I know there are a few people out there who will disagree with me (hello feminist readers) but manhood has been under attack, or at least under scrutiny for a long time now.
Maybe it began with Archie Bunker who was scathingly and hilariously mocked for eleven years on All in the Family. Archie Bunker was a caricature of the things that men sometimes do wrong like being stubborn or pigheaded, speaking condescendingly to others when we don’t know what we’re talking about, posturing, and being over-protective of our family. I know that I am guilty of all of these things on an almost daily basis.
More recently, we had the crop of cartoon dads. First: Homer Simpson, who has displayed his selfishness, laziness, and stupidity without redemption every week from 1989 to the present. Then there was Peter Griffin, the dad in Family Guy. He again was lazy, selfish and stupid and this time even fatter. Pushing the envelope farther, Peter’s wife Lois is brilliant, beautiful, witty, and everything any woman could ever wish to be (except happily married). There are occasionally exceptions (Hank and Peggy of King of the Hill are both idiot losers) but for the most part the comedy in the cartoon world is driven by the relationship between a pathetic man and a capable woman. I think this is the all time low in the archetype of manhood as portrayed on TV. All you have to do to see how sexist these shows are is turn the tables. Imagine a program about an attractive, smart, successful man and his fat, ugly, stupid wife after whom he’s always cleaning up, all while supporting the family and working full time. You have to imagine it because it doesn’t exist. Not only would it be an awful example to any man or woman, it wouldn’t be funny.
So that’s where men sat a few years ago: subject to endless disdain and ridicule without redemption. But 2012 is a very different world than that of a few years ago. Today there is a new phenomenon sweeping the airwaves and the internet: meta-man. No I’m not talking about the merging of man and machine into a global super-organism, I’m talking about taking manhood and turning it into an ironic character, a costume, a posture. Here’s three examples of what I mean:
Exhibit A: The Most Interesting Man in the World.
Exhibit B: “I’m on a horse” guy.
Exhibit C: The Canadian Club Chairman.
What do these men all have in common? They’re all awesome to the point of ridicule. They’re all taking things that ought to be good things (“He can speak French…”) and pushing them just over the edge into absurdity (“…in Russian.”)
The first problem I have with this is that it’s not something worth mocking. At least Peter Griffin is mocked for being selfish and lazy. The most interesting man in the world is mocked for being a well dressed, cultured, globetrotter. The “I’m on a horse” guy is mocked for being handsome and athletic and for giving women everything they want. The Canadian Club Chairman is mocked for his moustache, his hunting lodge, and his supposed carpet of chest hair. There’s nothing wrong with any of those things!
But are they really being mocked? These men are on a very thin knife edge between mockery and admiration. They can be both laughed at or idolized. The people who are exploiting this meta-man phenomenon know, as satirists have known for millennia, that to create a satire subtle enough that it is funny both for the in group and the out group is to sell books, or booze and hygiene products in this case. I look at The Canadian Club Chairman and see people mocking middle-aged men with moustaches and beer guts while others may think they’re being venerated. This is the genius of meta-man.
But I suppose the real reason these guys bother me, besides mocking what’s left of manhood, is that they ignore what we ought to celebrate. The internet and the media is awash with literature on creating good roll-models for women. Meta-man is the male equivalent of the dolled-up girl in a push-up bra acting ditzy to get boys to like her. He has nothing to say to a guy like me: a guy who doesn’t sit in bars and drink with beautiful women, a guy who doesn’t have huge biceps, and a guy who doesn’t shoot and kill wild animals, but rather a guy who aspires to be honest in spite of the consequences, secure and not vein or self-pitying, capable and dependable, and most of all, supportive of his family and loved-ones.
That’s the role-model men need. That’s the man you want your man to smell like.