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Isn't He Lovely: Five Signs of Masculinity in Crisis, Brought to You By the Fall TV Lineup

show logo for ABC fall premiere "man up!"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.

5: Minivans

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

How to Be A Gentleman promotional show showing David Hornsby who plays tea-drinking Andrew Carlson, a genteel etiquette columnist, and Kevin Dillon portrays milk-guzzling Bert Lansing, the infectiously optimistic owner of a fitness center.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.

Previously: It's Boom Time For Male Skin Bleaching, Bare Down There and Everywhere Else

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Comments

6 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Louis CK on the father subject.

Something Louis CK said on Real Time with Bill Maher jumped into my head with your last line, "Like a man." Bill asks him about the testosterone drop in men who parent their children. Louis has some serious gems:

http://www.hbo.com/real-time-with-bill-maher/index.html#/real-time-with-...

Am I The Only One Who Doesn't Think This Poop Is Funny?

Well.... am I? Ugh. If you're a REAL MAN, you can take what life throws at you, including driving the minivan, without whimpering, whining and freaking out about your MANHOOD. Give me a break; if my husband ever complained about how his MANHOOD was being taken away, or how he had to do such-and-such to restore his MANHOOD, we'd be so done. That's called insecurity; howcome people think it's "macho" - the exact opposite of what it is??

Was anyone else as insulted with Man Up!'s description as I am?

To reiterate, this part:

"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?"

With all the awareness of PTSD affecting veterans past and present, it's pretty dumb to glamorize going to war as a way to earn your man card. While I'm sure most veterans don't regret fighting for their country, I doubt they'd look back at their fighting days as a gay ol' gun-ho time. It's fine if the "Call of Duty" playing Will feels that way. He's playing a videogame, which has no lasting physical and psychological consequences, unlike real war. Actual war is a terrifying prospect that should not be taken lightly by a TV show that's dabbling in gender warfare (pun not intended). And yes, I'm aware that military ads have been guilty of shilling the "be a man by fighting for your country" card too, but recently, they've somewhat scaled back, and at least it's counter-balanced by other military supporters who are less reckless with that portrayal. But coming from people who obviously haven't fought in a war before? It's pretty offensive.

Speaking of commercials, this show only ads to the headache inducing "Bud Light" ads. Everytime one of those comes on, I want to strangle the producers who pitched the idea in the first place. Humiliating men to buy a product that many beer connoisseurs think tastes like watered down junk at best is not the way to increase sales, all while it hurts men who don't even drink their stupid beverage.

Good point about the military angle in "Man Up!"

Great point about the military angle. Hugo Schwyzer from the Good Men Project actually mentioned Army ("Be All You Can Be", "Army of One") in our interview. With the repeal of DADT, perhaps military recruitment advertising would be a good subject to explore to see how the masculinity implications may or may not have evolved with the rising role of women in the military, declining interest in enlisting, etc.

How would you do it?

Give us a go at your idea of a what a sit-com should be. I want to see the situation, the characters, some story lines, the advertisement and the products you would have the show endorse. Who knows, you could break into prime time.

I totally agree with your

I totally agree with your assessment of Up All Night- one of my favorite new shows this season. I love that shows are starting to develop female characters more, and have female leads that are actually funny because they're funny, not because they emulate some female stereotype like nagging or shopping addictions. I have to disagree partly about Whitney though (maybe just because I love her character and she reminds me of myself!). I think that it could definitely do without the aforementioned comments about males attitudes toward relationships and lack of "merriment" but I do think it has potential. I find her character smart, funny, and charmingly quirky, but like I said, that may just be me seeing a little of myself in her.