Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Femininity and Masculinity in Television

Linda Holmes at NPR's Monkey See is pretty brilliant, y'all. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I totally have a crush on her. Call me, Linda.

The story that prompted this particular outburst of hearts is her dissection of masculinity in television. While allowing for the idea that there are extremely problematic representations of women and femininity on television, she argues that the current crop of television sitcoms might be even worse for men. She discusses How To Be A Gentleman, Last Man Standing, Man Up, and Work It in particular.

Sarah Haskins, the brilliant person who brought us Target Women, has pointed this out before in her skit on doofy husbands.

Holmes makes a whole bunch of good points, and you should just go read her column. I'll wait!

Back? Okay. So one of the things Holmes talks about here is the concept of "realness." These horrid new shows are talking about what it means to be a "real" man. It's my sense that we've been in a crisis-of-masculinity moment for awhile now. If not, we wouldn't be panicking about a mom painting her very young son's toenails pink in a J. Crew ad. We wouldn't have to be aware that Tim Allen still exists. So these shows seem to be about showing their male characters how to be Men. And, because I'm an educator and think everything has pedagogical implications, they're probably teaching American men how to be "real," too. But they're not looking at masculinity through any kind of queer lens, so they have a defined vision of manhood that is based in a straight and cis view of it. Best not be too dapper, or one might be associated with femininity (which is bad) (I mean, duh).

So, the fact that women might be getting better representation on the screen doesn't strike me as a triumph of feminism. I'm thinking that instead of the power dynamic shifting in women's favor, there's a (perhaps subconscious) attempt at asking for a reassertion of the culture of masculinity, which is defined in clearly specific ways. Now, I don't think that all the men involved in these shows behave in the way men are portrayed on screen, and I think that a lot of the times they're probably saying something about how idiotic these men are. But there's something going on, and I don't think they shows are trying to make a point about how we've been too rigid about gender norms in our cultural history. You know?

Here's the thing: Even if the people involved in the show aren't endorsing this view of masculinity, they're still putting it out there, and there are going to be plenty of people who watch it and laugh knowingly and incorporate it - again, perhaps subconsciously - in their ideas about gender and how to properly perform it.

I don't think I can even get into how repulsive I find the concept of Work It, the show in which men dress in drag because they feel it is the only way to get ahead in the work force. I'll just say this: It's a fucking disaster. I know they're not presenting as trans people, they're dressing in drag, but in real life people who crossdress or are known to be drag performers often face a certain amount of revulsion from their bigoted cis straight colleagues. And I've talked about it before, but it bears repeating: trans people are underprivileged in the work force, get mistreated by the police, and generally have a harder time dealing with institutions like the health care industry than cis people do. To say that men should just "dress like women" and then they'll get ahead in the work force is to erase any discussion of trans issues. It's also making a pointed case for the fact that men feel so very disadvantaged that they'll do something horrifyingly misogynistic just to get a job they seem to feel entitled to. Which they are not.

These shows leave no room for a discussion of queerness, or the idea that being a feminine man (regardless of sexual orientation or trans status) is awesome. They are making life harder for people with non-normative expression because they are reifying gender normativity. Trans people, gender queer people, butch lesbians, etc., are also harmed by this. If there is a limited idea of what is acceptable for a man, it also limits what is acceptable for a woman, because if women are masculine, then what happens to masculine men? They can't stake out their ground on a constantly shifting landscape.

These television shows are being gender police, is what I'm saying. I advise against watching them. Does anyone have any shows they'd like to suggest as having less problematic views of gender, for those of us who do occasionally enjoy watching the teevee?

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