Friday, May 14, 2010

The Marriage Ref- Defining American Ideology One Couple at a Time

Two nights ago, around 12:30am in my dark and quiet house, I decide to run downstairs and grab some homework I left in my kitchen. I find my mother in her usual spot in the den, watching some late night TV. I linger in the den to see this new show she’s watching. At first glance I see a talk-show style set-up, with a host and three people sitting in chairs facing an audience. Upon closer inspection, I realize the three seated people are Jerry Seinfeld, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Greg Giraldo. A couple appears on a TV screen on the stage, and the husband complains that his wife is not conforming to the South Beach style (aka slut clothing) like other women are, and he wants her to conform. The woman feels that she has a right to be modest and should only show her arms or her legs, but not both. The camera then pans back to the three stars sitting on their thrones, and they start arguing over whether to side with the husband or wife. The premise of the show, it becomes clear to me now, is for these two male comedians and the token female actress to bicker back and forth over whether the husband or wife is “right” while they tear the couple apart, then announce their decision to the eagerly waiting couple on the other side of the webcam. This brilliantly intellectual show is called The Marriage Ref, and it uses many subtle, and not so subtle, offensive references thrown around by these two men in a short period of time, beginning with general masculine and feminine stereotypes and ending with overt homophobia.

Let us first discuss, then, how masculinity is portrayed in this show, a show that is an uncannily accurate microcosm for modern television as a whole. The men of this show all perform masculinity perfectly, reflecting society’s ideologies about how men should act. Bones, the husband in this scene, is shown telling his wife, and America, that she should dress like a slut because they live by the beach. As she tries to state her case that women should have some modesty, Bones talks over her and cuts her off by saying those rules only apply to “ugly people.” This is where the video cuts off, with Bones having the last word and his wife, Laura, giving up any attempt at rebuttal. Clearly the only reason this has even become an issue in this married couple’s relationship is because Bones is too monopolizing to even hear his wife’s opinion. Thus, he performs masculinity perfectly in that he overpowers his wife and furthers the patriarchal system in which we live, which goes unnoticed by the audience because he is abiding by accepted norms. As author Alan B. Johnson states, [P]atriarchal culture includes ideas about the nature of things, including men, women, and humanity, with manhood and masculinity being most closely associated with being human and womanhood and femininity relegated to the marginal position of ‘other’” (94). Women are reduced to objects in this scene, given no voice and no value other than to please their husbands, thus perpetuating the otherness that Johnson refers to. The two other overpowering men on this show are Jerry Seinfeld and Greg Giraldo. Jerry gives a disclaimer to the audience that Greg is going through a divorce, thus telling the viewers to ignore any overly exaggerated forms of masculinity he presents. The implication, then, is that Greg is allowed to act however he wants because Jerry, with his power as a comedy icon, has excused his behavior. Jerry and Greg follow in Bone’s footsteps and continually talk over Gwyneth, ignoring her pleas to stick to the original topic of discussion (and not veer into gay bashing). Jerry gives an anecdote of how he sneaks into his wife’s closet to admire her organization and cleanliness, then runs out of he hears her coming. Because of course it wouldn’t be right for a man to actually complement his wife on her organization or good taste in clothing—that would undermine his masculinity. Greg proves to be the exaggerated form of masculinity as he is the only one of the three stars to side with Bones, for no apparent reason other than he thinks the girl should just “put the clothes on and quit whinin’ about it.” I wonder if he ever said that to his ex-wife. These three men, Bones, Jerry, and Greg, perpetuate society’s ingrained ideologies of how men should act, and thus the average viewer never questions the dominating personality of Bones, Jerry’s story of how he would never actually admit to his wife he admires her closet, and Greg’s classy advice to Laura to dress like a slut to please her husband, and quit voicing her opinion. The way masculinity is portrayed here mirrors the way femininity is portrayed, as is often the case in popular media.

