Male Bashing on TV
Warning for our male readers: The following article contains big words and complex sentences. It might be a good idea to have a woman nearby to explain it to you.
It has been a hard day. Your assistant at work is out with the flu and there is another deadline fast approaching. Your wife is at a business conference, so you have to pick up your son at daycare, make dinner, clean the kitchen, do a load of laundry, and get Junior to bed before you can settle down on the sofa with those reports you still need to go over.
Perhaps a little comedy will make the work more bearable, you think, so you turn on CBS's Monday night comedies: King of Queens, Yes, Dear, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Still Standing. Over the next two hours, you see four male lead characters who are nothing like you. These men are selfish and lazy, inconsiderate husbands and poor parents.
And the commercials in between aren't any better. Among them: A feminine hygiene ad: Two women are traveling down a lovely country road, laughing and having a great time. But wait. One of them needs to check the freshness of her mini-pad, and, apparently, the next rest area is six states away. A woman's voice-over interjects, "It's obvious that the interstate system was designed by men."
A digital camera ad: A young husband walks through a grocery store, trying to match photos in his hand with items on the shelves. Cut to his wife in the kitchen, snapping digital pictures of all the items in the pantry so that hubby won't screw up the shopping.
A family game ad: A dorky guy and beautiful woman are playing Trivial Pursuit. He asks her, "How much does the average man's brain weigh?" Her answer: "Not much."
A wine ad: A group of women are sitting around the patio of a beach house, drinking a blush wine. Their boyfriends approach, but are denied refreshment until they have "earned" it by building a sand statue of David.
Welcome to the new comic image of men on tv: incompetence at its worst. Where television used to feature wise and wonderful fathers and husbands, today's comedies and ads often feature bumbling husbands and inept, uninvolved fathers. On Still Standing, Bill (Mark Addy) embarrasses his wife Judy (Jamie Gertz) so badly in front of her reading group, that she is dropped from the group. On Everybody Loves Raymond, Raymond (Ray Romano) must choose between bathing the twin boys or helping his daughter with her homework. He begrudgingly agrees to assist his daughter, for whom he is no help whatsoever.
CBS is not the only guilty party. ABC's My Wife and Kids and According to Jim, Fox's The Bernie Mac Show, The Simpsons, Malcolm in the Middle, and (the recently cancelled) Titus, and the WB's Reba also feature women who are better organized and possess better relational skills than their male counterparts. While most television dramas tend to avoid gender stereotypes, as these undermine "realism," comic portrayals of men have become increasingly negative. The trend is so noticeable that it has been criticized by men's rights groups and some television critics.
It has also been studied by academicians Dr. Katherine Young and Paul Nathanson in their book, "Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture". Young and Nathanson argue that in addition to being portrayed as generally unintelligent, men are ridiculed, rejected, and physically abused in the media. Such behavior, they suggest, "would never be acceptable if directed at women." Evidence of this pattern is found in a 2001 survey of 1,000 adults conducted by the Advertising Standards Association in Great Britain, which found that 2/3 of respondents thought that women featured in advertisements were "intelligent, assertive, and caring," while the men were "pathetic and silly." The number of respondents who thought men were depicted as "intelligent" was a paltry 14%. (While these figures apply to the United Kingdom, comparable advertisements air in the U.S.)
Some feminists might argue that, for decades, women on tv looked mindless, and that turnabout is fair play. True, many women characters through the years have had little more to do than look after their families. From the prim housewife whose only means of control over her children was, "Wait till your father gets home!" to the dutiful housewife whose husband declares, "My wife: I think I'll keep her," women in the '50s and '60s were often subservient. (This generalization leaves out the unusual someone like Donna Reed, who produced her own show, on which she was not subservient.)
Then, during the "sexual revolution," tv began to feature independent women who could take care of themselves (Mary and Rhoda on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Julia, Alice and Flo on Alice, Louise and Florence on The Jeffersons). So now, 30 years later, you'd think that maybe we'd have come to some parity. Not even.
