The focus of this article is upon representations of masculinity in one medium only, television, while making it evident that the approach adopted could be applied equally well to newspapers, magazines, radio, and film.
Three broad phases can be identified in the evolution of televisual masculinities, a term coined to reflect the breakup of the stereotypical masculine narrative over the past three decades. It acknowledges that masculinity is far from monolithic and uniform but is rather composed of a number of “masculinities,” of ways of “doing” masculinity. Another factor that should be borne in mind at the outset is the massive growth today in the amount and variety of television (including the current development of Internet-delivered television) increasingly available to viewers throughout the developed world. What Creeber (2006) aptly terms “tele-visions” are a barometer of social and cultural change, and any assumption that the medium today remains maledominated (or its representations of masculinity unchanged) should be treated with considerable caution. Finally, reference below is made to many programs that, although originating in the US or Britain, have subsequently been dubbed and exported and have thereby contributed to the emergence of an embryonic global media culture.
Phase 1: When Men Were Men And Women Were Women
From the mid-1950s up to the late 1970s, the depiction of gender on British, European, and American television was highly stereotypical. “Real men” were inevitably presented as dominant, rational, and competent, whereas their antithesis (that is, desirable, compliant, irrational, domesticated women) featured mostly in comedies and soap operas. In fact, male displays of any feminine characteristics were rare and occasions for comedy.
Unsurprisingly, second wave feminists mounted a trenchant critique of television from the mid-1960s on, accusing it of playing a major role in the continuing denigration of women by constantly depicting them as weak and overdependent upon men. A dominant male gaze, they claimed, pervaded both the production and consumption of television. Yet a little over a decade later, Hearn and Melechi (1992, 231) confidently pointed to television’s key role in “assisting the fragmentation of (traditional) masculinity.”
Phase 2: A Weakening Of The Masculinity Mold
Throughout the 1970s, western popular culture gradually eroded the still relatively intact masculine paradigm, so much so that it has been described as a decade marked by “a desire to play about with masculinity” (Mort 1996, 203). Television continued as a major vehicle for this throughout the 1980s, as narrow stereotypes were challenged and more dramas with central female protagonists appeared on both sides of the Atlantic, as, for example, in Juliet Bravo, Silent Witness, Cagney & Lacey and The Gentle Touch. Male leads increasingly combined toughness with a degree of sensitivity, even vulnerability (as in Inspector Morse), while female ones became less reliant on men. The change was particularly noticeable in television advertisements and where masculinity could be most readily reshaped and men lampooned as comically incompetent. Meanwhile, displays of male bonding and homosocial buddy relationships, accompanied by a degree of emotional disclosure, grew in popularity on prime-time television, perhaps best epitomized by the US series Starsky & Hutch. Elsewhere, in other popular series (like, for example, thirty something), male friendships become even closer and ambiguous.
Men, too, were becoming increasingly fashion conscious: Miami Vice was a prime example of the male incorporation of the pleasures of appearance and style, albeit without any real diminution of masculine power. MacKinnon (2003, 82) sees 1980s American television as characterized by the conflict between old and new masculinities: for example, if the A-Team was a post-Vietnam reconstruction of the masculine, thirty something promoted a softer and more sensitive (and middle-class) masculinity more appealing to women. At the same time, conventional masculinity was increasingly being held up to ridicule in what Hanke (1998) terms “mock macho sitcoms.”
It is undeniable that by the late 1980s the former mask of cyborgian toughness and emotional reticence had been lowered, if not finally discarded, as macho masculinity increasingly began to be viewed more as a handicap than as a strength. During the 1990s, rigid gender stereotypes were further eroded in such series as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Friends, Absolutely Fabulous, and Sex in the City. Moreover, ridiculing pompous men had become an increasingly popular format in situation comedy since the 1960s. In the UK, examples include the character Alf Garnett (Till Death Us Do Part), Captain Mainwaring (Dad’s Army), Del Boy (Only Fools and Horses), Basil Fawlty (Fawlty Towers), and the latest in line, David Brent (The Office). Brent daily bullied and humiliated his workforce, but was really a vain, sexist, egotistical, and ultimately ludicrous figure. In such characters, the veneer of control and authority is soon undermined by their absurd actions and the consequences that follow: in short, they are to be laughed at more than laughed with. Meanwhile, another way of rendering (particularly young) men absurd from the 1990s has been through the depiction of laddish masculinity in, for example, Men Behaving Badly, Fantasy Football League, and They Think It’s All Over.
As is evident, then, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, television undoubtedly made a significant contribution to the deconstructing and repackaging of masculinity. Indeed, Gauntlett (2002) is of the opinion that modern media have a more complex view of gender and sexuality that ever before. He identifies a number of programs that he feels were particularly influential in transforming gender representations over this period, among them Ally McBeal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, NYPD Blue, Friends, Frasier, ER, Dawson’s Creek, and The West Wing. Meanwhile, in the groundbreaking UK police series Prime Suspect, a woman (Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison) eventually triumphed over the masculinist culture in which she worked.
