The 'Woke' Men on TV Still Have a Long Way to Go
One small yet nagging symptom of patriarchy is the prevalence of writers’ rooms dominated by straight (white) men. Even films and TV shows that are lauded as forward thinking, artistic works tend to stumble over their own intrinsic misogyny.
Game of Thrones, for example—a renowned benchmark for dramatic television writing—seemingly couldn’t finish a single episode throughout its first few seasons without a gratuitous rape scene or some other violent manipulation of women characters. American Vandal, a left-field banger among a slew of aggressively mediocre original Netflix series, sustained an eight episode-long dick joke. Anyone with a dash of common sense would recognize today’s golden age of television might shine a lot brighter if there were more women at the writers’ table. It’d likely result in (surprise!) deeper, more nuanced depictions of women characters.
Just as importantly, this inclusion would also result in audiences getting a more authentic look at how women interpret, interact with, and suffer through masculinity. If you asked a man to construct a character he identifies as “toxically masculine,” that character would look rather simple; he’d be brooding, dense, and powerfully douchey—he’d be a living, breathing trope. It’s not always as simple as that.
This year, some of the most talented women in Hollywood—Issa Rae, Lisa Lutz, Megan Abbott and Elizabeth Meriwether, for example—lent their voices and experiences to the shows they wrote on, and constructed “toxic men” that were more true to life. These men were warm and goofy. They smiled often, they emoted more in general, and were empathetic and considerate in relatively inconsequential situations, but they ultimately dropped the ball whenever it mattered most. They were self-presumed “good guys,” but I think they were still fucking nightmares.
Some shows can show us examples of the good guy who thinks he’s woke, but still can’t manage to do basic human things like communicate. Here’s a quick look at a few of our favorite “evolved men” on TV, with some insight into why their half-assed evolution may call for some lengthy therapy sessions.
The pseudo-good dude in question is Lawrence, played by Jay Ellis, with a doe-eyed, unassuming charisma that spoke to an understated truth certain women learn early in life—not all trash men are neanderthals. Corny dudes in brunch boots can trip over their masculinity as well.
He exited season one as a hero to some, by having scored rebound sex with Tasha after learning Issa Rae’s character cheated on him with an old fling. Then, Lawrence slowly ripped at the fabric of his good guy guise, revealing himself to be as shitty as the rest, thus broadening the scope of what toxic masculinity looks like on screen.
Lawrence’s flaws are passive aggressive. Each transgression flowed from an avoidance of self-reflection, as most men haven’t been socialized to confront and acknowledge their feelings in any constructive or meaningful way. “Some men are more susceptible to what we call gender role strain, which means they feel more like they have to abide by the tightly defined gender role that’s given to them,” says Zachary Rawlings, a New York-based clinical mental health counselor who focuses on adolescents, the LGBTQ community, and issues specific to men and masculinity. “That varies from culture to culture. But there’s a lot of overlap between them.” Anecdotally speaking, Rawlings says that this gender strain makes it more difficult to engage in reflective discussions about feeling embarrassed or hurt—particularly if they’ve been betrayed in the past. Almost every regrettable fallout Lawrence had with a woman this past season could have been avoided with an honest conversation.
Should it have ever dawned on him to confess to Aparna—his work bae played by Jasmine Kaur—that he was still struggling with the trauma of being cheated on in a previous relationship, perhaps she would have been more understanding of his paranoia and insecurity. “Whenever we feel embarrassed, we turn inward and we don’t want to internalize or talk about something,” Rawlings says, nodding to that gender strain that makes it less socially acceptable to be openly vulnerable.
Most notably, had Lawrence ever once told Issa how cheating actually affected him—if he hadn’t abruptly moved out, avoided her for months, and creeped on her Facebook—his first heart-to-heart exchange with her might not have resulted in him, in all of his good dudeness, referring to her as a “fucking hoe.” “We see anger as the emotion of choice by many men because that’s the most socially acceptable emotion that men can feel,” Rawlings says, “So a lot of emotions—embarrassment and disappointment, for example—get conflated into anger.”
The Deuce, another acclaimed HBO series, explored the toxic depths of “good” men during its inaugural season in a much grittier way than Insecure ever would.
I could very well argue that the villains of The Deuce—set in the sex trade of 1970s Times Square—are its pimps, who push, sell, and collect on the bodies of the women they manipulate. Another argument could be made: Those pimps—most of them poor, black, and disenfranchised—are maintaining their position in a rigged game. They play the only hand they feel they have: to seek power through misogyny the way their oppressors seek power through white supremacy. Both points would be valid to an extent, but neither would address the quietness of the “good” men who allowed sex trafficking to operate the way it did during that period in time.
The overt displays of mental, emotional, and physical abuse exhibited in The Deuce are certainly disturbing, but the privilege of apathy that men like Vincent and Frankie Martino (James Franco), and Bobby Dyer (Chris Bauer) exhibit speaks to the complicity of men who do nothing as a result of not being directly harmed or affected. Even when a person is aligning with the patriarchy in an indirect way—the way the three protagonists do—an element of constant control lingers in the background.“To control and conquer can be a very masculine thing to do,” Rawlings says.
As the series goes on, the three small business owners allow cops, pimps, and mob bosses to traffic women throughout their establishments—all while they return home to their wives and girlfriends. They’re consummate good guys for not having done any of the dirty work themselves. The men maintain the silent pact of patriarchy, a quietly understood agreement that your hands stay clean as long and you don’t rape, pimp, or batter any women yourself. It isn’t until the very end of the season when Vincent—the best of the so-called good—begins to question his passivity and balks at the idea of getting in deeper in his dealings with the cops and pimps and mob bosses altogether.
The men on New Girl are just emotionally evolved enough to garner women fans. Or maybe they’re just a reflection of men in progressive coastal cities (in this case, LA) who’re lucky enough to experience, as Rawlings calls it, “a wider latitude for men to be whatever they want to be.” People tend to flock to cities like LA or New York when they want to run away from more traditional (read: harmful or unhealthy) standards of masculinity, Rawlings notes. “But the gender role strain is still there. There’s still residue of it.”
The show centers around Jessica Day (Zooey Deschanel)—a “quirky” older millennial educator floundering through life—and her cohort of male roommates. Schmidt, the most cringe-worthy (albeit layered) of the three men on the show, understands that sexuality is a spectrum and rocks a Kimono on chill evenings in. He’s claimed that “ordering sushi like a sick ass boss” is one of the qualities that makes a real man. He also emotes like a motherfucker. He cries, laughs, and has vivid nostalgic flashbacks sans regard for how “soft” it makes him look.
Still, he’s no shining beacon of allied feminism. His possessiveness over his long-time bae, Cece, is borderline endearing until an ex-flame (barely—I’ll call her a flicker) of hers comes into the picture in the fifth season and he loses his shit in a fit of jealousy. “Anytime that we want to possess or control, is an indication of some kind of internal conflict that’s going on,” Rawlings says. “It’s not reflective of a relationship built on any kind of mutuality or reciprocity.” We know Schmidt has his baggage (fat kid past, lots of heartbreak) and his zero chill in this scenario proves Rawlings’ point.
The jealousy thing sounds like a universal experience, but Rawlings says that it tends to manifest a bit different in men than it does in women (back to that pesky gender strain). Schmidt plays into this stereotype—he’s loud and aggressive about his need to possess Cece in a few scenarios on that show. Rawlings—who doesn’t watch the show—was spot on about the internal conflict. Irrational actions, for both men and women, often manifest as breaches of trust from the past. A little time on the therapist’s couch might serve as more potent self-care than the Kimono or the sushi.
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