Life Movies Race, Class, Gender, Sexuality

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.


Privacy on a reality TV show?

Last week, I got into TLC’s Jon and Kate Plus 8 about the Christian couple from Pennsylvania that has twins and sextuplets. I just found this amusing.

From the “Jon & Kate Family Movie Night” episode, they’re hanging up new blinds and Kate says, “When I want privacy, I want to be able to pull blinds and not have people see in.” You’re on a reality TV show. You have no privacy! Well, I guess after a while you kind of forget the cameras are there maybe.

Life Movies

In Praise of Captions

Maybe chalk it up to how, when I was a kid, my mom used to walk up to me as I was watching TV and just start asking me things (at which point, I would miss whatever was being said on TV, because I was hearing my mother instead), but I’ve really grown to love captions. Of course, what’s been said on TV is really important. Whatever my mom was saying must not have been. And back then you couldn’t pause live TV.

Well, it’s decades later, and I don’t live with my mom any more, but I do appreciate those captions. A loud banging comes from our neighbor’s yard while I’m watching TV. A plane flies overhead. People upstairs are yelling about God knows what. The character onscreen is mumbling. No sweat. I still know what they’re talking about on my favorite show of the moment, all thanks to captions.

Of course, captions are not without their faults. First of all, some people think my wife and I are freaks for liking captions. Uh, we’re not deaf. And the captions take up a huge amount of screen space on the TV. We’ve also kind of become dependent on them… at least I have. If I’m watching a show that doesn’t have captions I’m like “What? I can’t understand what they’re saying. What’s going on? It sounds as if they’re speaking English, but what are they saying?” Worse yet, sometimes the captions are just wrong. Wrong word. Wrong foreign language.

My favorite caption screw-ups for foreign language are when they guess the wrong foreign language (in Pretty Woman, when the valets are speaking Cantonese and the captions say they’re speaking Japanese, for example) or don’t know a foreign language that should be fairly obvious (in a Dexter episode, when someone is speaking Spanish, and instead of saying Speaking Spanish, the caption says Speaking Foreign Language).

Well, Mom. Thanks for making me appreciate captions.


TV Censorship Sucks

You know when a movie or TV show is uncensored and makes sense, and then gets re-released for network TV and is censored and makes no sense?

My wife is a fan of the movie The Wedding Date, and she got really excited when it aired on TV. So we DVR’ed it (off TBS, I think) and watched it… or tried to watch it. Throughout the film, she kept exclaiming, “Wait! They cut out that whole bit” while I was exclaiming, “This movie makes no sense.” I think they cut about a half hour out of the movie to make way for commercials. Why? Why not just make the runtime longer to put more commercials in? Or just not show the butchered movie at all?

Just as bad as censorship-for-time-constraints is censorship-for-prudishness. Hey, I can be as much of a prude as the next person, but when prudishness takes the humor out of TV, that’s just wrong.

This prudish censorship makes Sex and the City unwatchable for SatC fans (I realize non-fans already think it unwatchable—whether it’s censored or not). In one scene, Miranda calls Skipper (while he’s having sex with another woman) to see if he wants to get together, and Skipper likes Miranda better, so he breaks up with the other woman. In the original dialogue, the woman says, “You’re breaking up with me while you’re still inside of me?” In the censored version, she says “You’re breaking up with me now?” Yeah. Hilarious.

Another great prudes-take-the-humor-out moment is in the censored version of Return to Me. Like Return to Me is just so risqué. At one point, Bonnie Hunt’s character is arguing with her husband (James Belushi’s character) and says, “Great. You taught him hell. That’s great.” He gets all defensive and suggests that it’s possible their child might have learned the word hell from the mother, who replies “I never said hell, you son of a bitch.” All the irony is lost in the TV version, of course, in which she says “I never said hell.”

Well, thank God for HBO and Showtime. They may cost a bit more than the regular channels, but they’ll at least keep the laughs in.