Show caption Spouse party … (l-r) I Love Lucy; The Donna Reed Show; Roseanne; Catastrophe; Kevin Can F**k Himself. Television & radio I Love Lucy to Catastrophe: how the sitcom wife evolved in 10 classic characters New comedy Kevin Can F**k Himself, about a put-upon partner seeking revenge, is the latest show to highlight the shift in the way women are represented on screen Rachel Aroesti Sat 21 Aug 2021 08.00 BST Share on Facebook
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Traditionally, the sitcom wife isn’t much of a laugh. In the collective imagination, she is the selfless linchpin of the family, the fun police, the industrious straight woman, the butt of the joke, the servile glamourpuss who is weirdly delighted – or at least not utterly dismayed – with her sad lot. Now, thanks to a meta new comedy, she is having a moment. Switching between sunny studio sitcom and grim dramedy, Kevin Can F**k Himself, starring Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy, injects some dark reality into the trope of the long-suffering spouse.
Yet the history of the sitcom wife isn’t quite as straightforward as she might appear – in fact, such spouses have always been a complex, constantly shifting breed, mirroring cultural shifts and staging subtle protests against society’s expectations of women in the process.
Here we chart their evolution via 10 of sitcom’s most memorable wives …
I Love Lucy (1951-1957)
Showbiz wannabe first, wife and mother second, Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) was the protagonist of one of the first ever sitcoms and, in many ways, a proto-feminist icon. Married to musician Ricky (Ball’s real-life husband, Desi Arnaz), Lucy wasn’t content with anonymous domesticity; she was hellbent on getting her big break. This was a sitcom about a woman following her dreams. What’s more, Ball was also the show’s comic powerhouse: her gift for slapstick meant Lucy was a formidable clown. In hindsight, however, the undertones are less amusing. Like many a 1950s wife, Lucy often found herself trapped in an unpleasant power dynamic with her authoritative husband, who wasn’t averse to punishing her for apparent misbehaviour.
The Donna Reed Show (1958-1966)
“It wasn’t Donna Reed, I can tell you that,” said Donald Trump last year, referring to a female journalist who riled him during a press briefing. He was evoking the archetypal 1950s housewife of sitcom lore: Reed’s Donna Stone was the agreeable, eminently capable, inordinately glamorous domestic goddess who seemed to find total fulfilment in the act of meeting expectations. Married to a paediatrician, Stone was aspirational propaganda for the postwar stay-at-home mother, but she was also a beacon of wisdom and strength and, unlike Lucy, a moral authority figure in her own right. Things were also less straightforwardly patriarchal behind the scenes. Reed developed the show with her husband and frequently did the job of a producer – although, unsurprisingly given the era, she was never formally credited with the role.
Board to tears … John Cleese and Prunella Scales in Fawlty Towers. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy
Fawlty Towers (1975-1979)
Thanks in part to second-wave feminism, the 1970s saw the image of the perfect housewife slowly fade away. In Sybil Fawlty’s case, the fact her house was actually a disastrous hotel might have helped ease viewers into the transition. Like her forebears – and in stark contrast to husband Basil – Sybil was effective and efficient, but she wasn’t desperate to please. That was because in Fawlty Towers the traditional conjugal power structure was subverted – Basil was scared of his wife, not the other way round. Yet Sybil also embodied a trope with its roots in age-old misogyny: the scolding, nagging, shrewish wife. Unlike the Shakespearean storyline, Sybil is not tamed; instead, her behaviour simply fuels the pair’s dysfunctional relationship: revelling in each other’s humiliations and failures, and repulsed by each other’s presences, it’s a comic dynamic that is yet to feel dated.
“I want to be raped!” went the infamous cry of the protagonist of Carla Lane’s sitcom, about a woman whose identity had been obliterated by stay-at-home motherhood, and who was desperate to be jolted back to life. On the surface, Ria has an idyllic housewife life in affluent Cheltenham with her dour dentist husband, but she finds little satisfaction in domestic drudgery – her teenage sons mock her culinary skills – and longs for something more. In one sense, Butterflies was a stiltedly theatrical comedy but it was also characterised by a deep melancholy – Lane dubbed it a “situation tragedy” – that proved the sitcom could unflinchingly document women’s inner lives. As feminism’s second wave crested, Ria’s crisis gave another voice to the undercurrent of desperate unhappiness experienced by housewives, first chronicled in Betty Freidan’s groundbreaking 1960s study The Feminine Mystique.
