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The Nag Trope - It’s Time to Write It Out

The henpecked husband traverses centuries and genres, but why, after decades of feminism, is the nagging wife a character we still accept? The “nag” in film and TV is often cast as materialistic, pushy, and unfaithful. Furthermore, she is often depicted as unappealing and willing to raise her voice. Even if what she asks of her partner is actually pretty reasonable, her tone or the incessantness of her demands is played as insufferably annoying. Thus she can serve as a kind of emotional “scapegoat” allowing viewers to excuse her male partner’s blatantly irresponsible behavior.

Increasingly, stories from the nag’s perspective explore how she’s often an overstretched wife and mom juggling a lot and carrying an intense mental load, while feeling let down by a partner who’s not committing the same effort or showing her due respect. So where does “the nag” come from and what can we learn by hearing her side?

TRANSCRIPT

Many iconic onscreen relationships are made up of three characters: a man, his wife, and her nagging. The henpecked husband traverses centuries and genres, but why, after decades of feminism, is the nagging wife a character we still accept?

The “nag” in film and TV has some common patterns:

  • She’s often with a guy who’s kind of mediocre — not as driven or smart or organized as she is.

  • She might be cast as materialistic, and pushes her husband to strive for more success than he actually wants.

  • She’s frequently unfaithful, or painted as generally having bad values .

  • She’s typically middle-aged or older, not framed as especially appealing.

  • She’s not afraid to raise her voice.

And even if what she asks of her partner is actually pretty reasonable, her tone or the incessantness of her demands is played as insufferably annoying. Thus she can serve as a kind of emotional “scapegoat” allowing viewers to excuse her male partner’s blatantly irresponsible behavior.

Increasingly, stories from the nag’s perspective explore how she’s often an overstretched wife and mom juggling a lot and carrying an intense mental load, while feeling let down by a partner who’s not committing the same effort or showing her due respect.

Here’s our Take on where “the nag” comes from, what we learn from hearing her side, and why it’s time to finally write her out of the story.

The History of the Nag: A folkloric cliche

The shrew character has cropped up in stories for millennia; she even appears in the Bible, in Proverbs 21.9 - ‘It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife.’ Perhaps her best known historic appearance is in Shakespeare’s comedy The Taming of the Shrew, whose plot centers on the attempt to break in an unruly wife and putting an end to her quarrelsome ways. At the time Shakespeare was writing, the stock ‘shrew’ character was often conflated with a witch.

Gunnison: “Jeff, wives don’t nag any more, they discuss.” - Rear Window

Historian Louise Jackson writes that some women punished for witchcraft were also condemned as ‘scolds’; she documents one who was persecuted for witchcraft because (quote) “instead of fulfilling the expected role of a ‘good’ wife and mother, she had been cursing and shouting at her husband and children.’ In the 1950s and 60s, as white-collar work overtook blue-collar employment for the first time in US history, the American domestic ideal became the Company Man with his picture-perfect housewife keeping everything running behind him. Mad Men’s Betty Draper shows us the effort involved in trying to meet this ideal. Rather than nagging when she’s unhappy, she makes terse statements through gritted teeth — even when she knows that her own workload is increasing due to Don’s decisions. Ultimately, Betty’s holding back from pestering Don doesn’t create a happy environment or prevent their eventual divorce. It’s only after they’re separated that she allows herself to become the nagging ex-wife, explicitly voicing discontent, and (thanks to this more open communication) their divorced relationship at least feels more equal.

Countering the housewife ideal, starting in the 1960s second-wave feminism also gained momentum, with women becoming increasingly empowered in and outside of the home. As a result, this era is where the nag really emerges in earnest; she’s a symbol that exists to put women back in their place.

According to film lecturer Laraine Porter, the blueprint for the sitcom dynamic of the nagging wife and mediocre husband emerged in the 1960s, with British shows like George and Mildred, the tale of an unhappy middle aged couple — a hapless husband and his wife who wants more. The theme of the nag just wanting money from her husband appears in the 1960 Twilight Zone episode A Stop at Willoughby, where disillusioned company man Gart Williams longs for a simpler life. But his materialistic nag wife, Jane, has pushed him into a career he hates so that she can maintain the lifestyle she likes.

Jane: “My miserable tragic error, to get married to a man who’s big dream in life is to be Huckleberry Finn.” - Twilight Zone, 1x30

As Porter observes, the nag in series like George and Mildred tended to be middle aged and/or sexless — a mirror to her increasingly impotent husband, and maybe even to blame for his failings in the bedroom (an insecurity that some women carry into the present day.)

For decades to follow, sitcoms about average families would include the stock character of the nagging wife and mother, while her relatable “regular guy” husband became more sympathetic thanks to her giving him a hard time.

Simultaneously, the nag trope was used against women in the political sphere.

Analyzing the backlash to a feminist debate series on 1970s TV, feminist academic Jilly Kay wrote of the nagging wife trope being ‘insidiously mobilised to discredit women’s political speech,” especially if a woman’s tone is perceived as “angry, complaining, ‘nagging’ or ‘rude.” Film and TV have likewise long treated the “feminist” character as a comedic nag, reducing her advocacy for women’s rights to an annoying character flaw. To this day, variations on the nag trope are used to undermine women in business and politics.

