Where Have All The Real Men Gone?: Television’s Recent Obsession With Masculinity

The following is a paper I wrote for my Gender Studies course in December. It’s a subject that is perhaps dated at this point as the flood of masculinity based comedies have all been canceled (with the exception of Last Man Standing which has moved away from said premise). Nonetheless I figured I’d post this essay regardless of the timing. Work It had not yet aired at the time of this paper so I focused primarily on just fall 2011 series, that being said I could’t resist using a photo from it.

Women rule the world, or at least that’s what television what’s you to think right now. Often times each year without trying the various major networks (NBC, CBS, ABC, and FOX) seem to create pilots, the first episode of a TV series, with similar themes and messages. Last year there was an abundant amount of shows based around the idea of couples in various states in their relationship and life (ABC’s Happy Endings, FOX’s Traffic Light, and NBC’s bluntly titled Perfect Couples). Sometimes the theme sticks more than others, but this year the theme ended up being more overtly political than usual. Just about every show this year revolves around the idea of modern gender relationships and exploring what is the core dynamic between the different sexes. While the idea of publicly addressing how gender is handled in today’s society is one that may be appealing, there is a subdivision within the theme that is perhaps a little disturbing and troubling to look at.

The topic that is in dissection here revolves around the current idea that the very essence of masculinity is now at risk of dying out. Within the 2011 pilot season there are three different sitcoms that revolve around this idea: ABC’s Last Man Standing, Man Up!, and CBS’s How To Be A Gentleman. It’s through these three shows one can see  just what exactly the 2011 comedy pilot season says about the state of modern masculinity.

According to the four man related comedies being viewed there are three distinct forms  gender comes in. The first is “women”. They’re said to be strong, powerful, and overbearing. They have a strict control over the family and run the house along with maintaing a full time career. The gender known as “man” is treated as two separate identities. Throughout all these shows there men and then there are men, or for lack of a better term the “emasculated man” and  the “masculine man”. The former is seen as a disease that has overtaken America and the world, while the later is viewed as a rare, endangered breed that must be cherished and learned from.

Perhaps the show that represents these ideas best is How To Be A Gentleman, which revolves around men’s magazine columnist Andrew Carlson who hires his old high school bully and current gym owner Bert Lansing to teach him how to be a modern man. Stuck in the mindset of a classical gentleman, Andrew is a suit, tie, and sweater vest wearing upscale man, while Bert is a meat and potatoes, buff, jock who tries to always live life at its fullest. Throughout the show Bert teaches Andrew to let go and learn to become a “real man”. He’s taught to let go of his uptight proper ways in favor of working out everyday and spending nights trying to bed different women. The show makes it explicitly clear that Andrew is an emasculated male. He lives alone as his fiancée left him for more manly man and his column is in jeopardy as his boss insist he’s out of touch with what it means to be a real man these days. The view clearly expressed throughout the show is that Andrew has been handling masculinity all wrong, he needs to loosen his tie and ditch the sweater vest and trade it in for a pair of weights and sweaty gym shirts. Despite all his pig headedness and and clear lack of respect for women, Bert is seen as the real man, the one we can all learn from. That despite the fact he’s not the brightest figure on the block, he’s guy Andrew should become more like.

Man Up! presents state of mind, centered around three men who appear to be trapped in a state of arrested development, unable to grow up and become real men like their fathers were. The pilot revolves around father Will trying to figure out what exactly he should buy his son for his thirteenth birthday, stating it needs to be something that initiates his journey into manhood. As he explains the importance of the situation to his wife Teresa, Will interjects himself to complain to her about the lack of non-diary creamer in the house for his coffee. It is then that the show decides to speak through Teresa to say the thesis statement of the show:

Teresa: “You’re grandfather fought in World War II, your father fought in Vietnam, but you play video games and use pomegranate body wash.”

Will: “Are you saying I’m not a man?”

Teresa: “You are man-ish.”

Rather than fighting in wars, Will and his friends sit at home on their couch and play video games that reenacting the great battles that his forefathers, real men, fought in. This concept comes further into play through Kenny meeting his ex-wife’s new boyfriend who just so happens to be an extremely well-built, tall, masculine man who talks in a deep voice causes women and children to swoon around him. This is a sharp contrast to Kenny whose a short, fat, crazy haired, short tempered, man-child. The new boyfriend is portrayed as almost a mythical creature, something no one has seen in years and almost forgot about. To further along how much he stands out from the three other male leads on the show, they casted him as the one African-American character on the show, with the rest of the cast being of Caucasian descent. In the world of Man Up! all men who play video games and enjoy non-dairy creamer in their coffees are presented as effeminate and emasculated, seen as weaker forms of the once proud male race.

