Gender Studies, Masculinity and Television

Why gender studies should examine male television characters like Archie Bunker and Tony Soprano more closely.


| September 2014



Cable Guys Cover

In "Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century," Amanda D. Lotz analyzes the broad depictions of male characters through American television history.

Cover courtesy New York University Publishing

Women’s roles on television have been analyzed over the course of television’s history. Through the 20th century and into the 21st century, the evaluation of gender roles has come mostly through the analysis of women. Why not men? In Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century (NYU Press, 2014), Amanda D. Lotz attributes the lack of analysis and typology to the abundance of types of male characters in television, which leads to an audience who is more accepting of the male characters they see on television. In the following excerpt from the introduction, Lotz examines why male television characters have not been analyzed in depth under gender studies while many male film characters have.

What Do We Know about Men on Television?

It is revealing that so little has been written about men on television. Men have embodied such an undeniable presence and composed a significant percentage of the actors upon the small screen—be they real or fictional—since the dawn of this central cultural medium and yet rarely have been considered as a particularly gendered group. In some ways a parallel exists with the situation of men in history that Michael Kimmel notes in his cultural history, Manhood in America. Kimmel opens his book by noting that “American men have no history” because although the dominant and widely known version of American history is full of men, it never considers the key figures as men. Similarly to Kimmel’s assertion, then, we can claim that we have no history of men, masculinity, and manhood on television—or at best, a very limited one—despite the fact that male characters have been central in all aspects of the sixty-some years of US television history. It is the peculiar situation that nearly all assessments of gender and television have examined the place and nature of women, femininity, and feminism on television while we have no typologies of archetypes or thematic analyses of stories about men or masculinities.

For much of television studies’ brief history, this attention to women made considerable sense given prevailing frameworks for understanding the significance of gender representation in the media. Analyses of women on television largely emerged out of concern about women’s historical absence in central roles and the lack of diversity in their portrayals. Exhaustive surveys of characters revealed that women were underrepresented on television relative to their composition of the general populace and that those onscreen tended to be relegated to roles as wives, love interests, or sex objects. In many cases, this analysis was linked with the feminist project of illustrating how television contributed to the social construction of beliefs about gender roles and abilities, and given the considerable gender-based inequity onscreen and off, attention to the situation of men seemed less pressing. As a result, far less research has considered representations of men on television and the norms or changes in the stories the medium has told about being a man.

Transitioning the frameworks used for analyzing women on television is not as simple as changing the focus of which characters or series one examines. Analyzing men and masculinity also requires a different theoretical framework, as the task of the analysis is not a matter of identifying underrepresentation or problematic stereotypes in the manner that has dominated considerations of female characters. The historic diversity of stories about and depictions of straight white men has seemed to prevent the development of “stereotypes” that have plagued depictions of women and has lessened the perceived need to interrogate straight white men’s depictions and the stories predominantly told about their lives. Any single story about a straight white man has seemed insignificant relative to the many others circulating simultaneously, so no one worried that the populace would begin to assume all men were babbling incompetents when Darrin bumbled through episodes of Bewitched, that all men were bigoted louts because of Archie Bunker, or even that all men were conflicted yet homicidal thugs in the wake of Tony Soprano. Further, given men’s dominance in society, concern about their representation lacked the activist motivation compelling the study of women that tied women’s subordinated place in society to the way they appeared—or didn’t appear—in popular media.

Gender Studies: Focusing on Men

So why explore men now? First, it was arguably shortsighted to ignore analysis of men and changing patterns in the dominant masculinities offered by television to the degree that has occurred. Images of and stories about straight white men have been just as important in fostering perceptions of gender roles, but they have done their work by prioritizing some attributes of masculinity—supported some ways of being a man—more than others. Although men’s roles might not have been limited to the narrow opportunities available to women for much of television history, characteristics consistent with a preferred masculinity have pervaded—always specific to the era of production—that might generally be described as the attributes consistent with what is meant when a male is told to “be a man.” In the past, traits such as the stoicism and controlled emotionality of not being moved to tears, of proving oneself capable of physical feats, and of aggressive leadership in the workplace and home have been common. Men’s roles have been more varied than women’s, but television storytelling has nevertheless performed significant ideological work by consistently supporting some behaviors, traits, and beliefs among the male characters it constructs as heroic or admirable, while denigrating others. So although television series may have displayed a range of men and masculinities, they also circumscribed a “preferred” or “best” masculinity through attributes that were consistently idealized.

The lack of comprehensive attention to men in any era of television’s sixty-some-year history makes the task of beginning difficult because there are so few historical benchmarks or established histories or typologies against which newer developments can be gauged. Perhaps few have considered the history of male portrayal because so many characteristics seemed unexceptional due to their consistency with expectations and because no activist movement has pushed a societal reexamination of men’s gender identity in the manner that occurred for women as a component of second-wave feminism. Male characters performed their identity in expected ways that were perceived as “natural” and drew little attention, indicating the strength of these constructs. Indeed, television’s network-era operational norms of seeking broad, heterogeneous audiences of men and women, young and old, led to representations that were fairly mundane and unlikely to shock or challenge audience expectations of gender roles.