Men on the TV

By Amanda Marcotte
Thursday, September 8, 2011 21:38 EDT
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I've been really happy with the reception I've gotten for a piece I did on masculinity and high-quality TV drama.  (It got reprinted on Jezebel, which I think may be my first byline for them, believe it or not.) Alyssa Rosenberg calls it "prestige TV", and I think that's exactly the right term.  It explains in part why I didn't talk about some shows people asked me about after I published this, such as "Lost".  "Lost" is actually a decent example of writers working similar themes about the crisis of masculinity—Jack's personal problems were overtly patriarchal in an often anvilicious way—but I was more interested in why this particular theme of men facing the demons of traditional masculinity was so compelling on highbrow television.  

Alyssa does write about one piece of prestige television that was definitely not on my list, even though it really did belong in many ways: "Deadwood".  I dropped it for a couple of reasons, one being that it failed to capture enough of an audience to become a successful series.  But it definitely belongs on the list.  How could it not, when it was a rewriting of the most traditionally masculine of genres, the one most wed to patriarchal definitions of a good man that are failing modern men?  Alyssa's got some interesting comments about the women on the show:

But Deadwood shows us a world where the men at the center of the frame — and the show has a less rigid main character than the other shows on Amanda’s list — spend a lot of time tailoring their expressions of masculinity to the presence of women, and women struggle with the opportunities to redefine themselves that, if not exactly expansive, are broader on the frontier than they were at home. I’m not done with the show, and obviously there are falls to come. But watching Alma Garrett kick her drug addiction, put off her widow’s mourning, make love to Seth Bullock, plot revenge with Whitney Ellworth, and curse E.B. Farnum, claiming the territory of masculine crudeness and dark thinking for her own, is glorious. Trixie may be my favorite female character in the age of prestige television, vulnerable and striving, cautious of liberation, aware that there is always a price to be paid and suspicious of Sol Star, a man who wants to subvert the economy of desire. And Calamity Jane is Brienne of Tarth, more wedded to conceptions of honor than anyone around her, even if she can’t live up to her astronomically high standards.

I think the other reason I dropped "Deadwood" is that it literally takes place before any modern version of feminism came into being.  Every other show I write about has characters who actually have dealt with the basic argument of feminism, that women are equal to men in the political, social, and economic sphere.  In the world of "Deadwood", feminism as we know it would be an anachronism even on a show known for them.  That said, the show comes the closest to "Mad Men" in terms of beginning with this interrogation of masculinity and ending up spending more and more time on women's reactions and lives.  Like I said in the original piece, there's often this slow drift in these shows towards looking at the women more, and I think part of it is once the writers get invested in the characters, women's dilemmas of survival in a patriarchy become more interesting.

Still, maybe it's because I'm watching it now, but I really do think "Breaking Bad" is increasingly the most ruthless of the shows in its examination of the failure of the patriarchal worldview to really explain reality.  Walter is just such an asshole.  

Spoiler alert for the most recent episode.

My sense that they're being deliberate about their gender criticism was only enhanced in the most recent episode.  It was implied in the final scene that Gus is gay, or at least bisexual, and that he was hardened when his partner and lover was murdered.  It was simply implied; it may have been that they were just friends.  But I don't think so.  If I'm right, then they're doing something similar to "The Wire" in making one of the hardest characters on the show gay and queering the whole notion of masculinity.  One that I'll point out that Walt is deeply invested in, both in the sense of his role as the patriarch who controls and provides for his family, and in his sense that by being a badass criminal, he's finally proven himself as a man in a way that he could not as a schoolteacher.  

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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