The Cosby Show (1984–1992)
Although now irrevocably tarnished by the sexual assault allegations against its male star, The Cosby Show still matters hugely to TV history. Matriarch Clair embodied the Reagan era’s most fervent dreams and delusions: a member of a wealthy middle-class family who cast off many of the racial stereotypes that had long plagued Black characters on TV, she was also part of an idealised portrait of a supposedly “colour-blind”, upwardly mobile US that glossed over structural inequality. As a high-powered lawyer, wife to doctor Cliff and glamorous mother of five, Clair personified another controversial 1980s concept: the idea of “having it all”. The working mother’s juggling act was supposed to bring fulfilment in all aspects of life, but usually merely resulted in women carrying an even heavier burden.
The Cosby Show’s main ratings rival was another standup sitcom vehicle, driven by the woman behind the mic. Roseanne Barr’s namesake was also a working mother, but this was no aspirational portrait of the perfectly primped modern family. Instead, the show focused on its blue-collar clan’s messy finances, knotty, relatable problems and “good enough” parenting, all of which was rooted in Roseanne’s real-life experience. A warm, warts-and-all portrayal of the average American’s life, the show finally presented the working-class wife as a powerful, positive figure, with Roseanne – overweight, brash and opinionated – the dominant personality in the household and the driving force of the comedy.
It’s a shame about Ray … Ray Romano and Patricia Heaton in Everybody Loves Raymond. Photograph: HBO/Worldwide Pants/Kobal/Shutterstock
Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005)
In the 1990s, the man-child became a cultural phenomenon, and Everybody Loves Raymond’s titular hero was the perfect encapsulation of this social shift. Emotionally immature, incapable of seriousness and domestically incompetent, it was left to Ray’s put-upon wife, Debra, to keep their world spinning on its axis. Although she was as mired in domestic servitude as some of her ancestors, the difference was that Debra didn’t disguise her burden or pretend to be happy about it – and her hapless, mummy’s boy of a husband was frequently on the receiving end of her fury.
The Royle Family (1998-2012)
Busy making everybody else’s life easier, in many ways Barbara Royle epitomised the stereotypical sitcom housewife – or she would have were she not the only Royle with a job. In one sense, the sitcom frames this as a generational trend – her indolent daughter Denise gets waited on hand-and-foot – but it doesn’t sugarcoat the relationship between Barbara and her belligerent couch-potato husband Jim: in series two, the stress of her life prompts a nervous breakdown. Frank portrayals of family dynamics were The Royle Family’s bread and butter, no-holds-barred banter giving way to deeper emotional truth. It was echoed in the sitcom’s radical style, which did away with a laugh track and high-stakes plotting to create a bracingly relatable slice of life.
Thanks in part to The Royle Family, the 2010s saw TV comedy prioritise reality and candour over slick storylines and quick-fire gags. The dramedy (AKA the sadcom) didn’t just nod to unpleasant subjects and difficult feelings, it revolved round them. Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney’s Catastrophe was a paragon of the genre, stripping marriage of its traditional romance (its protagonists were united by an unplanned pregnancy) and rebuilding it out of pragmatism, radical intimacy and extreme honesty. Coinciding with the rise of fourth-wave feminism, Catastrophe acknowledges gender inequality and humanises its central wife-and-mother by giving her an emotional life of complexity and nuance.
Kevin Can F**k Himself (2021)
Playing off the recent sitcom Kevin Can Wait – which killed off and replaced its matriarch after one season with no explanation or sensitivity – this comedy aims to avenge the mistreatment of sitcom wives. Around her awful man-child husband, Allison is a glamorous, tolerant wife in a vivid studio sitcom; when she’s alone, she is furious and broken, seeking bloody revenge in a gritty dramedy. The series shows the unfortunate reality behind most comedy chauvinism: however much the sitcom wife has evolved, there are still plenty of Allisons left stranded in the real world.
Kevin Can F**k Himself is available on Amazon Prime Video from Friday 27 August