Last Man Standing presents its viewpoint different from the rest of these shows, flipping the dynamic around. Rather than portray young men’s trouble with being a “real man”, the show follows Tim Allen’s Max Baxter struggle to be a traditional man in a non-traditional world. The fifty-eight year-old man finds the world to be a completely different place from the one he remembers and cherishes growing up. Similar to How To Be A Gentleman the backbone of the show is Max is told by his boss that he isn’t in touch with 21st century men and as marketing director for the outdoor sporting goods store, he’s told he needs to figure out how to make the store relevant again. Use to traveling around the world to promote the store, he’s grounded and forced to spend his time at home and the local store. The setup for the show focuses on how Max is a real man and everyone else has become emasculated obsessed with things like Glee and tanning salons. The entire pilot is simply Tim Allen spewing lines about how people need to be more manly.  When he enters the store he works at, titled Outdoor Man, he proclaims, “Great to be back int he sanctuary. No hair dryers, no tears, no citrus body wash. Smells like balls in here!” He then talks to one of the new workers, Kyle, and shouts “Kyle, that’s a man’s name!” Max is shown to be homophobic, afraid his baby grandson will turn out to be gay if he’s raised to share his feelings by attending what he refers to as a “hippie” run daycare. He later proclaims “only time men should be dancing is when other men are shooting at their feet”. Being the father of three daughters Max finds himself outnumbered and forced to exert his masculinity at every turn. He also shows signs of being sexist, claiming “None of my girls are talking to me. Usually I think that’s a good idea”.  But at the end of the pilot his three girls turn around on him and come to learn that the earlier advice and “wisdom” he’s given them throughout the episode was actually right. How should his youngest daughter get the boy she likes to ask her out when she has to play soccer against him school? Play the game at your most intense and show him that even though your a women you can still play like a man! Perhaps the most crucial part of the episode though is when Max sits in front of a computer, which he can barely work because real men hunt while geeks use computers, and goes on a tirade:

Max: What happened to men! Men use to build cities just so we could burn them down. I got my haircut by a guy named Hank. But modern men, what do you do? Run from stuff; responsibilities, fatherhood. You can’t even change a tire!

Max comes off as piggish, sexist, homophobic, and bitter towards the world; yet the show presents him as above everyone else. That despite these “minor” flaws he’s an ideal man. He’s someone whose got it all figured out. Someone we can learn a thing or two from.

According to all these shows our modern society has mostly lost the notion of what a man is. Almost every joke within the series revolves around this singular concept and they just continue to try and hammer home the idea. At a certain point their interest in modern masculinity moves beyond subject matter and into a full blown obsession. In Man Up! and Last Man Standing combined characters actually say the word “man” upwards of forty times throughout the two pilots. The shows act as if it’s some sort of Beetlejuice situation where if you say the word “man” enough times masculinity will suddenly appear.

And yet despite them talking so much about what’s wrong with masculinity, they offer few solutions to actually fix the problem. While Max on Last Man Standing says men should hunt and know how to fix tires, there’s little more advice given with no growth found in any of the characters. All three throw around some basic pointers on what it means to be a man: sleep with lots of women, work out, and be able to survive a physical fight with another man. While the shows aim to bring issues of masculinity to the forefront they don’t quite seem to have an answer to fix it, nor do they same too interested in doing that. Rather they attempt to coast along on cheap jokes about tanning salons and sweater vests.

What’s intriguing to note is that throughout these shows it’s often spoken of how females have become empowered over men, and yet the females all are reduced to minor characters in each series. They simply filling the stereotypical role of overbearing sister, kind wife, or jealous ex. All three series are told completely from male point of views. Last Man Standing is the show that gives women the most screen time yet they are nothing more than pawns. All three follow along a theory relating genders representation in media written by Laura Mulvey titled “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”. In it she claims all narrative cinema, and by extension television, is told from the point of view of males. She refers to it as the male gaze claiming “In a world ordered by sexual imbalance, pleasure in looking has been split between active/male and passive/female.” It’s the men that move the story along while women are just there to be looked upon. In all three of the pilots none of the women have a plot that doesn’t revolve around the man or one that doesn’t exist simply so the man can solve it in the end as in the case of Last Man Standing. In Man Up! Will’s wife calls him out on not being a real man, and then moves into the background for the rest of the episode. The only two other featured women on the show are merely there to trigger jealously in the two other male leads. But in How To Be A Gentleman it is no clearer as the manly Bert openly admits about how he views other women as merely objects for men’s pleasure. He encourages Andrew to have meaningless sex with girls because it’s the masculine thing to do. All three of the shows are so hyper focused on lamenting the demise of masculinity that they forget to even feature any meaningful bit of femininity. Rather the women are window dressing who live only to fuel the men around them.

Sociologist Sherry Ortner once wrote a piece called “Is Female to Male as Nature Is to Culture” that comes to the conclusion that males in society are always positioned above women because men are closer to culture while women are closer to nature. But the three shows in disscussion would add that there is a third division that comes between the two: men who use culture to become closer to nature. These are the men that the shows mock. The type of guys who use the cultural device known as the television set to watch an emotional gooey show like Glee; the type of guys who use technology to tan their natural bodies. This attempt to use culture to become closer to nature is seen as a threat to masculinity and as such places the so called emasculated men below the masculine men, but still slightly above women.

But perhaps these emasculated men aren’t so bad. Maybe it’s the macho men that insist it is wrong to cry and tell others how you feel are the ones who are off the mark. Though in the eyes of these three shows such an idea is out of the question. There is no debate in them over whether its okay to be a more feminine man. According to How To Be A Gentleman, Last Man Standing, and Man Up! it is awful to be anything but hyper masculine. In the viewpoint of these shows strong traditional masculinity is something society should prize and cherish, because if we continue to let men play video games and drink non-diary creamer the very essence of what makes a man a man may finally die out.


  • Joyrich, Lynne. Re-viewing Reception: television, gender, and postmodern culture. 1996. Google Scholar. Web. 14 Dec. 2011. <http://scholar.google.com/>.
  • Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16.3 (1975): 6-18.
  • Ortner, Sherry B. “Is Female To Male As Nature Is To Culture?” Making Gender: The Politics and Erotics of Culture. Boston: Beacon Press, 1974. 21-42.
  • “Pilot,” How To Be A Gentleman, CBS, 29 Sep. 2011.
  • “Pilot,” Last Man Standing, ABC, 11 Oct. 2011.
  • “Pilot,” Man Up!, ABC, 18 Oct. 2011.

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