When a man behaves badly, should you blame his (TV) wife?

There’s been a lot of criticism on social media of Susanna Reid’s apparent complicity with Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain. It fell to their colleague Alex Beresford to challenge Morgan on his comments on Meghan Markle, after Reid had failed to rein him in over several days. So their argument goes.

I have been watching the show over the last year because of its Covid coverage, but with increasing exasperation at Piers Morgan. His interruptions, his relentless self-aggrandisement, his self-indulgent digressions (lengthy monologues about Arsenal, when one of the key attractions for me of the programme had previously been its gleeful disregard for sport).

Reid did at times argue with him, or stand her ground when he talked over her, or offer conciliatory words as he was being provocative, but there was something performative and sitcom about it, the rolling of the eyes, the titter behind the hand. (You are awful but I like you.)

We all know of real-life relationships that follow this pattern. Women who are in relationships with rude, bullying,  manipulative men. The woman bears the brunt of his behaviour, but responds with a confused combination of condemnation and collusion. She will complain about him to her friends. And if you are that friend? She will confide in you, and appreciate your sympathy, right up to the point where you agree with her and suggest she take action.

Then she will backtrack. She will tell you that you don’t know him. She will come up with examples of when he wasn’t like that. She will point to other men who are much worse. Suddenly, her argument is not with him, but with you, even when you are mirroring what she told you. She will make you the problem, the enemy, because then she can justify staying with him.

Rinse and repeat. Her resentment will soon build up again and this becomes a pattern for her (and if you’re not careful, for you too). For whatever reason, she feels trapped on this man’s merry-go-round.  

So it’s easy to be critical of Reid. But there is another, insidious element here: blaming a man for a woman’s bad behaviour. The partners and mothers of problematic men are often deemed to have failed. If only she’d loved him more, or less, or put her foot down, or been more understanding, he wouldn’t have erred.

The idea that the love of a good woman will turn a man’s life around is a powerful trope in popular culture. But just as you can’t save your friend, she can’t save him. Worse, it lets men off the hook. 

Does the criticism of Reid matter? It’s just a TV show, right? But these shows team a man and a woman precisely because they want to play off the couple dynamic (remember the furore when Strictly broke the mould?). And if that’s the case, then people’s reaction to Reid and Morgan reflects something of individuals’ and society’s feelings about how couples do and should operate.

Women are still somehow viewed as responsible for smoothing over and mitigating the behaviour of men. It’s time to acknowledge that they neither can, nor should.

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