Mouse rant blog vent mouse.

Monday, January 10, 2005

One of the most important questions of our time

Well, one that I know has been pondered amongst us chickens in the blogosphere and has made its way to Slate: Why is the standard issue couple on a sitcom an unattractive, irresponsible guy and a responsible, beautiful woman? This bugs the living shit out of me. Matt Feeney hits on a number of points that I think are accurate enough, the big one being that it's wish-fulfillment for the desired male audience to watch one guy after another after another after another see men on TV who can let themselves go and act like big babies while knowing that their hot wives will gladly clean up their messes. He also posits that it's flattering to women to be portrayed as responsible and good-looking.

Perhaps, but as usual, I find it hard to believe that men and women have such opposite motivations, where men are primarily drawn to wish fulfillment and women to flattery, which strikes me as stereotyping all over again. The stereotypes in play being that men are imaginative whereas women are vain. I think both men and women are imaginative and vain.

There is a show where there is something of a reverse situation going on--"I Love Lucy" had a male protagonist who was self-assured and responsible and a bumbling female protagonist. That show flattered men and gave women an outlet, the reverse of the standard sitcom formula now. Of course, the looks thing wasn't reversed. For all that Lucy is a goofy redhead, she is still a beautiful woman. Rosanne had her own show and she was fat, but she wasn't paired off with a gorgeous hunk for a husband, and their relationship was built more realistically, as both of them were responsible types.

I think that the sheer lopsidedness of the formula is quite telling. Women always must be good-looking, and can either be responsible or not. Men can be responsible or not and attractive or not. I don't really think the driving force behind these formulas is flattering women, therefore.

Mostly I think that the sitcom writers are lazy and just want to reference stereotypes instead of write good jokes. But by referencing these ugly stereotypes, they are reinforcing them and I can assure you that even though it's nice on a certain level to be portrayed as the responsible sex, most of the time these stereotypes are a Big Bummer.

For one thing, there is no such thing on sitcoms as a responsible woman who is fun. No, women are sticks in the mud, and thank god for it or men wouldn't be able to have any fun. Sure, it's no fun having your sitcom wife glare at you like your mom used to do, but it's good for you. You expect these female characters to start telling their husbands to eat their vegetables or something like that. How they have a sex life is beyond me, and frankly I find it creepy.

And the fact that no matter what the husband looks or acts like on these shows, the wife is stunningly gorgeous is not flattering at all to the audience, but really just cause for despair. The message is loud and clear to the female viewers that if a woman wants to have any hope whatsoever of getting even an ugly asshole of a husband, she must be a size 2, beautiful and have the patience of a saint. Frankly, I think it's a huge stretch to be "even-handed" about this and say that these shows are designed with the male and female viewers' desires equally in mind.

68 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lucy was a very good hoofer, in her pre-TV, Hollywood musical days. The movies were forgettable, but a few bits and pieces are viewable in such venues as the "that's dancing" and "that's entertainment" composite movies.

NancyP

1/10/2005

 
Blogger zuzu said...

Actually, women on these shows are only responsible and competent when they get married or have children. The single female characters on sitcoms are neurotic, needy, scatterbrained and irresponsible.

1/10/2005

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think it's sometimes a strange combination of sexism and political correctness. They know they can still get away with excluding woman who aren't gorgeous, so they do. But if they made the wife the dumb/irresponsible one in the couple, they would probably open themselves up to charges of obvious sexist stereotyping. So they make the wife the smart one.

Back in the 50s, they could still get away with stereotyping women as dumbbells, hence "Lucy".

Joan

1/10/2005

 
Blogger Roxanne said...

Those shows and that coupling reaches the audience advertisers are interested in selling shit to. I think it's as simple as that. If you want to know what that audience is, check out the ads.

1/10/2005

 
Blogger Trish said...

I never did like "I Love Lucy." It drove me nuts. That said, Lucille Ball was a glamour girl. She used to be called "Technicolor Tessie" because of her colouring. She was always depicted that way before "I Love Lucy" came out. That might have been one reason the show came so much out of left field. I recall that she had been asked to audition for the role of Scarlet in "Gone With The Wind," and she did the entire audition on her knees. It was said to be hilarious. I never saw a tape of the actual audition. I read about it. I don't know how much of that is urban legend but it certainly suited her.

