A man on a cliff. His head hangs low, the weight of unseen problems too heavy to bear. Oh, wait, there they are! All of his problems are manifesting into a terrible clown-like visage! They throw knives into his back, but the man is too weak to fight back, retreat, or even simply duck.
But, lo! Who is that rushing to his aid? It’s his wife, who wraps her arms around her husband and uses force magic to repel the clown’s knives. The man is saved!
Chances are you’ve seen the problem clown video floating around the internet at some point. If you haven’t, well…I just described it for you. However, the problem clown is more than a joke. It was originally posted not mockingly, but earnestly. However laughable the content is, the video perfectly illustrates a toxic but common relationship dynamic: the expectation that women/femmes exist to prop up emotionally stunted men.
Men are discouraged from expressing themselves emotionally. In truth, the only acceptably “masculine” emotion is anger. So how do men cope with the myriad other feelings that exist in the spectrum of the human experience? In my own life, and the lives of other femmes I know, they lean on someone. A confidante. Someone they can rely on to help them process the feelings they aren’t supposed to feel at all.
This therapeutic role typically falls into the lap of a romantic partner despite the fact that “therapist” is a literal medical job that takes years of training and expertise. However, most men are unwilling to seek professional help. More than one ex has told me when I pressured them to seek out a therapist or counselor: “Why would I pay to talk to someone when I can just talk to you for free?” They saw me as a free emotional labor dispensary. It was my job — nay, my duty — to be their personal, free reservoir of endless support and guidance.
This isn’t meant to be callous. As humans, we want to help the ones we care about. We want to be supportive. But women/femmes are expected to bear far more than their fair share. We can’t be the sole support beam in the lives of the cis men who surround us and demand that we perform the functions of lover, nurse, mother, and therapist all at once. Emotional labor is laborious. It’s exhausting, and there is a definite cap to how much one person can handle.
It’s also a disservice to men. This dynamic prevents them from achieving emotional growth. They can’t even process their own feelings unassisted. They’re stunted, like a dying flower in the shadow of an enormous tree.
Worse still, women propping up angry, emotionally-one-dimensional men is fetishized to a point that women perceive it as deeply romantic. The glaring example is 50 Shades of Gray, which presents itself as a sexual exploration of BDSM but is in fact deeply problematic. It has been heavily criticized by the BDSM community for presenting abusive behavior as harmless kink, such as not having consent to perform certain sexual acts on another person.
The protagonist Anastasia finds herself entwined with the abusive Christian Gray, who doesn’t seem to value her as a person and uses her for his own pleasure. Their relationship is unhealthy and toxic, and despite what many people believe, does not accurately portray a BDSM couple. Despite the fantasy of power and control, consent is always a requirement in kink communities (and in life in general).
Perhaps the toxicity is part of what made these books so popular. It was familiar, maybe even validating, to so many women/femmes who could relate to Anastasia’s problematic relationship.
More recently, the animated pilot Hazbin Hotel was released by animator Vivienne Medrano to a mix of critical acclaim and heavy criticism. In it, main character Charlie, the princess of Hell, seeks to rehabilitate sinners in order to help them ascend into Heaven with the help of her girlfriend, Vaggie. She reluctantly accepts the assistance of Alastor, the mysterious Radio Demon who was a serial killer in life and a genocidal maniac after death. Regardless of your opinion of this indie cartoon, it has sparked a scary but predictable dialogue online: Charlie and Alastor would be great together.
Again: Charlie, a kind, bisexual woman in a committed relationship with someone who not only supports her dreams but actively tries to make them a reality no matter how low the odds of success are, should instead be with a confirmed murderer who sees her project as a joke. And why? Because women have come to expect the men in their lives to be angry, even abusive, and to need them to carry their emotional burden. To fix them. In fact, books like 50 Shades of Gray have told women that they should value this dynamic. It’s romantic! It’s sexy!
If you’re not shielding your man from the problem clown, what good are you to him?
Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding: married cishet men benefit from being married to women regardless of the quality of the marriage. Their health improves and their life expectancy increases. However, studies regarding women’s health in these marriages have much grimmer results. Study after study shows women in unhappy marriages having shorter life expectancy and general poor health, including lack of exercise and poor diet.
Professor Timothy J. Loving of the University of Texas specifically identified emotional support as a key factor in the discrepancy. He told WebMD in an interview: “Men identify their wives as their main support, someone who is there to talk to. Women maintain a larger support network. They are able to use other relationships for support. Wives don’t gain as much from marriage, on a psychosocial level, as a husband does.”
Boston University psychologist Deborah Belle, who has studied the correlation between relationships and health for twenty years, expanded on Loving’s answer. According to Belle, women are more sensitive to negative aspects of relationships than men, and are better at supporting their partners than men are. “What is most striking is that men’s’ support is so heavily dependent on one partner — the wife. Women specialize in providing support. Women’s socialization and subordinate social status trains women to focus on others’ needs — and more than men, they believe that others’ needs can be met. Often women dedicate their lives to providing support for others.”
And there’s the rub. While the dutiful wife shields her husband from his many clown-related woes, what does he offer the wife? According to new studies, high cholesterol and -1.4 years from her life. Despite the stereotype of the nagging wife, science seems to paint a completely different picture: that of the husband gaslighting his wife into an early grave.