How to Make a Critically Acclaimed TV Show About Masculinity

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About Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte hails from Texas, but resides in Brooklyn, New York, according to the laws governing the proper placement of freelance writers and feminist gadflies. She blogs regularly for Pandagon and Double X, and writes and podcasts for RH Reality Check. She's written two books on politics, It's A Jungle Out There and Get Opinionated.

Comments

  1. Kirsten (in MT) says:

    But for all the feminism on TV, high quality dramas about women haven’t taken off.

    Castle?

  2. The Bad Man says:

    These shows are just all bad stereotypes and have very little to do about masculinity. What would a woman know about that anyway?

    • @Bad Man
      Dude have I got the book for you…’SELF-MADE MAN: ONE WOMAN’S JOURNEY INTO MANHOOD AND BACK AGAIN,’ BY NORAH VINCENT

      Long story short a Women (lesbian) goes into full drag and impersonates be a man for a year and a half, she ends up in a mental institution.

      This is an academic observation of the unspoken laws of man. It’s well written truthful and enlightening. But that’s not why you should get this book,

      No my friend, it’s the payback you want…

      You should get this book for the payback. The sweet sweet vengeance of having…

       (warning this could get graphic)….

       a women figuratively getting  bent over a pool table by the same rules of attraction that’s been giving men the business since time began.

      The chapter in which she documents her experiences of trying to pick up women at a night club dressed as a scrawny preppy looking 5’11 160 pounder is so sadistically decadent that you’ll be reading chapter 3 with your selection white wine sangria and camembert cheese…. It is just that brutal!

      She also taught me how pathetic strip clubs are. It’s really worth a look.

  3. Have you watched The Good Wife? That is a very high quality drama that challenges traditional gender roles…

  4. Buffy? Veronica Mars? The Good Wife? Battlestar Galactica?

    • Buffy isn’t a drama and it went off the air in 2003. Veronica Mars was cancelled in 2007 (and IME was more critically-acclaimed than popular, although it has a devoted audience). Battlestar Galactica went off the air in 2009 (also, since it’s set in a completely different timeline, we can’t really expect either the male or female characters to be struggling with modern gender roles). The Good Wife may someday become as popular as the shows that Marcotte mentioned, but it’s not there yet. I wonder if you understand what Marcotte was saying about current television series?

      • What is Buffy if not a drama? It’s not exactly a comedy or a documentary. And yes, off the air. But off the air after seven seasons. I don’t think you get to dismiss it that easily. As for BSG, whenever its set, it’s viewed now. Which means it has the interpretations of gender that now has just as surely as the SHatner star trek had the interpretations of gender then (women don’t do much, and even having them on board is somewhat surprising).

      • abyssobenthonic says:

        If you add The Good Wife to the shows Marcotte listed, it would almost certainly be the ratings winner. It’s already more popular than anything listed!

        The Good Wife: 13 million viewers, on average
        The Sopranos: 8-10 million viewers is a good guess (Nielsen’s methodology for most of the show’s run overstates viewership by counting the entire HBO constellation of channels as one)
        Mad Men: 2-3 million viewers
        The Wire: somewhere under The Sopranos
        Breaking Bad: 2-3 million viewers
        Friday Night Lights: 4-6 million viewers

        and so forth…

  5. weeds?

  6. Show that wasn’t mentioned?

  7. I love this article and love the shows discussed. (Though, like others, I think Amanda dropped ball by being unaware, apparently, of plenty of shows featuring compelling female leads). I’d add DEXTER in the mix, as well, by the way — where Dexter is a man always trying to fit in as a man by adopting the disguises of men.

    I wanted to add, however, that these themes aren’t new. Nor were they introduced by feminism. They’ve been around in stories forever. Go take a look at post-WWII movies, for example.

    These kinds of stories are new to *television* — which created a warped, anxiety free genre of storytelling that ruled the airwaves for 30 years.

    • Maybe female dramas are slow to come by because Women for the most part have this wealth of emotional freedom to self identify while  Men are confined to defend “MANHOOD AT ALL COST!.

      Obviously Woman hood doesn’t need such a vigorous defense because it can’t be taken from women for not holding up the moral code.

