Masculinity in the Media

By Dr. Pamela Hill Nettleton

A student asked me recently, “Why do you study men? Most feminists study women.” An excellent question!

I asked her, “Well, who has the power?”

If humans are to come to a fuller understanding of our selves as gendered beings, scholars also need to study the other gender (hint: there are at least two, and women aren’t the only folks on the planet who are gendered).

I am far from the first person to repeat the wisdom that White is a race, too; male is a gender, too. Being White and male (and we can toss heterosexual in here, as well) becomes culturally invisible when it is considered the “universal” condition—though it obviously is not universal at all. Those of us who study race, sexuality, and gender gain much information and insight from turning the research spotlight onto those who are so in the center that society treats them as symbols of universal humanity.

And so I study masculinity as it is created and performed in the media. Often, on television.

A number of dramatic television series launched in the last decade feature male leads who are anxious, uneasy, dysfunctional, flawed, and yet likable and compelling. Among them: the police detectives of The Shield (FX, 2002-2007), the plastic surgeons of Nip/Tuck (FX, 2003-), the police blood analyst of Dexter (Showtime, 2006- ), and the New York City firefighters of Rescue Me (FX, 2004-2011). These dramas feature a particular discourse about the experience of modern American manhood.

Unlike the cowboy heroes of 1950s and 1960s television and the sci-fi heroes of 1970s and 1980s television, post-9/11 television heroes are not lone drifters on the Western frontier, bionically enhanced six million dollar men, or futuristic space ship captains. Although the new television heroes save people from fires, solve crimes, and make brilliant diagnoses in the nick of time, they are not superheroes. Gone are the self-assured, never-erring crime fighters and rescuers of recent decades who always caught the bad guys, never crossed the line themselves, and saved the world while wearing tuxedos and playing black jack. Gone are the confident fathers who provided well, had all the answers, and raised perfect children.

Post-9/11 television is peopled with a different sort of leading man. He struggles to make rent payments and write the day care checks. His marriage is floundering or dead and he is only dimly aware of why his ex-wife is so angry with him. He loves his children but is bewildered by them; he makes bad judgment calls, loses his temper, and drives them away. His ex dates a guy with more money, classier suits, and a better job. He is a deceptive mix of misogynist and feminist. He is a thief, a liar, a cheat, and one of them, Dexter, is even a sociopathic serial killer. His life may be a mess, but he still puts it on the line for threatened innocents and wounded victims. He is aware of his imperfections, and some of them are stunners, yet he swoops in with swagger and panache to try to save the day. Sometimes he fails, and his failures haunt him, drive him to drink or drugs, and send him over the edge. Sometimes he succeeds, and saves lives or catches bad guys. He is lost and needs rescuing, but instead he rescues everyone else. And somehow, he manages to be charming, lovable, and endearing.

These dramas explore traditional and contrary gender behaviors around the roles of father, friend, lover, and son, and also present the terrain of male behavior as contested and uncertain. The “masculinity crisis” in these dramas is a narrative shift away from the masculinity “crises” of earlier years that were often blamed on rapid social change and then-emerging feminism. The post-9/11 masculinity crisis is modern life itself.

These male-centered dramas are commercially and critically successful, earning Emmys, Golden Globes, and large market shares; clearly these narratives emerging at this time resonate with audiences and industry critics and may reflect important cultural shifts. Television’s post-9/11 masculinity is part reinscription of male hegemony, part resistance to traditional masculinity, and part something new—a depiction of men grappling directly with what it is to be a man, and inventing a myriad of possibilities rather than a single hegemonic icon.

Dr. Pamela Hill Nettleton is an Assistant Professor of Journalism in the Diederich College of Communication.

1 Response to “Masculinity in the Media”

  1. 1 scottfeldstein November 14, 2011 at 9:57 am

    I gave up television many years ago and I’m only now (in a very measured way) getting back into it. One of the reasons I left was because it annoyed me to see men portrayed as they were: uncommunicative, irresponsible children who, episode after episode, are chastened by their more grown up and responsible wives. (And women must have grown tired of seeing these harping nags reigning in their unruly husbands every night, too.)

    That was a real thing, right? Not just me? I wonder if things are different now. I don’t watch enough television to know for sure.

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