Thursday, June 5, 2014

Dumb Men, Smart Women

By Elaine Viets

    Why are married men so dumb?
    I’m not an exasperated wife, but a fed-up reader and viewer.
    I’m tired of dumb men in movies, TV and fiction. You know what I mean: the smart, cute wife is married to a buffoon with a room-temperature IQ.
    The prime – or maybe prime-time – example is Homer Simpson. Yes, I realize he’s a cartoon. So is Peter Griffin in “Family Guy.”

    But “Everybody Loves Raymond,” is another clueless consort, and his wife would get the gold at an Olympic eye-rolling contest.
    Dumb husbands are (laughing) stocks in commercials and America's Funniest Home Videos, though AFV men are hit in the gonads so often that has to lower their chances for reproducing.

    How did men go from “Father Knows Best” to Father Knows Nothing?
    And what kind of consorts are we providing for our smart women of mystery?
    Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple is a spinster. Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Milhone, like many women detectives, is divorced and likely to stay single. Grafton said she doesn’t want to write Nick and Nora Charles dialogue.

Nick and Nora
    As for Nick and Nora, they’re happily married, but Nick’s a bit alcohol addled and doesn’t like that Nora has all the money. He goes to work, but only when she complains. They aren’t really equal.
    Few women in crime fiction marry equals. Helen Hawthorne in my Dead-End Job series started out like many female detectives: divorced and bitter. The judge had promised Rob, Helen’s unfaithful ex, one-half of her future income, and she swore Rob would never see another nickel of her money.
    At first, Helen’s single state was fine. She kept working low-paying Dead-End Jobs and solving murders. But I realized that Helen had to make some changes if the series was going to stay fresh. She had to let go of her bitterness. Otherwise, she’d become a bore. We’re all sympathetic when our friends divorce. But eventually, we expect them to get over it. Yes, he’s a jerk, we say. Thank goodness you dumped him. Now find something new to talk about.
    Besides, a bitter, divorced woman didn’t reflect my own view of marriage. I’m happily married and believe that equals can and should marry. Who wants to hang around a stupid spouse till death?
Dying To Call You

    In my third Dead-End Job mystery, Dying to Call You, Helen started dating Phil Sagemont, a private eye who also lived in the Coronado Tropic Apartments. As she overcame her dislike of men, I worked on my Nick and Nora dialogue. Finally, in Killer Cuts, Helen agreed to marry Phil.

Killer Cuts
    Their landlady, Margery Flax, tied the knot and I was committed to marriage equality for better or worse. Helen became a private eye and the new couple started Coronado Investigations. 

    The change worked.  The two married PIs make the series stronger and more believable. Helen no longer has to trip over bodies and find reasons to conduct amateur investigations. As licensed private eyes and in-house detectives for a Fort Lauderdale law firm, she and Phil are paid to investigate murders. It’s their job.

    In Catnapped!, my new Dead-End Job mystery, is a hardcover and an e-book. Helen and Phil are hired for what looks like a simple job: retrieve a show cat in a pet custody case. The soon-to-be ex husband should have returned the cat Sunday night. Monday morning, Helen and Phil find the husband dead and the cat held for a half-million dollar ransom.

catnapped detail
    Helen and Phil are still happily married, and I’m still learning how to write their dialogue. I make sure they have fights and disagreements, because even happy couples have those. Helen and Phil are both smart and equally dumb:  In Catnapped!, Phil stole the wrong show cat and Helen blurted information to the police that nearly derailed the investigation.
    Catnapped! is the 13th book in the series. Married people do live longer.      


  1. I'm in the same place as I've married off Marla Shore, my hairdresser sleuth and Detective Dalton Vail. The book I've just turned in deals with their honeymoon, but for the next one it'll be back to home base with new conflicts going forward. It will be a challenge but I really like having them working as a team.

    1. Having a team of equals increases the plot opportunities, too.

  2. As far as TV shows go, I think this is a bit of the pendulum swinging the other way from the 50s and 60s and their beneficent, all-knowing father figures, with wives who wove house dresses and pearls while they baked cookies. Men still hold so much primacy in so many situations (or think they do), it's a safe--and funny--trope to poke some fun at them, without looking like piling on.

    1. True, Dana. I know there's no such thing as a happy medium, except maybe if you're a successful fortune teller, but I'm ready for a swing in the other direction. Just a little. Maybe?

  3. Yeah, men are Prince Charming before marriage, then the nuptials turn them into Al Bundy. I often wonder what would have happened had Jack survived the icy sea and married Rose? A year or so later she'd be, "Will you quit sitting around the house sketching my butt? And what's with all the poker all the time? Get a job already, will you?"

    "But I'm--"

    "And if you say you're King of the World one more time I'm gonna kick you till you're dead."

  4. Well, not quite Al Bundy, but even charm wears a bit thin day after day. I like your alternate scenario.

  5. Not only is the typical sitcom husband a moron, he's often about twice the age of the smart wife. Ever notice that? It's almost like the TV production execs are living out their fantasy – saggy old lummox married to smart hot babe. And it's even worse on TV commercials, when old guys seem to be married to women who need their ID checked. It's all about the fantasy. And it stinks. I prefer a fictional couple who even if they're not equals, at least each have something going for them, they're smart about different things or in different ways. Sometimes opposites DO attract. No one suspected my wife and I would even like each other, let alone marry. This fall we celebrate 25 years, and we're the "most married" couple we know. But it wouldn't have worked if we were so different that one of us had a negative IQ. We were smart in different ways, enthused in different ways about different things.