      I guess thats why Television seems to be flooded with well-adjusted women and Bad Boys ;Bones, House, the Good Wife etc.  

      this is one Of the best articles that I’ve read in a while.

  8. I’m glad someone mentioned Buffy, Veronica Mars, The Good Wife, and Battlestar Galactica. While Battlestar Galactica was an ensemble cast, it definitely offered some fantastic female characters whose arcs were fundemental to the overall plot of the show. Starbuck, Boomer, and President Roslin were more than just water-carriers for the male characters.

    The point about women in comedy holds true also for female characters in genre television, but aside from True Blood no other genre shows were mentioned. Here are a few that were overlooked:

    * Myka Bering from Syfy’s Warehouse 13
    * Dr. Helen Magnus from Syfy’s Sanctuary (and also Amanda Tapping’s other role as Col. Samantha Carter in Stargate)
    * Audrey Parker from Syfy’s Haven
    * Echo from Joss Whedon’s The Dollhouse
    * Fringe’s Olivia Dunham

    Even if genre TV isn’t your cuppa joe, several non-genre characters weren’t mentioned either: Annie Walker from Covert Affairs (and also her boss Joan Campbell — although I wish someone would give that woman some sleeves once in a while) and Mary Shannon on In Plain Sight. I write a weekly blog highlighting strong female characters in movies, TV, and books and have been wondering if I should keep doing it. This article just convinced me that, yes I should, because clearly people aren’t hearing about some great female characters out there.

  9. game of thrones has some pretty strong female characters as well

  10. Ban Johnson says:

    1) Six Feet Under, Deadwood, and Dexter deserve a place in the pantheon of great recent TV shows, far more than, say, Justified, True Blood, or The Walking Dead.

    2) One could write an even more sweeping essay about how the primary theme of recent quality TV is the personal struggle between the will-to-power and morality/humanity in late capitalist society.. Tony Soprano, Walter White, Nate Fisher, etc… sure, these characters all struggle with finding a way to define what it is to be a good man, and do so in part within the context of their relationships with women.. But their primary struggle seems to be between love of money and power, which so much around them lionizes, and more ethereal values.

  11. As for women in lead drama roles I want to throw in Rizzoli and Isles and The Closer on TNT and another new show on Lifetime called Against the Wall. Its about a woman who gets promoted to detective but the only opening available is in the Internal Affairs division, much to the joy of her grandfather (who is deceased), father, and three older brothers who are all cops. While gender does come up I have to say that its done in a pretty decent manner such as in one of the first episodes she had to deal with a guy in the office that was sexually harassing her and another in which had a male cop that was being abused by his wife (although neither was examined as nicely as I would have liked them to be).

    Oh and big shout out to Gabrielle Anwar (Fiona) and Sharon Gless (Madeline Weston) of Burn Notice.

    • Those 30 or over will remember the Cosby Show. It’s too bad there weren’t/aren’t more shows like that. It showed what good men and women mean to their families. Although not a drama, it had some good messages. An intact A-A family with two accomplished professional parents who weren’t so preoccupied wiht their careers that they were aloof and disconnected from their kids or each other, and where the father was not a complete baffoon with the mother as the only grown-up in the house. What a concept.

      Dr. Huxtable was a father who was close to his kids, providing loving guidance and discipline. As a result, he was loved and respected by all his kids. A long time married couple who fussed but weren’t at each other’s throats. A husband and father who, although not perfect, knew how to be a leader without being a dominator. In my book, those are the qualities of a good man, no matter the time.

      • Yes I remember the Cosby Show and you’re right. There were moments when Dr. Huxtable was the butt of the joke but for the most part he was a good dad and husband. Compare that to today’s shows like The Simpsons where Homer being the butt of the joke is a main attraction of the show.

        • Dr. Huxtable was also the main joke-ster, obviously. I have no problem with him (the dad, the man) being the butt of jokes as long he’s not portrayed as a helpless baffoon child. Everybody should be the butt of jokes sometimes, the dad, the mom, kids, grandma, everybody – because we’re all human and do dumb things.

