Why Fat Sitcom Husbands Have Great-looking Wives

Matt Feeney attempts to answer the vexing question, “Why are fat sitcom husbands paired with great-looking wives?

In two decades of TV acting, Courtney Thorne-Smith has never stopped looking like a cheerleader. She has the kind of large, startled eyes that suggest school spirit (this look of bug-eyed alacrity grew to almost supernatural intensity during her starvation years on Ally McBeal) and a sturdy jaw that appears custom-tooled for the cheerleader’s main task of spelling out inspirational words very, very loudly. But for Cheryl, Smith’s character in the ABC series According to Jim (Tuesdays, 9 p.m. ET), it’s as if her cheerleaderly aspirations have suffered a perverse cosmic scramble and she ended up married not to the equally simple and beautiful quarterback everyone expected her to marry, but to the boorish, buffalo-faced center who puts his hands between his expansive ass cheeks on every play. Cheryl is married to Jim, and Jim is played by Jim Belushi.

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It’s tempting to register a feminist complaint about the message these shows convey—that they perpetuate the view that women shouldn’t expect autonomy or fulfillment in romance and marriage. They do, after all, play to a certain male fantasy: living the gluttonous, irresponsible, self-absorbed life of an infant and basking in the unconditional love of a good-looking woman.

But it’s not just men watching these shows, and, as Alessandra Stanley suggested in a review of the country western sitcom Rodney, it’s not just a male id they express. As the bitter, recent book The Bitch in the House and the extreme popularity of the delightful, tendentious Desperate Housewives seem to indicate, the war of the sexes has shifted from the workplace back to the household and the bedroom. In portraying husbands as lousy parents, marginal breadwinners, and repellant sexual partners, the fat-husband sitcoms convey a persecution fantasy that rises from the same swamp of resentments as these books do: “Yes, I’m supercompetent and I even look great, despite all the crap I have to deal with, and, yes, that’s my husband over there, the fat, useless one scratching his nuts.”

If family sitcoms really are a Rorschach blot for their male and female viewers, then we’re either in really bad shape or coping surprisingly well—in the same scenarios in which women perhaps identify their own desperation and martyrdom, men seem to find sweet, elemental fulfillment.

Or, it may just be that the male leads in these shows are chosen primarily for their ability to be funny while the women are chosen for their wholesome appeal. The increasing trend is for the stars of these shows to rise from the ranks of stand-up comics, which does not tend to prize physical attractiveness in the same way as acting.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Popular Culture
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. SteveL says:

    There’s one show out there that is hard to explain, King of Queens. In theory, we had Kevin James, every bit the Jim Belushi type and Leah Remini, possessor of one hot body. Then, somewhere, somehow, Leah put on pounds, lots of pounds. Kevin seems slimmer, so it’s almost a role reversal. I don’t think this was be design, but there are some variations out there.

  2. Bithead says:

    All of which explains Rosanne.
    Now There’s a woman thatw as chosen for her sholesome appeal, huh?

    (OK, you know I’m kidding, right?)

  3. James Joyner says:

    Bithead: Roseanne may be a reverse case-in-point. She was the comedic force behind the show, having made her mark as a stand-up. Of course, John Goodman is a mite hefty as well.

  4. marybeth says:

    I think the article was about more than a mismatch in looks between a sit-com husband and wife. It was also about the writing and character development.

    Yes, the lead actors were chosen because they can be funny but compare their characters to the original Bob Newhart Show (which the article mentions) or Welcome Back, Kotter, both undistinguished looking men with attractive actresses playing their wives but both characters had qualities that made the relationships believable.

    Bithead mentioned Rosanne…try imagining her husband being played by someone like Tom Selleck instead of John Goodman.

  5. Actually, while their boorish behavior often leaves a lot to be desired, Jim Belushi, Rodney et al. have a certain sex appeal. Women in their 30s and 40s tend to place a much lower premium on the visuals, and a much higher premium on intangibles like humor, intelligence, commitment, honor, fidelity, respect, and mutual goals and interests. (Humor was high on the list of top 10 reasons why I married my husband.)

  6. James Joyner says:

    marybeth: A Tom Selleck would never marry a Roseanne, simply because men are so visual. On the other hand, a fairly attractive but uneducated working class woman might well marry someone like the male characters mentioned here.

