How Boardwalk Empire Reinvented The Stereotypical Nagging Wife

Rebecca Stokes

It's an image anyone who's watched the odd Looney Toon is familiar with –- the large, scary wife brandishing her rolling pin as she harries after her husband, a fellow diminutive in both size and spirit. The hen-pecked husband, and the nagging wife –- if you'd asked me about it a year ago, I would have told you it was a passe, harmless dynamic that wasn't really used on television anymore. Then, for a brief period of time, I was living in a cable-free world and suddenly I was watching a lot more three camera sitcoms than I ever had before, and there it was, proof of the bad old days alive and kicking in the form of reruns of the King of Queens. I kind of quietly adore Kevin James, and I also have no patience for the whole "why is the hot girl with the fat comedian" thing people love to do for reasons that are fairly obvious if you read any of my writing. Would I like to see a portly lady comic married to a Henry Cavill lookalike, totally, but that is neither here nor there and also would you please excuse me for a while so I can take a private moment to think about Henry Cavill. Annnnnd back.

With my cable thankfully restored (#firstworldproblems) it was as though the blinders had been ripped from my eyes – bitches be nagging mad husbands slash boyfriends, yo! In reality and sitcom and dramatic enterprises alike! What's the you say? Give me examples of how this is true and also please explain why watched you watched more than one episode of the King of Queens! Gladly! And also, I Don't Have To Explain Myself To You!


Reality: Brandi and Jarrod, Storage Wars


I like AE's Storage Wars (BARRY WEISS YOU ENTERTAIN ME!). I like a lot of things that probably aren't good for me (See: cigarettes, caffeine, scotch, obsessive fixation on unavailable men.) It's like Antiques Road Show‘s redneck cousin –- and I mean that in the best possible way. Sincerely, when a cast member explains their donation to the Salvation Army by saying that they know the place does good work because they were once court ordered to work there –- very little else needs to be said.

Brandi and Jarrod run a thrift store in California which they stock with items they win in auctions for abandoned (see: used to belong to dead people you guys, let's be real) storage lockers. They're young and scrappy compared to some of the other cast mates, and I feel like of the entire cast they rank second as to folks I'd actually want to have dinner with (BARRY YOU WILL ALWAYS BE NUMBER ONE.) But that's not the couple AE has decided would be the best to show you. Instead, they show hot-head Jarrod and Nagging Brandi -– Brandi issuing hard-nosed dicta about how to spend their money, and Jarrod feeling put upon and disobeying her. This nag treatment even extends to the opening sequence where a bellowing Jarrod is back by an eye-rolling Nag of a Brandi who has no time for his idiocy. It's old. It's tired. And I don't think it's emblematic of who these folks are. While AE pushes this image hard, we do get glimpses of a more complex partnership, Brandi occasionally getting to bid herself (A WOMAN WITH A VOICE? UNHEARD OF.) the couple planning strategies for their small business. But more often than not, we're meant to laugh at Jarrod, the hen-pecked hubby with his controlling pretty wife, the bitch of all bitches. Because god knows marriage and business are that straight forward.


Sitcom: Phil and Claire Dunphy, Modern Family


My relationship with Modern Family is pretty torturous because I know I am just being fed comfortably middle-American ideas of ‘edge' that still sort of pander but I tend not to mind it because the actors are all pretty flawless. Case in point, Julie Bowen and Ty Burrell as goofy dad and perpetually irritated Phil and Claire Dunphy. Ty Burrell is so gifted that his sensitive new age guy cum hapless childish moron seems not only plausible but loveable. Julie Bowen is so good that her Claire Dunphy –- written as an unhappy, terrible, mean-spirited, and paranoid wife and mother –- transforms into a soft-hearted goof who's a bit more neurotic than she should be –- something that runs in the family, just look at her brother Mitchell (artfully played by Jesse Tyler Ferguson) as he manages to treat his partner Cam with the same level of near perpetual disdain.

But good acting can't cover up the nag – watch more than one episode in a row and you find yourself wondering if you are, in fact, watching a Looney Toon. With behavior this, well, unloving, it's hard not to visualize Modern Family the drama – where slammed doors and therapy sessions are the order of the day.


Drama: Gretchen Mol and EVERYONE, Boardwalk Empire


Boardwalk Empire is rapidly becoming the best television to grace the little screen –- with its careful evolution, acknowledgment of the independence of their characters as time passes, I think it's a perfect study of what makes television a different but equally powerful medium than film. Boom. I stand by that.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the show is watching the female characters step out of the roles originally proscribed by the HBO boy's clubs: Paz De La Heurta goes from happy go lucky kept woman to a mother abandoning her child and escaping the confines of any sort of role for a woman –- traditional or otherwise. More interesting to me, was the battle to find their Lady Macbeth –- would it be the now Mrs. Thomson, Kelly MacDonald, or the child-mother now queen of Atlantic City's uprising, Gretchen Mol? It was a tough battle, and while I was sad to see Kelly's role downshifted from cold calculating first lady back into Irish peasant with a terror of the god almighty, I was fascinated by watching Gretchen Mol evolve. I don't like the woman as an actress, I don't think she's very strong and her choices aren't really there. But the writing –- son of a gun, if you're going to write a woman as a conniving abusive villain, girl take a page because shit got ruh-eal this season.


Shows like Boardwalk Empire give me hope and help me see why exactly it bothers me when Woman As Nag is presented in an overblown, stereotypical way – because when you do that, you are cheating you audience of the chance to see a richly developed character. It is troubling in Boardwalk Empire to see that a woman can only be a villain in this manner if some man has mishandled or abused her, and it is even more troubling to see that when faced with a woman of this level of badness the only way out is death –- for her or her victims. But it is a stab at turning hen pecked into a complex sort of hell-on-wheels kind of woman, and that's pretty interesting.

This post originally appeared on FemPop. Republished with permission.

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