    • My mind isn’t made up yet about Fiona, but Madeline Weston is a fantastic character. Much like Sam Axe, Fiona is simply a foil for Michael, while his mother has a much more developed backstory. We also get a better sense that Madeline has a life outside of her relationship with her son. Fiona, on the other hand, is one mean fighting machine, she’s also the stereotypical woman waiting around for Michael to get his romantic act together. I’m tired of her being tired of Michael’s inability to commit. When Jesse joined the cast, I thought she might move on from Michael, which would actually teach him a lesson and create an opportunity for character growth instead of simply rehashing the same Michael-Fiona commitment conflict over and over again.

      Also, I miss The Cosby Show too. The episode where Denise meets Martin — and how Clair challenges Martin’s assumptions about gender roles in marriage — really stuck with me. I’m so tired of the family sitcom with the buffoon husband too.

      • I give the shout out to Fiona because, despite what you say about her relationship with Micheal which I agree with even the hope there would be some serious Fiona x Jesse action, she pretty well smashes the notion that only men can be kickass fighters.

        One episode this season had her and Jesse planning to sneak into a house full of armed guards. Jesse says it would be best if he went in the house but before he could get the “because…” Fiona reminds him that she will hit him if he brings up gender. But in fact Jesse made the recommendation because she’s better at giving cover fire (implying that whoever went in the house would likely come running out in need of cover fire). And while she does the predictable femme fatale stuff she has a lot of genuine badass moments.

  12. The exclusion of Six Feet Under is notable, as it is often mentioned in the same breath with The Sopranos as the show that helped inaugurate the modern TV drama. It’s interesting that in 6FU, the patriarch character dies in the first episode, and therefore the show becomes less of a “patriarch struggling with the demands of the modern world” show, and more of an investigation (first season) of the damage caused by the patriarch to his own family, followed by various attempts by the characters to re-define themselves outside of his worldview.

    Game of Thrones is also an interesting omission, albeit a) it’s a new show, and b) it’s fantasy and therefore deep in the genre ghetto. While the first novel in the series arguably had no main character, the series itself centers pretty clearly upon the Starks, notably the patriarch Ned Stark, and his trials and tribulations dealing with the world. It’s fairly clear the writers and showrunners decided to TV-ize the series partly by creating this Sopranos-style “fallen patriarch.” Given the subsequent events of the series, it will be interesting to see how the characters recover – will another “fallen patriarch” emerge, or will it go the 6FU route and show characters who attempt to redefine themselves?

    Great article.

  13. Are you watching the same Mad Men I am?

    Mad Men is a romance novel fantasy for women – about a world where powerful men bed hot young women. Men are constantly pushing women into corners and then groping, kissing and then bedding them. I have yet to see a scene where women give explicit consent.

    This of course is because despite what feminists tell society about what women want (equality, sensitivity), what women actually want are dominant men, and all that goes with it.

    Mad Men delivers this fantasy, complete with a full cast of different types of dominant alpha men (Don, Roger, Peter) – who rip through a cast of young women. The writers consistently portray these dominant men as likeable, getting the audience to identify with them, exploring their inner character etc, even as it creates over the top sex fantasies (e.g. Roger riding on the back of a willing model like a pony).

    It affirms and exalts a “retrograde” 60′s masculinity – that women are afraid to admit they crave.

    Your analysis of the Sopranos is equally off. Those mafia guys – are portrayed as committed family men – and that does mean some give and take with their wives and children. But again and again that story (like all hero stories) portrays the men taking charge when necessary to protect their families. People love mafia stories because guys like Tony (and Vito Coreleone, Michael Coreleone etc.) are powerful men who can be counted on to take charge. Their women shrink behind them when there is danger.

    Instead what you see in these stories all the time is a contrast between powerful assertive men, and weak men. The weak are abandoned by their women and in stories with violence are later killed,

    Betty orbits Don and the story drives home the same point over and over: when is weak (e.g. caught lying, not a assertive, with self doubts, weepy) she considers leaving. When he is strong – dominant, protective – she forgives everything and comes running back. When in the moments when she is weak she gravitates only in the direction of a men who are also powerful dominant alphas.

