Back in the dark ages when a household was lucky to have one television set, families used to argue about what to watch. Now that people have multiple TVs as well as VCRs and TiVo, couples don't need to make either/or choices. But they still have to work out who gets to watch what and how, and where.
Clearly I'm not the only wife who doesn't want to experience certain kinds of programming. "Living in an entirely male household, I've come to the conclusion that men will watch any sport that involves muscle and sweat and blood," observes my friend Judy, a writer who lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and two teenaged sons. "Their favorite is blood; they like unlimited blood. I think programs should be rated according to the amount of blood spilled. They could rate them by buckets." She herself likes cooking shows, but she can't seem to get her family to watch with her. "Guys have a chick sensor, and they won't go near those shows," she says sadly.Ask any couple about their television-watching habits, and chances are you'll hear about the gender wars. "My husband likes these stupid shoot-em-ups, and I won't let him watch them in my presence," says Ann Abram, a psychoanalyst who lives in
Westport, Conn. "I hate the noise and the violence; I don't want to be subjected to it."In her case, technology provided an easy solution. "I insisted he use headphones," she says.
Amanda Butterbaugh just sends her husband to the basement. Not only does Michael Mulheren gravitate toward war movies, he also likes to watch more than one at a time."If you have two war movies on at the same time, you never have to miss a battle scene," explains Mulheren, an actor on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles and on television in Rescue Me. "When they stop fighting, he changes the channel," his wife reports with a sigh. Gender-based stereotypes are odious, of course, but come on, you can't tell me there are a lot of women out there watching two war movies simultaneously so they can switch back and forth for maximum carnage.
Which brings us back to the biggest problem of all. Even when Mulheren is watching Animal Planet, his wife can't stand doing it with him. "He controls the remote, and he likes to flip around," says Butterbaugh, an actress. "He can watch four or five things at once, and it doesn't seem to bother him when he misses something, but it really bugs me. So if I want to watch something uninterrupted, I watch alone."
Mulheren's explanation is simple. "Men get bored," he says. "Women want to know what's on television. Men want to know what else is on television."
So what is it with men and the remote? The sociological literature is full of academic treatises on the subject (my favorite being the one that traced men's insistence on controlling the remote back to their ancestors wielding maces in the Middle Ages). References to phallic symbols, men's social anxiety, and the male need to dominate abound, as do quasi-Darwinian speculations about men's reluctance to commit, whether to a program or a woman, a line of thought that would sound all too familiar to Carrie Bradshaw.
"Television is a medium of instant gratification," my husband explains. "If you go back to the classic paradigm of the male as hunter, a man with the remote is hunting for thrills, and there is no reason to stay with anything that's not thrilling you." He flashes me a wicked grin. "Just as there's no reason to stay with a woman who's not thrilling you."
Women find their own ways of fighting back, of course. "I've been known to hide the remote," admits Jill Robertson, a communications manager who lives in San Francisco with her husband, Jason Schulte, an art director. "I'll put it under a couch cushion."While it's tempting to view such chronic skirmishes as part of the eternal battle between the sexes, they can transcend gender. "There's never a season when the television is not on in our house," says Carolyn Montgomery, a cabaret singer who lives in New York City with her partner, Lea Forlani, a chef, and their son. "Lea watches hockey, football, baseball, basketball, and tennis; she's such a sports fan she can recite statistics back to the 1970s. This is her way of decompressing, and she enjoys it."
Montgomery suspects that for Lea, as for many modern workaholics, TV serves the same purpose a couple of martinis might have in the 1950s. "I'm thrilled she's not sitting there with a cocktail, but when I think the TV is on too much I'll actually evaluate her day and her week," Montgomery confesses. "If she's had a really tough day, I totally see decompressing in front of the TV, but if it's the third game on the third night, I'll say, "Is it really important that you see this game?"
Even my husband admits that otherwise smart, intellectually engaged people can overdo it. "The worst aspect of TV is as a narcotic for people who just watch indiscriminately to avoid communicating and avoid thinking about things," he acknowledges.
Most couples who have been together for any length of time work out ways to negotiate such issues in a civilized fashion. "My husband and I kind of feel eachother out: How important is it to the other person to watch a certain show?" says Anne Bauer, a psychiatrist who lives in Greenfield, Mass. "We tend to get involved in the same showsBut when marital tensions are percolating, television can also become a weapon, and an effective one, at that.
"My husband TiVo's a lot of golf," says Jill Robertson. "One time we got in a big fight, and I was so frustrated I deleted every program. I deleted all his settings and all his shows. He lost a lot of golf, and it was right in the middle of a big golf tournament. I didn't say anything about it, and neither did he, but it was a whole new way to get back at him."
For other couples, television can actually provide a way to bond. "I'm a TV junkie," confesses Meredith Beebe, a stay-at-home mother of two small children in Raleigh, N.C. "I really enjoy any kind of television. My husband is not as into sitcoms and reality shows as I am, but we both enjoy watching Scrubs and football and HBO shows like The Sopranos and Six Feet Under. I think laughing together is a really fun thing to do, and relating together on some level feels good, so I really look forward to that time when we're watching something together." Beebe, whose mother was a Ph.D. and an opera fan who also loved to watch soap operas, has little patience with those cultural elitists who turn up their noses at television. "I embrace it," she says. "It's a part of our culture that's fun, and if you know how to have balance in your life, it's fine. You don't have to be a snob about it."
Oops, caught in the act. But even I have a guilty secret. I have never admitted this to my husband, but when I'm out of town on a business trip, staying alone in a hotel, I turn on the television for company.
Although I'm often in a country where I don't speak the language, I nevertheless find myself channel-surfing through programs as people shout at each other in Arabic or wail in Urdu or declare their love in Swahili.
My utter lack of comprehension means I don't get emotionally involved in any of them; I can watch with curiosity and complete dispassion, like an anthropologist studying exotic tribes. But if someone picks up a scalpel, I'm outta there.
Leslie Bennetts is a writer who lives in New York with her husband, two children, one dog, two fish, and three televisions.