“I haven’t heard from my wife for weeks – I don’t want to interrupt her!” “I get this nagging feeling sometimes… it usually starts when I wake up, and disappears when she goes to bed.” “Behind every nagging woman is a husband not doing what he’s supposed to!” You may have seen one-liners like these before, peppering the Facebook walls of your older relatives. I’ve watched coworkers make these jokes, accompanied by rolled eyes and elbow-nudges, to a chorus of knowing chuckles, framed photos of them grinning with their wives sitting atop their desks. We don’t bat an eye when men say they hate their wives, and in fact, we sometimes expect them to do so. How are these roles – the nagging wife and hen-pecked husband – so ingrained in our culture? And why do we find them funny?
The ‘nagging wife’ trope has a long history. The ‘shrew’ that gets ‘tamed’ in Shakespeare’s play is a strong-willed wife; the verb “scold”, meaning “to tell off”, stems from a Middle English noun meaning “a chiding woman”. The trope crystallised in the West in the 1960s, a time when white-collar jobs rose in popularity, instilling a culture of men working nine-to-five and returning to a home-cooked meal, lovingly prepared by their stay-at-home wife. Women were, as they have been for much of history, relied upon to do ceaseless unpaid and unrecognised labour. Women could not get credit cards which were not in their husbands’ names, and divorce was still widely inaccessible and stigmatised. Marriage was at once a force of oppression and a lifeline; being an unmarried older woman was also looked down upon. At the same time, second-wave feminism emerged as a school of thought, a radical movement incensed by the patriarchy and all its arms. An awful lot of women were angry, and many of them took to the streets in protest: their anger was made visible.
This rise in visibly frustrated wives coincided with a boom in publicly accessible entertainment. During the 1950s, televisions had gone from a rare luxury to a commodity which the majority of American homes had access to. Sitcoms, which often aimed to depict ‘everyday’ people through recognisable caricatures, gained popularity in the mid- to late-1950s. Standup comedy evolved from underground monologue performances to bigger, televised shows. The nagging wife trope existed in comedy before these technological advancements: Henny Youngman, a comedian known for his one-liners in the 1940s, was best known for the line, “take my wife… please!” With these technological advancements, though, comics were tasked with entertaining larger audiences than ever before. What better way to do so than by appealing to the assumed universal of a wife who can’t stop complaining?
Clearly, this trope did resonate – and continues to resonate – with many people. Comedians like Jerry Seinfeld and Dave Chappelle still employ punchlines about their (real) wives being nitpicky, stubborn, or frustrating. If this was not an entertaining trope, it surely would not have endured over half a century in our media. So, why has it stuck around? Is it actually funny?
On the one hand, comedy can be an outlet for frustrations that are hard to express or navigate. Many people are trapped in unhappy marriages which are hard to leave for legal and financial reasons, alongside familial responsibilities. This could be for an infinite number of reasons, but a culture which treats a heterosexual marriage as something everyone must achieve – preferably when they’re younger – and divorce as taboo and a sign of failure certainly does not help. These pressures exist today, but were arguably even stronger decades ago when the trope first gathered traction, for all the reasons I outlined above. Combined with gender roles which insist upon men working long, tiresome days to single-handedly support a nuclear family with their income and upon women bearing the brunt of housework and childcare, it is easy to understand why this trope is so resonant, especially with older generations who got married in a less progressive context. A man may well feel nagged when asked to tidy up after himself if he sees that as his wife’s job or is overtired. A woman who has to constantly remind her husband to do the bare minimum to keep their house clean could easily perceive him as a deadbeat. This trope is capitalism viewed through a funhouse mirror: it pokes fun at the very real tensions that emerge when you make society dependent on marriage. In a way, I can’t blame people for laughing along to it, nor for making jokes about it. It’s a coping mechanism.
At the same time, though, this is obviously a harmful trope. It dismisses the very real grievances of women as “nagging” – it is no coincidence that, when second wave feminism encouraged housewives to speak up about their oppression, men on television laughed at them for doing so. It perpetuates gender essentialism, or the notion that men and women are inherently different, by claiming that women are insatiably picky and men are doofuses who can’t take hints. This also shields men from blame for acting in harmful ways – it’s the same rationale as notions like “boys will be boys”. How could they be expected to know what women want from them if all women do is complain? Additionally, the expectations that marriage is a drag or that you hate your spouse are incredibly toxic. If people enter marriages with the expectation that they will become unpleasant, it makes them less likely to seek marriage counselling or divorce when they do go downhill. Of course, marriage and relationships can be tricky – humans are messy and hard to get along with perfectly, 24/7 – but, to be clear, marriage should not be a source of misery.
Like so many other tropes in comedy, the “old ball and chain” trope reveals something about those who laugh along with it. It speaks to the frustration of a generation who truly can’t live with, nor without, their spouses. As attitudes towards marriage, gender roles, and singledom shift, I can imagine this trope will lose its audience and fade into obscurity as it becomes less obvious why someone would live with a spouse they despise. You should love your spouse. Tropes like this obscure that.