An Assault on Men? Masculinity, Sexism and 'How to Be a Gentleman' on TV

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Linda Holmes at NPR recently stirred up readers' emotions and opinions with her column on sexism in TV--sexism toward men. She used the new sitcom "How to Be a Gentleman" as one of the signs of the shift in modern TV, from degrading and reducing women to offensive caricatures to doing the same to men. While some of the new sitcoms definitely don't paint men in the best light, does that indicate a trend that applies to all of TV

"How To Be a Gentleman"

It's possible Holmes had access to more than one episode of this new CBS sitcom, but it's tough to judge a show's relevance only on the pilot. Obviously, the "stuffy wimp" gentleman vs. "real man" meathead is the core of the show's set-up, but it's not certain yet how the show will address this ancient "odd couple" TV theme. Many series pilots rely on caricatures to sell the main idea; neither the writers nor the actors know their characters well enough yet to expand in more original directions.

The premiere of "How To Be a Gentleman" seems to lean towards the idea that Kevin Dillon's caveman character Bert is more of the masculine ideal than David Hornsby's dandy Andrew. It would certainly be offensive to men, and frightening to women, if the show's entire motivation was to turn Andrew into Bert. The pilot had some subtler moments, however, that broke through the standard "How to get a chick" lessons. A highlight was when Bert was actually moved by a thank you letter from Andrew, that included support of Bert's efforts as business owner of a gym. Sure, Bert made a funny crack about Andrew's calligraphy as "writing like a pirate," but it's a comedy after all. Showing that a handwritten thank you note has value is not what you'd expect from this type of caricature-heavy show. It also puts us in Andrew's corner, and shows that his character will hopefully have value as well.

It's All Where You Look

Part of the problem with Holmes' theory that sexism against men is taking over TV is that she largely focuses on series that have "manliness" as a theme. Along with "How To Be a Gentleman," she cites "Man Up," "Last Man Standing" and "Work It." As examples of female sexism, she cites the obvious offenders "The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am." While there's definite concern if one-dimensional shows take over the airwaves, it's far more telling of the TV climate to look at shows that don't have "how to be a real man" as its core theme.

Airing right after "How To Be a Gentleman" on CBS is new drama "Person of Interest." Michael Emerson and Jim Caviezel star in their own version of yin and yang, as the brains and brawn of a shadowy organization that helps people who are about to be targets of murder. In just two episodes, the show has illustrated that both of these men are more complicated and interesting and real than just being "the smart guy" and the "tough guy."

Right after that is returning favorite "The Mentalist." The criminal investigation team includes three men that offer very different personality types, and different ways of being a man. Simon Baker's Patrick Jane character loves three-piece suits, drinking tea, and abhors violence. He could be considered a more charming version of Andrew from "How To Be a Gentleman." Jane is infinitely more complex, however, and his intelligence, quick-thinking and rebellious side earn him the respect of his male peers.

As far as more thoughtful views of manhood, husbandhood and fatherhood in comedy are concerned, one could look to sitcoms like "Modern Family," "The Middle" and "Big Bang Theory." Sure there are still exaggerated views of personality types there, but there are true human revelations as well. Holmes claims not to know any men that resemble the characters in shows like "How To Be a Gentleman," but I would guess that she knows men like those in the sitcoms mentioned above. I know I do.

The True Sexism

"How To Be a Gentleman" isn't only sexist towards its male characters. In the pilot episode, the women characters include Andrew's bullying, shrewish sister, his slutty neighbor and a bunch of strippers. You could say that this is balanced out by the pervy Russian cook and muscled-but-moronic ex-boyfriend in "2 Broke Girls." The problem is when you look at shows with complex portrayals of men and how they deal with women.

"Person of Interest" so far has all of the action driven by two male characters, though there is a female policewoman (Taraji P. Henson) who may have a bigger role in the future. "Big Bang Theory" has added more female characters over the seasons, but is essentially still about four men and the hot girl neighbor. "The Mentalist" has two female cops, but most of one's story arc has been which guy she's dating--two of whom turned out to be killers. "The Closer," long touted as a prime leading female role, compensated for its strong and complicated woman by filling the substantial supporting cast almost entirely with men.

What's interesting about the NPR article on sexism against men is that it's written by a woman. Read the reviews of "How To Be a Gentleman" and you'll discover that male reviewers typically downgrade the show for its caricatures and bad jokes, while women pick up on the sexism--in both directions. Ask a woman about sexism on TV and she can give several examples--in both directions. However, ask a man if he's noticed that a TV show has no women in it. Ask him why all the men look different, while all the women are 20 and look like models. You will most likely discover that he hadn't noticed.

Sexism on shows like "How To Be a Gentleman" and "The Playboy Club" are obvious, and while they can be offensive, they're not as dangerous as shows that don't use blatant caricatures. When a TV series looks like everyday life, some women and most men aren't going to notice that the women have offensively limited characters--or no role at all. That's the most frightening sexism at all, the type that is so ingrained in society it often isn't noticed at all.

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