    Not all women enjoy stories that lay out these fundamental truths so bare. For them we have “vampire fiction”. Here the same ancient tropes about dominant men, scooping up damsels, are portrayed at their cartooniest extremes. But we give them a palliative for a guilty conscience: vampires operate by different rules.

    • “Mad Men is a romance novel fantasy for women – about a world where powerful men bed hot young women. Men are constantly pushing women into corners and then groping, kissing and then bedding them. I have yet to see a scene where women give explicit consent.”

      I write romance and science fiction novels. What you just said is the stereotype of the romance from thirty years ago, not the real thing. I’ve, in fact, never watched Mad Men because the premise as you just described it so turned me off. The vast majority of the romances that I read fit better in with the other description you provided: “committed family men – and that does mean some give and take with their wives and children.”

      “This of course is because despite what feminists tell society about what women want (equality, sensitivity), what women actually want are dominant men, and all that goes with it.”

      Oh, please. I like your analysis of the characters in Mad Men, but don’t go jumping to such huge conclusions about a whole gender based on one TV show.

    • boxiebrown says:

      What an incredibly obtuse and wrongheaded analysis.

      Have fun never getting laid, dude.

    • Lots of people are wrong about lots of things in boring, trivial ways. The spectacular character of the wrongness of your interpretation of Mad Men is very special indeed.

    • Just to underline. The wrongness. Really spectacular.

  14. Breaking Bad is another example of the exact opposite of what you claim it is. That chemistry teacher was a pussy-whipped little man child being dominated by his wife. She was 100% correct in having contempt for him. But then cancer backs him against a wall and he grows a pair of balls.

    It is a story of how a weak man can embrace a dominant masculine role, protect his family, and regain the love of his wife. Every woman would way sooner be married to the that bald violent shit-kicker than the bent backed high school teacher he replaced.

    For that matter, on Mad Men, you would think that feminists would all want to be Peggy. The truth is – in your black little heart Amanda – you have an itch to be Betty.

  15. say again please? says:

    “Quisling” means “traitor.” Otherwise, nice article.

  16. “In the meantime, this feminist won’t feel guilty about watching a parade of fascinating men with power issues butt up against a world where the old, clear-cut rules of manhood don’t apply any longer. In the real world, strongly defined gender roles have started to fail men, and the men who thrive in the changing world are the ones who have the flexibility to get past the straightjacket of traditional masculinity.”

    You know, not all defined gender roles are bad. Sure, maybe they’re not for you and that’s fine. But they work for others, and that doesn’t make those people backwards, antiquated or incorrect. The idea that the only men who can thrive and be successful nowadays are the ones who conform to your personal view of manhood is pretty warped to say the least. If a man came on here and started defining specific, narrow-minded ways women could be successful, feminists such as yourself would be in upheaval. Yet it’s perfectly acceptable for you to set the parameters of what it takes to be a “thriving” man in today’s society.

    Riiiiight…

  17. “In the meantime, this feminist won’t feel guilty about watching a parade of fascinating men with power issues butt up against a world where the old, clear-cut rules of manhood don’t apply any longer. In the real world, strongly defined gender roles have started to fail men, and the men who thrive in the changing world are the ones who have the flexibility to get past the straightjacket of traditional masculinity.”
    am

    and yet the men who HAVE pushed past ‘traditional masculinity’ – feminist men – seem to be less appealing to feminist women, than ‘traditional men’.
    there was a recent article on gmp by a young male feminist exploring this very ‘confusing’ point

  18. CandidCutie says:

    What?
    1. Sex And the City – a comedy but more successful than any other HBO program besides the Sopranos – if you don’t count the movies.
    2.Desperate Housewives – huge ratings bonanza – hour long dramedy
    3. Grey’s Anatomy – uh still on TV title based upon the female characters name… drama hour
    4. Brother’s and Sisters – hour drama
    5. The Good Wife – hour drama

    Are you not watching TV by the way I love all of the shows listed The Wire and Sopranos and Friday Night Lights in particular except for Breaking Bad which I have not seen and The Killing – which turned me off because it sounded like another episode of Dateline – woman mysteriously murdered – good times.

  19. What about Big Love? Fits both the “fallen patriarch(s)” and the female-centered drama category.
    Either way, a good tv show with a lot if interesting female characters.

