On Rachel’s thread about ‘tween girls and shopping, Mandolin and Joe had this exchange:
Mandolin: We’re talking about a society-wide pattern of representation, wherein shopping and materialism have, yes, been condensed as part of a larger narrative wherein women are portrayed as frivolous (interested in unimportant things) and unable to handle money. Check out a few episodes of I Love Lucy.1
Joe: I think the simpsons/everbody loves raymond/king of queens/life according to jim/whatever have done a decent job of spreading that stereotype across gender lines. Fat dumb lazy guy married to thin pushy competent woman has become a staple.
It’s conventional for both feminists and (more frequently) MRAs2 to construct playing the frivolous, lazy and incompetent character in sitcoms as a sign of oppression; that is, feminists say the incompetence of the Lucy character (are her need to always be rescued by level-headed Ricky) is a sign of how women are denigrated in society, while MRAs point to the incompetence of Homer Simpson or Raymond (and their need to always be rescued by level-headed wives) as a sign of how men are denigrated in society.
Although in this instance a feminist, Mandolin, brought it up first, in my experience MRAs bring this argument up more often than feminists, presumably because the male-idiot-spouse is much more common on TV nowadays than the female-idiot-spouse. As “Mens’ Rights Online puts it, “Turn on your TV and you will see the sitcoms and advertisements that portray dads as speechless dolts in the face of the superior wisdom of their wives and 11-year-old children.”
It’s true that these sitcoms frequently utilize — and even delight in — sexist stereotypes about men. And I’m convinced that these stereotypes harm men and boys:
According to Gender Issues in Advertising Language, television portrayals that help create or reinforce negative stereotypes can lead to problems with self-image, self-concept, and personal aspirations. Young men learn that they are expected to screw up, that women will have the brains to their brawn, and that childcare is over their heads. And it isn’t just men who suffer from this constant parade of dumb men on tv. Children Now reports a new study that found that 2/3 of children they surveyed describe men on tv as angry and only 1/3 report ever seeing a man on television performing domestic chores, such as cooking or cleaning. There are far too few positive role models for young boys on television.
But despite all that, I don’t believe that this is an example of how men’s oppression harms men. Rather, I think the sexism against men in these sitcoms are an inadvertent by-product of how men are advantaged in our society.
Because when people list adjectives describing the male husbands in these sitcoms — dolts, incompetents, dumb, lazy, dufus, predictable idiotic territorial selfish doofuses who need to constantly be looked after by their wives, and so forth, there’s an essential adjective that always gets left out: The Lead.
As in the leading role, the central role, the funny role, the better role. What actor in the world, given the choice, would rather play Zeppo than Harpo? The smart, levelheaded, competent wife is the secondary part, which is why the shows aren’t named “Everybody Loves Debra” or “According to Cheryl” (or, for that matter, “I Love Ricky”).
Which sex gets to play the wacky characters who drive plots is a measure of which actors Hollywood is willing to give the juiciest roles and the highest salaries. The sexism in these sitcoms hurts both men and women, and that’s worth objecting to — but it’s not a sign of male disadvantage.
- I disagree with Mandolin here; I think that I Love Lucy, which portrayed women as constantly constrained by an enforced housewife role, was actually quite subversive and feminist for its time. I far prefer Lucy, who was constantly fighting against the constraints of her life, to the “happy to be secondary” housewife character found in many older family sitcoms. [↩]
- MRA = Men’s Rights Advocate. I’m not assuming that Joe is an MRA, or that he’d necessarily disagree with anything I say in this post; his exchange with Mandolin just brought this stuff to my mind. [↩]