ABC News dropped their new docuseries The Ashley Madison Affair on Hulu this month to the sound of thunderous shrugs.
The three-part series chronicles the rise and controversy surrounding the infamous website that catered to those who wanted some action on the side. The dating site made the front pages everywhere in 2015 when millions of users’ data was made public thanks to a cyber attack.
What could have been a fascinating dive into how society and attitudes around sexuality have changed since Ashley Madison’s debut in the heat of the puritanical post-9/11 America… and how Big Tech is handling our most intimate data turns out to be a parade of pearl-clutching and half-hearted sensationalism.
As one of the top hookup sites of all time, Ashley Madison deserved better.
The Short Version of The Ashley Madison Affair
For younger readers who may not remember or know how much of a controversial topic Ashley Madison was, here is a basic explainer that will save you almost 3 hours of watching The Ashley Madison Affair.
It was 2002 and dating sites were just stepping out of their stigma as something only for nerds and creeps. AshleyMadison.com made a splash as the first dating site for people looking to have a descreet extramarital affair.
The Canadian-based company was met with massive backlash for thumbing its nose at the idea of monogamy and making bank off of adulterers. Many blamed the site itself for encouraging people to cheat on their spouses.
Plenty of people were using the internet for infidelity already, but that wasn’t the point.
What pissed a lot of people off was how Ashley Madison leaned into the salaciousness and scandal, with edgy ads featuring celebrities caught cheating and CEO Noel Biderman making the rounds on talk shows.
Unlike today’s robotic CEOs, Biderman shined on camera.
He stood by his company to boos and hisses with calm and charisma, quickly making him the public face of Ashley Madison.
AshleyMadison.com came under more fire as accusations from unhappy users that the site was a scam loaded with fake accounts. Male users needed to pay for the site’s services, like messaging, while women got free access. Many men said they were tricked into paying to flirt with chat bots.
Ashley Madison did use fake female accounts. However, like the practice of “ladies get in free”, this is a common part of online dating even today.
The biggest shit-storm Asley Madison weathered was in 2015, when an anonymous hacking group calling themselves “The Impact Team” exploited the site’s weak security and eventually publicly released all of the users information.
Today, we would call this a “dick move”.
Millions of people’s private conversations and private data was dumped into the wild and news media ate it up, scouring for celebrity accounts or politicians looking to score.
Data breaches are a dime a dozen, but this was different.
There was severe fallout with many marriages ending and several people taking their own lives. In an effort to hurt a company on moral grounds, The Impact Team caused irreversible harm to millions of people.
And people cheered them on.
There was a class-action lawsuit over the negligence of user data security and Biderman stepped down as CEO. Ashley Madison is still thriving today in a world where non-monogamy is more accepted and is hardly ever mentioned in public discourse.
What was once the center of so much controversy is now just another successful dating site.
The Problem with Perspective
I love a good documentary. Who doesn’t? Especially ones that look at big cultural moments with new perspectives and unearthed context.
That’s what I was hoping for with The Ashley Madison Affair. I got excited to see how they tackled the weird moralism of the early 2000s or how technology has impacted societal attitudes around sex and relationships.
That is not what I got.
Wanting to start with some positives, they used a cool narrative device where actors would read statements from Ashley Madison users like an interview. Some of them, especially one dude called “Rafe”, seem to be having fun with the role.
There is some brief lip service to modern attitudes around non-monogamous relationships toward the end of the final episode, so that’s nice.
The biggest issue throughout the series is the stance it takes in vilifying Ashley Madison as a corrupter of men, and some women, instead of asking bigger questions like why the site was so successful or what about it offended so many people.
The whole thing felt like a Wikipedia entry and sinister b-roll had a baby.
That b-roll footage really lets you know the show’s point of view in the first episode while interviewing Stefany Philips, a woman whose former husband used Ashley Madison to cheat on her.
When she gets to the part of her heartbreaking story where the other woman contacted Stefany for the first time, we see a close-up shot of a tick. Stefany herself never said this other woman was a blood-sucker, but the show wants to put that connection in the viewer’s head.
It is one thing when commentators brought in, like The View’s Sunny Hostin, to lay their hang-ups and views out there but another when the cinematic language itself is casting judgment.
The choice of interviewees also says a lot about what ABC News is trying to convey. Stefany mentions that her ex and his lover have been together for 10 years now, twice the length of their original marriage.
What happened to Stefany is awful, and I’m truly sorry that this happened to her. But, that does make me wonder why not interview the other side?
This wouldn’t be to absolve the cheating hubby, but at least it would be interesting to hear these stories side-by-side. Viewers may still see the ex-husband as a douchebag, but at least that would give this series something unique.
