolling Stone lets “learning lesson” get through, but hey, what do I know? What I do know: just as in the McCarthy era and others like it, friendship itself is once again trotted out in ways that do deep dishonor to the term. If the Try Guys canning their “best friend” is virtue, we have different understandings of both friendship and integrity.
The Try Guys in happier times. Ned Fulmer, their canceled “best friend,” is on the far left.
January 16, 2012
“Perhaps I should just take a formal leave of absence?”
It is late on a rainy Saturday night, and I am on a conference call, fighting what I already know is a doomed battle. On the call are Katie and Brad, my co-founders of Healthy is the New Skinny and the Perfectly Unperfected Project, two charitable organizations working to transform both the modeling industry and young people’s body image. For the better part of two years, I’ve sunk in thousands of hours and dollars into helping these charities take off. I’ve taped television interviews and traveled to high schools and colleges to promote the message. Along with Katie, whom I talk to almost every day and see for lunch almost every week, I am one of the two public faces of our little movement.
Now, I’m out.
Katie, the president and CEO of both companies, is just 26 – but she’s savvy. Her commitment to the cause must of necessity transcend personal relationships.
“I’m so, so, sorry, Hugo, but Brad and I agree. We need you to resign. We can’t be associated with you anymore, not in any way. Dorie is deleting all your content off our website. We’ll be issuing a statement cutting ties with you tonight.”
The inevitable apparent, my training kicks in. A gentleman is never more a gentleman than when he is rebuked, shunned, or dismissed. The goal is to make the rebuking or the firing as easy on everyone else as possible.
“Of course, Katie. I understand completely. This is absolutely the right thing to do, and it should be done tonight. No hard feelings, my friend; I’ve brought this on myself.”
Katie and Brad – her husband and business partner – thank me. We promise to be in touch, and maybe another lunch soon! We all know that will never happen. We get off the phone quickly; they to compose a statement, me to take a walk in the rain and sob.
I’ve written many times of my well-known mental breakdown in the summer of 2013, and how it led to my resignation from the college. I haven’t written as often about one of the precipitating events of that breakdown, my “cancellation” a year and a half earlier.
In the past ten years, firing or deplatforming people for their public pronouncements or past behavior has become routine. The mob has many victories to its credit, with new ones every day. As the Try Guys show us, smart companies don’t wait for the mob to form — they simply oust one-time best friends preemptively, hoping to demonstrate their exquisite (and almost certainly, feigned) sensitivity to misconduct. The woke consensus is that cancellations are just long-overdue, invariably deserved consequences. In a world where we cannot immediately solve the climate crisis, or urban poverty, or inflation, it is satisfying to feel the immediate gratification of getting a “bad person” fired. Cancel culture offers the illusion of progress, as if you can deplatform or unpublish or dismiss your way to a more just world.
A decade ago, we didn’t believe this. Yet.
By late 2011, my second career as a speaker and writer was taking off. I had my weekly column at Jezebel, and I was an editor at the Good Men Project. The memoir I co-wrote with supermodel Carré Otis had just been released by HarperCollins. I had started a side business speaking at colleges about gender, sexuality, and body image, and had been able to book gigs across the country. Eira and I had an expensive lifestyle, and by the fall of 2011, a second baby on the way. I needed to provide more than my tenured professor’s salary, and charging a few thousand a pop for a lecture seemed the ideal way to do it.
I loved every minute of it. I believed in what I was doing. I believed I had an important message to share. Yes, the attention was wonderful, and the money was helpful, but I saw myself as a man on a mission to provide a radically different perspective on gender, sexuality, and body image.
On December 21, 2011, the writer Clarisse Thorn published an interview with me on Feministe, one of the longest-running and most famous of feminist blogs. (It is now defunct, so I cannot link to it.) It was a fairly innocuous interview. One of the commenters, though, was furious – and linked to an old story I had published on my own blog. (Also defunct.) In that story, I briefly recounted attempting to kill both myself and my then-girlfriend in the summer of 1998, while both of us were drunk and high. I had tried to use gas, and fortunately failed. I made private amends to that woman and her family, and there is nothing more to be said on the subject.
