Is unfunny the new funny and nobody told me?
Movies, for once, seem to be doing all right on avoiding sexism; I credit Hailee Steinfeld, whether this is warranted or not. (Full disclosure: I spend a lot of time ignoring the hell out of movies, so I could be totally off base here.) But TV is another story.
There are no less than three new sitcoms that bemoan the erosion of traditional masculinity -- in other words, the rise to slightly-less-lack-of-power of women. (And gay men, and straight men who own moisturizer.)
For my money the worst of the lot is “Last Man Standing,” produced by and starring Tim Allen, in which the manly-man father of three girls tries to help raise his grandson into a boyly-boy. (It took half an episode before I realized that the kid’s name was “Boyd” with a D.)
The commercial breaks aren’t a break, either: Dr Pepper is now marketing a type of not-quite-diet soda that’s billed as “not for women,” and advertised with explosions and other macho posturing. (Miller Light also had that gross “unmanly things” campaign this summer, but it’s Miller Light so who really cares.)
Now, in a sense this is a boon, because there’s always that one dude claiming that sexism is over because women can have pants and wear jobs. In theory, you could now point them to Tim Allen going “man man mannity man” and maybe they’d see the light. In practice, though, they’d just program their Tivo, so never mind that idea.
Mostly, these shows and ads do both men and women a disservice by struggling to reinforce really boring, dated ideas of gendered behavior and hierarchy. Linda Holmes of NPR has already written the definitive piece on why these defense-of-masculinity shows are offensive to men, so I won’t go into that too much; I’ll just mention that this type of girls-have-cooties sexism isn’t about individual men and their strengths and weaknesses at all, but about reinforcing gender roles and hierarchies. They aim to champion Man-ness, while being a total affront to actual decent men.
But the other thing about reinforcing traditional roles is that everybody’s heard this one before. I think these shows fancy themselves cheeky and edgy and willing to “go there,” but in fact they’re just the same old schtick.
Because to be honest, it’s not that it offends me. It just really, really doesn’t make me laugh. Humor comes from incongruity and subverting expectations -- it’s funny when the underdog lampoons the fat cat, and just mean the other way around, because when the powerful laugh at the powerless it’s standard office procedure. Turning the tables is funny because it’s unusual; leaving the tables exactly where they are has no humor value whatsoever.
It’s not surprising that someone like Tim Allen would want to defend manliness by mocking femininity. It’s the very unsurprisingness, in fact, that makes it not funny. The thing about trading on hoary old stereotypes of what’s Real Manliness and what’s Only For Ladies is that they are hoary and old.
I believe that people laugh at crusty stereotypes. Anyone who’s been to a family holiday dinner believes that. But when people laugh at hackneyed jokes from a position of power, it’s not because the jokes are funny, in the sense that they make you think twice or use your brain at all. It’s the laughter of the top dog scoffing at his inferiors. That’s fun for the top dog, but it doesn’t make good TV for the rest of us.
But presumably TV ads and network sitcoms are not the airwave equivalent of Blogspot -- you can’t just get stuff on the air without it being seen by a lot of eyeballs. Which means a lot of people looked at this tired stuff and thought it was funny enough to give it a prime-time slot. Maybe they did just confuse contempt and humor, but I wonder if if they genuinely thought it was funny, i.e., surprising and subversive, because they think the tables have already turned. I wonder if they think women have become so powerful, with their jobs and their pants, that they’re now the ruling party, or at least in danger of becoming so. I wonder if they think they’re taking clever potshots at a new overclass.
Because that’s the not-really-unstated thesis of shows like “Last Man Standing:” that Lady Stuff in general, and women in particular, are getting too much power and need to be taken down a peg. The focus on bolstering “real masculinity” is just part of a threatened scramble to maintain superiority. That means it isn’t funny so much as sad.