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.