NPR Skewers Depictions of Men on this Season’s Sitcoms

From CBS' new show 'How To Be A Gentleman'

“Tonight, CBS premieres How To Be A Gentleman, a brainless buddy comedy presenting a dichotomy in which men can be either delicate, ineffectual, sexless weaklings or ill-mannered but physically powerful meatheads.”–NPR’s Linda Holmes

Braver men than I have quailed at the thought of an essay on masculinity brought to us by National Public Radio.  But here one is, and it’s nothing short of excellent (NPR, 10/1/11).

The writer is Linda Holmes and her subject is less masculinity per se than its depiction in popular culture, specifically television.  To say that Holmes is unhappy with the portrayal of men in the current season of sitcoms is to understate the matter considerably.  She writes with a combination of anger, dismay and perplexity.

Now, I must say that popular culture has little interest for me, so I’m far from an expert on TV sitcoms, but over many years I’ve developed a strong sense of certain messages about men and masculinity that pop culture has trafficked in.  I, like Holmes, am not happy with those.

Still, I’ve always thought that feminism went (goes) way overboard in its sensitivity to cultural messages.  There was a time that feminism asked us to believe that we were all virtual slaves to however our sex was displayed on TV, the movies, magazines, etc.  Pop culture surely has some impact on how we see and understand ourselves.  Just as surely, every man comes to terms with being a member of his sex; every woman does too.  Essentially none of us resembles Rambo or Angelina Jolie and at some point early in life it ceases to matter.

So what Holmes writes about has some importance, but I can’t say just how much.

That said, it’s entirely worth noting that depictions of masculinity on television bear no resemblance to actual men.  Of course what Holmes is dealing with are men in sitcoms, so they’re not necessarily meant to.  But face it, there’s a message inside the incessant drumbeat of denigration of men.

Tonight, CBS premieres How To Be A Gentleman, a brainless buddy comedy presenting a dichotomy in which men can be either delicate, ineffectual, sexless weaklings or ill-mannered but physically powerful meatheads. Says this show — over and over, in both its marketing and in its actual dialogue — there are gentlemen, and there are real men, and each might need to be a little more like the other.

Yes, yes, it’s a sitcom, and caricatures are common, and on its own, this wouldn’t make much of an impression. But this is not just any season. It’s a season that also brings Tim Allen whining about what ever happened to “real men” in Last Man Standing, three guys lost in a universe of “pomegranate body wash” in Man Up, and — sometime in midseason, unless the universe blissfully swallows us all before then — two men in drag in Work It trying to overcome the entirely female-driven economy in which they literally cannot support themselves without dressing as women.

Yes, the question burning on the lips of TV producers from L.A. to Burbank is “whatever happened to ‘real men’?”  Interestingly, Holmes has the answer.

Where, on television, are the men who both like football and remember birthdays? Where are the men who can have a highly insightful drink-and-talk with friends? Where are the men who are great dads, great husbands, great boyfriends? Where are the men who are dedicated to important jobs? Where are the men who aren’t seeking reassurance about what it means to be men? Where are, in short, all the men I rely on in my day-to-day life?

Bingo.  Holmes is smart enough to realize that ‘real men’ are all around her in her everyday life, just not on television.  That means that, far more than the producers of those shows, Holmes has the ability to look around her and see what’s there.  It’s an ability that’s surprisingly absent in many people.  The willingness to mentally cram reality into scripted myth is as common as dirt and not surprisingly distorts reality for those who do it.

And it’s not like the producers of these shows are without their political/social agendas.  Holmes gets it right when she uses the word “hectoring” to describe the programs’ sense of driving home a message they’re sure we all need to learn.

But there is something about this narrative hectoring about men not understanding manhood that seems particularly brutal in that it specifically attacks them for emotional ineptitude while simultaneously attacking them for having emotions. Men who are emotionally reactive (like Hornsby’s character here) are weak; men who are emotionally inert (like the Man Up guys) are clueless. In both cases, women don’t want to have sex with them, even if they’re married to them.

In short, a man can be either of two things – Rambo or Mr. Rogers – but whatever his personal bent, he’s wrong and women are right to dislike him.  It’s a limited and not very inviting world.

And it is that very ‘hectoring’ quality that makes me care at all.  As I said, most people navigate the shoals of masculinity and femininity very well.  They do that in part by ignoring  stereotypes peddled by TV shows.  But I get the sense that the purveyors of popular culture won’t stop until we’ve absorbed their message, until they’ve actually had their perverse effect on people’s views of themselves and their sex.

I think the whole matter becomes important, to the extent it does, because the message of universal masculine deficiency doesn’t stand alone on television between the hours of 7 and 10 PM.  It taps into a larger social message that’s anything but recent in provenance.

Over 40 years ago, radical feminists saw that characterizing men in particular ways could pay big dividends.  Specifically, if men could be seen to be stupid, brutish louts, it would be far easier to marginalize them in society generally, imprison them, divorce them, take their children, etc.  After all, a man without feelings and with Rambo’s penchant for violence is good as part of the armed services (i.e. OK to be killed or maimed in battle), but stateside, we’re all better off if he’s in prison.  Failing that, he should be the subject of a TRO and kept strictly away from women and children.

Whatever may be said of a few silly sitcoms, most of which won’t last the season, the feminist view of men has gotten plenty of traction over the years.  So it’s no accident that what’s now almost universally referred to as a “real man” is in fact only that feminist caricature of us.

Over the millennia, far more sensible societies than ours have realized that men and women come in an astonishing variety of packages, all of them ‘real.’  They’ve been able to look at Catherine the Great of Russia and Mary mother of Jesus and notice that both were women, however radically different.  In the same way, the Buddha was a man as surely as Julius Caesar, Einstein and Oscar Wilde, to which I say “VIVE LA DIFFÉRENCE!”

We took a wrong turn 40 years ago in agreeing to the feminist view of men and masculinity.  We haven’t recovered yet, and TV sitcoms aren’t helping.  To her credit, Linda Holmes is.

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