In For Fall: Overt Sexism

The thing about reinforcing traditional gender roles is that everybody’s heard this one before. New shows and ads fancy themselves cheeky and edgy and willing to “go there,” but in fact they’re just the same old schtick.

Oct 26, 2011 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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Is unfunny the new funny and nobody told me?
 
Because Hollywood and Madison Avenue both seem to have gotten the idea that it was time to move beyond insidious, pervasive sub rosa sexism and go straight for the obvious stuff.
 
All over the airwaves this season, there’s a type of self-congratulatory masculinity that depends on purging everything ladylike from one’s consciousness.

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.)  
 
In these shows, women get to be human beings, at least compared to the traditional sitcom caricature, so that’s a relief -- but men either are or want to be Neanderthals, reclaiming their rightful place in the balance of power by purging themselves of everything lady-tinged.

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.)
 
Allen’s character, Mike, is so anti-womanliness that he’s physically pained by the words “tanning salon,” and he shows visible disgust after he praises a young coworker for the manliness of his name (Kyle) and the kid says it was actually his mother’s maiden name. Also, he does a lot of ranting about Men These Days on the Internet.
 
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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.)
 
Advertising pretty much always features a downright emetic level of stereotyping, so it takes some real effort and care to become far and away the most unsubtly sexist ad on TV right now. But Dr Pepper was up to the challenge.

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.
 
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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.
 
Also, special aside to Dr Pepper: Yorkie Bars have been doing the whole “not for girls” thing since the ‘70s. And it was kind of played out even then.

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.