Written by Stephanie Rogers. Originally published at Bitch Flicks. Cross-posted with permission.
People have made a big deal out of the new Fall television shows because many of these new shows star women, either as leads or in ensemble casts. Some shows have yet to premiere, while others, like Whitney, 2 Broke Girls, and New Girl already debuted in early September. But, get this: I don’t have cable. I used to have cable, but then I realized I often watched 47 hours of television in one sitting, rather than the 25 I watch now (via Netflix streaming—even though Netflix refuses to offer hardly anything current, which makes their price-hike all the more infuriating). So I get my news from Twitter, my feminism from Blogs, and my TV from 1995.
Aside from thinking about how Monk could’ve been a really good show if it weren’t so sexist and racist, and how Roseanne got seriously crappy in its last two seasons, and how Ally McBeal might be the most horrendous televised display of faux-feminism slash enlightened sexism I’ve ever seen, I’ve spent some time going over these new Fall television shows by checking out their Web sites, reading their plot summaries, and—my favorite part—looking at how The People In Charge chose to market them. I noticed an overall trend: in addition to the increase in shows starring women, we’re about to be treated to a whole litany of Man-Shows.
When I say “Man-Shows,” I don’t mean television programming that merely stars men. I’m talking about some serious “Lest Anyone Forget—What With All These New Shows Starring Women—WE ARE STILL VERY POWERFUL MASCULINE MEN ON TV WE OWN EVERYTHING NO SERIOUSLY ROAR” Neanderthal action. I find it simultaneously hilarious and unacceptable. As always, both men and women get to see themselves as caricatures and stereotypes—courtesy of society’s regressive gender constraints—portrayed in television, particularly on network TV. Some of the more offensive “Man-Shows” this season include, Man Up!, How to Be a Gentleman, and Last Man Standing. In fact, NPR just published an excellent piece by Linda Holmes titled, “Congratulations, Television! You Are Even Worse at Masculinity Than Femininity!” in which she asks the following:
… 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?
All good questions indeed.
I’m sure the male characters in these shows are total clichés portrayed in absolutes—or, as Holmes notes, “Men who are emotionally reactive … are weak; men who are emotionally inert … are clueless.” I also believe that the major force driving these narratives about manhood and masculinity is a direct result of our society’s fear and hatred of the feminine. In the very narrow worlds of film and television, isn’t it more often other men who label emotionally reactive men “weak,” … while women label emotionally inert men “clueless”? Men can’t win in these worlds; that’s certainly true. It starts at the beginning, with our collective call for boys to “stop acting like whiny little girls”—because, as boys and girls both learn, being a girl is The Worst.
My point? This very limited view of gender and gender expectations isn’t a new trend. And, while I agree with Holmes’ take in general, I don’t see these portrayals as having worsened in TV, either. I see them as possibly more overt this season, and I see the Man-Shows as an obvious reaction (i.e. backlash) against the increase in shows about women and the displays of femininity that accompany them. And if what Holmes says is in fact true, that “In both cases, women don’t want to have sex with them [weak and clueless men], even if they’re married to them,” I actually find it much easier to swallow than I do the Apatowian version of that story, where emotionally stunted man-children all across the globe end up living happily ever after (and sexually fulfilled) with Katherine Heigl and Elizabeth Banks.
Holmes also expresses concern over the “silly women” in Fall television but ultimately argues, “At least they are not presented as women who are being women incorrectly,” (you know, the way men are presented as being men incorrectly). I find that statement interesting. I mean, if you take a close look at the roles women play on these brand spankin’ new TV shows, the “at least women aren’t presented as being women incorrectly” argument doesn’t hold up. It’s funny, actually. Because the definitions of what these women are even allowed to be on television certainly trumps any notion of whether they’re being it correctly. (Besides, I’m about 175% sure that women judging women or men judging women for dressing too slutty or being bad moms/teachers/wives/sisters or gaining weight or not gaining weight or smiling or not smiling happens about three thousand times per episode. On each show.)
