The problem of wives on cable TV

Posted on by TheLastPsychiatrist and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

“I have a vagina and a voice.” Great. Anything else?


An interesting article in the LA Times about how the wives portrayed in cable dramas are…. hated.

Lori’s bloody end capped off a particularly rough year for AMC’s first wives club. When the once-svelte Betty showed up at the beginning of “Mad Men’s” fifth season carrying 50 or so pounds of extra weight, “Fat Betty” became an instant meme. Similarly, when Skyler plunged into her pool in a desperate cry for help this summer on “Breaking Bad,” her detractors wondered aloud why she didn’t just drown herself already.

I’d change the word “hated” to hatable.  If suicide is a selfish act, then it was perfectly in character for Skyler.  Why is it so easy to hate her?

The simple reason why men don’t like the wives in TV shows is that it is impossible to like a character who doesn’t act, do.  Surprise, men don’t like passive women (characters.) Even if the doing is preposterous (superheroes).  Do something. Men, generally, hate the women in stories who are simply supporting cast.  The examples are myriad: porn is beloved, and women are the stars.  Rom-coms, by contrast, and Twilight, and The Hunger Games, all have female leads but they’re not doing, they are reacting or emoting or waiting.  The first move is the man’s.

The women never act as independent individuals.  Their thoughts and actions are always in response or in reaction (or even in support) of their husbands; there’s never a sense of them as women.  No TV show could be made about Lori.

What women in TV do a lot of, to the exclusion of everything else, is talk.  Three dimensional characters come into conflict, but these cardboard cutouts criticize.  Endlessly.  At least if they were moral criticisms we could say the women are personifications of superego, but their criticisms aren’t about right and wrong, they’re essentially selfish: what’s this going to mean for me?  This isn’t just the wives.  On Homeland, the 16 year old daughter is portrayed as a selfish brat, but she is merely a more unfiltered version of her mother.  Every line of dialogue for both of them is some version of “what now?”  Note that the daughter and her boyfriend have killed someone, and while the boy tries to cover it up, all she does is talk about it.  “What now?  This isn’t right…”

To mask this inertia, this awful lack of agency, dialogue for women is often (forgive me) “chirping”: staccato zips that substitute for meaningful content, snappy dialogue with barely a pause in between responses, emphasized with popping piano notes as soundtrack, and if you need examples watch anything on network TV.

Ultimately the biggest problem for the wives of AMC may also be the most intractable: “Women are socialized to identify with both male and female protagonists, but I don’t think men are socialized to identify with female protagonists. When they are asked to do so, they rebel,” argues Holmes.

This is wrong.  Men accepted Homeland no problem, and a decade ago they loved Alias,  and there are plenty of female superheroes men love.

If you start from the perspective of “men don’t like strong women” or “there’s an undercurrent of misogyny”,  like many silly people do, you’ll miss the point.  When Jezebel or other “feminist” outlets try to tell you that these characters are “strong women” or female role models, they are, of course, doing a terrible disservice to women; but what’s fascinating to me is how they think they are advancing the cause.  I want my daughter to watch Lori and Betty and Skyler and think, “Jesus, these people are idiots.”

A separate question is why actually strong female characters  rarely exist, especially on network TV which is watched mostly by middle aged women.  And that would be your answer, unfortunately: the audience can’t relate.

Interestingly, the one show that does depict a female with thought, action, agency, is Homeland– and she is explicitly depicted as mentally ill, and it’s hard not to read this as, “only a woman who was broken already would be this fiercely independent, able to do all these things.”  But instead of feminists posing this interpretation, they praise her for being able to do so  much in spite of her mental illness.  Ladies, this is a story, this isn’t real life– there is no “in spite of.”  It’s all “as a consequence of.”



1. Interestingly, strong females on network TV almost always carry a gun, which is evidence of a “phallic signifier”– simply, a symbol of power that changes both the viewer’s understanding of the person and the person’s own behavior and desires.

2. But there’s an essential realism to the TV wives and their men: the kind of man who would go from chemistry teacher to cold murderer/drug dealer is the kind of person who would have married the kind of woman who is deeply selfish, angry, bitter.  The kind of narcissist who is Don Draper would have married the kind of woman what was a  soulless plastic model of her own mother.  Etc.

