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 Beleaguered Husbands and Demanding Wives:
 The New Domestic Sitcom

A rash of new domestic sitcoms seems to be spreading.  Beginning in 1997, when Everybody Loves Raymond premiered on CBS, new successful shows of this type have been consistently added to network line-ups, and they get more popular every year.  CBS has built a Monday night block of these male-centered shows anchored by its oldest, and most successful, Everybody Loves Raymond, that includes The King of Queens (premiered 1998), Yes, Dear (2000), and Still Standing (2002).  They each build on the success of the other, wrapping up the last television season, 2002-2003, in the top twenty rated shows.

ABC has its own version of a domestic sitcom block that started on Wednesday nights, but has broken it up a bit by moving shows around to include Tuesday nights as well.  According to Jim has recently become the centerpiece of these shows as it has consistently ascended the ratings scale since its premiere in 2001, becoming ABC’s second-most watched sitcom, according to  My Wife and Kids and The George Lopez Show, also premiering in the 2001-2002 season, round out the ABC version of domestic sitcoms featuring beleaguered husbands as their stars.

Not only are these shows solid hits for their networks, they are producing lucrative syndication deals and spawning even more imitators for next season. In fact Everybody Loves Raymond has been in syndication for a few years, The King of Queens begins its syndicated run in September 2003, and My Wife and Kids has been bought for syndication by ABC Family to be aired beginning in 2008. CBS is so worried about the end of Everybody Loves Raymond that its star, Ray Romano, got a $40 million deal for what he says is his last season, and there is talk of a spin off series for its other stars.  Next season promises at least four more of these shows on the traditionally dominant top three networks: Family Show and Crazy Love on CBS, Married to the Kelly’s on ABC, and Come to Papa on NBC.

What characterizes these shows as “these shows,” what I am calling the new domestic sitcom, is that they are constituted by a nuclear family centered around the man of the house.  In fact, the titles of all of the shows make the centrality of the man explicit.  They are about him.  He gets most or all of the good jokes, and even when the joke is on him, he is in control of the language and the action so that he is also always funny, not just laughed at.  The conflict always involves his relationship to someone in the family, usually his demanding wife.  It is resolved most often by his learning some lesson from his wife that makes him a better man.

All of the shows depict traditional marriages with masculinity and femininity performed in ideologically very conservative ways, in a reversal of the ways families began to be depicted in the 1980s and 1990s.  He is the breadwinner, and she is often a stay-at-home wife or works in an inconsequential job, especially if the theme is working class life.  Interestingly, even though he is employed in all of these shows, he is almost always shown at home, and the action centers on a conflict in the domestic scene that will be resolved in the twenty-two minutes of airtime.  The persistent focus on him and the ways in which he is besieged by domestic life—most often by the demands made by his wife—is a symptom of a cultural moment defined in part by a panic mixed with resentment over advances in feminist politics over the past thirty years.

In a replay of what Nina Leibman has called the “domestic melodrama” in her book, Living Room Lectures: The Fifties Family in Film and Television, these new domestic sitcoms are characterized by a gender system defined by domesticity.  The notion of domesticity in the 1950s is made familiar to us most clearly through the sitcoms made then and ushered into the canon of classic television today.  They are the shows still widely shown in syndication and on cable channels like Father Knows Best, Ozzie and Harriett, and Leave it to Beaver.  They are among those categorized by Leibman as domestic melodrama made between 1954-63.  She characterizes them as “those which revolve around middle-class nuclear families living in suburbia and feature a professional father and a full-time stay-at-home mother.  Humor is found in the interrelationships of family members.” 

Sound familiar? 

Today’s shows are remarkably similar, with crucial shifts that respond to changes in the culture over the past forty years—most notably the changes wrought by feminism, those changes, one might suppose, in the relationships between men and women, between the performances of masculinity and femininity. According to Leibman, the formulas of the domestic melodramas of the late 1950s and early 1960s were characterized by the absolute centrality of the father to the functioning of the family.  He is “loving and stoic, deeply involved with his children’s lives, attentive to their needs, and physically available.”

The mother, on the other hand, is much less important to the functioning of the family.  She assumes a background, devalued position.  The woman characters “now held a questionable position as the operative force in domestic life, wherein they were expected to perform the necessary domestic duties but continually upheld their husbands as more important.” These shows, then, are defined by the wisdom of patriarchy and the irrelevance of motherhood and, as a result of social change, became much less common beginning in 1963 when they began to be replaced by single-parent households or the blended Brady family. Some supernatural sitcoms also surfaced that addressed the challenges to dominant culture’s gender arrangements in some indirect ways. For example, shows like Bewitched and I Dream of Jeannie, which Susan Douglas reads in her book Where the Girls Are, both acknowledge and contain women’s emerging social and sexual power.

