The TikTok starts with a view out of a bedroom window onto the street, where a woman’s boyfriend is getting into his car. The boyfriend starts to drive away and then suddenly stops in the middle of the street. He speedily reverses, leaves the car in the middle of the street, and then runs toward the house, not even bothering to close the car door. Onscreen, the text reads: “Texting my boyfriend ‘he’s leaving come over now.’”
The whole thing is a prank—it looks like the woman behind the camera is accidentally sending a text to her boyfriend that is intended for another man. “He’s gonna come in hella mad,” says the woman as she turns the camera to focus on the closed bedroom door. Then she shouts, because her boyfriend has apparently scaled the house onto the second-story roof and is looking in through the bedroom window behind her.
“What the fuck are you texting me,” he says, climbing through the window. The woman behind the camera cracks up. “How did you get in there? I live in a two-story house!” He’s seemingly incredulous at seeing her alone: “I was trying to see who you were with.”
The video has over 2,000 comments, including one reading, “aww he loves her.” It’s part of the viral “he’s leaving” trend, which shows the jealous reactions of boyfriends and husbands to a woman’s fake-out cheating text—all for LOLs. It’s part of the booming genre of #couplepranks on TikTok, which seemed at the start of lockdown like a sensible, cathartic response to stir-crazy cohabitation. (Yes, why not climb into the shower with your unsuspecting husband while wearing a black hooded cape and ghoulish mask?) Lately, though, my FYP has filled up with heterosexual couples doing pranks that are stereotypically gendered: It’s the shenanigans of Punk’d meets the essentialist pronouncements of a blockbuster ’90s relationship advice book.
Typically, the joke is: This Is How Straight Men Are. These pranks often bait guys into expressions of chivalry, jealousy, one-track-minded horniness, or commitment-phobic Peter Pan-dom. They are meant to be funny specifically because they affirm stereotypes about straight men, as well as heterosexual monogamy and domesticity.
Jealousy is the prevailing theme of hetero couple pranks, as in the “he’s leaving, come over now” videos. Another recent trend sees a woman hand her phone to her boyfriend, asking him to try a new Snapchat filter. While he’s looking at the screen, a fake text from a flirtatious “Brad” pops up. The boyfriend might yell something along the lines of, “WHO’S BRAD?” Meanwhile, the girlfriend descends into a fit of laughter. Some TikTokers take it further, as with a woman who pretended to have sex with a dummy, just to capture her boyfriend’s reaction to the prank, which, in the words of her caption, “almost ended in my death lol.” In a similar yet more disturbing video, a man throws his girlfriend off the dummy and onto the floor.
Most jealousy pranks stop far short of violence, but plenty are physical and proprietary: In the “towel prank,” a woman pretends to be on IG Live, dancing while wearing a towel wrapped around her body, as if she’s just emerged from the shower. Then she whips the towel open, it looks like she’s flashing her audience, and the boyfriend inevitably jumps to cover her up—wrapping the towel around her or blocking her with his own body.
There are countless other tricks for goading a man into jealousy, from going topless at the beach to spraying copious amounts of cologne in your car. Some of the TikTok jealousy bait is gender non-specific and equal opportunity: recording a significant other while playing audio of the Tinder notification sound or taking a call in a whisper while saying “Yeah, he/she is right here.” These might say more about the tensions of monogamy, in particular, but straight men’s jealousy is often depicted in an aggressive style that is both gendered and echoed in other types of #couplepranks. It’s also often cast, by commenters and TikTokers alike, as a touching show of love.
Most notably, there is the trend where a woman pretends to have a phone conversation with a friend who has been hit by her husband, while secretly filming her own boyfriend’s reaction. The boyfriend, overhearing the fake conversation, puffs up his chest, grabs his shoes, and demands to know where he can find this man. Men’s seemingly perpetual proximity to violence lurks across the genre. In another trend, a woman will hide behind the shower curtain and wait for her boyfriend to use the bathroom. She’ll make a noise that leads him to start swinging blindly at whatever is hiding in there. Then, seeing he’s swinging at his girlfriend, he will often exclaim in horror: “Babe, are you OK?!”