    Other female centered drama, maybe The Good Wife, or Weeds?

  20. “Big Love” discusses gender roles; what it is to be a man, a woman, a husband, a wife.
    The characters are all struggling to find themselves and struggling with the expectations and limits of their roles. Both the roles of man and woman in their religion, and in the society as a whole.
    Bill definitely fits the role of the fallen patriarch struggling with what it is to be a good man and husband, and does so surrounded by strong women who evolve and change and come into their own. Barbara, Nikki and Margene are not extras or sidekicks to Bill, they are all strong, interesting characters with depth who also struggle with their roles as women and wives and trying to find themselves and struggling with the place of women in their religion, and in society as a whole. The focus is as much on them as on Bill.
    The teenage son and daughters brings additional themes as they grow up and trying to figure adulthood/manhood/womanhood out.

  21. Regarding Battlestar Galactica;

    Certainly a tv series/movie/book can discuss important themes significant to us and our society here and now regardless of when (past, present or future), or where (in our backyard or in another galaxy) it is set!

    But maybe Battlestar Galactica doesn’t suit this discussion (even though it’s one of my all time favorites and has a lot of really interesting characters (male and female) and addresses many important and significant issues and themes) because it is driven by a fairly large group of characters rather than focusing on a few central characters and their development.

  22. A show i really like these times is “Pretty Little Liars”, it’s pretty girls blackmailed by someone, and dealing about it. The producers didn’t really introduce any brainy character, but they all have their past, history, fears and loves. (I especially like that the show never show sexy girls sexy-for-the-screen. And the lesbian heroin has to deal about it with her parents but after that, everyone is just perfectly fine about it ! So cool !)

    • Lesbian heroin? Tell me more. :)

      PLL is a good show. I would argue that Spencer is the brainy character. I would also say the characters are actually fully fleshed out versions of traditional stereotypes.

      Spencer – the smart one, dealing with the demands of her rich and hypercompetitive family
      Emily – the athlete, who is having to become comfortable with her sexuality and the impact on her relationships with her family and friends.
      Aria – middle of the road “normal” kid (who happens to think she’s very mature because of her literary background, who is also having an ill advised romance with an older man.
      Hanna – pushing more toward the “cheerleader” stereotype, but has a past of being overweight and the least popular of the group. Not academically smart but often the only one of the four with any common sense.

      and yes I know this article is almost a year old.

      • Love this show. I’m all kinds of ready for the Halloween episode tomorrow!

        @Plop:The producers didn’t really introduce any brainy character…

        Well that I think depends on what you mean by brainy.

        (Spoilers)

        Spencer is at the top of her class in academics (even though she did cheat on an essay back in S1) and the other three liars pick on her about it regularly.

        Also there is Mona. Before Allison died Mona was actually the typical “brainy” girl that gets picked on by the popular girls. After the one year skip (the series starts with Allison’s body being found and then skipping one year) Mona is reinvented as a popular girl and was Hanna’s BFF. She used her BFF status to evil ends by participating in the mental torture of the PLL as A (or at least one of the folks terrorizing them as A). And it was her intelligence that allowed her to do it.

  23. I just found the show Justified and am surprised (even though I shouldn’t be) about how testosterone-driven many of the characters are. I find it interesting that the women on the show are gun-toting and ready to kill people just as readily – if not more so – than the guys. Is this equality? I don’t know.

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  5. [...] How to Make a Critically Acclaimed TV Show About Masculinity by Amanda Marcotte, The Good Men Project. On honest portrayals of gender struggles as represented in popular television, and the disparity between well-rounded male characters and their female counterparts: I blame the nation’s inability to deal directly with women engaged in complex, dramatic struggles that call gender roles into question. We are, after all, a country where people can go on TV and call Sarah Palin a feminist without choking on their own tongue. Perhaps the absurdities of being female in this modern era don’t lend themselves well to drama, but have to be approached sideways, through comedy. Women do very well heading up some of the best comedy on TV: 30 Rock, Parks and Recreation, The Sarah Silverman Show. Share this:FacebookStumbleUponDiggReddit No comments – Tags: biking, gay YA fiction, ghana, masculinity [...]

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