In Defense of the Annoying Wives Club

(Editor's Note: Spoilers for t.v. shows Dexter, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Walking Dead and Weeds)

Excuse me while I dive into a television rant. With the dramatic television series really taking off over the past decade, at least for the cable companies, we have gotten some truly amazing shows, and with them some damn fine leading male characters and actors. Unfortunately, it would seem their female counterparts are getting short-changed.

Of course I don't have time to watch every television show, but from the ones I do follow, that are currently still in production, I have noticed a theme: we often lash out at the women who defy our male protagonists. But here's the rub, those protagonists are alcoholic philanderers, drug dealers, and murderers. In a logical world, I'd say we're siding with the wrong people.

For me, it all started with Rita (Julie Benz) on "Dexter." When we first met Rita, she was fresh out of an extremely abusive marriage with a heroin addict. Eventually she started to come out of her shell, and for most fans it was too much. Suddenly, she was demanding and whiny toward our lovable serial killer. She was constantly on his case about some trivial first world issue, from the house, to the new baby, to money, etc. And by the time she made her exit in the Season 4 finale, we were all shocked, but not terribly saddened to see her go.

But let's step back and look at this from Rita's point of view. No doubt her past abuse left her with serious trust issues. She had two young children she had to protect. At one point, just as she began trusting Dexter, she suspected him of drug addiction, which he admitted to so she wouldn't find out his real addiction. Then they split up for a bit so he could be with another psychopath. Once they got back together, she ended up pregnant and with a shotgun wedding. So by the time Harrison was born, she was in full on bitch mode. However, she was at home with a newborn, plus two older children, all day while her new husband, with whom she'd had trust issues in the recent past, was at work all day and on a killing spree all night. As grating as she was to listen to, her past experiences shaped her just as much as Dexter's did, but the show wasn't named after her and we side with the far more layered serial killer.

Then there was Betty Draper (January Jones) of "Man Men" fame. Betty was married to a cheating jerk. Unfortunately, she was married to a sexy, smooth-talking cheating jerk, whom we all adore.

Betty was raised as a rich daddy's girl, went on to modeling and ultimately (for awhile) landed Don Draper. But the fairytale soon ended as Don spent many nights away from his upper-middle class suburban family to "work late," which normally required boffing everyone from secretaries to clients to his daughter's grade school teacher. However, it's not all lack of writing and character development that make Betty an unsympathetic character: it's January Jones. Her acting skills are a bit stunted, especially when up against some of the show's other heavyweights. So while I should have been feeling sorry for Betty as she found out about her husband's whoring around and secret past life, I was too busy trying not to reach into my television to wipe the perpetual sneer off her face. After all, in the beginning, all Betty wanted was more attention from Don and not just his checkbook. Yet once again we felt sorry for morally corrupt Don and we did a happy dance that it was Betty's eventual affair that led to the dissolution of the Draper union at the end of Season 3. And her subsequent demise in her new marriage (to a very decent fellow) is just the icing on the cake.

However, it was the recent attacks on Skyler White (Anna Gunn) of "Breaking Bad" that drove me over the edge. Skyler had a rough ride over the last "year" with a surprise baby at 40 coupled with the news that her husband of twenty years was diagnosed with aggressive lung cancer. Then she learned that Walter turned to cooking meth as a way to provide for her and their children after his inevitable early death. After a lot of back-and-forth, Skyler eventually climbed aboard, running the business at their new carwash to launder the money coming in from Walter's meth lab.

Then Skyler had a change of heart. After finding out how close a drug lord was to murdering her entire family over Walt's dealings, she decided to become emotionally unstable, so her sister would take their children out of the home until Skyler and Walt could "work things out." When a furious Walt confronted her about her recent shenanigans, she freely admitted she's just waiting for the cancer to end him so they can all be safe again. At first I was appalled at the audacity of the ungrateful witch. But wait...Skyler's just doing what any sane, good mother would do. She's doing her best to protect her children while backed into a corner by her husband who's grown greedy for more. Sadly the way the writer's have presented her leaves the audience screaming for her blood.

And yet even when we're given a "good" husband, the wife still can't come through as a likable counterpart. Rick and Lori (Sarah Wayne Callies) Grimes of "The Walking Dead" are a shining example. Rick seems to be the ultimate do-gooder, trying to hold on to his humanity in a world turned upside down by a plague of zombies. And yet he's stuck with the whiniest wife of them all. It seems everyone had an immediate dislike of Lori from the pilot. But why?