I haven't seen any of the shows today that depict men as unattractive, irresponsible guys yet depict the women as beautiful (and thin - there's another point) because I haven't the slightest interest in them, but I did notice them in comming attractions on commercials on television. I agree that it's a male fantasy thing that resorts to stereotypes.

Have you noticed that all of these shows that depict men and women that way are comedies? What's the deal behind that? Better able to spoon the stereotypes that way?

1/10/2005

 
Blogger Carmen said...

I've interpreted it as a kind of a big warning to women. "Don't get too excited about your life in the outside world; there's a big idiot at home who will burn it down if you don't watch him every second."
"Father Knows Shit," as it were.

1/10/2005

 
Blogger Norbizness said...

OK then, I recycle my take on CBS' programming:

"You'll see a recurring theme in a lineup that includes: Still Standing (fat pantload's escapades with hot female vampire from The Lost Boys), The King of Queens (fat pantload's escapades with one of Zach's girlfriends from Saved by the Bell: The Beach Club Years), Yes, Dear (sub-moronic pantload's escapades with eldest daughter from Uncle Buck), Everybody Is Goddamned Sick and Tired of Raymond, and Two and a Half Men (Ducky from Pretty in Pink and scary biker guy from Ferris Bueller's Day Off team up to traumatize fat pantloadish child)."

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1/10/2005

 
Blogger Diane said...

Some thoughts on I Love Lucy, which I think is one of the greatest sitcoms ever made:

Lucy was bumbling, yes, but she was never portrayed as stupid. And Ricky was responsible, but he was often the butt of the joke. It is this equality that allows the show to stand up well today (not to mention that the comic talent of the actors was incredible).

Lucy didn't have to run around cleaning up Ricky's messes. And Lucy had her own life, and didn't measure her every act by how it might affect her husband.

The only sitcoms I watch now (unless we are blessed with an occasional episode of Ab Fab) are Arrested Development and Curb Your Enthusiasm, and all of those characters are neurotic way beyond gender roles!

It doesn't surprise me to hear that the network sitcoms have returned to the beautiful wife/ugly slob marital formula. Sign of the times.

1/10/2005

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think I saw this in Uncle Melons's page "The Hot MILFs of Network TV". However, I find this complaint somewhat strange in light of the previous discussions, since when you think about it, don't these hot sitcom wives actually break the stereotypes?

According to the nasty stereotype "all women pick their partners based on economic status hierarchies" held by many unenlightened men (such as myself, I shamefully admit), beautiful women are not very enthusiastic to date, let alone marry, fat working-class schlubs. They "could do better", to quote a phrase.

So it is actually quite healthy and liberating to see hot women on TV who don't use their beauty advantage to trade up for a higher-status man, but instead settle for lower-status men who aren't "CEO's" or "millionaires".

Besides, not all women think alike. In the real world there is a vast diversity in women's preferences. Many women actually prefer their boyfriend to be fat and hold a working-class job, lifestyle and values, and would not change this even if they could. Not all women are shallow whores who just look for money and success in their husband.

In the real world, we constantly see beautiful thin women pairing up with older low-status men. You just try telling me that it isn't so! So what precisely is wrong with the TV shows depicting our common and shared reality?


Ilkka Kokkarinen

1/11/2005

 
Blogger zuzu said...

"Constantly"? I don't think so. More likely the women with the low-status men are lower-status themselves.

You know, this kind of casting could be lame attempts to recreate The Honeymooners. Except, you know, without the class humor or the sharpness or the angst.

1/11/2005

 
Blogger Amanda said...

Ilkka, still not getting it. You are still under the impression that everyone agrees that the only thing that women have to offer is their looks.

1/11/2005

 
Blogger Steve Pick said...

Interesting discussion here. I think things become clearer if we pull back a bit. In Hollywood, male actors are allowed to have careers no matter what they look like. Female actors are expected to be drop dead gorgeous with no excess body fat and no crows feat. It has always been a rare thing for a woman actor to last past a certain age (unless she has gotten surgery to look younger.) Men are judged on their skills; women are judged on their skills and their appearance.

I think the current crop of sitcoms mixes the responsibility of the women around at least a little bit, though the trend is clearly towards more male goofiness and female caregiving and clean up. But, the wife on "King of Queens" is almost as goofy as Kevin James; the wife on "Hope and Faith" can sometimes go along with Kelly Ripa's character on schemes that might have impressed Lucy Ricardo.

