Homer Simpson. Peter Griffin. Al Bundy. Ricky Ricardo. Tim Taylor. Ray Barone.
One of these things is not like the other. Yes, they're all famous sitcom husbands. Yes, they're all cultural icons to one extent or another. However, only one of them isn't a bumbling (if lovable) simpleton. My boy Ricky. And why is that? What is it that has hard-coded into mainstream sitcoms the dynamic of a goofy, halfwit husband being paired with a level-headed, infinitely patient wife? What happened?
"I Love Lucy" basically created the blue-print for television comedies for decades to follow and is still beloved, with good reason, to this day. I mean, you're talking about the first show to ever go into reruns. Think about that. Wacky neighbors, hair-brained schemes, stomping grapes, splainin to do. If Lucy didn't invent them (and I'm pretty sure Lucille Ball invented wine-making), the show certainly solidified these tropes as a part of the television landscape. Yet we're stuck with the total inverse of the husband/wife dynamic of the show.
For those unfamiliar with "I Love Lucy" (otherwise known as "People I hate"), the show starred Lucille Ball, perhaps the funniest woman to ever live, as Lucy Ricardo alongside real-life husband Desi Arnaz, perhaps the most Cuban man to ever live, as band-leader, club-owner and husband-to-Lucy, Ricky Ricardo. The show almost invariably featured Lucy trying to get herself a starring role in one of Ricky's shows or attempting to make money or something equally goofy. This was, naturally, always done via some crazy, wacky idea that she usually roped her neighbor & best friend Ethel into assisting with. Hilarity ensued. By the end of the episode, Lucy's idea would have blown up in her face, Ricky would demand a splanation, Lucy would cry in an overly dramatic way, everything would be given and everyone would have a good laugh.
Of course, nowadays you can take that description, substitute in the names of modern sitcom characters, and you have a vague outline of any given episode of The Simpsons or Home Improvement. Sure, the details can be a little different but the formula remains the same. Except for one thing: it's almost always the husband that's the silly instigator of shenanigans and the wife is the straight-man (or straight-woman, in this case). So, I have to ask, where have all the Ricky Ricardo's gone? For that matter, where have all the Lucy Ricardo's gone?
I, for one, blame political correctness gone amuck. And The Flintstones. Really, we should blame The Honeymooners, which The Flintstones heavily copied, but The Honeymooners never achieved the cultural impact of The Flinstones. Nope, Fred & Barney became the prototypical husband and buddy pair of idiots married to compassionate, patient women that put up with them.
You see, it's easy to villify media where women are made to look bad. Claims of misogyny are attention grabbing. They make headlines. When women in media are portrayed as incompetent, childish or, God-forbid, silly, it is a simple matter to extrapolate that into an attack on their gender all-together. On the flipside, misandry is a word most people have to Google to define because of how rarely it's used. So, to avoid this, the major networks typically only give us shows that follow the Flintstones dynamic. Women are portrayed as the rock of the family and the men are portrayed as amusing goobers. The edge is taken off by virtue of the men being the funny ones that we relate to. The women, on the other hand, take on a role of authority figure. In this way, the standard gender roles are actually reversed. Instead of having a male head of a household that helps to hold things together with a female emotional core of the family, the children rally around a sympathetic male figure which leads to the stern authority of the wife finally giving in to her own emotional attachments to her husband to forgive him.
Wait a second...when you think about it, that doesn't really portray the wives well at all. And that's the rub. In swinging the pendulum too far, women are generally portrayed in these shows as unsympathetic figures. Thinking back to I Love Lucy, Lucy was absolutely beloved. She was shown to be a true friend, a passionate person, funny and lovable. Ricky, on the other hand, typically took on a more antagonistic role. He was always shooting down Lucy's ideas and trying to keep her from following her "crazy" dreams. That role, however, was always tempered by Ricky's unending love for his wife that always lead to him forgiving her and, often, even being amused by her antics. Sure he'd start out upset as his initial reaction but by the end of the episode he was usually laughing along with the rest of the group of friends. In fact, in many episodes, the only one not laughing would be Lucy herself since she would be pouting as her plan fell through. This, of course, just further built sympathy for them. We laughed with Ricky at the end and felt for Lucy while simultaneously knowing she'd be back to it the following week.
This sort of pay-off, unfortunately, doesn't happen in a lot of modern sitcoms. They miss the entire heart of the female character. At best, Marge forgives Homer for quitting his job to become a trans-Atlantic hot-air balloonist. Jill forgives Tim for trying to super-power the blender with a diesel engine. Lois forgives Peter for doing something Homer did on an early season of The Simpsons. Time and time again, the wife just acts as a magnanimous figure offering up a stay of execution. Guess what? We don't actually like magnanimous figures that "graciously" forgive us because of their emotional attachment to us. The wife is relegated to a role of "parent" to the husband and, since we're enjoying the husbands antics along with him, to us. Instead of laughing with us at the end of the episode, they're forgiving the things that made us laugh. People don't like that. We don't want to be forgiven for enjoying something. We want you to be cool and join in with us and laugh. Sitcom moms treat their family like a manager treats employees. As a separate entity from themselves that they supervise. Seriously, who loves Marge Simpson as a character? Heck, who doesn't actively dislike Marge Simpson? She's a boring, dull nag. And, yes, Homer is a simple-minded, dangerous dullard, but he's entertaining. He's fun. He's lovable. We want to like him.
All in all, we need more sympathetic, funny female figures on television. We need more moms that are in on the fun. And maybe we need more dads like Ricky. Less thoughtless man-children and less staid hausfraus. Truth be told, this article started out asking where all the Ricky Ricardo's have gone but we also need to ask where the Lucy Ricardo's have gone. Come on, Marge, let that beehive hair down and do something crazy with Homer. After all, you've already got Lisa around to be an annoying killjoy.