    GOYL: True ’nuff. There’s no doubt that a Jim Beluschi could marry a Courtney Thorne-Smith in real life. Hell, Julia Roberts married Lyle Lovett. It’s somewhat less believable that a hottie would marry the “Jim” character Beluschi plays, though, since he’s (from what I gathered having watched the show maybe twice) something of an unambitious slob.

  7. marybeth says:

    I agree that Tom Selleck and Rosanne wouldn’t be believable but I don’t think the pairings made in these shows are any more so. It’s true that women may not place as high a priority on looks when there are other worthy qualities – such as the examples I mentioned with Newhart and Gabe Kaplan, but from what I can tell from this article the men in these shows don’t have any positive characteristics other than being funny.

    I don’t watch the shows, so maybe I’m misjudging them. I’m also not saying that humor isn’t important, just that there has to be something more. (I don’t mean looks.) From the descriptions in the article these men sound childish and self-absorbed. Does the article overstate this?

  8. denise says:

    I always thought the message these shows sent was: “Ladies, you must be perfect in every way, and you cannot expect your men to be anything more than fatter versions of their 15-year-old selves. Men, you have the right to expect your wife to be a hottie and take care of everything at home, while you are permitted to let yourselves go and spend your time playing and watching games.”

    I never thought of this as fulfilling an emotional need for women viewers, since it just annoys the heck out of me, but I see Mr Feeney’s point. Some women probably watch this show and think, “This is my life. I am beautiful and competent, and my husband is a slob.” I can also see that there are probably a lot of women who get a vicarious thrill out of listening to Deborah on “Everybody Loves Raymond” call her husband an idiot at least once per episode, but I just think it’s nasty.

  9. McGehee says:

    I could brag that I don’t watch these shows — but since I hardly watch any TV anyway it doesn’t exactly take any great fortitude…

  10. Attila Girl says:

    Feh. Sitcoms are cartoons for grownups; they aren’t supposed to be believable.

  11. McGehee says:

    And the actual cartoons are funnier.

  12. Well, now this has been something I’ve been brewing to blog about for some time.

    Consider, not only ‘According to Jim’, King of Queens, Kotter, Newhart, Raymond, but also Ross & Rachel, Chandler & Monica, that new sitcom with John Goodman, that other tripe with the overweight dad and good looking brunette (with the two kids, can you tell I don’t watch the show regularly). And not only sitcoms: look at NYPD Blue: Dennis Franz and Charlotte Ross? Come on!

    About the only real-life couple I can compare these couplets with is… why, my much-better-half and me! (hint: I’m the beast in this example).

  13. Timmer says:

    I think what the article misses is that in what I’m pretty sure is every case mentioned, the male characters were athletes in their youths. Life happens…we don’t get to the gym like we should…we chunk out. Happens every day…I’m missing the mystery.

  14. Do opposite attract? At least on TV they seem to do so.
    James Joyner at Outside the Beltway picked up an article in SLATE that discusses a topic I’ve long been brewing about (no, its not about Comfort Food again).

  15. anon says:

    I was very pretty in my younger days, and could have had an easy time choosing which men I wanted to date (of course not all men). It didn’t take me long to realize that “most” attractive men were BIG JERKS. Regular guys treated me SO MUCH better (and didn’t have as many annoying characteristics/habits as the “hunks”).

    I usually avoided involvement with better looking men (except occasional exceptions).

  16. Dennis D says:

    I am a 25 year old guy. I’ll tell you whats wrong with these sitcoms. When you are a fat guy, no women ever want to date you, no matter what your character is or how much money you have. I never ever had a girlfriend until i lost 40kg’s (no bull!) and startet working out, now it’s the same old me but thinner and it seems like all the girls who hated me earlier on now like me and trying to date me. (effordless by the way, i DO remember how cruel THEY were back then). What i want to say with this, a comedy like the king of queens is just very very unrealistic, a beautifull women like leah remini would never ever marry a guy like her tv husband. I can tell, i’ve been there.

  17. lkd12 says:

    ATTN Steve L, Leah Remini gained weight on the show because she was pregnant. Not because of a “role reversal”. Look at her now and you can see that she’s taking off the pounds as easily as she put them on.