Salon's review of two shows about middle-aged guys who still act like frat bros reveals that while we often complain about roles for women in TV and movies, roles for men aren't that awesome either. Here are some exceptions:
First, a description of the problem. Salon's Heather Havrilesky introduces her review of the TV shows The League and Men of a Certain Age with this depressing assessment:
[W]hile it's still unnerving to observe the casual arrogance of a gaggle of young men in their prime — their baseball caps molded into the perfect C shape, their boxer shorts peeking out above their low-slung jeans, the almost prissily self-aggrandizing set of their broad, hairless shoulders — watching that same smug spirit butt stubbornly from within the cramped confines of adult life can be surprisingly poignant. Because even as the older guy's guy accepts the responsibilities and burdens of demanding wives, pesky children, gigantic mortgages, tedious jobs and arthritic knees, even as he gives in to the perils of prostate checks and surrenders to the burden of acknowledging people's feelings and succumbs to the unbearable reality of neurotic teenage offspring and little motorized devices that yank the stray hairs out of his nose, there's some small part of him that is never completely at peace with this shackled, neutered state. Something deep inside him can still feel that tacky, spilled-beer floor under the soles of his shoes, some part of him can hear the faint strains of "Louie, Louie" playing on some quad far, far away, some stubborn cells at his core can still smell the Polo cologne and the cup-a-noodles heating up in the mini microwave.
Are these really the choices for men? "Louie, Louie"-loving frat boy or "neutered" married guy? Yes, I'm aware that television offers men plenty of chances to solve crimes, diagnose obscure ailments, and bed beautiful women — but personality-wise, many TV men seem pretty arrested. Women may have hookers, victims, and doormats to choose from, but guys have assholes, man-children, and slobs. But there are a few awesome men on television, a few who — aside from the flaws every human being has — a boy would be lucky to grow up to be.
Tim Gunn, Project Runway
Nurturing yet firm, Tim Gunn is the perfect surrogate parent to the sometimes childish contestants of Project Runway. He knows what he likes, but he's not a dick about it, and he genuinely wants to help designers make beautiful things and average people look their best. Yes, I know Tim Gunn is actually a real person and not a "character," but I'm assuming his persona on Project Runway isn't all there is to him. However, that persona — unflappable yet light-hearted, with the grace to say "Macy's accessory wall" repeatedly without sounding like an idiot — is pretty awesome in itself. TV's couch-dwelling slobs could learn a lot from Tim.
Image via Boston.com.
Admiral William Adama, Battlestar Galactica
Adama doesn't always make the right decisions, and he's a little over-reliant on military solutions for political problems. But he's a man of principle, someone who's been given enormous power over the human race and manages (largely) not to misuse it. You won't see him screwing around with interns — in fact, Adama's very supportive and fair to the women under his command, as his close mentorship of Starbuck (though that, too, has its faultlines) shows. Battlestar Galactica has some of the best female characters of any sci-fi show, and part of that has to do with the gender equality of the Colonial Fleet, for which Adama bears (fictional) responsibility. Male bosses, take note.
Image via LA Times.
Capt. Jean-Luc Picard, Star Trek: The Next Generation
Yeah, okay, I'm a nerd. But I'm a discerning nerd, and I'm not a big fan of Captain Kirk's swashbuckling, lady-killing approach to the universe. Capt. Picard, however, shows that being bald can be hot, ordering tea can be cool, and, most importantly, being thoughtful can be manly. Picard spends just as much time puzzling over the moral implications of contact with alien races as he does firing his phaser, and he shows over and over again that the brain is mightier than the sword. Margaret says her brother "always says he learned everything he knows about respecting other cultures from Captain Picard," and I'm hoping some of the Captain's awesomeness rubbed off on my brother as well.
Detective Elliot Stabler, Law & Order: SVU
I struggled with this one, because Stabler has a lot of problems. He brutalizes suspects, he has rage issues, and he can seem unpleasantly narrowminded. But just as great female characters don't have to be perfect saints, a male character can still be compelling even if you don't like everything he does. And what's refreshing about Stabler is that he's a capital-A Adult who cares deeply about his family — even when his marriage on the rocks — and doesn't shy away from responsibility. I don't approve of his interrogation methods or his politics, but I do think Stabler could teach The League's overgrown frat boys a thing or two about growing up.
Cliff Huxtable, The Cosby Show
Cliff Huxtable the character had a big cultural influence, given that The Cosby Show was one of the first to depict middle-class black family life. But Cliff himself was also a big influence on his family, an involved dad who actually enjoyed spending time with his kids. Contrast him with one of the dads from The League, who says, "If Sophia and I split up, 50 percent of my time I would have to spend 100 percent of my time with my kid. Right now, I'm rocking like 50 percent coverage 30 percent of my time, you cannot beat those numbers" — and you might just want to take a trip back to the eighties. But you don't have to — as Kate says, "though he's not exactly in the Cliff Huxtable mold," Darnell from My Name Is Earl is the "only character on that show with a brain and a conscience, and also not a bad dad."
In Defense Of The Aging Frat Boy [Salon]