There are interviews with current and former Ashley Madison employees, most notably Chief Strategy Officer Paul Keable, that offer a somewhat opposing and positive view of their work, but they are mostly there to give first-hand accounts.
Revelatory journalism doesn’t seem to be the goal here. Instead of giving viewers some food for thought, ABC News seems to just want to you feel icky about the whole thing.
This negative and incurious lens throughout The Ashley Madison Affair begs the question of why go this route? Especially in 2023, where most people are accepting of or don’t care about, consensual non-monogamous relationships.
Is what Ashley Madison does really that bad?
Scapegoating and The Monogamy Question
Let me lay my cards on the table. I think cheating on and lying to your partner is a shitty thing to do, but I also believe humans are not inherently monogamous. To me, that’s part of what makes a relationship: staying committed to your partner even when tempted and communicating when things are rough.
Lots of people cheat for many reasons. Some people cheat because they are unhappy, some do it just because they suck and don’t care, or others may break their vows because they met Ryan Gosling at a farmer’s market.
Whatever the reason, the betrayal of trust is the big issue here and not the tools used.
People have been sneaking out on their partners forever. While new technology makes it easier to keep infidelities in the dark, it would be grossly inaccurate to say that any technology or platform causes this behavior.
During their introductory interview, Keable says the site’s founder, Darren J. Morgenstern, found research that said 30% of online dating users were already married. The idea behind Ashley Madison was to provide a place where everyone is on the same page.
Well, everyone except most of their spouses.
Besides that 30% of philandering folks, Ashley Madison is a great place for polyamorous people and swingers. In our modern dating landscape, apps and sites for non-monogamous dalliances are a significant corner of the market.
No one is accusing Ashley Madison of being created with a super-evolved and progressive attitude toward sex. They saw a demand and chose to profit from it.
People were already using websites to cheat, but Ashley Madison was the first one to be upfront about it and that is what drove people crazy. That was sort of the point.
Part of what made them a target of controversy was their marketing strategy of… making themselves a target of controversy.
Advertisers didn’t want to be associated with the website, so Ashley Madison took every chance they could to get their name out there with shock value. The ethos of “bad press is still press” is a commonly used and effective strategy.
As any Ashley Madison review will tell you, the site saw rapid growth in a short period of time, going from about 60,000 users in January of 2002 to over 500,000 by August.
Combining their in-your-face advertising and massive success, Ashley Madison became an easy scapegoat for anyone concerned over the sanctity of marriage. For readers in 2023 who are wondering “who cares about someone else’s marriage?”, in the early 2000s it was way more people than you’d think.
The better question is why there were enough of them that Ashley Madison regularly made headlines.
Not even asking that question of where the cultural headspace around marriage was back then is, to me, the biggest failing of The Ashley Madison Affair.
9/11, Tabloids, and Equality
Part of what makes a great documentary, docuseries, book, or even podcast about recent history is the benefit of hindsight.
Especially living in this current hellscape, we can look back just a few decades in our own lives and see things from a new angle.
Again, I was hoping this is what The Ashley Madison Affair would be going for. I was alive during all of this and wanted to see new insights into a crazy and sociologically fascinating time period I experienced.
Sadly, none of that is present.
It is so disappointing that ABC News chose to look through Ashley Madison’s history of controversy and not bring a larger context.
Why did the mere existence of a website for people to have affairs drive America into a frenzy?
My theory revolves around the intersection of post-9/11 Bush-era politics, celebrity gossip, and marriage equality.
Look, go with me on this.
America’s brain kind of broke after the towers went down. Not unlike the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, millions of people just wanted to feel safe and comfortable, even for just a few minutes while waiting in line.
This drove the consumption of light entertainment, like celebrity tabloids, through the roof. Tabloid publishers started taking an approach of “they’re just like us” that connected with readers and viewers.
A large part of that relatable content centered on celebrity marriages and families. People got invested in couples like Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston and tracked the dimensions of celebrity baby bumps.
Star-studded couples breaking up or getting hitched regularly made headlines and having an opinion on TomKat or Brangilna was a social requirement.
People getting invested in someone else’s marriage had become a national pastime.
That would take an even darker turn thanks to then-President George W. Bush and the rise of Evangelical Conservatism.
In the years after 9/11, the United States had become more obsessed with white Christian heteronormativity. The concept of the standard family unit was held as a bedrock of American ideals.
It isn’t surprising that people focused more on time with their families after a national trauma, but it was the idea surrounding “the sanctity” of marriage and the family that began to cause problems.