That original post did not cause a ruffle. The comment on Feministe, however, led to an uproar, part of which is detailed in this Atlantic Magazine profile from 2012. Could a man who had once attempted murder-suicide with his girlfriend ever claim to be a feminist, no matter how much he had changed over the years? Could he ever stake a claim to a platform? The Feministe commenters were unanimous: NO.
A campaign to get me cancelled emerged organically in the comments below Clarisse Thorn’s interview. On my website, I listed two upcoming speaking engagements – one at Evergreen State University in Washington, the other at Harvard’s Sex Week. Both campuses were deluged by emails, demanding that the colleges cancel my appearances. Over the winter break, my student contacts at both Evergreen and Harvard wrote to say that they were sorry, but they would have to disinvite me.
I called my editor at Jezebel. Should I step down? Give up my column? “No,” Jessica told me, “You stay and fight. We need imperfect people too, and I believe in your redemption.” (In 2022, this seems absurdly dated. Jezebel today rallies the troops for cancel culture on a nearly hourly basis.)
Though Jez stood by me, the grassroots movement to de-platform me continued, and soon turned to my work with Healthy is the New Skinny and Perfectly Unperfected. Katie, Brad and I had planned a tour of high schools in the Pacific Northwest to speak on body image. The principals of those high schools soon got emails, linking to my murder-suicide story, asking “Is this the sort of man you want speaking to your students?” The principals did what principals do, and called and told us they’d cancel the Perfectly Unperfected Tour unless I was dropped from the roster.
The conference call I recounted above followed immediately.
I still had my teaching job. But the financial impact of losing all of these other gigs at once was huge. Eira and I lost the house we had been renting, and downsized just as David arrived in our lives. The simmering tensions in my marriage grew worse, as I struggled with anger and despair just as I was needed more than ever. There is a direct link in my mind to my cancellation in late 2011 and my complete mental collapse 18 months later.
A decade later, I am haunted by the glee of those who had been successful in cancelling my speaking and charity work. “We took you down, you racist, murdering, sexist motherfucker!” “We’re coming for your teaching job next, you simpering fraud!” The schadenfreude was baleful and dark. Deep down, I started to believe what my harshest critics said. My self-loathing, already intense, sank to new depths.
What haunts me more, and hurts far more deeply, is the memory of that conversation with my colleagues at Healthy is the New Skinny. It is one thing to be condemned by people who don’t know you. It is another thing altogether to have people you believed were your friends tell you that you have become a liability to be jettisoned.
I did make a pledge to myself, and I intend to honor it the rest of my days. I will never allow myself to be put in a position of authority where I must appease public opinion by disavowing another human being. The cruelest thing about cancel culture isn’t just that it takes away livelihoods – it’s that it normalizes the severing of personal and professional ties with people who have become too controversial.
E.M. Forster famously said “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” Perhaps in the 21st century, he might say that the choice was between the sentiments of a baleful mob — and his friend. And if he did, he might add that he was a man who stood on an income. Wealth buys the privilege of a certain kind of principle; when the mob might take your livelihood, stealing food from the mouths of your children, you might make a different calculation. That doesn’t, I note, make it hurt any less.
I know that Katie and Brad did what they “had” to do, and intellectually, all these years later, I accept that. I do not begrudge them the tremendous success they have had since. But I will never forget standing in my kitchen, tears streaming down my face, hearing the chill and panic in Katie’s voice as she did what she had to do to appease the mob.
If friendship is to have any meaning, it must involve the courage to stand by those who disappoint you. Otherwise, all we are doing is acting like the general managers of NFL teams, cutting players who do not perform up to our standards, wishing them well as we end their careers.
W.B. Yeats had something to say on the matter, and it is a rebuke and a warning:
The intellect of man is forced to choose
perfection of the life, or of the work,
And if it take the second must refuse
A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.
When all that story's finished, what's the news?
In luck or out the toil has left its mark:
That old perplexity an empty purse,
Or the day's vanity, the night's remorse.
The Try Guys have chosen the day’s vanity. They will, I think, because they are probably decent men, come to know the night’s remorse. Perhaps, when our current orgy of cruelty masquerading as “accountability” comes to its inevitable end, that remorse will be collective.
An earlier and shorter version of the Katie and Brad story ran on Substack in January 2021.
Just looked up Katie Wilcox and she’s smoking hot if just a bit plus size. She’s promoting an unattainable beauty ideal just by existing LOL