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47 Responses to The problem of wives on cable TV

  1. Dodge says:

    In BrBa Walt degenerates slowly until he freely expresses his disregard for human life. Meanwhile Skyler slowly grows more and more aware of the people around her. Skyler’s (reasons for her) actions are very much worth criticizing in the first couple of seasons, but more recently I think she actually embodies a ‘strong female lead.’ Funny how many people continue to insist that she’s a bitch.

  2. ThomasR says:

    It is certainly possible that men are not “socialized” to identify with some female characters. But then, some male characters are impossible for men to identify with either. I suspect that there is often a strong correlation between how well-written a character is and how well people are able to identify with them…

  3. philtrum says:

    Lori on The Walking Dead and Jessica on Homeland are particularly passive, reactive characters, and I’m not surprised people dislike them. (And both characters are introduced to us in the process of sleeping with the husband/hero’s best friend when they quite reasonably think the husband/hero has died…and both series treat that action as a tremendous shame to the wife, despite the intervening apocalypse/eight years.) Lori’s death was gruesome misery porn, but I was kind of willing to forgive the writers that just to get rid of a character I couldn’t stand. She was written to be not just a buzzkill but ridiculously stupid.

    On the other hand, I think this post doesn’t quite respond to the point of the article that inspired it, that these female characters are showered with hate not when they don’t act, but when they do. Betty leaves her lousy, unfaithful husband for another man, and she’s a whore. Skyler tries to kick Walt out of the house and end the marriage, and when he basically blackmails his way back in and humiliates her in front of the police, she sleeps with her boss in retaliation — and she’s, again, a whore. You can say these actions are basically reactive, I suppose, but they display more agency than standing around and criticizing, and that’s when these characters really get it.

    • poseidonian says:

      But isn’t that acting through men? Agency Lite?

      • philtrum says:

        Sure, but the point is these women are hated less when they do absolutely nothing. The vitriol comes out when they try to escape.

        • newuser9 says:

          Is it possible that viewers opinions of these characters are already established by the time they begin to act? The vitriol is perhaps latent and reveals itself when they do something more notable than the norm.

        • BFG9000 says:

          I think a great part of the problem comes from the fact that they don’t escape as a men would (killing everything or isolating himself) but go into passive aggressive mode (i will backstab you and collect ammo for later, destroying your world from where you can’t defend yourself). It is a bit scary that a woman has so much power without showing it straightforwardly: you know you can’t mess around with Schwarzenegger – at least back in the day -, but how would you feel about starting a fight with your girlfriend? how can she possibly do anything about it? (but you know she can if she really wants to destroy you… and you can’t do anything about it)

          • philtrum says:

            I think you’re right. The intensity of the hatred seems personal, as if the haters have temporarily forgotten that these shows are fiction. It’s touching on some vulnerability. And then, to be fair, people like me who are disturbed by the hate tend to reply in kind, as if these people were real people that we knew, even if we would normally be commenting on the lighting or something.

            We are invited to identify with the protagonists in Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and both Don and Walter are narcissists who get angry and threatening when the wife finds out things she wasn’t supposed to find out and tries to leave — to steal a metaphor from TLP, where does she get off trying to make her own movie? And perhaps some of us as viewers share in, or react to, the depiction of those characters’ narcissistic rage.

  4. poseidonian says:

    We loved Sarah Conner in Sarah Conner Chronicles, and not because of phallic signifiers. It’s worth looking at and making sense of.

  5. gogo says:

    - It’s all “as a consequence of.” – I don´t think so, so far.
    House MD is on drugs too. Mentally ill hero is in now, it´s not bacause Carrie is woman. Monk is weird too. It has nothing with gender. Carrie is woman version of House and I and there isn´t any difference based on gender. One difference I can see is false: 1. House isn´t able to have sex, because it requires lies. 2. Carrie can have sex with anybody, because she is secret agent and it is part of her job she is adicted on. This is not difference at all. If House will be an agent he will have sex. If there is difference based on gender Ok – try to reveal it.

  6. mdemare says:

    As far as strong, likable women without guns are concerned, how about Borgen’s Birgitte Nyborg? Lovely series, by the way.

  7. geerussell says:

    The entire piece could be condensed down to “this awful lack of agency”. Likable characters have it.

  8. AnonymousAtLarge says:

    PS how do you know everything about me?

    Has anyone else noticed TLP’s writing has become a lot more human lately? I can almost imagine him as a kind person with a soul. He seems to have dropped the “jaded urban pirate on rum” routine.
    I also can see the “rumor” that TLP is black IRL might be true, his more human personality could be african american based on things he’s written.

