You would not think that TV would be a sphere of life where men feel endangered. Katie Couric is being replaced by a dude. Men host every late-night show outside cable. Entourage has somehow managed to run for more seasons than Sex and the City.
But at May's upfronts where networks announce their fall schedules to advertisers there was a pattern: sitcom after sitcom about how today's men are besieged and need to rediscover their masculinity. Among them are How to Be a Gentleman, in which a metrosexual writer hires a trainer to dewussify him; Last Man Standing, with Tim Allen as a sporting-goods-company executive beset by girlie men; Man Up, in which a group of male friends worry they've lost touch with their inner warriors; and Work It, in which two guys dress in drag (à la Bosom Buddies) to land jobs as pharmaceutical reps. Attending the upfronts, I heard references to the emasculated modern man so often, I started crossing my legs.
This theme of manxiety comes around in our culture like Halley's comet. It was, more or less, the theme of Tim Allen's last ABC sitcom, the power-tool-centric Home Improvement, which resonated with the Iron John men's movement of the time. Then it was the philosophy of Jimmy Kimmel and Adam Carolla's The Man Show, which argued that guys needed a place to be guys besides ESPN, and ESPN2, and the Internet, and also the world.
What's men's problem now? According to these shows, we've become soft, feminized and alienated from the physical world. On Last Man Standing, Allen records an online-video rant: "What happened to men? Men used to build cities just so we could burn them down!" A Man Up character's wife tells him, "Your grandfather fought in World War II, your father fought in Vietnam, but you play video games and use pomegranate body wash."
So men today are emasculated because we smell nice and don't kill enough people. This is what I like to call a TV problem. In the world outside sitcoms and Old Spice commercials, the bearers of Y chromosomes worry about a lot of things money, health, marriages, raising our kids. Whether General Patton would have approved of our body-care products comes somewhat further down the list.
One man-focused show that gets this is TNT's dramedy about three longtime male friends, Men of a Certain Age, co-created by Ray Romano and returning June 1. In January's midseason finale, the trio went on a road trip to Palm Springs to play golf and on the verge of their 50th birthdays get colonoscopies. "We're getting older," Romano's character says as they await their results. "It gets real, you know?"
The new manxiety sitcoms shy away from getting quite so real. But the trend may be a way of sublimating a real problem: the insecurities of the "mancession," in which men lost jobs at a higher rate than women did. The irony is that the job wipeout most deeply affected working-class men guys who would love to have the luxury of worrying about being spoiled and overevolved but the new sitcoms are mostly about white collar professionals, because network TV wants upscale audiences. (Second irony: one of the few shows to treat layoffs in a blue collar town seriously is Glee, the pomegranate body wash of television.)
But maybe men, in TV and life, would be better off letting go of some old ideas of masculinity. Charlie Sheen's meltdown all that aggression and Darwinian gamete spreading was old-school manhood taken to its farcical extreme. And it fit the themes of his sitcom, Two and a Half Men, about the bachelor-pad exploits of his alter ego Charlie Harper.
So it was telling that the biggest sitcom announcement of the upfronts was CBS's replacement of Sheen with Ashton Kutcher, a guy who started his career as a model, is monogamously married and looks like he uses styling products. Probably nice-smelling ones! However Two and a Half Men changes, Kutcher's nice-guy public persona already marks a different idea of alpha maledom from the violent torpedoes of testosterone that made Sheen such a headache for CBS. Tim Allen and company may beat their chests, but in the real world, sometimes it's better to man up by manning down.