In these videos, men’s aggression is treated as inevitable—the kind of thing that predictably arises under certain circumstances.
As with any genre of TikTok prank, there is always the question of authenticity. Some couples specialize in these pranks, racking up dozens of clips, which challenges plausibility: How many times can you be pranked by your partner before you wise up, really? Many, including the house-scaling boyfriend, seem far-fetched. In a sense, though, authenticity doesn’t matter: These videos follow a gendered script, regardless of whether a man is in on the prank. The conventions of the genre, and of gender, dictate the outcome.
Some trends pivot toward other supposedly masculine passions, triggering tongue-wagging desire—say, a wife walking by naked while her husband is on a work call or walking up to him and whispering “Daddy” before walking away. Men are predictable horn-balls, these videos seem to say. Simple creatures with two heads, one of which goes offline at the first sighting of boobs. (Of course, the implication being that women, who have the self-control to stage these sexy setups, are not horn-balls.) Then there is the Peter Pan territory: Pranks that call upon a man’s fear of commitment, as with the setup of a woman asking her dude, “Babe, can we have a baby?” Hahaha, no they cannot, because he’s a man and isn’t ready!
Just as with so many gendered sitcoms or standup routines, the stereotypical disappointments and disjunctures of heterosexuality become comedy. Maybe you laugh instead of cry, for a change. As Hannah Gadsby said, “Punchlines need trauma, because punchlines need tension and tension feeds trauma.”
The more I watched of these prank videos, the more my FYP served me clips from the related genre of TikToks providing the POV experience of perhaps the lowest hetero romantic bar there is: having a boyfriend who gives a shit about you. In one video, against a soundtrack of triumphant music, a woman simply posts her boyfriend’s caring text messages (“Good morning beautiful,” “You’ve got a great heart,” “Fam says hello”), as if she’s documenting a rare social phenomenon. These kinds of POV clips present a straight man who is available, communicative, warm, and respectful as an outlier. Similarly, the #coupleprank genre underscores gender differences in straight relationships as standard. The scholar Jane Ward notes in The Tragedy of Heterosexuality—a book that considers how straight women have attempted to pursue love and sex “alongside enduring forms of gendered alienation, inequality, and violence”—that an “exceedingly popular response” to straight discontent has been “simply to normalize it.”
That normalization happens in part via books like John Gray’s epic bestseller Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, which suggested that “men and women are so different, so at odds, that they might as well be from two different planets,” as Ward puts it. Prank TikToks may not dispense advice on coupledom, but they provide a certain reassurance about the normalcy of heterosexual, and monogamous, tensions and divisions. Many #coupleprank videos become trends precisely because of the supposed predictability of straight men’s reactions. The point isn’t to see what happens so much as to provoke a very particular response. The overall effect is naturalizing: Do X to a man and he will do Y. It presents stereotypical behavior, and difference, as an inevitability.
The expected script is strong enough that going against it can make actual headlines, as with a recent one in The Independent: “MAN’S ‘INNOCENT’ RESPONSE TO FIANCÉE’S ‘CHEATING’ PRANK GOES VIRAL ON TIKTOK: ‘RELATIONSHIP GOALS.’” TikToker Monica Gartner pranked her fiancé Sam Patterson by sending him a text reading, “He’s leaving now. You can come over.” In response, Sam didn’t put his car in reverse or climb through a second-story window. He didn’t assume the worst and fly into a jealous rage. Instead, he returned home to ask whether she was planning him a secret birthday party and promised to pretend to be surprised when the moment came. In response, some commenters questioned whether it was staged, but others declared him “literally the sweetest,” as the Independent reported. One commenter wrote, “This is so healthy I love it.”
The rare off-script #coupleprank reaction inspires “awws” more than laughs. There is no “This How Straight Men Are” punchline. Instead, it’s the aspirational fantasy of “How They Could Be.”