Stupid husbands and smart wives on TV

If you’ve seen any American sitcoms featuring het couples in the past ten years or so, you’ll probably have noticed that it’s common for the show to portray the husbands as a stupid but endearing oaf who likes beer, barbecues, watching TV, hanging with the guys, and ogling women; and the wife as a smart, attractive, career woman who is also a housewife… and who generally just puts up with the man.

Some people have tried to use this as evidence that feminism has gone too far, but I have seen no indication from feminist writers or bloggers that they approve of this dynamic. Granted, I don’t hear a lot of feminist outcry over it either, but it is worth nothing that feminists do not celebrate the gender dynamic in popular husband-wife sitcoms like King of Queens, The Simpsons, George Lopez, or Rules of Engagement.

I do think the dynamic comes from a combination of sociological factors and political light-stepping, though. First of all, there are several types of humor—slapstick, irony, insult, shock… just to give a few examples. Sitcoms, especially those featuring a family, have decided to go the insult way. Slapstick humor still packs the theaters (think Will Ferell and Ben Stiller), but it cannot sustain a several-seasons-long show for adults. Irony takes too much set-up time, and my feeling is that people are sick of seeing too many Three’s Company and Golden Girls episodes to put up with more of that Shakespearean “smart” humor. Shock humor is better suited for stand-up comedy, and at least on American non-cable television (where swear words are verboten) cannot be utilized to its fullest extent… which generally leaves (with the exception of Seinfeld) insult humor.

Now, as we have seen on Will and Grace, insult humor can go multiple directions (basically come from any character directed at another character), but I think it isn’t feminism per se that’s informing studios’ choices about how that humor takes its form as the studios’ perception of feminism. They know if the woman insults the men that men will take it because they don’t want to be perceived as having thin skins or not being able to take a joke (after all, those would be “unmanly” reactions), and they know if a man insults a woman, women will find it ungentlemanly and feminists will be up in arms about the woman-hating on television.

I do think, to combat this notion that it’s feminism that’s behind this depiction of men as oafs, feminists should speak up in objection to this phenomenon. Nevertheless, I don’t believe feminism is responsible for this dynamic ultimately, for two reasons.

When is it “okay” to make fun of someone? I work in a school. If some students did a skit making fun of the faculty, I’m sure everyone would enjoy it, including the faculty. If some faculty, however, did a skit making fun of the students, no one would find that funny, not even the other faculty. That isn’t right, since the faculty are in authority and would be abusing their power. Likewise, we as citizens of our government can safely make fun of politicians and draw caricatures of them in cartoons. If a politician made fun of a political cartoonist or regular citizen, however, it would be viewed as being in bad taste, since the politician is in a position of power and is abusing that power. It’s the same reason kids can make fun of their parents and parents shouldn’t make fun of their kids. In other words, backwards as it may seem to some who would like to think of the poor husbands as victims, the husband-wife sitcom is about as antifeminist as you can get, since it still shows men to be the “head of the household” that can take a joke.

Also it is a traditional marriage (not one of equality or even of female domination), in which the men fit traditional gender roles (ogling women, drinking beer, sitting on the couch watching TV) and the women fit traditional gender roles as well (putting up with men, cooking dinner, shopping, henpecking). It’s actually the perfect situation for men, for several reasons.

  • It reaffirms traditional gender roles.
  • It allows for men to identify with the husbands as being henpecked.
  • It allows men to complain that feminism has made it so men look stupid.

If studios really wanted to take feminism into account, they wouldn’t make sure to have the woman be attractive (she could be, but she wouldn’t have to be), the marriage would be more evenly divided (the man could take care of the kids or cook dinner), either party could be ogling other people or actually be totally faithful (not just “I work up my appetite elsewhere, but I always come home for dinner” sexuality). Stop blaming the feminists for this one, seriously.


  1. I don’t think the parallel you’ve cited with authority figures making insults is quite right. It may work in situations where people don’t know each other that well… but when you are close to someone in a relationship be it teacher-student, pastor-church member, or boss-employee… you can make fun of each other and vise-versa. I am senior to a number of other co-workers and can make fun of them because they are close to me… and my superior can do the same to me because I am close to him. Now if the CEO whom I almost never interact with insulted me… then yea, it’d be inappropriate. Since you are drawing a parallel to marriage though, it would be more like two people who are close to each other rather than not, so someone not returning insults would not be suggestive of authority in that relationship.