More dramatic portrayals of the nag have continued to paint her as materialistic, shallow or lacking humanity. 2000s Oscar Best Picture winner American Beauty resonated with audiences through its story of a dissatisfied man who broke away from the oppressive influence of his consumerist nag wife by fantasizing about a teen girl.

Many nagging wife narratives present her as a kind of mastermind: running a tight ship and cracking the whip on her husband or sons — making them feel small, or forcing them to strive for something that is beyond them. In reality, though, it’s men who have historically held most of the power in marriages. So the wife’s nagging is actually an expression of her powerlessness. Since she can’t actually control her family’s destiny in actions, she uses words to vent her frustration and at least attempt to push her husband to do what she deems necessary.

Tony Soprano: Everybody thought Dad was the ruthless one, but I gotta hand it to ya. If you’d been born after those feminists, you would’ve been the real gangster.” - The Sopranos, 1x7

Tony’s mother Livia on The Sopranos truly is insufferable in her nagging. She seems to have borderline personality disorder, but a key source of her personality problems is also that (as a woman who wasn’t suited to a domestic role) she felt unsatisfied and desired power of her own.

It’s also important to notice how casting the woman as a nag is often a tool to intentionally discredit a woman.

As Susan Krauss Whitbourne writes in Psychology Today, Women who ask their husbands once, twice, or more to do what they want receive this pejorative judgment regardless of whether the request is reasonable or not…By using the derogatory term “nag,” a man trivializes the woman’s request and at the same time puts her in her place… It saves him actually having to do anything in response to her request…” We see Don use this technique on Betty in Mad Men — he frequently implies that she’s nagging when (despite the many valid criticisms she could voice) she’s not giving him that hard of a time—like when he’s skipping out on their family Thanksgiving.

She’s the voice of reason: and we hate that about her.

The nagging wife is rarely a main character, but more often a foil or obstacle to a male character.

She’s a stock character in the Manboy story, which celebrates immature male antics and thus vilifies any woman who expects the manboy to behave like a responsible adult. These guys have so much fun living out the fantasy lives of their youth, they turn their partners into the mom figure and fun sponge. The Hangover may be full of cartoonish criminals, but it’s Melissa, Stu’s mean and controlling girlfriend, who’s treated as the most hateable villain. If we step back, though, a lot of the time the nag’s requests are… not that crazy. Melissa acts possessive and anxious probably because she can sense her boyfriend — who said he’s going to wine country rather than Vegas — is not being honest with her. Although she’s revealed to have cheated on Stu — another nod to the nag trope’s bad values — she’s still within her rights to be angry when she’s unable to locate him for 48 hours, during which time he has married a stripper.

Amy: “I don’t get why you’re daring me to be someone I don’t wanna be. The nagging shrew. The controlling bitch.” - Gone Girl

A number of prestige-TV’s antihero shows also contain their version of the “nag wife” stock character. In 2013, film critic Alison Willmore wrote that, “Every small screen antihero needs a failed moral compass, an illicit way of life and a nagging, wet blanket wife.” Since many viewers are watching series like The Sopranos or Breaking Bad for the chaos and vicarious thrill of the horrible things her husband does, the wife’s attempts to rein him in or convince him to act “responsibly” get in the way of that entertainment — and can even work against the show itself. A similar thing happened on Six Feet Under, when Lisa became hated by viewers because (after her pregnancy pushed Nate into becoming a father and husband) she put a damper on the free-spirited sex and chaotic relationship with Brenda that had defined the show’s early seasons.

Some of these characters receive intense vitriol from audience members who peg the shrewish wife as a “scapegoat” for the man’s behavior. The actress playing Skyler, Anna Gunn, even received death threats. This is not in line with the show’s intentions. As Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan put it about Skyler, “She’s got a tough job being married to this asshole… She’s telling him not to be a murderer and a guy who cooks drugs for kids. How could you have a problem with that?” The show even gets a little meta about the “nag” debates among its fans during the fake phone conversation where Walt attempts to absolve Skyler of her part in his meth business through painting her as the textbook nag.

Carmela is a lot less of an obstacle to Tony’s crimes and seems happy enough to reap the rewards of her situation as a mafia wife, but she does nag her husband to share his finances with her and take care of the family in a more above-board way. In many ways, she’s a consumerist housewife in the “materialistic nag” tradition — but with unprecedented depth and nuance.

Ultimately, while some of these shows do deserve credit for attempting to show “nag wife” characters with complexity, empathy and realism, the culture receiving the shows was not quite ready to stop blaming these women for their husband’s inadequacies.

Why does the Nag trope have to die?

Beginning in the 2010s, we started to see more portrayals of how being cast as the nag affects women. Modern Family insightfully deconstructs the old-school dynamic of the mediocre husband and hypercompetent “nag” wife and mother. When Julie Bowen’s Claire overcompensates and tries to take back the “fun parent” role from her husband Phil, the show breaks down why Claire can’t be a fun mom most of the time: she is carrying an enormous mental load and stuck being sensible.

