The nagging wives of American TV
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There are two kinds of wives in American television.
The first and more common variety is generically attractive (as most women are on TV), efficient, perhaps even a little bit of an overachiever. She has her hands full with office or housework and is a mother to dysfunctional children but she always manages to ace the Christmas pudding. Claire Dunphy from Modern Family even puts together the best Halloween party. Her more important role in the show’s narrative, however, is to play the foil to the creative, bumbling, fun male lead. This she achieves by nagging.
The other kind of wife is a knockout—think Honey in Fresh off the Boat or Gloria (Sofia Vergara), in Modern Family. But since women can’t have it all, this second variety also needs to play the fool. She is so attractive that the show creators can pile on the slapstick without diminishing her sex appeal.
This binary holds true for most shows meant for a general viewership barring those that have ‘housewives’ in their title; a show with ‘housewives’ in the title needs to, by its very nature, feature different kinds of housewives.
A 2012 Wall Street Journal article titled ‘Meet the marriage killer’ defines nagging as “the interaction in which one person repeatedly makes a request, the other person repeatedly ignores it and both become increasingly annoyed.” The article recognizes that while it is possible for husbands to nag, and wives to resent them for nagging, women are more likely to nag because they are conditioned to feel responsible for managing home and family life.
According to one survey conducted in the UK, wives spend an average of 7920 minutes a year nagging their husbands. But here’s the sweetener: 83 percent of those husbands admitted that they thought their partner was right to nag them. The American TV husbands would agree—they are all demonstrably in love with their wives. It is easy to dismiss this pop survey as dubious because we cannot objectively define what constitutes nagging. But it shows that nagging wives are a real and breathing character type anywhere in the world. And it is fair for show creators to draw inspiration from them. But they are a character type just like women who derive satisfaction from shopping, men who don’t shower every day, and children who lie compulsively. And yet, Woman as Nag is the go to trope, a frustrating trend on TV which is now so deeply entrenched that we hardly see it as an anomaly. The nags, the shrews and the killjoys of American TV are harming the way women are showcased in entertainment. Why should we care? While I wouldn’t be surprised if some of you watch nagin shows in private, and I do have colleagues who are addicted to Korean soaps, it’s because American TV is the television we consume.
Where is the health freak who is obsessed with getting her steps for the day? Or a number-crunching Hermione-type? Or a poet? There are sharp, unpredictable, liberated women on TV—think Olivia Munn in The Newsroom or Lizzy Caplan in Masters of Sex—but they’re always single women. If they get married, they get separated soon after. Take Mindy Kaling.
The nagging needs to be at a controllable level or fans don’t like it. Remember Rita? Dexter Morgan’s wife in Dexter. She lived through four seasons of the show before being killed off. With that twist, the creators effectively rid themselves of the nagging wife who made it her mission to stand in Dexter’s way. It is the same reason that the character of Skyler, the wife of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, has angered fans. Skyler’s reluctance to get on board with her husband’s life of crime had even led to the actress who plays her, Anna Gunn, receiving death threats. In both cases, the “nagging” was to prevent criminal activity.
I spoke to a casting agent based in Mumbai, who did not wish to be named for fear of coming across as one who stereotypes—not a good trait for a casting agent, she tells me. She says the casting cue for a nagging wife, even for Indian commercials or TV, is a conventionally attractive woman. “You have to give her something. You can’t make her a nag and ugly… that would be too cruel.” So the story stays—The Beautiful and the Nagged.