Phase 3: Postmodern Television
In the contemporary, postmodern era, there is not only more television than ever before but also a proliferation of programs with less structured formats. An increasing number of televisual texts resist semantic closure, being less linear and more ambiguous than previously and demonstrating what Creeber (2006) terms “semiotic excess” and “inter-determinacy” (an apt example is the recent US series Lost).
If structuralism was inclined to prescribe meaning, poststructural textual analysis stresses the polysemic and open nature of such rich visual and auditory texts. The widening portrayal of gender they convey is, however, more and more driven by a rapacious (and increasingly globalizing) celebrity culture that manufactures dreams and sells “stars,” and in which consumerist imagery is everything (Holmes & Redmond 2006).
Real Or Cosmetic Change?
It is quite clear that representations of gender on television have changed considerably over the past 50 years in that a far wider range of masculinities (and femininities) has today replaced the earlier relatively uniform and stereotypical representations of masculinity (and femininity). Indeed, what Connell (1987) describes as “hegemonic masculinity” is now held by many to have multiple coexisting, rather than subordinated, versions. However, there are at least two interpretations of the nature of such changes.
The first is that masculinity on television today in the west has been largely stripped of its hegemony and is more open to alternative representations. Gill (2007) is the latest to record the increasing fragmentation and proliferation of masculinities and of their representations. Meanwhile, Gauntlett (2002, 7) argues that television today is “full of information about being a man in the here and now,” mirroring postmodern times in which gender is more unstable than ever before. Similarly, Creeber (2006, 54) sees television attempting to “play around with, subvert, ridicule, investigate, resist and even transcend traditional male heterosexual ideologies.” Soaps everywhere (from Coronation Street to EastEnders to the once ultra-macho Brazilian telenovelas) have widened the array of masculinities they parade before their audience.
The second interpretation is that whatever changes may have taken place are misleading in that all that has really happened is that a new set of stereotypes have been brought into play, and that “underneath what appear to be radically different images of women and men are some very familiar, very traditional themes” (Wood 2003, 262). A good illustration of this in the 1990s is the previously cited British police drama series Prime Suspect, where the lead character, DCI Jane Tennison, repeatedly draws upon her feminism to survive the police canteen culture (Creeber 2004). However, in order to earn credibility, she has to adopt many of the attributes of her misogynistic colleagues. Brunsdon (1998, 234) argues that as a result Prime Suspect still preserves the basic ingredients of the conventional masculine narrative in that Tennison, in order to succeed, is forced to became “fully integrated into the language of the lads.” Likewise, McQueen (2001) maintains that British situation comedy is still largely dominated by men, while Mills (2005, 111) goes even further, claiming that “television humor has been largely co-opted as a male trait.” In similar vein, MacKinnon (2003) argues that surface changes should not blind us to what remains constant, in that representations of men as soft, sensitive, and caring can ultimately function to reinforce male privilege. Another factor to bear in mind is that while the production process may well have resulted in more diverse and open texts, the ethnographic evidence on television reception is that consumption patterns still remain strongly gendered (with men generally opting to watch factual programs, documentaries, sport, and high-action dramas).
Perhaps the ultimate litmus test of how open television is to actual, as opposed to cosmetic, change is how it portrays gay masculinity. Does it adequately reflect the shifts in attitude in the west toward homosexuality over the past three decades? Many argue that television lags behind in that gay men are still crudely stereotyped. An early, groundbreaking camp figure on British television was Mr. Humphries in Are You Being Served? His legacy has endured, a notable recent descendant being Dafydd (“the only gay in the village”) in the successful BBC comedy series Little Britain. Mills (2005, 126) points out that the gradual growth in gay characters on television “has done nothing to undermine the recurring use of campness as an indicator of homosexuality.”
While comedy is one of the few places on television where homosexuality even has a presence, its representation continues to be limited, with campness still to the fore, so much so that “in British comedy campness is funny, not homosexuality: the latter hardly exists” (Mills 2005, 125). Mills illustrates his argument by reference to two sitcoms, both featuring James Dreyfus. In the first series (The Thin Blue Line), an attempt is made to disentangle homosexuality and campness. Constable Goody is heterosexual, but camp, whereas in Dreyfus’s follow-up series (Gimme, Gimme, Gimme) he played an openly gay character by drawing heavily upon the camp stereotype. If the former series contradicted (even confused) viewers’ expectations, the latter confirmed them, leading Mills (2005) to conclude that gay characters continue to be caught in a rigid representational trap.
To conclude, it is claimed that increasingly gender-literate television writers and directors are more prepared than ever to experiment with nontraditional and subversive representations of gender. Many would like to see television become more proactively involved in promoting masculinities firmly based on personal qualities and quality relationships rather than upon physical power, action, achievement, and possessions. While Bignell and Lacey (2005, 6) argue that television has the potential to articulate “radical defamiliarizations of familiar sights, sounds, ideas, places and moments,” others would regard this as somewhat utopian and, instead, be more inclined to conclude that as a medium it continues to reflect, rather than instigate, meaningful and enduring social change.
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