It’s an image anyone who’s watched the odd Looney Toon is familiar with – the large, scary wife brandishing her rolling pin as she harries after her husband, a fellow diminutive in both size and spirit. The hen-pecked husband, and the nagging wife – if you’d asked me about it a year ago, I would have told you it was a passe, harmless dynamic that wasn’t really used on television anymore. Then, for a brief period of time, I was living in a cable-free world and suddenly I was watching a lot more three camera sitcoms than I ever had before, and there it was, proof of the bad old days alive and kicking in the form of reruns of the King of Queens. I kind of quietly adore Kevin James, and I also have no patience for the whole “why is the hot girl with the fat comedian” thing people love to do for reasons that are fairly obvious if you read any of my writing. Would I like to see a portly lady comic married to a Henry Cavill lookalike, totally, but that is neither here nor there and also would you please excuse me for a while so I can take a private moment to think about Henry Cavill. Annnnnd back.

With my cable thankfully restored (#firstworldproblems) it was as though the blinders had been ripped from my eyes – bitches be nagging mad husbands slash boyfriends, yo! In reality and sitcom and dramatic enterprises alike! What’s the you say? Give me examples of how this is true and also please explain why watched you watched more than one episode of the King of Queens! Gladly! And also, I Don’t Have To Explain Myself To You!

Reality: Brandi and Jarrod, Storage Wars

Oh sure, they're alllll smiles now.

I like AE’s Storage Wars (BARRY WEISS YOU ENTERTAIN ME!). I like a lot of things that probably aren’t good for me (See: cigarettes, caffeine, scotch, obsessive fixation on unavailable men.) It’s like Antiques Road Show‘s redneck cousin – and I mean that in the best possible way. Sincerely, when a cast member explains their donation to the Salvation Army by saying that they know the place does good work because they were once court ordered to work there – very little else needs to be said.

Brandi and Jarrod run a thrift store in California which they stock with items they win in auctions for abandoned (see: used to belong to dead people you guys, let’s be real) storage lockers. They’re young and scrappy compared to some of the other cast mates, and I feel like of the entire cast they rank second as to folks I’d actually want to have dinner with (BARRY YOU WILL ALWAYS BE NUMBER ONE.) But that’s not the couple AE has decided would be the best to show you. Instead, they show hot-head Jarrod and Nagging Brandi – Brandi issuing hard-nosed dicta about how to spend their money, and Jarrod feeling put upon and disobeying her. This nag treatment even extends to the opening sequence where a bellowing Jarrod is back by an eye-rolling Nag of a Brandi who has no time for his idiocy. It’s old. It’s tired. And I don’t think it’s emblematic of who these folks are. While AE pushes this image hard, we do get glimpses of a more complex partnership, Brandi occasionally getting to bid herself (A WOMAN WITH A VOICE? UNHEARD OF.) the couple planning strategies for their small business. But more often than not, we’re meant to laugh at Jarrod, the hen-pecked hubby with his controlling pretty wife, the bitch of all bitches. Because god knows marriage and business are that straight forward.

Sitcom: Phil and Claire Dunphy, Modern Family

In life they would be so divorced. So divorced.

My relationship with Modern Family is pretty torturous because I know I am just being fed comfortably middle-American ideas of ‘edge’ that still sort of pander but I tend not to mind it because the actors are all pretty flawless. Case in point, Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell as goofy dad and perpetually irritated Phil and Claire Dunphy. Ty Burrell is so gifted that his sensitive new age guy cum hapless childish moron seems not only plausible but loveable. Julie Bowen is so good that her Claire Dunphy – written as an unhappy, terrible, mean-spirited, and paranoid wife and mother – transforms into a soft-hearted goof who’s a bit more neurotic than she should be – something runs in the family, just look at her brother Mitchell (artfully played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson) as he manages to treat his partner Cam with the same level of near perpetual disdain.

But good acting can’t cover up the nag – watch more than one episode in a row and you find yourself wondering if you are, in fact, watching a Looney Toon. With behavior this, well, unloving, it’s hard not to visualize Modern Family the drama – where slammed doors and therapy sessions are the order of the day.

Drama: Gretchen Mol and EVERYONE, Boardwalk Empire

Girl, Things Are Happening!