    – Gossip interjected randomly, carry on.

    • JohnJ says:

      Ya, his writing style has definitely changed, and very recently. I used to hear it as rapid-fire, and angry. Now it’s definitely slower, more earnest, I guess.

      Definitely a conscious, deliberate change about a month ago or so.

    • Guy Fox says:

      As for the writing style change, you might be right and it might even matter. But shame on you for this: “I can almost imagine him as a kind person with a soul.” and most especially for this: “I also can see the “rumor” that TLP is black IRL might be true, his more human personality could be african american based on things he’s written.”

      Not being able to imagine anybody else as a person with a soul is, to the extent that it’s a flaw, a flaw on the part of the beholder. You find it easier to relate to him now, or what? Kind of ironic, given the post, doncha think?

      As for being able to see his inner-blackness based on his prose, well, that’s a hateful, racist thing to say. Condoleeza Rice (yeah, that’s right) said it better and with more credibility than I could, so here you go:
      “… if you look at a black person and you say that person has to think in a particular way, I don’t care if you are white or you are black and you say that, then you’ve got a prejudice. You can’t see beyond race to give that person the dignity, the ability to think as they might. So I really don’t engage in this. I simply say to people, you know, I’ll think what I think and if you have a problem with that, it’s your problem, not mine.”

      Would TLP be more or less worthy of your attention because of his race? Do you prefer having your butt-kicked by black Guys? (he knows everything about you, in your own words)

      Your comment is ignorant and generally sucks.

      • AnonymousAtLarge says:

        I forgot how serious everyone on this website was. Wow. Your comment, the top, it went over it.

        No, I cannot relate to a rum swilling jaded pirate. I can relate to a person who speaks like a human, though.

        I suspect he is black not based on his “prose” but his opinions which belie culture. Would it make me biased to assume he is muslim if he said he went a halal deli?

        • AnonymousAtLarge says:

          Besides, the only pirate I can relate to is adam ant, and that is because in my finer moments I too am a dandy highwayman.

        • JohnJ says:

          TLP is white. I’m much more certain of his race than his gender, though he’s probably a guy. His target audience is mostly white, and yet he helps them anyways. Only a white person would do that.

          Call me racist if you want to, but it’s true.

          • drsnacks says:

            You being racist as well as wrong certainly isn’t mutually exclusive. FWIW; he shows a racial consciousness unusual for a white guy who’s writing for a white audience (apparently; says who?).

            I feel like there’s a reason you’d assume you were the default audience. Something that comes up often on his blogs.

        • sunshinefiasco says:

          No, you’d be someone who apparently has never been to new york city.

      • qubitman says:


        This is to you and your comment alone. Set aside everything else that was said and hear these words:

        If you’re writing it, it’s for you.

  9. JohnJ says:

    I don’t watch a lot of tv, but I was always tired of hearing that men wouldn’t watch strong females. It always sounded to me like someone saying, “Men are intimidated by smart women” or “Women don’t like me because I’m too nice. They want jerks.”

    It’s a poorly-disguised rationalization. People don’t like bad writing, arrogance, or wimpiness. The bad thing about the “strong female” meme is that so many people wanted to try to prove the point that they started putting out these poorly-written women characters, which wound up turning even more people off.

    You want a strong female character who makes her won decisions? Check out Barbara Stanwyck in anything. That woman was a goddess.

    • Rebecca says:

      It’s hard to write up a strong female lead. Writing a strong female lead requires writing a slightly less strong male lead. You can only have one real ultimate super-hero.

      It’s far too tempting to dial back the awesomeness of the female lead in order to let male super-hero really shine. I’ve noticed, quite often, many series begin with female leads with much agency, then degrade into typical fairy tales.

      • JohnJ says:

        I think it’s true that writing in general has gotten lazier. I’ve noticed an increasingly common use of devices to move the plot along that have little to do with the characters making conscious decision. This is happening across the board, without regard to the gender of the lead. The bad thing about focusing on poorly-written female characters is that you don’t notice all the poorly-written male characters.

        But there are exceptions. The female characters in The Avengers had as much agency as any of the male characters. I don’t think that a strong female lead requires a less strong male lead. Again, Barbara Stanwyck played a strong female lead in lots of movies, sometimes with a more strong male lead. It didn’t diminish her at all.