The feminist movement was a significant enough social movement that it had to be addressed in a more direct way as well.  Bonnie Dow has documented well, in her book Prime-Time Feminism, the ways in which sitcoms handled the social changes that began to be felt in mainstream American life by 1970.  In her analysis of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, One Day At A Time, Designing Women, and Murphy Brown, Dow argues that network sitcoms not only had to address the changes feminism was bringing to American culture, the shows themselves were part of the larger conversation that developed feminist ideas, expectations, and language.

Dow traces the trajectory of these shows (among many others like Alice, Maude, Kate and Allie) and their relationships to feminist discourses from the 1970s through the early 1990s, from early feminist stirrings to the mostly post-feminist politics by the late 1980s.  At the very least, these are shows that feature women as central characters, and usually without men, or at least without men defining their existences.  But there were moments, and often more than just moments, that seemed to offer real feminist politics.  Dow sees those moments most pronounced on Maude, One Day at a Time, and Designing Women.

At the same time, these shows were mostly competing with less political and more what she calls “lifestyle” or “individualist” feminist discourses, those that made “women’s issues” personal rather than political. This is to be expected on a network sitcom whose purpose is to sell products and restore order in twenty-two minutes.  Even with such restrictions on the exploration of radical ideas, many shows during this period still dealt with the fact that gender relations were changing—in seemingly significant ways. 

While there is no going back to a pre-feminist past, by the late 1980s the post-feminist future was here.  According to Dow,  “post-feminist family television” depicted families that featured women who had successfully integrated into the professional world and had no real problems at home.  The idea was that feminist goals had been accomplished by women working outside the home, with no need for any change within a home or marriage. 

The Cosby Show, Family Ties, and Growing Pains are all shows in which the mothers work at professional jobs, they are making choices in their lives, and their most fulfilling choice is their family.  They most appropriately belong at home where they are the happiest.  By this point, we should also note, the single woman show was on the wane.

Post-feminism is defined by Dow, among many others (including Susan Faludi most famously in Backlash), as the idea that feminism has done its job.  It acknowledges that feminism has created some positive change in gender relations especially in creating access to education and employment for women, and now those opportunities are up to women’s individual choices.  It also tends to see feminism as having created confusion and some level of misery for women and for men in terms of heterosexual relating. 

Post-feminist ideology is behind a backlash against feminism, which is blamed for all kinds of social ills, especially those emanating from the disruptions of domestic gender arrangements.  The primary message coming from post-feminist ideology is that women’s rightful place is in the home, while men’s rightful place is at work, supporting the family. 

In other words, even though feminism has created the idea that women should be able to make choices about their lives, especially regarding their careers, within the terms of post-feminism, women are really happiest at home.  Thus gender relationships between men and women defined by domesticity remain intact.  In her book Unbending Gender, Joan Williams describes domesticity as a gender system that structures masculinity and femininity based on assumptions that it is natural for men to go out into the world because they are more aggressive and competitive whereas women belong in the home because they are more nurturing and focused on relationships.  It is a system of organizing gender that is often argued to be on the decline, but in Williams’ words, “Domesticity did not die, it mutated.”

In the post-feminist shows of the late 1980s and early 1990s, this ideology is clear.  Equality in the public sphere is a given, not really worth mentioning.  But traditional assumptions about the ways in which the private sphere should operate remain intact.  In Dow’s words, “Of course to achieve equality in the private sphere would require further adjustment from men, an issue mysteriously absent from post-feminist rhetoric.”

Combined with the powerful force of traditional domesticity is what Dow calls “post-feminism’s most powerful framing device,” the idea that “Patriarchy is gone and has been replaced by choice… Finally the possibilities for happiness in a woman’s work and personal life are a direct result of the choices that she makes….In dismissing feminist ideology, post-feminism also dismisses the fundamental insight of feminist ideology: women operate within a sex/gender system that limits acceptable choices.”

This context defines the domestic sitcoms of the new millennium.  We are not back in the 1950s, but we are close.  These sitcoms are post-feminist plus in that they are relentless in their pull back to traditional ideas of marriage, family, and the performance of gender, framed by the assumption that women choose these lives.  The nod to feminism here—and at the same time the threat posed by it—seems to show that the situation is not resolved by the wisdom of the father—as it was in the 1950s (father knows best).  Most often now, the wife is right.  And the conflict is often about the husband’s inability to live up to the man she wants him to be.  She now makes emotional demands on him, demands he cannot seem to meet, this causes a conflict, and it is resolved when he sees that she is right and her wisdom wins.  The domestic arrangement is structurally untouched, but it is threatened by the newly demanding woman.  This situation makes him beleaguered.