The only two female characters in this scene are Laura, Bone’s wife, and Gwyneth Paltrow, the guest star of the night and the token female panel member. Laura’s femininity mirror’s her husband’s overt masculinity, in which she allows herself to be talked over, and even allowed this ridiculous issue to become an issue in the first place. Whether or not the couple is just pretending this is an issue in order to be on TV, the general audience is not going to question that, and thus it may as well be real. The issue comes down to whether Laura should dress like a slut in order to please her husband and conform to the South Beach ideal of walking around almost naked, or whether she should stick to her morals and continue to dress modestly. In other words, Bones wants a trophy wife, and Laura is not so sure she wants to be that trophy. Even thought the panel decides to side with Laura, the live camera feed of the happy couple shows Laura “compromising” by wearing a dress that shows her legs and arms. Bones, obviously pleased by the progress, says “I win, for losing.” Clearly, Bones has to win in order to be masculine, thus preventing his wife from winning even though the panel sided with her. Femininity, then, includes pleasing your husband by wearing revealing clothing and never winning, always giving the credit to your husband instead. Gwyneth furthers these female stereotypes despite her best efforts to be heard over the dominating voices of Jerry and Greg. Ever the essence of female beauty, she is in a red dress and heels with perfectly straight hair, which would be fine if she demonstrated female power to back her beauty up. However she does not, she allows Jerry and Greg to dominate the conversation and lead it into a place she is clearly uncomfortable with, so the dress and heels become just another stereotypical representation of how women should act, perfectly primped and polite.

These stereotypical representations of men and women reach their climax towards the end of the scene, where Jerry tells Bones about the “debate” between him and Greg over whether Bones is gay. Gwyneth clearly cannot believe this is happening, and considering she was recently on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, she probably would have much preferred to steer clear of offensive gay stereotypes. Her discomfort goes unnoticed, or ignored, by Jerry who forges ahead and says to Bones via the live webcam, “There’s been some conversation that perhaps it’s not masculine, in a heterosexual way, for a man to be that interested in women’s clothing.” His exaggerated hand movements emphasize his conviction of this point, and Greg can no longer contain himself and bursts out laughing. Not to mention this was preceded by Bones asking Jerry which way he went, clearly asking whether he sided with him or his wife, but Greg cuts in and asks “Wait, did he just ask you which way you go?” This seems to have been Greg’s way of providing comic relief, signaling to the audience that they are just messing around, so it’s ok to laugh at what is happening. Bones does not catch on right away, saying “I get what you’re saying, you’re saying there’s nothing wrong with liking women’s clothing.” The audience laughs, clearly implying that there is most definitely something wrong with that. When Bones finally catches on, he decides to attack Greg by saying “Last time I saw Greg, he was going on and on, you know long hair, kind of… I don’t know, effeminate himself” to which the audience and Greg laugh even further. The dialogue between Jerry, Greg and Bones furthers the ideology that we live in a heteronormative society, and anyone who demonstrates that they are outside that norm should be laughed at and made fun of. Newman defines heteronormative society as “a culture where heterosexuality is accepted as the normal, taken-for-granted mode of sexual expression” (60). These three men feed the American population the heteronormative ideology that being gay is discouraged and laughable and that a masculine man should never express themselves in a way that might be seen as gay or effeminate. Americans accept this spoon feeding because it is coming from their TV screens, therefore it must be right. We need to listen closely to what television and other media are telling us, no matter how famous the comedian or how loudly the audience is laughing. Television is an industry and stereotypes sell, and Jerry Seinfeld and Greg Giraldo are certainly adept at selling them.

Clip: The Marriage Ref,

Works Cited:

Newman, David M. Manufacturing Difference: The Social Customs of Race, Class, Gender, and Sexuality. Boston: McGraw Hill, 2006.

Johnson, Allan G. "Patriarchy, The System: An It, Not a He, a Them, or an Us" The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1997. 91-99. Print.

The Marriage Ref


  1. One of the things I liked best about your analysis is that I think you hit every point dead on. Your analysis was excellent, and after watching the clip I couldn't think of anything else to add because I think you pinpointed everything! I also thought your analysis flowed really well, as it was very easy to read and follow from beginning to end (because I previously had never seen this show).

    There was a point where you referred to Jerry Seinfeld as Jerry Springer, so just be careful of minor grammatical mistakes. I also would have liked to have seen a clear thesis or objective. You make a really great argument, but you never really sum it up or define what exactly you are trying to prove as to what it means to be a man or woman in society.

    Overall, great job! I enjoyed reading your post!

  2. Kathy pretty much said what I'd say to you Pam!
    My one addition to her feedback is that you really need to work on structuring your paragraphs so that they're shorter, and address your great analytical points on a point-by-point basis, using transition sentences to make deeper analytical links between your points about The Marriage Ref. Use the sources in an "expert witness" approach, to back up your point in the paragraph that follows each of the points that you make.