Recently filmmaker Lexi Alexander tweeted:
“The ‘nagging wife of cop who‘s trying to catch serial killer’ trope has to die. Look…there’s no woman who prefers a serial killer roaming around if it means a few hours more with the husband. Doesn’t happen. Male fantasy.”
I first encountered this trope at age 14, in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Roy (Richard Dreyfuss) encounters UFOs, and his life spirals out of control as he tries to make sense of the images in his head. His wife Ronnie (Teri Garr) has exactly zero patience for this: she’s embarrassed, unhelpful, and unsympathetic. She never suggests getting professional help (this was the 70s, but still) or even talking to clergy or friends about it (not that he seems to have any friends). In fact, she’s proud of her own patience: she tells him, “Don’t you think I’m taking this really well?” Of course, the audience knows she’s wrong, and only Garr’s skillful performance keeps her from being a shrill, nagging harpy.
Flash forward thirty years, to exactly the sort of thing Lexi described. In David Fincher’s Zodiac, the wife (Chloe Webb) of protagonist Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhall) similarly has little patience for her husband’s obsession. Granted he’s a newspaper cartoonist, not a reporter or cop, but it’s also not like this was a surprise; he was obsessed by the Zodiac when they met. Again, only the actor’s skill masks the cliche.
And thinking about that took me back to Casablanca.
Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) may not be a literal “nagging wife” in that movie, but Rick (Humphrey Bogart) still famously tells her, “Where I’m going, you can’t follow. What I’ve got to do, you can’t be any part of.” In other words, you’d be in the way. You’d keep me from being the hero. Better you stay and support your Frenchman. But, of course, don’t get in his way, either.
As a response to that, see Howard Hawks’ To Have and Have Not. Essentially a revision and critique of Casablanca, set in Martinique instead of North Africa, in this one Bogart is a charter boat captain instead of a bar owner. His credo, though, is the same: the war is none of his business. He meets refugee Marie (Lauren Bacall), and his romance with her rouses his long-dormant conscience. At the end, he’s off to fight for the good guys.
But the important difference is, Marie is right there beside him. He doesn’t see her as an obstacle, or a hindrance; he’s gladly bringing her along. And that’s because he recognizes that her courage, resourcefulness and wit are the equal of his own. Because if they weren’t, she wouldn’t be worthy of his love in the first place.
So what does that tell us about writers who fall back on the shrewish wife trope as a way to show their male hero’s determination? Speaking broadly, they’re cowards who are too terrified of women to ever see them as anything other than an inconvenience or an obstacle; it’s another form of objectification.
It’s fair to have your guy lose everything on his heroic way to the story’s climax. But to matter, those losses have to have value both to him, and to the reader/viewer. Face it: Ronnie Neary in Close Encounters is no loss. Her departure, in fact, makes Neary stronger: he’s free to pursue his quest full-time. She’s an obstacle to be overcome, just like the military. And Roy barely looks back when the aliens take him on board the mothership.
What if Ronnie was supportive? What if she said, “Okay, we’ll drop the kids off at my mom’s and we’ll go track down this Devil’s Tower together”? Roy could still choose to go off on his own, but it wouldn’t demean either of them. Instead we’d be impressed that Roy found such a strong woman to marry him, and sympathetic with his desire to keep her out of trouble. It would make his departure on the mothership bittersweet instead of triumphant, because by then we’d know that Ronnie, if she had the chance, would’ve been right there beside him.
And to me, those are the stories we need now. We’ve outgrown the others.