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Men as the Butt of Jokes on TV: Bad or Good?

I feel as if I’m bringing an intellectual knife to an intellectual gun fight, but I disagree with William Bennett and this CNN piece he wrote entitled, “Men become the target of jokes.

Here’s the opener:

“That’s the second unmanly thing you’ve done today,” is the punch line of the most frequently played Miller Lite ad during NFL games. It ends with the ultimatum, “Man up.”

In a new McDonald’s commercial, two newlyweds delay their honeymoon after the man hears that McDonald’s is featuring the McRib sandwich again. The woman says in disbelief, “I married a 14-year-old.”

If popular culture is any indicator, manliness is on our minds. Six new TV shows this fall focus on man’s role in society and the family, according to the Wall Street Journal. Three are appropriately titled, “Last Man Standing,” “How To Be A Gentleman,” and “Man Up!” Something is going on here.

In all these shows, men have become the butt of the jokes. From weakness to irresponsibility to immaturity, the modern idea of manhood is in doubt. A shift in cultural norms, a changing workforce and the rise of women have left many men in an identity crisis. It makes for good comedy, but bad families.

And . . .

Boys become men through mimesis — the Greek word for imitation. Boys look to role models, from parents to coaches to teachers to fictional characters, for actions they should imitate. The forces of imitation can be either constructive or destructive, making it essential that boys imitate the right kind of men. My brother and I were raised by a single mother, but she went through any pains necessary to put good men in our lives — good priests, teachers and coaches.

The problem with Bennett’s argument that these sticoms are bad for boys is twofold. One, the shows aren’t targeted at boys, and even if boys are watching, there really aren’t a lot of them doing so.

Here are the ratings from last week. On network TV. . .

. . . and from cable. . .

The three shows Bennett mentions are nowhere on the list and How to Be a Gentleman has already been cancelled.

But this brings me to problem two with his argument. The male characters in the shows he does mention are actually the role models he speaks of. In Last Man Standing, for example, Tim Allen is a successful photographer at a sporting-goods store. He saves his job when a rant he puts on the company’s website goes viral and the company makes it a regular feature. Here’s an sample where Allen’s character tells viewers why learning hand-to-hand combat is more important than learning Chinese, Spanish, or poetry. The entire show is about Allen’s belief that manliness is under attack, and he is the “last man standing.”

How bad are sitcom dads really anyway? Fred Flintstone, Ralph Kramden, Ricky Ricardo to the modern-day men of TV like Ray Barone (Everyone Loves Raymond), Doug Heffernan (King of Queens) and Phil Dunphy (Modern Family) are all good role models. All held decent jobs, all were hard working, and none ever cheated on his spouse.

They may have been portrayed as goofballs, but hey, men are goofballs. We laugh, as Homer Simpson often says, because it’s true.

I remember watching a documentary a few years back when they interviewed black kids in Harlem and asked them what they wanted to be when they grew up. The girls, for the most part, wanted to be nurses, lawyers, etc. The boys wanted to play in the NBA.

Now, look again at the ratings above and see what are the most popular shows. Football, baseball, and fake wrestling. How many boys watched convicted felon Ray Lewis against Jacksonville? How many boys watched the St. Louis Cardinals win the World Series — a team whose hitting coach is disgraced Mark McGwire? It will be interesting to see if McGwire makes the trip to the White House, as his last trip to D.C. — as a babbling, teary-eyed witness in front of Congress, too afraid to “man up” and admit his use of steroids — didn’t go so well.

Bennett ends with this, and I agree 100 percent:

We must teach our boys what is to be loved and imitated. As the writer Tom Wolfe said, we must engage in a great relearning. It is our generation’s task to instruct and train our boys to be men. As Proverbs says, train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.

It’s just that as a parent, I’m not going to lose any sleep if my son is watching a sitcom where the male lead is an employed and faithful husband. It’s also my job to make sure as we’re watching the football games on Saturday and Sunday that my son knows who the role models are and aren’t on the field of play. And if my son doesn’t turn out to be the man he should be, it won’t be because of the shows he watched, it will be because I failed as a dad.


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