Lori had an affair with Rick's best friend because she thought her husband was dead and because Shane helped save her and her son. Faced with such extreme circumstances, I believe it could easily happen. And when her husband returned, she promptly ended the affair. She understandably gets upset every time Rick wants to run off to save the day: after all, she thought she lost him once already, and in a zombie apocalypse, no where is safe. But once again we are faced with poor writing of a character. Lori is bossy, whiny and simply ungrateful for everything she still has. However, as a wife, I don't think she's being unfair. I more detest Lori for her atrocious parenting skills (who lets an 8-year-old run around unsupervised in a zombie apocalypse?) than how she acts toward her husband. And still she's the most hated of the show.

I wish I could end this with saying that if the tables were turned, and the female protagonist was the beloved badass, then there would be far superior writing of her character, but as "Weeds" has proven, that's not necessarily the case.

Now widowed three times over, Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) started out as an extremely sympathetic and lovable character, a recently widowed middle class suburban mom of two boys, who turned to dealing pot to other soccer moms to make ends meet. There were so many times in those first couple of seasons that I genuinely liked Nancy and felt bad for the crappy situations she'd fall into. But once she started getting romantically involved with a Mexican coke lord, putting herself and sons in danger beyond belief, her spunky outlook turned to pure narcissism and everything that followed screamed "Me Me Me!" Now I just keep watching the trainwreck to see how screwed up everyone, especially Nancy, will be by the finale, so I can smirk at their deserved demise.

Should it be this way, any of it? Can audiences, myself included, just step back and look at these women with anything but contempt. Not as long as the show runners keep churning out such petty, annoying, weak-willed partners to our flawed, but beloved male protagonists. As long as the male characters are still being written as layered sympathetic villains and the wives have the most annoying gender clichés thrust upon them, nothing will change, though it desperately needs to.


  1. I just read the Dexter and Walking Dead sections (since I haven't seen the other shows). You make a valid argument for Rita, as much as she grated on me in the last couple seasons. But she at least had reason to back it up.

    My issue with Lori isn't even necessarily how she treated Rick--which could be justified, as you said. Though she does flip flop on her emotions towards him way too much. My even bigger issue was with how she treated Shane. Of course, Shane eventually went insane and became a psychopath, but especially in season one... it was just too extreme. I understand ending the affair, of course. But to treat him the way she did starting almost literally the MINUTE Rick reappears was too much.

    1. I really debated about including Lori, since it was difficult justifying her attitude. I agree with the way she treated Shane as soon as Rick came back, which falls under her "ungrateful" trait. Though she did have a moment with Shane near the end of Season 2 where she actually apologized for the way she acted, which was decent of her, but felt "too little too late" all the same.

      My only reasoning for her acting that way toward Shane early on was that she knew the affair had to end, but Shane was the alpha male, so she treated him with no appreciation or sympathy in hopes that he'd not attempt to pursue her further, but that just didn't work. It's a weak excuse, but the best one I can scrape together.

  2. To add to this discussion, Brenda from "The Closer" and Patty Hewes from "Damages" are also all powerful in their career worlds, but constantly come across as TERRIBLE wives. It's Brenda's most annoying characteristic every time she totally blows off her kind and helpful husband, so he suffers from the underdeveloped spouse syndrome too. Hewes just gets reminded how poor a mother she is by her husband. But she rocks at her career. It's hardly fair.
    Great write up!

    1. Thanks! Not shows I watch, but I'm sure there are plenty of exmaples to argue both for and against here.

  3. Fascinating piece, but where the first two examples are concerned, I have to wonder:

    How should we consider the characters of Rita and Betty in comparison to the much stronger characters of Deb, Joan, and Peggy?

    1. That's the problem! When writing strong female characters that have more to them outside of being the wife or mom role, they are very well written and a blast to watch and cheer for. But it seems women who are restricted to the traditional duties of wife/mom are just annoying in comparison to the stronger men (and women) around them.

      It's like the writers are saying being a wife and mom, with no substantial career, makes for a one-dimensional nagging witch. And audiences seem to be playing along without giving any thought to what these women might be going through, or have gone through, to make them the way they are.

    2. I agree Rach - the problem is that they create cliche too often about wives and mothers.


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