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Television’s Conversations with Masculinity


The following article has spoilers for True Detective, Mad Men, and Hannibal.

Masculinity is being explored and re-defined to fit a modern context, and TV is at the apex of this dialogue. In an age where gender roles are not as confining as they once were, men and women alike are trying to find where they fit on spectrum where once there were boxes. For better or worse, a great amount of television has had this struggle at the core of its narratives in the past few years, particularly focusing on hetero, cisgendered, white men as they are faced with a society that has now pushed them aside after years of dominance. I don’t mean to say that I think fewer stories should be about people of color, women, or LGBT characters; in fact, I think we need even more diverse stories. However, I think there are some really interesting things being said about masculinity by mainstream TV, and I want to take a second to look more closely at them.

Masculinity is an issue at the core of True Detective, the wildly popular cop procedural on HBO. Its two leads, Rust and Marty, represent different generations of masculinity while both being unquestionably “manly.” Marty, played by Woody Harrelson, is very much the embodiment of traditional masculinity. He is a misogynist, he handles his problems with violence, and he is staunchly against the open expression of thoughts and feelings.

Rust is a more modern man, though not without his own issues of misogyny. He represents the idea of masculinity that is now more common: he values thought and intelligence over violence and sport; he does not have a “boys will be boys” mentality towards sex or infidelity. But Rust still very much has a problem with women, albeit more subtle; he is motivated by a woman in a refrigerator, his daughter, which has left him very uncomfortable interacting with women. When speaking with prostitutes or abused women, Rust has no empathy, and after sleeping with Maggie he refuses to take ownership of his actions, instead asking her, “What have you done?” The modern version of sexism or toxic masculinity looks like Rust: it is subtle, but still bears a general contempt or distrust for women as beings with agency.

True Detective is analogous for the current crisis of men on television, and in life, as they come to grips with a new understanding of masculinity. Every week television programs are clashing as they attempt to prove and disprove various tropes in equal turn, in many instances on the same program. Television writers are scrambling to adapt to a world that is less and less interested in the struggle of white hetero manly types.

The idea of friendship between men is an important part of this exploration, and a great example is at the center of Hannibal, between the title character and FBI contractor Will Graham. Hannibal and Will’s friendship is complicated and fraught with tension, yet there is nary a gay joke to be seen. Such is not the case with Sherlock, where two close friends are continually defending their sexuality as if that joke will never go stale. Conversely Hannibal very obviously has a deep affection for Will. In the finale of the second season, Hannibal realizes Will’s plan to trick him and capture him. He offers him an out, a chance to choose their friendship and the life he has laid out for them. When Will refuses, the pain on Hannibal’s face is evident. Hannibal knows that he will have to kill Will, whom he loves, and for the first time seems to be struggling to hold back his emotions.

While Marty is defined by his control over the women in his life, Don Draper of Mad Men is defined by his relationships with the women in his life, and how they have changed him. Over the course of a decade the power between the men and women of Mad Men is inverted, as I talked about in-depth in my article, An Ode to the Feminism of Mad Men. At the end of the show we understand how the male characters have changed within the scope of how they are now interacting with women. When Roger Sterling tells Peggy she doesn’t have to make men comfortable, or commits himself to Marie, he doesn’t even look like the loveable asshole of the first season. Pete Campbell, renowned terrible person, commits himself eagerly and genuinely to his ex-wife Trudy, and Stan overcomes his stubbornness in order to confess his love for Peggy. At the end, Don finds enlightenment and returns to advertising largely because of the support of Peggy, who accepted him as he was during a very emotional phone call.

Perhaps the online reception to the upcoming Entourage film is most telling of how masculinity has changed in the past decade. Like when the two leads return to high school in the film version of 22 Jump Street, making homophobic jokes and talking excessively about pussy are no longer the standard fare for being popular. Like the decade of change on Mad Men, the past decade has seen a big shift in how we understand gender. As LGBTQ individuals, people of color, and women take their place in greater culture, white hetero cisgendered men are having to re-examine their understanding of gender as a group as the patriarchy of our grandparents dissipates. People trying to find their place in the world isn’t exactly a new theme, but right now it’s a discussion that the men of television are having with each other. For the most part, it’s a discussion I’m happy to take part in by turning on my television and watching each week.

Rachel Catlett lives in North Texas with her two dachshunds, Liz Lemon and Arthur, and her husband. She has degrees in literature and anthropology, and loves to put way too much thought into pop culture and feminism. In her heart, you will find Legos, salsa, and a David Bowie album. On her head, you will never find her natural hair color. If you would like to follow her on Twitter, she is there as @rachfab.

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