In theory, it's a good fall season for ladies on television — there are a considerable crop of new shows that are centered on women. The shows may not be good but at least they exist, we guess (must! stay! optimistic!). However, television's latest offerings haven't completely forgotten about the menfolk, and the fall lineup suggests some major male insecurity, manifested in a degree of contempt for and belittlement of women.
In the past few years we've seen an uptick in the number of television shows about strong, professional women (CBS's The Good Wife, NBC's Parks & Recreation, NBC's 30 Rock, FOX's Bones, NBC's Harry's Law) and while we are getting the American version of Prime Suspect this season, other newly-launched (and soon-to-launch), high-profile shows starring women portray ladies as sex objects and sex-object waitresses. The Washington Post's Hank Stuever nicely articulated the problem, noting that this season "It's all bunnies, baby dolls and broads — and bridezillas and bimbos, if you get into reality TV. It's still giggles and jiggles."
With shows taking women back to a time when their "place" was clearly defined and their sexuality was their currency, we sense some defensiveness. That seems all the more clear when looking at the shows about men, which belie a deep cultural anxiety about gender.
Let's start with ABC's new sitcom, Last Man Standing, starring that icon of stereotypical televised masculinity, Tim Allen. This is how the network describes it:
Today it's a woman's world, and this man's man is on a mission to get men back to their rightful place in society.
Okay, it's a woman's world, thanks! "Rightful place in society" — that sounds downright creepy. But let's talk about the show itself. In it, Allen plays Mike Baxter, who works at an outdoor sporting goods store (manly!) whose life at home is dominated by his wife and daughters (masculinity threatened!). The men of this world have been feminized, a supposed problem that manifests itself in tanning and grooming. At one point, Allen's character loses it:
What happened to men? We built civilizations. And when necessary, we destroyed them! We used to get stuff done. We drove cross country in Studebakers. We invented beef jerky. We got our hair cut by men named Hank! But men these days can't even change a tire. Hell, they run from responsibility, they run from fatherhood, and they even run from catalogs!
Because men are supposed to invent and lead and kill things and generally "be men" about things! But really, this battle cry nicely articulates that masculine insecurity and anxiety at the hands of the women who supposedly run the world.
Of ABC's other dude-centric pilot, Man Up, the network declares:
Three modern men try to get in touch with their inner tough guys and redefine what it means to be a ‘real man' in this funny and relatable comedy…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?
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.
Of course, this hand-wringing over the death of the dominant male is nothing new. Over the past decade there's been a lot of scholarship about the decline of men that blames women. There's plenty of scholarship on the matter (Christina Hoff Sommers' The War Against Boys, Kathleen Parker's Save the Males, Dennis Neder's Being a Man in a Woman's World, etc). So why are these shows cropping up now?
Answer: It's the economy, stupid. And this is clearly articulated in two more shows premiering this fall about men. The first, Worth It, comes courtesy of ABC (again). The network's promo line:
With unemployment an ongoing issue and women now outnumbering men in the workforce, the new comedy series ‘Worth It' follows two alpha males who realize the only way to beat the current ‘mancession' and land a job in pharmaceutical sales is to pass themselves off as women.
Add to that CBS's How To Be A Gentleman, which follows a prim-and-proper guy who's struggling to keep his job as a columnist:
Bert's a man's man, Andrew's a gentleman. This fall they will teach each other a little bit about becoming a better man!
The basic premises of these two shows may differ, but they share an underlying sentiment: Men must change in order to make a living. In Worth It, we have an economy that has literally forced men to become women, and in Gentleman, a man must reclaim his "lost" masculinity in order to keep his job. (Sounds like an awesome column.)
In all of the aforementioned shows, men and/or masculinity is threatened by women and/or femininity. You can thank the mancession for that; the media has so hammered into men's brains that they're the real victims while women in the workforce aren't in such bad shape. Now we see television capitalizing on that. Be it consciously or otherwise, these male-targeted shows are creating blatant ties between the rise of women and the fall of the economy.
And pop culture, thou doth protest too much.