Saturday, March 28, 2015

Unpopular Opinion: Maybe Those Twilight Zone Wives Had a Point

Growing up, I loved watching the original Twilight Zone (1959-1964).  It was the perfect blend of creepy and thought-provoking, often portraying what happens when we take certain longings to their natural (or supernatural) conclusion.

For Twilight Zone junkies, the classic episodes are almost too numerous to count.  However, the best of them tended to tap into our deep-seated fears and yearnings.  These include "Walking Distance," "The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street," "The Hitch-Hiker," and "A Stop at Willoughby."

Yet while Twilight Zone had that sort of universal appeal, it was hard to dismiss that its perspective was largely white, middle or upper-middle class, urban, and male.  The theme of an inordinate number of episodes was men longing to escape the constraints of their hectic modern lives, whether that involved escaping shrewish wives or modern urban life altogether.  The "ideal" world was one that likely never existed, where its inhabitants had all day to stroll leisurely through town squares, where there were always band concerts and cotton candy.  Even though the series sometimes poked fun at these longings, it returned to these locations often enough that it must have held real appeal to Rod Serling and the other writers.

As for the men who longed to go back, the audience was meant to sympathize with them.  Poor overworked, incredibly successful people, with your big houses and mixed drinks.  Though their yearnings are somewhat relatable, there is something incredibly passive and myopic about the way they view their circumstances.

Take Garth Williams in "A Stop at Willoughby."  He appears to be an ad executive along the lines of Ted Chaough or Ken Cosgrove: successful, but too sensitive for this world.  He works for a sadistic boss and could, we learn, leave at any time and take a significant amount of business with him.  Yet he stays on, drowning slowly from demands and expectations.  At home, when he complains about feeling trapped and about his fantasy of Willoughby, his wife, Jane, has little sympathy for him.  "It's my mistake, pal, my error, my miserable, tragic error to be married to a man whose big dream in life is to be Huckleberry Finn!"

Eventually Garth decides to get off his daily commuter train at the Willoughby stop, only for the viewer to learn that there was no stop, that Garth essentially committed suicide, and Willoughby was a funeral home.  The height of irony would be if the Willoughby fantasy world turned out to be a very creative ad campaign.

"Poor Garth," we think.  At least he's happier now, right?  The poor, sensitive man beaten into submission by a shrewish wife motif can be found in other episodes, including "Time Enough at Last" and "A World of His Own."  In the latter case, the shrewish wife was actually created by the man out of his imagination.

Back in the 1960s, it might have been expected for audiences to side with men like Garth, but it's a little unsettling that many people today take his victimhood at face value.  Yet when I go to places like IMDB and read the Twilight Zone forum during marathons, I see a variety of comments labeling his wife a miserable, cold bitch who didn't understand him and kept him down.

When I watch their (only) scene together, I see something different.  Garth's wife comes across as cold, yes, and unsympathetic.  But then, her husband has just told her that he wants to quit his job and go off an live in a fantasy world.  If you view circumstances from her perspective, her reactions make much more sense.  Imagine you have been married to this man for several years, even decades.  You have energy and ambition, but you live in a society that punishes you if you try to express it in any way other than through marriage.  So you do the socially acceptable thing: you marry a man whom you can guide to a greater position.  Maybe he appreciated your help at first.  After all, if he didn't want your help, he could have told you so at any time.

Over the years, he has started complaining more about his role and his job.  Yet rather than do something to change his situation, like leave his hated firm and go to one he might like better, he just stays and complains, and you have to listen.  At first you're sympathetic.  But the more he complains, but never actually changes, the more your sympathy wanes.  You might even be more understanding at this point if he quit and took a job as a teacher, or something, just as long as he was doing and not complaining.

In that one scene, Garth's wife asks him: "Did you wreck a career this afternoon?  Did you throw away a job?"  She then criticizes him for living in "a permanent self pity."  Yet when Garth says "I know where I'd like to be," for one moment, her voice changes.  "Where's that?" she asks.  She sounds genuinely interested, as if hoping he'll show some true motivation.  Only after he's described Willoughby do her voice and manner revert back to the previous cynicism.  Because while places like Wlloughby might be nice, they aren't real life, and dwelling on places like Willoughby suggests a resistance to dealing with real-world problems in any meaningful way.  Jane has probably heard this a lot, and she's sick and tired of it.  Wouldn't you be?

Similar to Jane, Gregory West's wife, Victoria, is critical of him and generally meant to come across as a harpy.  Her crimes: she takes obvious offense at her nebbish husband having a mistress, and at the possibility that she is a figment of his imagination.  The mistress, meanwhile, is all sweetness and support.  The audience is meant to snicker at Victoria's growing horror that she doesn't have any real self determination.  Her most independent act, throwing her character description into the fire, is the one that leads to her destruction.  That Gregory West would replace her with the worshipful, compliant mistress is supposed to be seen as a no brainer.  Essentially, we're supposed to view the person in complete control of the situation, Gregory West, as the victim who is finally "free" of his shrewish wife.

Did the Twilight Zone writers understand the irony that these poor put-upon men could actually change their situations any time they chose?  They had full legal rights.  There were no social or legal barriers to their entry into an occupation.  Even woeful Henry Bemis from "Time Enough at Last" had more to fear from his terrible eyesight than from his wife, who was more of a caricature than a true human being.  Meanwhile wives like Jane and Victoria are meant to be seen as controlling shrews for expressing any discontentment at all.  Never mind when they actually had a point.

To some extent, you could make these criticisms of a wide swath of Twilight Zone episodes.  Did Nan Adams really have to drive across three-fourths of the U.S. before it finally occurred to her to call home?  Couldn't someone have clocked that little brat, Anthony, over the head a lot sooner?  Still, the discontented urban upper-class male is such a prevailing theme throughout the series that I singled it out.  Again, it would probably bother me less if some of its more insulting aspects -- wives that aren't completely worshipful are shrews -- weren't still embraced by many people today.

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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