The marriage is based on deeply embedded traditional ideas of gender differences that assume, for example, that men are less emotional, and certainly less emotionally literate, while women are more tuned into emotions and rightfully do the emotional work of the couple and family.  Men are shown to be kind of cute in their immaturity; it is part of their charm.  The women on these shows often mother their husbands. Women care how they look, while men don’t (and women don’t care how their men look either).  In three of the shows, the husband is fat, balding, not too attractive, while the wife is very skinny and conventionally beautiful; often, a woman no longer needs her own life or career outside of the home.

Another difference in today’s domestic sitcoms from those in the 1950s-60s is that although most of the men have children, they are not at all active fathers.  The children are largely absent on most of these shows so that the male character does not function as a father so much as an often inept husband.  This is another move away from the wise father position.  The idea of equality here is that the husband/father figure is exposed as not all-knowing, and his wife can challenge him in gender-appropriate ways on gender-appropriate issues. They can bicker openly, but he remains the center of the family.

This is most apparent in According to Jim, but true in most of the shows.  The writing formula is that Jim does some childish, thoughtless, stupid thing, Cheryl gets mad, they have a shouting match, and by the end he sees how right she is and learns from her.  A typical example is the fight they have when Jim finds that he couldn’t do the “bad” thing, the thing he wanted to do.  So, in a very angry voice he says to her:


You trusted me.  And because I love you so much, I had no choice but to live up to it.  Damn it.


I’m sorry for making you a better person.


I hope you’re happy Cheryl.  You took this wild animal out of the jungle, put him in a cage and make him perform tricks in your little suburban circus.

This breaks the tension a bit because she laughs at him and finally says:


Oh honey, I don’t know, but I think I may be a little bit proud of you.




Yeah, you didn’t completely do the wrong thing tonight.


Whoa, whoa, whoa—wait a minute.  I was half wrong.  There’s still hope for me.

According to Jim is the most transparent in its gender arrangements that call on the wife to make the husband a real grown up. But Everybody Loves Raymond, the granddaddy of these shows, relies on a similar set up.  Ray is a lovable, if a bit dense, husband to Debra who is always the more competent of the two.  She is always teaching him how to behave, demanding that he rise to the standards she knows he can attain.  In a typical episode, Ray lies to Debra, telling her he has a very thoughtful Christmas gift for her, after being pressured by her to give her a thoughtful gift.  He has no idea what she really wants, so, in a panic, he asks his brother’s girlfriend what his wife might want.


Something that says, “Debra you mean so much to me, and this makes me think of you.”  So you got anything?

The girlfriend can’t think of anything, but Ray’s brother knows exactly what Debra wants.  Ray buys it, Debra is touched deeply, and Ray is eventually found out.  She is mad; they fight.  Ray delivers a speech:


I’m sorry.  I stink at this.  But it doesn’t mean I don’t care about you.  In fact, I wouldn’t lie half as much if I didn’t.

Part of the wife’s job to make the husband a suitable companion comes from the assumption that men and women are naturally different.  All of these sitcoms operate from that premise, and then, obviously, reinscribe it.  An example from The King of Queens illustrates this very common ideological imperative. Carrie has what her co-workers call her “work husband” in Kurt, a gay man with whom she has a great time in easy conversation, lots of laughs, sushi lunches, and fashion dissing, none of which she shares with her husband Doug.

Doug gets jealous, but comes to appreciate what he has with his “work wife” (his best friend at work, Deacon). We see them together in a homoerotic fantasy montage that shows them eating big sandwiches, tackling each other in football, and drinking beer together tenderly.  Still, Doug and Carrie continue to fight about these other connections as they both get ready for dueling dates with their work spouses.  This is an illustrative line from this episode’s obligatory screaming match.


It’s better this way.  Now you don’t have to pretend to care about things like sports and ground beef.  And I don’t have to pretend to care about your new shoes and your feelings.

By the end of the episode, they have to sign mortgage papers and decide to write a list of twenty things they each like to see if they have enough in common to pay for a house together over the next thirty years.  Their lists are structured in a predictably gendered way: sunsets vs. a new car smell, salsa dancing vs. spaghettios, chamomile tea vs. porno.  And although they seem to have nothing in common, they decide to stay together because what they have cannot, as Carrie wraps it up, “be put on paper.”

All of these shows depend on this idea of a natural and oppositional gender difference. This “natural” difference is the basic ideology inherent in every script. As another example, we can look to a typical exchange between Ray and Debra on Everybody Loves Raymond. Ray does not want to go into an apartment to an event that Debra says they have to go to out of obligation:


We could go spend some time alone.


Ray come on, we already had sex this week.


Wait, wait. First of all, that was nine days ago.  Wait, let’s just go to the mall and you can buy stuff and I’ll walk behind you and call you pretty.