Television trends change over time, and this one will move on sooner or later. Once somebody develops a hit sitcom that smashes through the formula, we'll have a different one. But, we probably won't have a trend towards women who don't look "hot." Hollywood just won't let it happen.

1/11/2005

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amanda: "Ilkka, still not getting it. You are still under the impression that everyone agrees that the only thing that women have to offer is their looks."

I have never claimed that looks are the "only thing" that women have to offer. In a thread that is about the looks of sitcom wives, I wrote about the looks of sitcom wives.

Looks are still pretty important, though, for both men and women, except that are more important for women. Women prove this whenever they take offense in somebody honestly mistaking them to be older than they really are. And of course this fear of looking old is not totally unfounded. Any twenty- or thirtysomething woman can look at another woman who is 10-20 years older than her and immediately realize the very concrete consequences that looking like her would have her life.

But there I go, digressing again just to be snarky.

zuzu: "More likely the women with the low-status men are lower-status themselves."

Very true. What could we infer from that?


Ilkka Kokkarinen

1/11/2005

 
Blogger Amanda said...

Ilkka, "women" are not an undistinguished entity. Some women are offended that they are taken as older, which definitely speaks about how our culture devalues older women but is not evidence that men have some genetic predisposition to look for looks more than women.

And just because two stereotypes seemingly contradict each other doesn't mean that one of them has to be true. Neither could be true.

The point is that individuals make choices for individual reasons. Your theory is that we're not really individuals. All women are competing for the richest men and all men for the prettiest women, right?

1/11/2005

 
Blogger Rivki said...

Ilkkik, you said: "So it is actually quite healthy and liberating to see hot women on TV who don't use their beauty advantage to trade up for a higher-status man, but instead settle for lower-status men who aren't "CEO's" or "millionaires"."

I have to say I disagree. It would be healthy and liberating if these intelligent, responsible, attractive women were married to men who were lower-status but also intelligent, responsible and caring themselves. The problem is not that an attractive woman is married to an unnatractive man - the problem is that these men seemingly have nothing to offer. From the article it seems that these men are not particularly good bread winners, they lack maturity to match that of their wives, they make messes that their wives are expected to clean up and they don't have some exceptional personality traits to make up for these defecits. No one is perfect, but when exceptional women are paired with entirely unexceptional to the point of being objectionable men it's another story. In the sitcoms mentioned in the article the men have nothing going for them - not even an intangible that a woman might find attractive enough in a mate even without the traditional tangible qualities.

Traditionally people married for status, money and attractiveness (though women were significantly less likely to depend on this third qualifier). Over time the status issue has broken down to some extent, though people do tend to marry within their own social group as well as class/status. Money has also lost its importance for some people over the years as the middle class has grown and more women are making more money, though it can remain an issue in any relationship. Attractiveness, though generally thought of in regards to the physical, can also refer to emotional attractiveness. You can break attractiveness into both physical and emotional, the former having to do with height, weight, body type, features etc, and the latter referencing responsibility, supportiveness, kindness, caring, humor, etc.

In these sitcoms the men do not have to make any trade-offs in their choice of wives, say sacrificing looks for responsibility or money for status. The women are everything a man could want. On the other hand the women seem to get absolutely nothing from their partners. The men provide no status or money (which are what a woman is expected to look for traditionally), they are physically unnatractive and they are utterly lacking in emotional attractiveness. They're bores, not wonderful men whose sweet natures win over their wives dispite their traditional disadvantages. And that's the problem right there, that inequity. One partner gets everything with no effort (they are not required to work on their earning power or physical selves or even to grow up and act like an adult) while the other partner does everything and gets nothing. And that is neither a revolutionary or a healthy portrayal of married life. And worse than that, it's not even funny.

1/11/2005

 
Blogger Amanda said...

Thank you, Rivki.

I would also add that the only thing the women seem to be getting is companionship, setting the bar really low for female expectations but setting it really high (near-perfection) for what's expected from women.

1/11/2005

 
Blogger zuzu said...

The emotional maturity thing is important. Amanda mentioned Roseanne -- the character of Dan Conner wasn't particularly physically attractive, but he was a grown man and fully-realized character, not a buffoon.

1/11/2005

 
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Surely it's just a huge egotrip for those slightly overweight lower-status men to think that they actually could get a beautiful, responsible woman to look after them?

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