In 2007’s Knocked Up, we’re introduced to Leslie Mann’s Debbie, the foil to her laid-back, life-of-the-party husband Pete, but by 2012, in the sort-of-sequel This is 40, we’re shown much more of how their relationship looks from Debbie’s perspective.

The 2012 novel and 2014 film Gone Girl explores how being unfairly cast as the nag can trigger an extreme revolt from a wife. And following on this legacy, 2021’s Kevin Can F*** Himself sends up the sitcom formula of the mediocre husband and nag wife by alternating between a classic sitcom set-up and a single-camera drama that explores her dissatisfaction.

Since 2015, Fresh Off the Boat has explored the cultural layers to being a “nag wife-and-mom” as an immigrant and an Asian-American. The comedic portrayal of Jessica is somewhat controversial for leaning into the stereotype of the “Tiger Mom,” but it also explores the cultural factors behind Jessica’s behavior, enjoys her personality (which is more dominant and empowered than the old-school nag) and doesn’t really suggest that she ought to be any less domineering.

Laura Linney’s Wendy in Ozark updates the “nag wife” for the antihero genre, too. After being introduced with the hallmarks of this trope (as the materialistic wife who’s having the affair), she eventually surpasses her husband, becoming the criminal mastermind.

In Atypical, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s mother of two Elsa is overzealous in micromanaging her family’s lives, and again ends up having an affair, but we see how raising a son with high-functioning autism has understandably shaped her protective parenting style.

Elsa: “I am great when I’m needed. Not quite so good when I’m not needed.” - Atypical, 3x6

In all of these examples, the nag is not the unreasonable character; what is unreasonable is the framing of a woman with legitimate concerns as a nag to discredit her.

Conclusion: Splitting up with the nag

While showing things from the nag’s perspective is important, in order to change the narrative entirely we need to change the way we live. Studies reveal that — no matter how successful they are at work, women continue to take on the lion’s share of the housework, childcare and mental load for their families. We need to see better representations of couples who split the domestic labour, and husbands who put effort into making their partners’ contributions feel valued. The mutual respect that comes out of that may just be enough to send the nag packing.

Sources:

Barry, Carol A. “White-Collar Employment: I —Trends and Structure.” Monthly Labor Review, vol. 84, no. 1, 1961, pp. 11–18. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41834419. Accessed 3 Aug. 2021.

Wagg, Stephen, editor. Because I Tell a Joke or Two: Comedy, Politics and Social Difference. Routledge, 1998.

Brown, Lane. “In Conversation: Vince Gilligan on the End of Breaking Bad.” Vulture, 12 May 2013, www.vulture.com/2013/05/vince-gilligan-on-breaking-bad.html.

Heffernan, Virginia. “Goodbye to Six Feet Under’s Great Hippie-Villain.” Slate Magazine, Slate, 2 June 2003, slate.com/culture/2003/06/goodbye-to-six-feet-under-s-great-hippie-villain.html.

Jackson, Louise. “Witches, Wives and Mothers: Witchcraft Persecution and Women’s Confessions in Seventeenth-Century England.” Women’s History Review, 20 Dec. 2006, www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09612029500200075.

Kay, Jilly Boyce. “Speaking Bitterness: Rethinking the Televisual Nag.” In Gender, Media and Voice. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham, 2020. 101-126. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-030-47287-0_5

Krauss Whitbourne, Susan. “Why Do We Say Women Nag But Men Request?” Psychology Today, 22 Oct. 2013, www.psychologytoday.com/gb/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201310/why-do-we-say-women-nag-men-request.

Marcotte, Amanda. “If You Don’t Understand the Politics Behind the Concept of ‘Nagging,” You Can’t Quit the Cycle.” Slate, 27 Jan. 2012, slate.com/human-interest/2012/01/if-you-don-t-understand-the-politics-behind-the-concept-of-nagging-you-can-t-quit-the-cycle.html.

“Proverbs 21:9.” Biblia, biblia.com/bible/esv/proverbs/21/9-11.

Pulumbarit, Oliver M. “Tiger Mom ‘Savagery’ Rules ‘Fresh Off the Boat’.” Inquirer.net, Inquirer.net, 7 June 2016, entertainment.inquirer.net/195778/tiger-mom-savagery-rules-fresh-off-the-boat.

Rao, Aliya Hamid. “Even Breadwinning Wives Don’t Get Equality at Home.” The Atlantic, 12 May 2019, www.theatlantic.com/family/archive/2019/05/breadwinning-wives-gender-inequality/589237/.

Willmore, Alison. “The Good Wives: Isn’t It Time to Give a Rest to the Character of the TV Antihero’s Disapproving Spouse?” IndieWire, 13 Aug. 2013, www.indiewire.com/2013/08/the-good-wives-isnt-it-time-to-give-a-rest-to-the-character-of-the-tv-antiheros-disapproving-spouse-35886/.