Funny, Jock, Smart: The Way American TV Stereotypes Men

Posted on August 25, 2015 in Culture-Vulture, Masculinity, Sexism And Patriarchy, Taboos

By Vaagisha Das

My friend next door is the life of the party. He is the Chandler Bing of our group. The geek who can be counted upon to chime in with a ‘do you know’ fact is obviously a Ross Geller.

male stereotypes in american tv
Giving specific identifying traits to characters on television has long been a tried and tested method to make them relatable to the viewers- the moment they see a character doing something that reminds them of themselves, the character- and the show- becomes instantaneously likeable. And more likability means more viewership. And more viewership, in turn, leads to pop culture representation increasingly influencing every single aspect of our lives- from the way we talk to the way we see other people. There have been numerous analyses on how media portrays women; well, what about the stereotyping of men, rather, among men- on television?

Men on T.V. are generally shown as being more successful; for example, the men on ‘How I Met Your Mother’, ‘The Big Bang Theory’, ‘Modern Family’, etc., and more ’emotionally stable’ than women – any display of feelings is often ridiculed as being ‘feminine’ – and therefore weak. However, aside from these constant underlying themes, male characters often have a set character frame to them too.

This leads to the most common male trope on T.V. – The Womanizer. The Womanizer is a smooth, charming individual, a huge success with the ladies- but rarely ending up with just one. Think Joey Tribbiani and Charlie Harper. Rather than show multifaceted character traits of these individuals, they are reduced to one character trait that will define their reactions to almost everything- Barney Stinson is the notorious philanderer, and it is to be expected that everything he does would be in pursuant of women – even the way he dresses.

This is very different from the second type, that of The Sensitive One. Generally smart and well adjusted, these individually seem constantly unlucky in one area of their lives – in the case of Ross Geller, Ben from ‘Parks And Recreation’ and Raj from ‘The Big Bang Theory’, to name a few- and it’s not for their lack of feeling. In fact, the problem is that there’s too much of it. These characters are constantly poked fun at by their friends for being either too smart- as in the case of Ross, the “paleontologist who is not a ‘real’ doctor“, or too sensitive – Raj is mock-portrayed as Howard’s ‘wife’. In T.V. world, brawn defines your masculinity, and not brains, so it’s hardly surprising that men have to hide their feelings – and their ‘extra’ smarts and just try to fit in.

An embodiment of this, is the wittily self-deprecating Joker, a very popular character with boys, perhaps because laughter is part of their own “mask of masculinity.” Chandler Bing would never dare give you advice, “would you be interested in a sarcastic comment?

Other than these, there are of course The Strong Jock, of which Booth from ‘Bones’ and Penny’s former boyfriend Zack are prime examples.  The Action Hero, not afraid of violence- ‘badasses’ like Sam and Dean from ‘Supernatural’ fall into this category, and many others, which are mostly self-explanatory. And there’s the honorary mention of the buffoon father figures who can do nothing right without their wives – Raymond tried, with disastrous results, in ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’.

The stereotyping exists for a reason, as it is much easier to introduce a character who fits into a particular mould – it saves time, and the audience can get on with the rest of the story. This is in addition to it being a good hook – once you become intrigued by one trait, you can spend time exploring the rest of the character. Also, this is a sit com, so no wonder things will be hyperbolised. The purpose is to entertain, and larger than life characters are the way to go. But the implications of this kind of nonchalant gender stereotyping can be sometimes dangerous, when heavy television viewers construct their own views and reality based off what they see on television, which is, obviously, very different from real life. People seldom realise that just because T.V. characters can fit in a box, does not mean that our friends do.

It would be unfair, though, to say that things are not changing over time. The shows still use stereotypes, but over time, they pull the curtains back to reveal the grey areas of their character’s personality. Some TV shows have such strong and complex characters that it is almost impossible to find one common trend in all the characters- such as ‘Breaking Bad’ with its high school teacher turned meth dealer protagonist, as well as the myriad of diverse characters in ‘Game Of Thrones’. We see less and less of the ‘typical’ male character. Perhaps the time of the cardboard cut outs is over after all, and instead of following a set template for the characters, the writers will continue to create more three dimensional figures on television.

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