    1. Amen, John. Who wants to spend 25 years with a dolt?

  6. Your character progression in your series intrigues me! An equally smart couple, you say? :goes to Amazon:

  7. Yep, Kessie. It took about four books for Helen to change. Amazon has them all.

  8. I may be a dissenter here today but it seems to me it is usually more interesting when the couple is NOT hitched up, that the tension between them is interesting and infects the plot in a good way. Look what happened to Moonlighting once Maddie and David got together... Zzzzz. But I think the "rules" are more flexible when you get away from the hardboiled formulas. Romance and marriage can enhance the plots when it's done well.

    1. I don't want smiley faces all the time, Kris, just a slightly more realistic view of marriage. Do the guys have to be so dumb?

  9. I'm with PJ. And to take it further, I prefer protagonists have have little to begin with and have to face a threat to lose what little they have left. Such people are rarely coupled, let alone in happy couplings. That pressed-into-a-corner feeling is the catalyst for much of our greatest crime fiction.

    (As you can guess, I'm not much for cozies. I'm bored by happy people in fiction; I'm more interested in unhappy people who scrabble desperately for a glimmer of happiness.)

  10. Jim, I read my share of hard-boileds. But the drunken/divorced unhappy detective/cop/attorney with the dead wife/child is another overworked trope.
    Unhappily yours

  11. Terrific post and I'm off to Amazon. I wonder if your smart couple and my smart couple might get together for dinner? ;-)

  12. Elaine--a convincing post, thank you. What you say about the exploitation of dunce hubbies for laughs can also be applied to flat-line parents. The whole portrayal of families has become weird. Added to this, IMO, is the explosion that has taken place in the Young Adult fiction market. There's only one way to adequately explain it: many, many adult readers identify with the teenage victim/hero/heroines in these stories. It's an odd time, in which distinctions between adulthood and adolescence are often ignored.

  13. My pair will end up hitched by the end of the series and I will either take them from there working together or end it. They compliment each other, but have their strengths, weaknesses, and conflicts. What I have planned for when he takes her home to meet the fam is going to be epic.

    As Ethan describes them to someone, "She's strategy, I'm tactics."

    (And all of Ethan's exes are alive and well and not one of them is sweet or long-suffering.)

    Comedy relied on the ditzy wife/long-suffering husband for so long (George Reeves telling Desi Arnez "And they call me Superman!) that turning the tables was fun . . . for a while. Like all tropes, it is getting old.

    I like the idea of couple fiction. Terri

  14. In the series I'm writing now, my protagonist starts out single, meets a very smart man and eventually, by book three, marries him. I have no intention of splitting them up. They work too well together as a team. But I agree with you, the dumb men is getting old and tired. Bring on the couples!!!

  15. I've become totally bored with that Dumb Dad Guy character. He's just some stunade not worthy of concern. The Dick Powell characterization was kind of clumsy, but he didn't seem to care. He was in a world of his own, and it wasn't too bad either. I liked Raymond for all the actors in it. The mom and dad were outstanding. My wife and I would move right in with them and live in their basement or their RV. Or we'd bring our own. The guy who did the brother was super, too.

    What would we call Larry David? That entire series was the best ever. I lived around the corner from many of the places where that shot footage in Brentwood. The scenario where Larry David goes to the pharmacy seconds before it is to close and ends of trying to bribe the pharmacist was the actual pharmacy I used. It was an interesting neighborhood. Early World restaurant was across from me on Montana Avenue. We called it Dirty World, just for the heck of it. That place was always packed with writers pitching to agents. Talk about desperation and angst. It played out a lot like the "auditions" segment in "The Producers." Down the street was a Baskins&Robbins. One night a black stretch-limo pulled up in front of the ice cream store. Out hops Seymour Cassel and his little niece. It was touching to see. Then there was the time Whole Foods on San Vicente was in a twitter because Jimmy Smits had just bought vegetables there three days before. Anyway, the Larry David show was always good for location shots around Santa Monica. This one time my wife claims to have seen Larry David sitting in the Starbucks reading the Sunday NY Times. She blames him for stealing the Magazine Section out of her paper. "Who'd do such a thing?" she said. Then she remembered seeing him sitting there reading. Hmmm?

    I guess I really miss L.A. after all.

  16. I'm still plotting "Avanti!" and am at the point where I have to decide whether Joeline is going to hook up forever with the cop she rescued from the crash she caused or not. It's tempting, but I really conceived of Joeline making her solitary way through the world while encountering trouble and mayhem along the way. She was a combat chopper pilot for 20 years. What is she gonna do? Move to Florida?

    Now I already know what you're gonna say, and there's nothing wrong with Florida. But Joeline is not the type to sit around a pool working on her tan. Now I am thinking of having her and the cop team up to open a detective agency in Brentwood--the one in LA--on the top floor of what used to be the Messaluna. So I liked the neighborhood. Only they won't be a couple-couple. How's that?