Marriage equality for gay and queer people was becoming a much-debated issue throughout the country. Everybody from politicians to movie stars was asked about their thoughts on marriage equality.
The bigoted and homophobic concept that queer love is less than, and that a gay couple could never raise a child, was extremely pervasive. A common refrain among those opposed to marriage equality was the idea that two dudes exchanging vows somehow cheapens straight people’s marriages. It would spoil the sanctity of the family itself.
Don’t look for logic in that, there isn’t any.
So, now we have a populace that is puritanical, obsessed with marriage, and feels comfortable shoving their nose in other people’s business.
And along comes Ashley Madison.
The site and its public-facing CEO Biderman were a perfect vessel for misplaced outrage. People got to condemn strangers and reveled in the schadenfreude.
The 2015 hack was front-page news, with people cheering the demise of AshleyMadison.com. Tabloids hunted for celebrity names to put on display for entertainment.
(Interesting sidenote, two of the three entertainment celebrities caught in the data breach were Christian influencers. One of whom is convicted pedophile Josh Duggar.)
Keep in mind, the vast majority of people who had their dirty laundry aired were just average citizens. Many of them claim to have created an account and never met with anyone. Again, this has to be said, this leak ruined so many lives.
Even after several people committed suicide, there was very little investigation as to why we as a people had this unhealthy obsession with what a stranger is doing behind closed doors.
That could have been the focus of The Ashley Madison Affair, not the what but the why. What did we learn from this, if anything?
The only question I was left asking by the end is the one question no piece of media should aim to raise.
Who is This Show For?
While watching this series, I kept wondering what the point of all this was.
Not much of what was relayed about the company here raised an eyebrow for this millennial and I doubt it would pique the interest of anyone in Gen-Z.
Yeah, they were racey and a bit scummy in their marketing and services for the time period. Beyond that, things like bots, data breaches, and claims of scamming are pretty common fare in the world of dating sites and tech companies.
Even the origin of the site’s name, pulled from the two most popular baby names that year, was portrayed as sleazy.
Today, we just call that Search Engine Optimization.
There were so many times when the name “Ashley Madison” came up that felt like it could’ve been swapped out for any other website and it wouldn’t make a difference.
If it isn’t for a newer audience who don’t know about Ashley Madison and their story, then it must be for older people, ugh, like me who were alive and aware while all of this was going down.
But, there wasn’t really anything here I didn’t already know.
There was no new information about the hack or its perpetrators, no recent revelations about the now-reclusive Biderman, or any evidence that Ashley Madison directly affected the rates of infidelity.
Again, this all begs the question of who is this series meant to reach.
The best answer I could come up with is that The Ashley Madison Affair is for the same demographic that was obsessed with the state of marriage in the early 2000s. It’s a walk down memory lane for those who want to soak in the mud from the comfort of their couch.
For all of the disdain around Ashley Madison’s mission and public perception, The Ashley Madison Affair has more in common with Biderman and Co. than they’d like to admit.
The visual style of the series is slick and sexy, the actors playing Ashley Madison users are hot, and the interviewees look glamorous. The Ashley Madison Affair tries to hit a salacious and steamy tone, hooking in viewers with sex and strife.
There were little lines here and there in the hacking episode about respecting people’s right to privacy and nods to changing attitudes in the finale, but they were raindrops compared to the title wave of vilification.
Maybe that’s why the interview with Stefany in episode one and Brooke Owens, another betrayed spouse, in episode three didn’t quite sit right with me.
I respect the guts it takes to speak about such a traumatic experience publicly, and listening to their stories broke my heart. But, that strength and vulnerability felt like it was in service of nothing more than emotionally charging what is a pretty straight-up historical accounting.
We didn’t even get to hear if their lives got better and how the two are doing now.
It felt mildly exploitative, knowing that this series was not using their stories to shed new light on the topic of infidelity in the internet age.
Maybe I’m wrong and the goal of The Ashley Madison Affair is just to act as wallpaper. Something to throw on in the background as you fold your laundry.
The whole thing just feels like such a missed opportunity and I have no idea who the audience is supposed to be for this intriguing story on one of the best hookup sites of all time.
Ending the Affair
Leaning hard into the sleaze and schadenfreude, there is very little meat in this meal. Very little of the information feels revelatory and the small bright spots are coated over in a layer of judgmental moralizing.
The real shame is what this series could have been. The producers could use Ashley Madison’s wild history to explore deeper questions about culture and our evolving views of sex and relationships.
Driven by sex and controversy, The Ashley Madison Affair feels less like a hard-hitting docuseries and more like another piece of sensationalized fluff for the tabloids.