Granted, men still dominate television, from the newsroom to primetime. And men do plenty on their own to perpetuate the image of the immature male, from Comedy Central's The Man Show to the hordes of drunken college boys who show up every year on MTV's Spring Break. What's the problem with a few jokes about how dumb men can be? C'mon, can't we take a few jokes?
If only it was just a few. The jokes have become standard fare. Looking at a handful of sitcoms makes the situation seem relatively insignificant, but when those sitcoms are combined with dozens of negative ads which repeat frequently, then a poor image of men is created in the minds of viewers.
According to "Gender Issues in Advertising Language", television portrayals that help create or reinforce negative stereotypes can lead to problems with self-image, self-concept, and personal aspirations. Young men learn that they are expected to screw up, that women will have the brains to their brawn, and that childcare is over their heads. And it isn't just men who suffer from this constant parade of dumb men on tv. Children Now reports a new study that found that 2/3 of children they surveyed describe men on tv as angry and only 1/3 report ever seeing a man on television performing domestic chores, such as cooking or cleaning. There are far too few positive role models for young boys on television.
Moreover, stereotypical male-bashing portrayals undermine the core belief of the feminist movement: equality. Just think. What if the butt of all the jokes took on another identity? Consider the following fictional exchanges:
"It is so hard to get decent employees."
"That's because you keep hiring blacks."
"I just don't understand this project at all." "Well, a woman explained it to you, so what did you expect?"
"I can't believe he is going out again tonight." "Oh please, all Hispanics care about is sex."
All of these statements are offensive, and would rightfully be objected to by advocates of fair representation in the media. However, put the word "man" or "men" in place of "blacks," "woman," and "Hispanics" in the above sentences and they're deemed humorous. Are men who ask to be treated civilly overly sensitive or are we as justified in our objections as members of NOW, the NAACP, GLAAD, and other groups which protest demeaning television portrayals, whether those portrayals are on sitcoms, dramas, advertisements, or moronic tv like The Man Show.
Most of the shows I'm talking about are popular. Maybe that means I am being too sensitive. Yet, many U.S. viewers didn't have a problem with Amos and Andy or I Dream of Jeannie, both famous for their offensive stereotypes. These shows enjoyed good ratings, but neither concept is likely to be revived anytime soon, as "society" has realized their inappropriateness.
All this is not to say buffoonery -- male or female -- isn't a comic staple. Barney on The Andy Griffith Show, Ted on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and Kramer on Seinfeld were all vital characters, but the shows also featured intelligent males. And these clowns were amusing because they were eccentric personalities, not because they were men. The same could be said of many female characters on tv, like Alice's Flo, Friends' Phoebe, or Karen on Will & Grace. Good comedy stems from creative writing and imaginative characterizations, not from degrading stereotypes.
Fortunately, some people are working to change the way television portrays men. J. C. Penney recently ran an ad for a One Day sale, with a father at the breakfast table, with his infant crying and throwing things. The father asks the child when his mother will be home. Lana Whited of The Roanoke Times, syndicated columnist Dirk Lammers, and the National Men's Resource Center were just a few who objected to this image of an apparently incompetent and uncaring father, one who would let his child cry without making any attempt to calm him. Penney's got the message; their recent holiday ad features a father, mother, and son all happily shopping together.
Few men I know want a return to the "good ole days." Those generalizations were as unrealistic as the idea that all men are big slobbering goofballs. Hope lies beyond such simplistic oppositions, in shows like The Cosby Show or Mad About You, which placed their protagonists on level playing fields. Paul Reiser and Cosby did, on occasion, do moronic things, but so did Helen Hunt and Phylicia Rashad. People -- because they are people, not just gendered people -- are prone to fall on their faces occasionally.
Undoubtedly, there are men out there who are clones of Ward Cleaver, just as there are men who resemble Al Bundy. But the majority is somewhere in between. We're trying to deal the best we can with the kids, the spouse, the job, the bills, the household chores, and the countless crises that pop up unexpectedly. After all that, when we do get the chance to sit down and relax, it would be nice to turn on the tv and not see ourselves reflected as idiots.
Michael Abernathy is a film and TV critic for PopMatters.com