        I think the classics in general showed women as stronger individuals than modern movies tend to. Treating women purely as the romantic interest of the male lead seems to me to be a modern development.

        Seriously, go watch something with Barbara Stanwyck and tell me I’m wrong.

        • philtrum says:

          I’m really sceptical of these narratives of decline. Unless we’re real film buffs, we don’t tend to watch everything that was available to watch in the 1940s; we watch the films that were especially popular or interesting, that continued to interest people. People in earlier eras produced lots of inane stuff — probably not as much, but then they didn’t produce as much of anything.

          A while back, I watched all of the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers collaborations, and several of those movies are just bad. The good stuff is sublime, and that’s what we remember. The Shirley Temple movies are pretty dumb. I love Marilyn Monroe, but I turned off Let’s Make Love thirty minutes in because I was too bored to continue. And so on and so on. But we don’t remember the bombs, we remember Some Like It Hot., and then we complain that movies aren’t as good any more.

          • JohnJ says:

            I didn’t say that classics were better; I said they showed women with more agency than most modern movies do.

            The fact that people remember the good and forget the bad really doesn’t have anything to do with whether things decline or progress because people remember the good and forget the bad about movies made today too. People always tend to cherry pick the evidence that supports the conclusion they want to believe. Just as evidence can be cherry-picked to show a false decline, it can also be cherry-picked to show a false progress.

            That’s why we try to use objective measures. It’s easy enough to take, say, the top ten grossing movies of each decade and make an actual comparison across time.

            But right now I’m watching Garbo in Ninotchka. Yet again I see strong women with agency, something I rarely see in modern movies.

          • philtrum says:

            “That’s why we try to use objective measures. It’s easy enough to take, say, the top ten grossing movies of each decade and make an actual comparison across time.”

            It is indeed, although that would also narrow your field significantly (from “all movies” to “highly successful movies”), and you would have to account for competing interpretations of the same story (does Dorothy Gale have agency? Does Katniss Everdeen?), as well as the changing demographics in movie attendance since the popularization of TV and other forms of entertainment that very few people had in the 1940s. Have you done that?

            “People always tend to cherry pick the evidence that supports the conclusion they want to believe. Just as evidence can be cherry-picked to show a false decline, it can also be cherry-picked to show a false progress.”

            Indeed it can, but to my knowledge, no one here has asserted that there’s been progress.

            I’m not saying your conclusion is false. It may well be accurate. I just think you have failed to support it, and you yourself have explained why.

          • philtrum says:

            Also, who is this “we” who tries to “use objective measures”? Not you in this thread, unless by “use objective measures” you mean “name two actresses.”

          • JohnJ says:

            I have better things to do with my time than write out a dissertation in a blog comment. You’re more than welcome to research the issue yourself, especially since I know that no matter how much evidence I supplied, you’d simply say it’s not enough. Knock yourself out. Please.

            In the Age of Information, all ignorance is willful ignorance.

        • Rebecca says:

          I think it’s true that writing in general has gotten lazier.

          Please reread what I wrote. I didn’t say that writing is getting lazier – I said it’s hard to write a strong female lead, because it inevitably requires the sacrifice of the penis-size of the male lead.

          No one wants to watch a show about a WASP debutante turned kick-ass city-saver and her adoring, intelligent yet oft wayward and easily misled love interest. Yet everyone loved Batman. It’s too difficult – and too risky – to abandon the boy-meets-girl-boy-saves-girl-girl-loves-boy routine that’s so prevalent. Try to escape it, and go a little too far – give the female more agency and kick-ass than the man – and you have a 50/50 chance people will despise your media.

          Yeah, it’s been dissected to death, but look at The Hunger Games. Katniss and agency don’t go together. In the first book, I can remember two true acts: taking her sister’s place and getting the medicine for Peeta. And in the second, she wasn’t even allowed to keep that all to herself. It was too tempting for the author to show how virtuous she is by having another character [male] save her.

  10. Herr Surth says:

    Why hello there! I miss you Battlestar, despite your shenanigans in seasons two and especially three!

  11. wisegirl says:

    One female character that I can relate to as a woman is Amy on Enlightened. I consider her strong despite all of her apparent flaws and naivety. Everywhere she turns forces are against her, from her cold mother, her drug addled ex husband, and her coworkers who constantly ostracize her and have labeled her crazy. These negative forces are the catalyst for her burgeoning feminist awakening. I find myself really rooting for her.

