This fall, sitcom men are insecure. They do not know how to dress. They don’t know how to ask a woman out on a date. They do not know how to fight. They are deeply troubled by scented shower gel. They are convinced they have lost ground compared to their fathers and grandfathers. They are in search of guidance from other men whom they admire for being bigger, stronger and tougher then they are. 2011 is shaping up to be the season of the emasculated male.
On ABC’s “Last Man Standing,” Tim Allen plays a Baby Boomer who has contempt for less traditional, younger men. He also feels under siege as the only man in a house with four women. The men of ABC’s “Man Up” spend their spare time playing “Call of Duty” while lamenting that their fathers fought in real wars, seemingly unaware that tens of thousands of U.S. soldiers are in Afghanistan right now. The protagonist of CBS’s “How to Be a Gentleman” is told that he is not a real man because he wears suits and attempts to be polite. In mid-season, ABC will launch “Work It,” a show about two unemployed men who are forced to impersonate women to land jobs as pharmaceutical sales reps. Why are comedy writers and network executives so preoccupied with the plight of the middle class white male this year?
Preview “Last Man Standing”:
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“Maybe the reason it’s so prevalent, is right now we are an evolutionary step towards a more civilized, socialized man” theorizes Christopher Moynihan, who created and starrs in ABC’s “Man Up.” “My grandfather was in World War 2. He was wounded on the beach in Italy. My father was a police officer in the 60s in New York City during the riots in the Bronx. They were men. Then there’s me in my thirties. I’m playing ‘Call of Duty’ on Playstation 3. I’m sitting in fast food restaurants talking about Spiderman with my friends. I’m essentially dressing like a 12 year old boy, and I have no responsibility.”
Moynihan acknowledges that he and his friends are not representative of all contemporary men. He thinks that this is the first time that middle class men have the opportunity to opt out of traditional gender roles. “We have the luxury to worry about stupid things like manscaping because we have real men who volunteer to do the dirty work for us. They do the heavy lifting for us whereas in World War II, you had no choice and in Vietnam you had no choice…We have the luxury of having a military and we have the luxury of having real men who will step up and do it. It’s not that they don’t exist anymore. It’s just that for the most part men who work jobs in the United States and have the time and luxury to do want, they want tend to drift towards being more civilized, socialized men than the previous generations.”
Preview “Man Up”:
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While “Man Up” presents this alleged new breed of men in a largely positive light, “Last Man Standing,” sees their existence as a tragedy. Allen’s character spends the bulk of the pilot complaining about men who he perceives as less than masculine, from his teenage daughter’s boyfriend who frequents tanning salons, to a daycare teacher who does not let children use the word “champ.” Allen presented himself as an advocate for traditional gender roles last month at the Television Critics Association panels. “I really believe that men need stuff to do. I’ve always thought that… You have to have hobbies, and you should be able to fix stuff… I like women that know how to cook. I don’t know how to cook very well. I like the process of letting a woman take care of you… and the men in my life like futzing around the house and being able to take care of a home and little things. And when men lose this capacity to mortise and tenon with wood, we’re kind of left with nothing to do, like those big drone bees that’s get kicked out of the hive.”
Interestingly, the new shows all feature “real” men teaching “new” men how to behave, but each show has a wildly different take on what the new breed of man is, and what qualities a man should possess. Allen’s character mentors a happy-go-lucky younger co-worker, whom he encourages to date his daughter. Andrew (David Hornsby), the meek, buttoned down protagonist of “How to Be a Gentleman” learns to be more aggressive from his unsophisticated, macho personal trainer, played by Kevin Dillon. The overgrown adolescents of “Man Up” are both intimidated and inspired by the suave, confident Grant (Henry Simmons). Moynihan explains, “He’s civilized and socialized but he’s the first person to run into the fight when they have to stand up and do it. He is everything that these guys are not.”
Preview “How to Be a Gentleman”:
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None of the men seem to have reason to be so upset about their place in the world. It is unclear why the men on “Man Up,” who have good jobs, close friends and a reasonable amount of romantic success are insecure about their masculinity. It is flat out implausible that “Gentleman’s” Andrew, a magazine columnist who likes to wear suits, and prides himself on his impeccable manners, would not have women begging to go out with him and a ton of similarly metrosexual friends. Allen’s anger at every younger man that he meets seems irrational, unless it’s viewed as him projecting against the one young guy he has good reason to hate, the unseen, unnamed man who impregnated and abandoned his teenage daughter. However, there is nothing in the pilot to indicate there is that level of depth to his character.
While each show defines the problem with men differently, they all agree on the solution: violence. Both “Man Up” and “How to Be A Gentlemen” end with the protagonists gaining self-esteem by aggressively confronting strangers. Allen’s character saves his job by posting a video online in which he angrily rants and points a cross-bow at the camera. According to Moynihan, this urge to beat people up is at the core of the male identity. “There is a barbarian inside [every man]. All these videogames they play, they’re all inherently violent. They always involve shooting somebody else.”
It remains to be seen whether actual men will watch the shows dedicated to their plight — or which version of the downtrodden contemporary male will strike a chord. Moynihan believes that these series are documenting what will ultimately be a shortlived male identity crisis. “If you go fifty years ago, we were brutes who drank vodka tonic and ignored our wives and just kind of dismissed things and now we are this person who is kind of torn with one foot in each world. Maybe fifty years from now, we will be these highly socialized, civilized beings that will have no crisis of culture because we won’t even remember what transpired because our fathers and grandfathers will have been men like us.”