Boardwalk Empire is rapidly becoming the best television to grace the little screen – with its careful evolution, acknowledgment of the independence of their characters as time passes, I think it’s a perfect study of what makes television a different but equally powerful medium than film. Boom. I stand by that.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the show is watching the female characters step out of the roles originally proscribed by the HBO boy’s clubs: Paz De La Heurta goes from happy go lucky kept woman to a mother abandoning her child and escaping the confines of any sort of role for a woman – traditional or otherwise. More interesting to me, was the battle to find their Lady Macbeth – would it be the now Mrs. Thomson, Kelly MacDonald, or the child-mother now queen of Atlantic City’s uprising, Gretchen Mol? It was a tough battle, and while I was sad to see Kelly’s role downshifted from cold calculating first lady back into Irish peasant with a terror of the god almighty, I was fascinated by watching Gretchen Mol evolve. I don’t like the woman as an actress, I don’t think she’s very strong and her choices aren’t really there. But the writing – son of a gun, if you’re going to write a woman as a conniving abusive villain, girl take a page because shit got ruh-eal this season.

Shows like Boardwalk Empire give me hope and help me see why exactly it bothers me when Woman As Nag is presented in an overblown, stereotypical way – because when you do that, you are cheating you audience of the chance to see a richly developed character. It is troubling in Boardwalk Empire to see that a woman can only be a villain in this manner if some man has mishandled or abused her, and it is even more troubling to see that when faced with a woman of this level of badness the only way out is death – for her or her victims. But it is a stab at turning hen pecked into a complex sort of hell-on-wheels kind of woman, and that’s pretty interesting.

 

[Photos:  AE.com, ABC.com, HBO.com]

  • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

    I totally like Brandi & Jarrod!  The “nagging” thing is part of their dynamic, & for me the thing that galls me is the fan reaction.  I can’t stand seeing misogynistic comments– from “she’s a nag” to “she needs a real man!” or worse– floating around.  Ugh.

    • http://www.fempop.com Rebecca Jane Stokes

      me too! I like them a lot but sadly I think the fans are reacting to the editing and direction they are being presented with. Not that that makes it right! They’ve clearly got a strong partnership going on, and I’d love to see more of that.

      • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

        It is weird to watch the show & just…realize the assumed misogyny of the audience? It has been on my mind since I first saw ads for the show– in front of a movie!– & there was a whole “oh man his wife secretly bid! A woman!” vibe. COULD YOU BELIEVE IT?

        • http://www.fempop.com Rebecca Jane Stokes

          toooootally! In a perverse way that’s why I kinda cringe in mentioning how fond of the show I am – because as a lady I shouldn’t be worrying my pretty little head with such things. Ha. Baaaaloney.

          • http://mordicai.livejournal.com Mordicai

            On the plus side, there is Barry & Brandi & Jarrod, who all make it out despite the best efforts of the rest.

  • http://twitter.com/tzilla creepin’ it real

    I guess the boardwalk empire commentary mostly bothers me because Gretchen Mol’s character as the villain that evolved from “being mishandled by a man” has little to do with her being female. A villain (like any character) needs to have SOME motivation for  their dastardly deeds in order for the story and character to be believable. It’s not unusual for a villain to be motivated out of past mistreatment and acting on misplaced emotions, regardless of their gender. The fact that in this case, the villain has been the victim of rape is not a testament to the fact that a women perpetually have a singular reason for evolving into a villain, but instead a rather genius act on the part of the writers to construct a multi dimensional character that can’t be construed solely as victim or villain. 

    The modern family argument is a bit of a stretch as well. Sure Claire is a nagging wife, just as much as (you yourself pointed out) that Phil and Mitchell manage to be the nagging husbands in their relationship. Their is tug and pull in every relationship and without conflicting personalities, Phil and Claire’s relationship would not be nearly as entertaining (nor believable). The same goes with Jay & Gloria and Camere & Mitchell. This very dynamic between the three couples was explored in the Thanksgiving episode this season. Again, this characteristic has little to do with the Claire’s gender and more to do with what is needed from a character in her role in order for the story to work.

    As for King of Queens and Storage Wars, you have a valid argument, but then again, look at the demographic they were and are pandering too (not that that’s an excuse). I just don’t think it’s fair to lump other quality written shows with well developed characters in with King of Queens and Storage Wars since they don’t really fit the archetype you’re claiming they do in your argument.

