The Masculine Mistake

Don't look to this season's spate of man shows to help you broaden the definitions of manhood

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Art Streiber / CBS

David Hornsby and Kevin Dillon in How To Be A Gentleman

The human male is in crisis. Or at least he must be, given the recurring themes in this season’s crop of new TV shows. Apparently the networks have sensed something in the zeitguyst that cries out for reassurance, and they have scampered to oblige. Oh, sorry, men don’t scamper. They stride purposefully. And network TV’s recent purposeful steps include the following:

How to Be a Gentleman, about a prissy fop destined to be made into a real man (CBS);

Man Up, about three grown men feeling like they’re anything but (ABC);

Last Man Standing, in which Tim Allen angrily defends traditional masculinity from the encroaching forces of femininity and metrosexuality (ABC).

Here now is where I trot out my man bona fides. Yes, I like to grill meat and drink beer. I also like to play video games, and I share an interest in some of the media aimed at my seven-year-old son. I also love my cats, have had long talks with my son about feelings, and one time in the housewares section he asked my wife if she thought I wanted a new vacuum cleaner (I was uncertain about switching to a bagless model, but it’s working out well).

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I say this because doing things that kids and women supposedly do doesn’t make me less of a man. It’s part of who I am. If I were uncomfortable with it, I’d stop. Just like I stopped pretending to be interested in sports.

And yet Tim Allen’s character in Last Man Standing, just for example, is offended by the idea of a man in a tanning booth, or being in a loving relationship with another man, or even making too much of an effort to live in the modern world. As if any shortcoming in someone else’s old-school masculinity is somehow a threat to his own. I fail to see how that can be.

Let’s stipulate for the sake of argument that there are certain masculine virtues, such as bravery and strength, leaving aside the fact that most men probably know a woman who’s braver and stronger than we are. Is it brave to be afraid of other men’s grooming habits? Is it strong to think we know how all men should live their lives?

This is in no way a knock against men who find sincere fulfillment in traditional “manly” pursuits. As long as that’s why you’re doing them, and as long as you’re not pushing them on unwilling people, I have nothing but respect for the real-life Ron Swansons (the übermencsh boss from NBC’s Parks & Recreation) of the world.

I also have a great deal of respect for a man named Chris Colfer, who plays gay high school student Kurt Hummel on Fox’s Glee. With his high voice and dramatic presence, Colfer would probably send Allen’s Last Man Standing character into paroxysms of discomfiture, not to mention any number of men like him. But Colfer insists, “I’ve tried being other people, but being myself suits me best.” This in the face of a history of bullying, not only on the screen but in his real life. How’s that for bravery and strength?

We all have things we don’t like about ourselves, but a failure to adequately represent our gender according to someone else’s idea of it should be the least of our worries. If your masculinity is in crisis, you don’t need a TV show to fix it (as the intended audience of How to Be a Gentleman has already figured out, leading to that show’s quick cancellation). You don’t need anyone. Just be who you are. It’s not that hard. Suck it up. Be a man.