Here’s a list of woman-centered shows premiering September through November, along with the roles and/or occupations of the women (when I could find the information on the Web site): a murder witness (Ringer), a wife, career woman, and mom (Up All Night), a witch (The Secret Circle), waitresses (2 Broke Girls), Playboy bunnies (The Playboy Club), a teacher (New Girl), a homicide detective (Unforgettable), a vengeful woman (Revenge), beautiful detectives (Charlie’s Angels), an unmarried woman (Whitney), a homicide detective (Prime Suspect), flight attendants (Pan Am), a doctor (Hart of Dixie), a CIA agent (Homeland), clueless moms (I Hate My Teenage Daughter), a “crazy” health and beauty executive (Enlightened).
I look at this list, and my first instinct is to go, “Yay! Women get to be detectives, too!” And that’s certainly progress—if we’re comparing this Fall TV season to, like, the days of Leave It to Beaver. The rest of the roles on the list, with the exception of “doctor,” embody careers/roles traditionally held and/or performed by women. That isn’t to suggest anything inherently negative about those roles; I’m merely stating a fact. I wouldn’t doubt that most of the women characters in the male-dominated fields (homicide detective, doctor, CIA agent) also get the wonderful bonus of being The Lone Woman, spending 90% of her time surrounded by men (Smurfette Principal, anyone?) …
… shit, maybe I’m defining “woman-centered” too loosely, out of desperation.
Here’s a list of man-centered shows premiering September through November, along with the roles and/or occupations of the men (when I could find the information on the Web site): a former CIA agent (Person of Interest), a mysterious billionaire (Person of Interest), a surgeon (A Gifted Man), a writer (How to Be a Gentleman), a personal trainer (How to Be a Gentleman), a marketing director (Last Man Standing), an insurance salesman (Man Up!), a homicide detective (Grimm), a mayor (Boss), a soldier (Hell on Wheels).
Can I be a mysterious billionaire? I want that role. Or Mayor. Can I be Mayor? Ha. I think I need to step back. First, it stinks that TV wants to get in on that whole man-child bankability thing that the movie industry has relied on since, what, Animal House? But the man-child isn’t really a new thing for TV, is it? (See Friends, Arrested Development, The Big Bang Theory, Parks and Recreation, My Name Is Earl, Monk, et al.) Instead, the novel thing for Fall TV appears to be the man-child’s sudden mission to Reclaim His Masculinity—a popular yet very regressive and harmful version of masculinity that, let’s face it, kept George W. Bush in the White House for eight years.
Second, make no mistake, TV stinks big-time for women this season, too. I refuse to fall into the trap I used to always fall into. I’d say something like, “Look! More woman-centered shows! Progress for women!” But now I know better—it ain’t just about visibility. (See Palin, Bachmann, et al.) Women as Playboy bunnies? It’s 2011. You can take your nostalgia and shove it. A woman having a nervous breakdown to the laughter of audiences everywhere? I already do that every day in real life. (I just laughed out loud.) In conclusion, I’d like to get to a point in television where women can be more than crazy, vengeful, murder-witnessing waitresses babysitting a man-child.
Yes. This entire post was merely a lead-in to the phrase “murder-witnessing waitresses babysitting a man-child.” You’re welcome.
Stephanie Rogers holds Bachelor’s degrees in English and Women’s Studies from The Ohio State University, a Master’s in English and Comparative Literature from the University of Cincinnati, and a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry. In 2008, she and Amber Leab co-founded Bitch Flicks, a feminist film review site that advances “the radical notion that women like good movies.” Her poems have appeared online, as well as in the Best New Poets anthology. She lives in a very tiny studio apartment in Brooklyn.
Stephanie previously contributed the cross-post, “On Rape, the Media, and the New York Times Clusterfuck,” originally published at Bitch Flicks.