    • Rebecca says:

      Or the first lady from Scandal.She does a pretty good job holding her own and turning situations to her favor. Consequently, most men I know who watch the show absolutely hate her. (My own boyfriend described as as a “cunt” for how harshly she treated her cheating husband. Why? Because she should be a nicer character, she is the first lady, after all.)

      • TheCoconutChef says:

        I had to wiki it, but wouldn’t a “strong” (whatever that may mean) female character leave a dude that’s cheating on her instead of staying in order to profit from his errors?
        In other words, is she in so much need of her man’s power that she has to take his abuse? You may then say that this abuse is used judiciously, but it still has as its center a man, who gave a woman power only because he made a mistake.
        What would have happened had he been faithful? The first lady probably wouldn’t be in the show.

      • TheCoconutChef says:

        (She wouldn’t be on the show unless she was a problem for man to handle. Like being taken hostage or having a drug problem.)

  12. Wirklichkeit says:

    Want a strong female character? Go watch Modern Family. Claire Dunphy is one of the best representations of a true, realistic, strong female character.

    She is the clear driving force in her household, and is represented as such without devolving her into a bitchy, harping, screeching shrew. She is intelligent, efficient, and confident. She clearly loves and is dedicated to her goofball husband, without threatening divorce or having affairs to be “fulfilled.” Her primary focus is her family.

    To me, that’s a REAL strong woman.. not some cartoon character in a leather halter-top waxing bozos with Uzis akimbo.

  13. ihavedna says:

    My request is for Once Upon A Time analysis.

  14. shalala says:

    A previous poster mentioned that Modern Family has a strong female character (Claire Dunphy), but Claire is not THE lead character. The few times I’ve actually watched Modern Family (I actually hate that show), I’ve noticed that she actually doesn’t have any agency of her own. She passes the “decent human being” test but she’s usually acting and reacting to situations (which you could say is fair – it IS a sitcom). But rarely have I seen her forging a path of her own. Beyond this, I won’t comment any further on Modern Family… Instead I bring up a different sitcom: Parks and Recreation.

    Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope is a fantastic, strong female character on TV. Granted, she’s quirky and overexaggerated a character – but thus is the nature of sitcoms. Leslie passes the basic “decent human being” test and is intelligent and demonstrates compassion like Claire Dunphy. Also similar to Claire, Leslie is competent, incredibly passionate about her interests, and is a strong supporter of her loved ones.

    However, the big difference between Claire and Leslie is that Leslie is most definitely the driver of the show, and of the story. Based on HER actions and based on what SHE does/creates, other people fall into place and act/react accordingly.

    Personally, I love P&R. It’s got a likeable and strong female character, a brilliant cast, and interestingly approaches issues (including sexism) throughout the show.

    Too bad it’s being cancelled.

    @TheLastPsychiatrist – what’s your take on strong female leads in sitcoms, like Parks and Recreation & Modern Family?

    • Guy Fox says:

      I can only comment on the P&R character, and I’ve only seen the first episode, but no. Leslie’s likability is apparently in the eye of the beholder (she reminded me of a manically perky waitress, so keen on making sure I’m satisfied that she won’t let me freakin’ eat), so I’ll focus on her ‘agency’ in the pilot.
      The other characters didn’t react to her because she motivated them or compelled them with important or powerful ideas/actions, she just manipulated them. What’s the difference? Principle. She wasn’t acting on any sort of principle or conviction; she was just reacting in order to shore up her fragile persona.
      Reacting? To whom? Mostly to the camera. It was filmed as a documentary, and the characters were aware they were being filmed, were constantly addressing the camera, etc. The initial incident of the whole narrative was Leslie getting dissed at some community assembly, and that probably would have been enough in itself, but because the camera was on her, she spent the rest of the episode trying to undo the damage of that scene, and getting into a deeper debt of humiliation with each attempt. That’s the whole gag – it’s the same joke as the husband who wants to make amends with his wife and screws up every step of the way, from making the waffles to doing the laundry to changing the baby.
      If she were to do something unpopular, or at least not try to please everyone at once, it would be totally out of character because it would be proof of agency, and the fragility of her persona, which is the premise of the pilot, would be lost.

      • sunshinefiasco says:

        …or you could watch more than one episode. Believe it or not, over 4 seasons, some things are different then they were in the pilot.

  15. BeekeeperIsRuth says:

    For those who have previously commented : How do you understand/define agency?