Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past decade or so (or simply do not enjoy comedians, which is so valid of you) you probably know who John Mulaney is. Or was. Allow me to explain: Mulaney is a Chicago millennial, comedian and openly recovering addict who got his start as a writer on Saturday Night Live in 2008. He rose in popularity through the 2010s by establishing his brand as a so-called “wife guy,” defined by Urban Dictionary as “a man who takes any opportunity to mention his wife in an admiring manner.” Mulaney is the poster child for wife guys everywhere — famous far and wide for his bits grounded in his admiration for his wife, their lack of desire for children and quips like “that’s my wife.” The question: Why are we talking about him right now?
Mulaney is like so many other men in my life, from father figures to musical artists to friends to more-than-friends, who I was once sure with all my heart I could count on. I was sure I knew exactly who they were and what place they held in my life (and assumed they would continue to hold). Like all of these men, Mulaney shattered my expectations and everyone else’s. In 2021, the news broke that after years of sobriety and marriage, Mulaney had re-entered rehab, was divorcing his wife and was expecting a child with model and actress Olivia Munn — all of which is decidedly un-wife-guy-like behavior.
Fans and spectators across the world reacted with incredulity, shock and anger — the latter directed primarily at Mulaney himself. I suppose there are many reasons why that might be, but one emerges as a central explanation: Like so many other people and institutions people once relied on, from which they assumed they knew what to expect, Mulaney betrayed his constituents when he betrayed his wife guy brand. The word “constituents” is used in a tongue-in-cheek manner here: It implies a duty, a responsibility, to fulfill the people’s needs. Mulaney technically does not possess (as much as fans may feel he does) this duty. But the institutions that have left people worldwide, and especially in the United States, high and dry, do.
This feels particularly true right now, following news that the Supreme Court is poised to overturn Roe v. Wade, the court case protecting national abortion access. Many have tried to sound the alarm for years now, concerned that this could occur, and they were often dismissed. It was said that it would never happen, as the ruling was a well-established precedent, and that the United States had made great progress in this arena of bodily autonomy and so many others since the pre-Civil Rights Movement days, Stonewall and second-wave feminism. However, in 2022 alone, nearly 240 bills have been proposed targeting LGBTQ+ people, particularly trans folks. Roe v. Wade is in danger of elimination and there’s been chatter about the future of Obergefell v. Hodges and Lawrence v. Texas, which confirmed the queer right to marry and have sex, respectively, and Loving v. Virginia, a ruling that permits interracial marriage.
Mulaney’s bits, particularly in his 2015 special “The Comeback Kid,” made people who have no desire for children (but are constantly encouraged to have them regardless) feel seen and validated. Mulaney’s bits about how even their real estate agent pressured the former couple to have children with constant comments about spaces that “could be a nursery” rang true for people who are subject to similar pressure to have children they don’t want. These same people, and so many others, will have no choice in the matter if the Supreme Court moves to overturn Roe. It’s not just white women who are in danger here; in fact, it would affect us the least. If this horror were to occur, it would be the most marginalized among us who would bear the worst of the consequences — for example, low income people, Black women and trans folks will have the right to their bodily autonomy threatened from all sides, be it from legislation banning the use of gender-affirming language and medical care or legislation banning abortion.
Those with the financial means will likely still be able to access abortion by fleeing or ‘vacationing’ to places where it’s legal by using paid time off (PTO), because overturning Roe v. Wade is intrinsically tied to class war: Capitalism as we experience it here and now, ushered in (in its current formation) by neoliberalism and Bill Clinton (who Mulaney just so happens to discuss and playfully critique in “The Comeback Kid”) depends upon the exploitation of the labor of marginalized people. That labor requires bodies to perform it, and U.S. birth rates have dramatically declined since 2007. Accordingly, requiring the birth of many unwanted children not only strips a significant portion of the population of their autonomy but also conveniently delivers significant growth in the workforce in the following years. The very-much-still-underway COVID-19 pandemic, which the U.S. government has declared “over” insofar as they no longer intend to do anything about it, has caused at least one million deaths in the United States, and thus also delivered a significant blow to the workforce. Many of those deaths were of those who were required to go into work when they couldn’t afford to shelter in place, those who couldn’t afford healthcare and frontline workers.
The backlash towards Mulaney is unsurprising, but misdirected: Responsibility for the unstable world we live in, where it seems you can’t count on anyone or anything without it soon crumbling to dust, does not rest with celebrities who act uncharacteristically but with institutions that intentionally and repeatedly fail their constituents. Mulaney really doesn’t owe you consistency — or anything, for that matter — but your government does. Our current situation has everything to do with institutional failure: government failure to properly address COVID-19 from the beginning as well as now, failure to protect the rights of queer people, women and people with uteruses nationwide, and failure to ever properly support the working class, which is continually let down and exploited. Let John Mulaney enjoy his beautiful newborn baby boy in peace, and best of luck to him in his recovery. Focus your justified rage upon the institutions that merit that and take action in whatever manner you feel capable and safe: follow Phoebe Bridgers’s lead and donate to abortion funds, take to the streets, organize in your communities. We need all the help we can get.
Daily Arts Writer Emmy Snyder can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.