There is nothing at all liberated, feminist, or creative in performing gender as the woman being the enforcer of social decorum, the man as sex starved, the woman as indifferent to sex, doing it as a favor to him, the woman caring more about shopping, needing patronizing flattery. However, it does seem to be a post-feminist move to have an exchange about it, to negotiate it in relatively explicit ways.  That oral power seems to be the change brought by feminism.  Women have a voice men need to respect. Men need to see women as partners. These demands give the couple something to fight about.  Domesticity remains firmly intact, but now there is bickering about it.

In Still Standing, one of those shows with the fat husband and beautiful, skinny wife, a typical opening scene sets the wife/mom up as a nag while the dad watches TV.  She hands him a list of things to do saying, “I’m sick of being the only one who is responsible around here.”  The next scene shows the dad standing on the couch with a guitar playing rock star.  The primary plot in this episode involves the parents trying to discipline their teenage daughter, who says to her mother, “This house is like a prison.” The mother replies, “Tell me about it.  I’ve been stuck here for fifteen years, and I still don’t know what I did wrong.”

Yes, Dear involves two couples who live under the same roof—two sisters married men of different classes.  The middle-class husband, Greg, is the center of the show, and most of the action revolves around all of the ways in which he is beleaguered at home by his wife and his in-laws.  The marriage is based very much on the terms of domesticity.  In one episode as they discuss a new couch and he seems to have no preference, he says, “I had opinions and then you know what happened?  I got married.”  She replies with alarm, “Oh my god, you’re right.  I’m overbearing.”  In another episode, her job is to get him off the Vicks-Vapo-Rub that he has become addicted to, through nagging. 

The relationship between the men, Greg and his brother-in law Jimmy, is the primary one on the show, and this formula certainly fits the heteronormative centrality of men that is foundational to all of these domestic sitcoms.  As “traditional” families, they are male dominated, and even though the primary relationships are supposed to be heterosexual, men as the center means men’s relationships are the most important and central, and trump relationships with women. This male bonding also allows another way to perform their beleaguered status in domesticity through their alliance with each other, even when fleeting.  The idea that men (either alone or in pairs) can’t get any peace at home is not a new one. But the explicit fighting and complaining about it is new, and a post-feminist idea that speaks to both the assumption that women are making new demands on men, and that equality between the sexes makes open fighting more fair.

Non-white shows follow the same patterns as their white counterparts. My Wife and Kids is about an African American family and The George Lopez Show is about a Chicano family.  Both are structured around a beleaguered father in a household in which he can get no peace.  A typical episode of My Wife and Kids opens with the dad/husband trying to eat a sandwich, but he cannot get away from the noise and chaos of the kids.  He says to his wife, who is standing behind him folding clothes, that he longs to have some time alone in the house so that he can sit on the couch naked, watch basketball, and scratch.

The George Lopez Show features yet another beleaguered father trying to keep his sanity among all the crazy women he has to endure.  He is married to another very skinny woman, and his mother lives with him, along with the kids.   In a typical episode, he tries to send his daughter to private school, but is worried about the money.  His mother chimes in, referring to his wife, “Miss America here is gonna have to get a job.”  This show is perhaps the most explicit in its portrayal of a man besieged by women.  In this case, his wife is mostly supportive, and it is his mother who is a constant source of unreasonable demands and insults.  But the tone of the show is that George has unending demands and responsibilities to juggle as a result of the women in his life.

On both of these shows there are some references to racial difference, but in terms of the domestic arrangement and the performance of gender they are exactly like the other shows.  The father/husband gets almost all the jokes, the show is named after him, he is central, and beleagued. 

The egregiously conservative gender arrangements on these shows both reflect and contribute to a perceived threat caused by the choices women have in terms of their domestic lives.  Domestic arrangements are remarkably unchanged in the face of feminist interventions made in other social institutions.  But there is a fear that women have more power, more choices, and are thus more demanding, albeit in their irrational feminine ways.  This, despite the fact that the wives are, for the most part, performed as incredibly supportive, conventional, and committed to their families.  Still, the men perform their anxiety, irritation, and exhaustion in ways that make them reluctant beneficiaries of their wives’ increased choices and voices, and the men ultimately get to reinscribe the terms of domesticity, heterosexuality, masculinity and femininity.

Additionally, these shows police the boundaries of heterosexuality very carefully.  Masculinity and femininity are easy to understand.  Perhaps one of their ideological functions at this cultural moment is also to provide the clear line between heterosexual identity and the increasing visibility of gay sensibilities and identities on television.  At a time when a show like Will & Grace is an established hit, at a time when shows like Queer Eye for the Straight Guy and Boy Meets Boy created a buzz during the summer lull in programming (those two shows have created their own queer block on Tuesdays—and Bravo’s highest ratings ever), at a time when new sitcoms like It’s All Relative are appearing, these throwbacks to old-fashioned heteronormative domesticity provide the clear lines necessary for queer shows to be embraced by straight audiences.

October 2003

From Guest Contributor Jennifer Reed

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