In a man's castle, the remote control is his scepter

August 18, 1993|By James A. Fussell | James A. Fussell,Kansas City Star

Let's try a little experiment.

Wives, the next time your husband is camped in front of the boob tube with a death lock on the remote control, snatch it away and ditch it in the dirty clothes.

Then stand back and watch the fun begin.

That's precisely what Linda Hopkins of Kansas City, a bookkeeper, did to her husband, Jack.

"I wanted to teach the little stinker a lesson," she says in a na-na-na-na-na voice. "He's always got that controller with him. It's like he'd had it surgically attached to his arm."

Let's just say Jack didn't appreciate Linda's experiment.

"He went nuts," she says. "Tore the house apart. It was pathetic. He's a remote-control junkie. I think most men are."

Researchers agree. Several studies conducted by A. C. Nielsen ratings company on TV viewing behavior conclude that men in general -- and young men in particular -- covet remote controls far more than women. They also find that men are much more inclined than women to scan through stations quickly. In today's vernacular, it's called "channel surfing."

It drives Ms. Hopkins nuts.

"When he's home, it's like bink-bink-bink," Ms. Hopkins says. "An arm here, a car fender there. I can't even catch my breath, he goes so fast. And when he comes home from work, it's even worse. I'll be watching a movie, and he'll come home and the first thing he'll do -- before he sits down, before he talks to me or smiles or kisses me hello -- the first thing he does is grab the TV remote from me.

"He doesn't even know he's doing it. It's just that men have this remote-control power and dominance thing. It's like they're the king of their castle, and this is their royal scepter."

Ellie Matthews, a homemaker, went so far last year as to throw her husband's TV remote control in the trash.

"I got sick of him changing the channels," she says. "So I pitched it. I finally went and got it, though. He was just so worried about it."

It's not that women don't channel surf. It's just that men do it so much more. And if you think it's bad now, just wait a few years, when cable technology will offer as many as 500 channels.

Why do men hog the remote control and surf through the channels?

Ask Robert Bellamy, associate professor of communication at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. He's the co-editor of "The Remote Control, and the New Age of Television," due out in October.

"That's hard to say," he says. "Research suggests that men tend to want different types of information. Short bursts. Fast. Quick. Women are more analytical and want to watch one program a longer time. That would suggest in some ways that women are more depth-oriented and men are flightier. They want to control the remote because they need more instant gratification."

Jack Hopkins has a simpler explanation. "It's like when I'm driving a car," he says. "If Linda's in the car, I always drive. It's the same with the TV set. I want to drive."

Psychologists say the remote control is viewed as a tool of power. The fact that men are considered more active and women more passive makes it logical that men would want to dominate the family television.

And dominate they do. Robin Mitchell complained that the remote control turned her husband from a sweet, caring guy into a TV "ogre."

"I look in the TV listings and tell him what's on," she says. "He doesn't want to know what's on. He wants to flip himself silly."

But a recent night in the Mitchell home suggested there may be some hope for men after all.

At 6:53 p.m. Bradley Mitchell, a 26-year-old insurance salesman, arrived home from work. By 6:55 p.m. he had greeted Robin, poured a Heineken and plucked the remote control from between the cushions of the couch.

He pushed the power button and the 27-inch Sony flickered blue in the suburban darkness. As the picture came into focus, he began flipping.

In several minutes he had watched split-second snippets of at least 40 dramas, sitcoms, commercials, news broadcasts, sporting events and movies.

After 20 minutes of flipping, he did something he said his wife had been bugging him to do more often. He aimed the remote control device at the television like Dirty Harry asking a bad guy to make his day.

Then he turned it off.

"There's nothing on anyway," he says.

Robin Mitchell smacked her forehead with her open palm.

"Call the hospital," she says with mock concern. "Honey, are you OK?"

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