  2. I agree that it reaffirms the beliefs of many men: that no matter how disloyal, un-supporting, un-engaging, even ugly and/or fat they may be, they are entitled to a beautiful(read hot), smart, and successful woman who will do most of the child rearing and housework. Despite this, the audience is supposed to feel sorry for the nagging they must endure (because it’s considered universal that all women nag and complain incessantly).

  3. I agree with the last comment. I refuse to watch those shows because it really bothers me that an obnoxious ugly guy still ‘deserves’ the hot woman who takes care of everything, yet she is still supposed to be the unpopular one with the viewers. Anon said how I feel pretty perfectly.

  4. Pim – even if these authority figures can insult you back in real life, think of when they choose to do so. Do they do so, say, out in public places? In front of total strangers? Maybe, and maybe not… but there’s the question of that. It’s different in front of other people, because they don’t necessarily have the context to understand that you know each other well and it’s okay. On television, the characters are always in front of the audience, who is of varying background and may be tuning in for the first time, and they lack the context to interpret what goes on.

    There’s also the question of the spirit of the insults – sometimes in insult humor shows, it’s all in fun. Other times it isn’t (I don’t think ANYONE can argue that the way Meg is treated in Family Guy is just all in good fun).

  5. Sorry for reviving an older post – but I just discovered this blog and I’m avoiding my stack of morning work.

    The “Impossibly Tolerant and Successful Wife and Her Schlub Husband” is related to the “Badass Warrior Queen Who Will Probably Have Sex With You Miserable Schlubs” in pop culture lore.

    Both are sexist figures disguised as “positive” depictions of women. The unifying reason that they are sexist? They are there to titillate men, not women. And that wouldn’t be so bad… if the characters weren’t so universally designed to reflect men’s fantasies. I’m actually ok with objectification for humor’s sake – but the current power dynamic means that women really rarely ever get a chance to do any objectifying of their own.

  6. Personally, it can be offensive a healthy amount of the time how stupid and irrational the male can be, but I agree with the above comments.

  7. Thanks so much for posting this. And you’re right… feminists need to make sure they’re addressing these issues. I noticed a similar article here:

    Your best point? “It allows men to complain that feminism has made men look stupid.” It feels like when we are talking about men’s portrayals on television (your blog, my link, others I’m sure), we go unnoticed or ignored.

  8. Two interrelated factors determine this condition.

    1. Political Correctness, (as dictated by the embedded political environment)

    2. Popular Demand (as interpreted by those who think the people has fixed, reducible set of evaluation standards and needs)

    First factor is briefly noted in the text, feminists, (at least the feminists that constitute mainstream feminism in US) oppose the traditional gender roles and stereotypes that reinforce and recreate them anew.

    This first factor has a lot to do with the emergent needs of the feminist movement to break outside of the sense of normalcy as dictated by the patriarchy, and other conditions that may be corrected or ameliorated through mass media enculturation.

    However, this first position reinforces the illusion of equality, ends up confabulating an imagined society under the umbrella of editorial egalitarianism, that does not exist and can not exist because of its on-screen existence. Once the standards of the mass media make-believe sinks in, it inevitably forces it way into the ‘perceived’ popular demand. Thus, a primary policy step that is inseparable from the whole of feminist discourse, ends up living the life of its own and its own only, eradicating all attempts and hopes of factual representation or exposition of existing inequalities.

    That being said, I think it’s also necessary to point out the inefficiency and insufficiency of the representational and pure feminist politics alone when considering the issue at hand. Without any regard or relevance to the fixed schema of self-sustenance that owes much to the less-debated economic system, it would be naive to hope for an invention or innovation to circumscribe the problem through the means of the medium. This brings us back to the questions asked in this text, all of which seem to be completely oblivious to that side of the policy making, and inevitably appealing to the unquestioned factors and neglecting the necessity of any systematic change.

    And because of that, my friends, this conditioned reflex is rightfully called reactionary politics, since it invariably present a stale mate position where only the possible improvements are ‘relevant’ to the question at hand, but not the present impositions which allow and arbitrate what might be asked, and what can be done.

  9. my high school teacher noticed and complained of the same phenomenon back in 2006. your perspective sheds more light on this and yes, we need more captivating (i almost said strong, :/) male role models on television who aren’t unabashedly sexist, i.e. house but also who aren’t meek or stupid caricatures.

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