Risky Business As Usual


American masculinity is in crisis. It's a familiar argument, recycled by politicians, feminists, and other social commentators since soldiers traded their uniforms for a post-WWII suburban life. Today, the complaint is rehearsed in the struggle to limit the admission of female cadets at the Citadel and the recent debate over the Masters Golf Tournament in Augusta. Although largely unspoken, the crux of both arguments is the same: In this age of political correctness and gender equality, many men feel that there is simply no place left in the U.S. where boys can be boys.

Enter Viacom.

In mid-April, the multi-media conglomerate announced that its identity-challenged cable network, TNN -- formerly The Nashville Network, later renamed The National Network -- was soon to be christened Spike TV, the first channel aimed specifically at men. A legal challenge from Spike Lee delayed the change, initially slated to take effect 16 June (TNN president Albie Hecht denied Lee's claim that the proposed moniker was an attempt to cash in on his name and image, maintaining, "We just liked the idea of having a guy's name. We thought that it was smart and fun and irreverent." Even without the name, TNN's programming shift went into effect as planned, with references to Spike TV blurred from station promos, and ads calling the network "The New TNN." The case was settled two weeks later, allowing Viacom to proceed with its original plans.

More interesting than its naming saga is the philosophy behind the network's programming -- broadcasting content that is, according to Hecht, "unapologetically male." While Spike TV is only one of several demographic-specific stations cropping up on cable television -- Lifetime, WE, and Oxygen are all directed towards women, and African Americans have been tuning into BET since 1980 -- the station may have to produce more than just a slick marketing campaign to justify its existence. After all, other specialty stations operate under the premise that their target audience is somehow underserved by both network and cable television.

That simply isn't the case for the viewers to whom Spike TV caters: the vast majority of television programming features actors who are white and storylines that are male-centered. In fact, during a 15-year study of U.S. media, Professor George Gerbner, Dean of the Annenburg School of Communications at the University of Pennsylvania, found that on primetime television, men outnumber women at least three to one, and that there are significantly smaller proportions of blacks, Hispanics, and other minorities than in the U.S. population at large. Hecht's assertion that TNN "is a first major step in our journey to super-serving men in a way no one has done before" simply isn't accurate.

Yet, despite the fallacy of under-representation that underlies the station's mission statement, Spike TV does conform to cable specialty station rubric in a very important way: The network's tone and content are derived from the basest stereotypes of its target audience. So, just as "women's" programming is overly maudlin and BET is criticized for playing too many gangsta rap videos, Spike TV is testosterone on overdrive.

Case in point: The majority of the programming portrays men who are trying valiantly either to stave off evil (The A-Team, Miami Vice, CSI) or conquer it with brute force (American Gladiator, World Wrestling Entertainment, Most Extreme Elimination Challenge.) Also represented is the contemporary male paragon of arrested adolescence, typified here by a resurrection of the '90s animated favorite Ren & Stimpy.

And, while Hecht insists women "will be welcome" to participate in the network's revelries, it seems that they are invited for the purpose of objectification only -- the women of Spike TV are almost exclusively positioned as objects for male sexual pleasure. Pamela Anderson's buxom blonde form seems especially desirable: She appears both in reruns of Baywatch and as the voice for the exotic dancer/superhero of Stripperella, the show spearheading Spike's original animated programming.

That is, while the network's philosophy may seem abrasive to some viewers, its content hardly deviates from standard television fare. Viacom has simply taken masculinity and super-sized it. This may be a successful strategy. Masculinity is dynamic, subject to shifting cultural zeitgeists. Recent movements for women's, gay and lesbian, and civil rights have called traditional "straight white male" paradigms into question, but popular culture tends to be more insidious and flexible. If "men" are feeling anxious, how better to cash in than to create a space where they can purchase traditional "masculinity."

The popularity of Stuff and Maxim (among other text and products), coupled with the buzz surrounding Spike TV, suggests the time is right. The definition of "men" touted by these media outlets is alarmingly narrow: The characters are almost exclusively white and heterosexual, and subscribe to the notion that violence and sexual domination equals power. So, while they purport to be concerned with the broad interests of men, Spike TV, et al, only address that section of the population most adversely affected by awareness movements.

And, of course, popular culture products marked "men's only" are never consumed exclusively by men, in much the same way that women are not the sole readers of Cosmopolitan or African Americans the only viewers of BET. Rather, the supposed restrictions on audience often act as an inducement to consumers seeking "knowledge" about some "exotic other."

And what does Spike TV have to teach? After experiencing its hefty dose of testosterone, viewers may come away with the feeling that despite apparent strides in gender and racial equality, not much has changed. For those inside the target audience of males 18-34, this might be a comforting thought; for everyone else, it might be a warning.

The impetus for the "men's only" trend is bolstered by the same corporation that holds a financial interest in its success. With Viacom, it's particularly easy to connect the dots. Each time a mainstream media outlet (for example, CBS, also owned by Viacom) runs a story pertaining to the "masculinity crisis," it is creating a consumer base for its subsidiaries, like Spike TV, which in turn serves as a temporary panacea for the problem. The challenge then -- for media producers and consumers -- comes in separating the truth from the hype. And with millions of dollars in revenue at stake, this isn't always easy to do.

Whether the desire to escape into a clubhouse clearly marked "No Girls Allowed" is manufactured by Viacom or is a result of heartfelt angst is almost irrelevant. Spike TV will prompt the men who watch it to be aggressive, materialistic, and sex-obsessed. In other words, to act like boys.

Kristen Kidder is the television critic for PopMatters.

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