I realize that I'm the umpteenth blogger to toss in a couple pennies on the gender dynamics of the fall TV lineup, but I couldn't resist. Since "Isn't He Lovely" is examining social attitudes like "What Men Should Like Look Like" and "How to Perform the Tap Dance of Masculinity with Aplomb," the handful of male-in-crisis sitcoms debuting this season fit right into the narrative. For all the words that I've spilled on how men are tending to their pubic hair and pumping iron and generally not liking what they're seeing in the mirror—and also not wanting to talk about it due to the feminine associations of expressing dissatisfaction with their looks—these shows are out to grab heterosexual male America and shake his softened shoulders into action. One is even called Man Up! for heaven's sake.
Since media critics and feminists have already reviewed these shows and their cultural (and economic) implications up, down, and sideways, I decided to highlight some of the bits that jumped out at me. Particularly, signifiers of emasculation that many of these new sitcoms (especially Man Up!, Last Man Standing, and How to Be a Gentleman) employ to get their messages across. Yes, these are well-worn, laughable tropes, but it's worth a refresher course in the subtle (and not-so-subtle) masculinity messages delivered daily to men, just like junkmail of gender role myths women sort through.
So if you're keeping tabs on these new fall sitcoms, here are five warning signs that a man's masculinity is in crisis.
Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor from Home Improvement is now reincarnated as Mike Baxter. According to ABC, "You can't get manlier than Mike Baxter." And what on earth could that mean? That means that Mike ain't tooling around in a LadyMobile, aka the family minivan. When his wife informs him that she'd like to take the truck, he quips "You'll take the truck. I'll drive the minivan. You're not kidding right now, are you?"
Cue the laugh track! I bet that hybrid minivan even runs on estrogen, right, Mikey B?
4: Hazelnut Creamer
And we're not just talking any old artificially flavored coffee additive. We're talking non-dairy creamer. That's right: apparently, Will on Man Up! doesn't even possess the bravado to risk lactose intolerance, putting him one step closer to guzzling soy milk, at which point his penis will probably atrophy in a cliffhanger season finale.
From the Man Up! description:
"Will's grandfather fought in WWII. Will's father fought in Vietnam. Will plays Call of Duty on his PS3 and drinks non-dairy hazelnut creamer. So what happened to all the real men?"
As Alex Leo writes so beautifully at Jezebel:
"Huh. What we gather here is that ABC, which is the home of new femme-sploitation shows Pan Am and Charlie's Angels, seems to think that hazelnuts were invented by women to castrate dudes."
Man Up! doesn't even stop with with creamer insults, either.
3: Anything Pomegranate Scented
That Man Up! description really puts the nail in Will's masculinity coffin with this: "So what happened to all the real men? They're still here—they just smell like pomegranate body wash now."
You smell like an antioxidant-rich fruit, dude! Burn!
Interestingly, the show pitch goes on to criticize Axe commercials, which feature some of the most hyper-masculine, heteronormative, men-as-sex-hungry-animals ad campaigns in recent memory. And I'm pretty sure that none of their products contain even a whiff of pomegranate. But maybe any scent aside from musky body odor and military-issue bar soap smacks of femininity.
2: Dirty Dancing
Zooey Deschanel's The New Girl isn't among this batch of Masculinity in Crisis shows, but watching the premiere, I didn't feel any sense of progress on screen. Yes, Zooey D. rocks glasses, exhibits knowledge of J.R.R. Tolkien, and sings at random (a trait that I share with her fictional character). But! Watching Dirty Dancing on loop? C'mon. And the sign that the three hyper-hetero guys she moves in with will get in touch with their more sensitive (read: feminine) sides? They end up watching Dirty Dancing together and not totally hating it!
In the distance, Tim "The Tool Man" Taylor whimpers in the corner of a musty garage, which has been converted into a scrapbooking station, not a muscle car in sight.
1: Live-in Girlfriends
Here's a compelling shift in the "Ball & Chain" sitcom cliches. The long-term, live-in girlfriend is replacing the housewife nag. Lucille Ball, meet Whitney. Show tagline: "Always a trophy. Never a wife." But just because a couple isn't married doesn't mean a strong-willed woman can't drag a man down into the testosterone-draining pits of emasculation.
Jessica Grose at Slate calls readers' attention to this: "[Whitney's] boyfriend says things like, 'I have a girlfriend so I can't engage in any kind of merriment'—it's that old saw about wives and girlfriends being killjoys."
Indeed, these tropes are worn and tired, yet producers and writers thought they could inject them will a little pomegranate-scented Botox to hide the wear and tear. But I'm betting none of these shows (New Girl aside) will see it to a second season.
To end on a high note, however, there is one show that's been oddly left out of many of these recent conversations about the stable of Masculinity Crisis titles (many of which were reportedly inspired by Hanna Rosin's "End of Men" article for the Atlantic). I'm talking about Up All Night. The dynamics of this sitcom seem to most accurately represent the domestic gender-role shifts triggered by the recession. Will Arnett plays a lawyer-turned-full-time dad while Christina Applegate, who plays his wife, brings home the bacon. Does his character go on a non-dairy hazelnut creamer bender and drive the minivan into a brick wall? Nope. He actually seems to enjoy his wife's company and he works with her through the new familial challenges he faces. Like a man.