‘The Wife’ Perpetuates an Unhelpful Narrative

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Something that the comedy sketch show Inside Amy Schumer often took pleasure in was skewering Hollywood for its many and varied expectations for women. One of the more pointed jabs took aim at the Best Actress category at the Oscars, in which Schumer and four other actresses (all of whom happen to be Oscar nominees or winners) play wives on the phone with their husbands, crying for them to come home. It may have been a direct dig at American Sniper, but its overall influences were broad: the roles women often play in Hollywood films are the emotional support for successful men.

And that was back in 2016, when that slew of problematic men had yet to be taken down and before #MeToo hit. It’s tempting to believe that the post-Weinstein revelations would yield semi-immediate results, given the fervor with which the court of public opinion rendered their verdict against those men. But then a film like The Wife comes along.

At the top of the film, writer Joseph Castleman (played in age by Jonathan Pryce and in youth by Harry Lloyd, both of whom happen to be Game of Thrones bad guys, which likely doesn’t help this character’s case) has won the Nobel Prize in Literature for his life’s work. He attends many gatherings congratulating himself, at which his wife, Joan (Glenn Close), stands at a distance, being talked to about furs or salons or shopping, admiring the genius that she gets to remind to wipe the crumbs out of his beard because he’s a grown ass man who can’t remember to do simple fucking tasks without her help.

She’s the wife that is thanked endlessly in her husband’s speeches, sitting demurely and smiling graciously. She’s the wife being cheated on with younger women seduced by Joseph’s clout, many years after being one of those younger women herself. (He used that all-too-familiar incongruent teacher/student dynamic to land Joan while she was a co-ed in his university lectures, all while he was married with a kid.) She’s the wife who gives much of herself for her husband to shine.

There’s a moment in The Wife when Joan says to Joseph’s wanna-be biographer over a slightly illicit drink: “Please don’t paint me as a victim. I’m much more interesting than that.” Because she’s Glenn Close, and because Glenn Close plays Joan with the poise and stoicism of a marble sculpture, you believe that her assessment of herself is right, that she is more interesting than a victim. You believe all subjugated women are more interesting than the pedestal on which their successful husbands lean, too tired to stand from the praise that other successful husbands are heaping onto them. (Or, perhaps, in a #MeToo world you want to believe all this to be true.) So why doesn’t Joan’s movie know that she’s more than a victim? Especially when she also says things like “I don’t want to be thought of as the long-suffering wife,” and is given scant opportunities to prove herself otherwise?

Because she is a victim. She’s a victim of the misogyny, internalized or otherwise, of the 50s and beyond that crushed her writer dreams so hard that (surprise!) she’s been the writer of Joseph’s books all along! Joan made a career of ghostwriting while her infantile husband did the “woman’s work” of the home, all so he could reap the glory. And, ultimately, he does, because Joseph dies of a heart attack shortly after Joan expresses discontent of all of the years where he took the credit for her work. She decides to stay silent about it, after a lifetime of sacrifice, allowing Joseph to maintain his legendary status even in death. And with that impossibly magnanimous gesture, the film seems to think it’s proven Joan’s personal agency.

Logistical issues notwithstanding (how is it possible to claim ownership over 40 years’ worth of work when the one guy who could back you up is dead?), by Joan keeping her secret, The Wife allows for the problematic man to be redeemed over the long-suffering wife. Yet again. It perpetuates the notion that a woman’s emotional labor is enough, that her long-suffering means SHE’S the one with the REAL strength and determination, even if she goes entirely unrecognized. SHE’LL know it was all worth it in the end, giving that Santa Claus grin to the heavens as her husband is praised for her work even in death.

The narrative would be more insulting if it weren’t so tired, and at this point in our cultural consciousness, just unhelpful. The very week The Wife premiered, Louis C.K. decided to shove himself back into our lives, seeming to believe that enough time has gone by for him to kick-start his path to redemption. As Roxane Gay put it, these men “have fallen from grace, but they have had mighty soft landings.”

What would have been lost in an ending to a film called The Wife where she is the one who is redeemed?

The frustrating subtext in this film’s release is that Glenn Close is already on the award season short list. One imagines the clip that is played of her performance to be one of Joan’s moments of clarity, when she defies her husband and the patriarchy in a fiery piece of monologue, and will get lauded by the live audience for playing a defiant woman with agency. But outside that clip, she’s still just the wife on the phone.

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