    • http://www.fempop.com Rebecca Jane Stokes

      You couldn’t be more right about Gretchen Mol’s character in BWE, I think you and I are in fact on the same page there. The only argument I’d broker is this: wasn’t she mishandled (raped, as a child)…because she was a woman? In fact this is what makes her villainy all the more interesting to me – it comes from a dark, psychological place. the writers are challenging the way in which we perceive woman who have been abused by daring to create a character who demonstrates the realities of the cycle of abuse. I wanted to draw attention to Mol because, since Shakespeare really, I think it’s so rare to find the roll of “cloying controlling mother or nag” subverted and plumbed for riches to the extent it was with moll. The reason I presented the other two examples first – a reality TV show, and a sitcom – was to give concrete examples of the role as it is traditionally used on the small screen. I don’t agree that it’s an issue of Claire’s personality being a necessary element to create a unique dynamic on the show. I think the actors are good enough and the writers deft enough that they could write beyond cliche, and as much as I’d like to be convinced otherwise, I still don’t see that with Claire. I do believe King of Queens and Modern Family and Storage Wars appeal to the same demographic absolutely, and I still don’t have any particular qualms about pointing out the commonalities there in terms of how women are presented. But if I gave the impression that I believe BWE is in the same category, let me re-state: it’s in a league entirely of its own, that was one of the reasons why I sought to present it in stark contrast to TV’s other offerings. Now that I’ve got THAT out of my system, I’d also like to say thank you for your thoughtful reading and your
      response. There is nothing more awesome than waking up to engaging dialogue
      in my inbox – for realsies.

      Rebecca J Stokes
      Beauty Editor
      Fempop.com

      • http://twitter.com/tzilla creepin’ it real

        First off, I really didn’t expect any sort of response from my comment. I just figured I was joining the billions of other people that yell at their computer screen alone in their bedroom on the internet. So thank you for taking the time to respond!

        To bring the Clare issue back up again, after some thought I’m beginning to feel as though maybe we’ve both pigeonholed her a bit. I can see in what ways you’re right in your argument, although I too feel my interpretation of her has validity as well. I think the genius of the writers of Modern Family lies in that they’ve created a character (multiple characters) that are multi-dimensional and open to a number of interpretations across a wide cross section of demographics, which explains the success behind this show. Since the first season, I’ve actually always felt Phil to be much more of a stereotype (the dumb but well meaning man child father), where as I saw Clare not as “nagging” per say, but the victim of her endless headache of a husband. I guess her reactions never seemed like nagging to me because I just felt as though any normal person on planet earth would have to react to Phil as she does or else the house would be in shambles. I saw it as a simple matter of yin and yang, regardless of gender stereotypes.

        However, as previously stated after some contemplation on the subject I’m willing to concede that you’re right that in some lights Clare is certainly cast as the archetypal “nagging wife”. Yet, I still maintain that’s not the characteristic by which she should be defined. In other words, what I’m trying to say is “we’re both right” because the writers created her so that different audiences could view her in different lights. Like any other art (yes, I consider well made tv an art), tv shows are open to interpretation, and ultimately, the most successful ones, create dialogue (like this one). 

        Lastly, there was one example of “the nagging wife” which did not get brought up in your article and I feel it to be the most significant one as it is (in my opinion) the most extreme and is a character created by a female writer, producer, and sadly, portrayed by one of the most successful female comedians in entertainment right now. As someone that doesn’t often discuss feminist issues or give much thoughts to “gender politics”, I’m usually the last person you would expect to say the words “wow, as a female, this HIGHLY offends me”, but all jokes aside, that was my exact reaction to nbc’s Whitney. Despite the fact that her and her partner on the show are not actually married, Whitney portrays the nagging wife stereotype to a T on her show. I find both her character and the humor on the show to be highly offensive to women and feel as though it sets female comedians back at least 20 years. 

        On the show, Whitney’s nagging is literally a source of at least 50% of the jokes. She portrays women as juvenile, needy, clingy, and petty. One of the earlier episodes centered on Whitney “punishing” her boyfriend Alex utilizing the silent treatment after she suspects that he was checking out another girl in public. In another episode, the storyline revolves over an argument about her boyfriend’s password protected cellphone and the trust issues between the two that are brought up as a result of it. It saddens me that a female comedian of her stature has to sink to such cliche humor and portray women in relationships in such an archetypal fashion. I can only hope that the Leslie Knopes Liz Lemons of the world eventually manage to bring this to an end.

        • http://www.fempop.com Rebecca Jane Stokes

          Oh Lord. Whitney. WHITNEY!!!!! (that was me shaking my fists at the heavens.) I can’t even discuss the show, or the woman in question without my head being in danger of exploding. You are absolutely right. I could dedicate a lot of time to the way’s in which she’s setting women back, but I feel like that’s talking too much about the devil – you invite them in.
          Thanks for your comments. Can’t say how nice it is for folks to be reading and thinking about this stuff!