The Entertainment Industry's Love Affair With Immature Men
You know the guy. He has a monosyllabic retro name like Hal or Earl or Chuck, mildly wacky hair and a death grip on his adolescence. He's got frat house furniture and dependency issues with his friends, and is hapless or commitment-phobic with women. The Act One diagnosis is usually that he just "needs to grow up."
No, not Michael Vick. Though the Falcon quarterback's explanation for dog fighting -- "I need to grow up" -- does show just how ubiquitous the Peter Pan excuse has become. Male leads in recent popular TV shows and movies are increasingly portrayed as victims of their own immaturity. If only instead of claiming he had found Jesus, Vick had said he'd found some fantastically attractive and accomplished woman, perhaps the viewing audience would've gone along. In today's romantic comedy scripts, the man-child always meets his Wendy. Only through the innate, successful, high-achieving grace of a female may our hero be saved.
Taken one at a time, it's easy to pass off this trend as a simple, comedic trope. But considering the storyline's popularity and how it is affecting gender relations at large, this narrative is worthy of closer attention.
Pairing a bumbling, oddly employed male lead with a hot can-do woman is the current rage in Hollywood. The Ben Stillers and Adam Sandlers gradually brought it to the big screen, but this summer Judd Apatow seems to have elevated the trope to a new level of success. First there was the June release of Knocked Up, a film that matched a successful TV interviewer to a man whose primary working relationship was with his bong. Then, teen couples in the August hit SuperBad were too young to mismatch careers, but unless porn consumption counts as extracurricular credit, their college tracks were assuredly divergent. September will bring us The Brothers Solomon, about a pair of socially awkward siblings' efforts to spread their seed, as well as Good Luck Chuck and Run, Fatboy, Run, which, as their titles hint, only further the trend.
TV echoes what the New Yorker's David Denby calls the "slacker-striver" dynamic. Promos for the new NBC comedy "Chuck" pan from a svelte blond spy to a disheveled computer techie earning, a low voice intones, "Eleven bucks an hour." In HBO's The Flight of the Conchords, one of the parody folk singers is unemployed. The other holds signs. Both get dates. And if the men and women are all similarly employed, as in Scrubs or The Office, when it comes down to it, the women tend to wear the proverbial pants.
Commentators have found as many reasons for the phenomenon as there are examples of it. It's because white males are safe targets of ridicule. It's the work of feminist critiques of the '50s passive homemakers. Some think it sanctions the infantilism of male culture. Others think it's simply a reflection of changing economics, that, A, advertisers are aiming for women, the primary spenders of many households' discretionary incomes and, B, because women are achieving new levels of occupational success. Females outnumber men in most colleges, and while nationwide incomes still aren't equal, younger women in cities like New York are now earning more per hour than their male counterparts. As put forward by books like Alpha Girls, the casting of women as confident high-achievers isn't so much a sitcom clichÃƒÂ© as it is a cultural truth.
No matter its source, the archetype of the superwoman is a surely an improvement over the pre-Mary Tyler Moore moms, beer babes and cop-show rape victims. These women are smart and capable, and striving in enviable jobs. Perhaps they should even be flattered to play savior to the opposite sex. But for as potentially insulting to men and empowering to women, a look at the credits should give one pause.
A sampling of the genre's writers' first names: Steve, Bob, Judd, Seth, Evan, Jeremy, Jay, Mike, Tom, Thomas, Matt, Nick, Josh, George, Chris, Michael, Josh, Peter, Sean ... not even an ambiguous Sam in the bunch. Women fair a little better in television comedies. Of the eleven writers credited for The Office, two are women. One of the five producers of "Chuck" is female. Still. While men are certainly capable of creating fair representations of the sexes, the dearth of these scripts' women writers begs the question of who this narrative actually benefits.
In his New Yorker piece, Denby argues that "the perilous new direction of the slacker-striver genre reduces the role of women to vehicles. Their only real function is to make the men grow up ... They don't have to dress for dinner, but they should challenge the men intellectually and spiritually, rather than simply offering their bodies as a way of dragging the clods out of their adolescent stupor."
This type of one-dimensionality bears many dangers. For one, the sort of playful exasperation with which these women tolerate their mate's boyhood antics makes light of their own needs. They act as if women are only too happy to play mother to lovers and children alike.
This narrative also ignores the fact that aging is a shared experience. Knocked Up depicts one women's inability to get into a night club because she's too old. But, in general, shows like this act as if women march unflinching toward responsibility, immune to the terrors of responsibility themselves. It also perpetrates some of the larger ageist tendencies in our culture. Women enjoying youthful pastimes in their later 30s and 40s are often portrayed as cougars or desperately sad. Men grow up. Women just get older.
Fact is, as long as women are not playing the leads, their parts will be more caricature than character. The less you know of someone, the easier they are to idealize or demonize. The trick is realizing the former is just as unfair as the later.
As an interesting contrast to these superwomen plots, one only need watch the one show actually written, produced and acted by a woman. On 30 Rock, Tina Fey, the first female head writer of Saturday Night, plays Liz Lemon, the head writer of a fictional sketch comedy show The Girlie Show. While she has a high-powered job and is accountable for a cast of less-than-mature men, she hardly has her shit together.
A monologue from last season had Lemon venting to a potential love interest: "I have been sexually rejected by not one but two guys who went to clown college. I get supernervous whenever I hear a vacuum cleaner, because when I was a kid my mom used to turn on the vacuum to drown out the sound of her and my dad fighting. Which is why I rarely vacuum my apartment. Like, never. I have had three doughnuts so far today. Once in college, I pooped my pants, a little bit, at a country steaks all-you-can-eat buffet. And I didn't leave until I finished my second plate of shrimp. A couple months ago, I went on a date with my cousin. Wow, I am a mess ... And I lied. I have had five doughnuts today."
A recent article in Bitch magazine argued that Lemon's "hilarious incompetence" is a cop-out to sexist stereotypes, but in today's comedic culture, I would disagree. Fey's character often baby-sits her co-workers, but she never feigns pleasure at it. She dates losers, but when they are caught on Catch-the-Predator shows, she breaks up with them and does not take them back. She worries about her caloric intake, but she plays it such that it's part of her neurosis, not her strength. At a fabulous party, she orders "pinot grigio: Is that OK?" In short, she's flawed. She's human. What's more feminist than that?
Also, compared to most sitcom mockups, in 30 Rock, male buffoonery is never confused with political impotence. Her boss, Jack Donaghy, as played by Alec Baldwin, is a mama's boy. That doesn't mean his power is never soft-pedaled. "I wasn't going to fire you," he scoffed at a subordinate last season, "I just wanted to remind you I could."
Fact is, for all the so-called alpha girls flooding the workplace, we're still looking at an 84 percent male Congress. For as much as women wield power in romantic comedies, in 2006, only 15 percent of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers and editors of the top 250 domestic grossing films were women. That's less than it was in 1998.
It's nice that the media has such confidence in women when they are scripting their female love interests and casting their doc dramas. Maybe it even will influence public perception on what they are capable of. But until more women start making the media themselves, it's hard to imagine characters of either sex will be allowed to truly grow up.