Joanna Schroeder hates the show Two and a Half Men, and wonders if she’s the only one.
I am going to say this up front: I hate the show Two and a Half Men. I’ve hated it since quite early on, despite the premise being sort of cool: a rich bachelor takes in his divorced brother who is a single father. It was an opportunity for an interesting exploration into men’s relationships with one another and the challenges of single fatherhood, ripe with situational humor.
But it never really went there. At times it can be genuinely funny and interesting, but it always seems to revert back to conversations and situations that really bother me.
At first I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Is it the crude humor that turns me off? Nah, I’m generally just as crude (I mean, I co-write a sex blog), and I love great stand-up comedy, which usually gets way worse than anything network television would allow.
Is it the portrayal of women in the show? Well, yeah, but I’m sorta used to women being portrayed as emasculators, ball-busters, or sluts. Not that I condone that, but for me it’s pretty easy to identify.
No, it is something more insidious.
And then it hit me. These men are all such assholes. I mean, every single man on that show is an asshole! We have the womanizing, alcoholic Charlie Harper who exists in a morality-free zone where women are objects and everyone lives to serve him. He’s a jerk to almost everyone he meets, strangers and family alike, and very rarely are there any consequences for Charlie’s lack of scruples; instead, he is rewarded with a giant waterfront Malibu home and a plethora of young, beautiful women just begging to felate him.
And then there’s Alan, Charlie’s brother. At first you think the straight-man foil to Charlie is going to be someone that you, as the viewer, can identify with. A moral buoy in a sea of stupidity and filth. But no, Alan’s character is equally as lacking in “goodness.” He will do anything for money and is so cuckolded by his ex-wife that he will lie, cheat, and steal for pussy. He is a spineless mooch.
It would be funny, except we learn though stories about Alan’s past that he has suffered neglect and abuse at the hands of his ex-wife, mother, and even strangers that has left him entirely emasculated. Worse, nearly every episode features Charlie and Alan making jokes about how stupid Alan’s son is.
I’m willing to admit that when my husband watches the show in the house I sometimes find myself laughing at random legitimately funny jokes. But the general theme of the show just makes me sad. The implication that Alan Harper has been sexually abused is just not funny to me. The fact that Charlie Harper lies to women and drinks himself stupid is just not funny.
Even the minor male characters are terrible. Their mom dated a con artist, Alan’s ex-wife’s new husband looks good on the outside but is a sex-starved slave to his overbearing wife. The portrayal of the trans-man character (Chris O’Donnell) was so baffling that I don’t even know how to start. And honestly, I can’t even get into the damage these portrayals of masculinity and femininity do to our collective images of gender relations. I’m sure you can all imagine.
But it seems like everybody and their mother loves the show. So in trying to figure out the appeal, I went to my husband to inquire what it was about the show that he liked.
“But it’s not funny to make fun of a kid for being stupid. It’s not funny to see a guy exploiting women. It’s not funny to see a man completely beat down by his ex wife,” I said.
“You’re taking this too seriously. It’s escapism,” he explained. I was clearly getting nowhere.
So I went to my dad, who is a deeply analytical person like myself. I asked him what he thinks the big appeal of Two and a Half Men is.
He said something along the lines of, “I think in life, especially when times are tough, we like to see someone who is worse off than us. We look at Alan and we think, ‘well, at least I’m not that schmuck’ and we look at Charlie and we think, ‘I’m even doing better than that rich guy!’”
Maybe that’s true. Maybe we have a sick need to see people that we’re “better than.” Or maybe we just don’t care that much about how men are portrayed in the media.
How has this changed since Charlie Sheen left the show? The first episode with Ashton Kutcher debuted hugely, and I had high hopes. Kutcher’s character, Walden, is funny, interesting, and dynamic. A nice guy with a good heart and financial success.
But here’s the thing—Walden is a man-child. He’s a baby who is unable to live without his ex-fiancée. He throws food in restaurants, he attempts suicide in a dramatic and ridiculous fashion when he is dumped, he walks around naked in front of everyone and naively flaps his penis about, and falls in love with every single woman he meets, including a con artist.
So what is creator Chuck Lorre saying about men? That you guys are weak, that you’re beaten down by women, but that your pain doesn’t really matter? That you’re greedy and selfish and sex-crazed, and deserve to be laughed at?
And what if you’re not sex-crazed like the Harper brothers? Then you’re basically an infant. That sort of dichotomy is ridiculous, and it’s damaging to the way the world sees you guys, collectively. And it damages women, too. We aren’t all “sluts” or emasculating ball-busters. Some of us love you guys the way you are. Most of us want you guys to be happy and strong.
Chuck Lorre had an opportunity to do something pretty cool with Two and a Half Men. He also created The Big Bang Theory, which presents an assortment of nerd-masculinities. None are perfect, but they are at least diverse and mostly good-hearted. That show has some unusually intelligent female characters, too, who have no ill-will toward men and cause them little to no pain (at least intentionally).
Now, here’s the part where I sell myself out. I try to never criticize something without figuring out the way I’m guilty of the same thing. And in this case, it’s obvious:
The Real Housewives series of reality shows on Bravo.
Yeah, I’m gonna admit it, I love the Real Housewives—specifically New Jersey and Beverly Hills. I’m a feminist, I have a degree in Women’s Studies, and yet I love those insane, over-the-top diamond-obsessed catty bitches.
My name is Joanna and I am a hypocrite.
When a friend of mine found out that I love RHOBH (that’s what us fanatics call the Beverly Hills version of the show) he asked me if UCLA was going to come take my diploma back.
I said, “Why?”
“Don’t be obtuse,” he said. “Nothing in the media has set women back worse than the Real Housewives franchise.” He was only half-joking.
“But but but but … It’s so funny. And fascinating!”
So you see, dear readers, I am just as guilty of said escapism. Do I watch it because I like to feel like my life, which is often in turmoil, is better than that of Teresa Giudice (RHONJ), the Italian-American woman who is famous for screaming and yelling and throwing tables at people, or her arms-too-big husband, who has been charged with fraud and other crimes?
When I’m tight on money, when my husband is mad at me, when my kids are acting up, am I relieved that I’m still not as bad off as Kim from Bevelry Hills, a former child star who seems to be high on something all the time? Do I get some sick pleasure out of feeling “better than” some of them?
Ick. I hope not.
But there is an element of fascination with the wealth and the excess, as well as the big personalities and big situations. And maybe that’s sort of why people like Two and a Half Men, too: big, extreme versions of normal-ish personalities. Everyone has some greedy, lucky bastard in their family who seems to have everything go right for him or her despite being a total shithead. And don’t we all feel a little bit like Alan Harper in our worst times: beat down by life and overwhelmed by obstacles which seem to always fall in our path?
Sure we do. And maybe it’s all a part of the healthy catharsis we need in a world that sometimes can feel overwhelmingly dark. Or, maybe, it’s something we should be questioning and calling-out. I’m just not sure.
Just, please—seriously—please, don’t tell me I have to give up my RHOBH. Anything but that!
—Photo AP/New York Post