"The He Decade": Are The Men Of Television Too Self-Absorbed?


Alessandra Stanley of the New York Times argues that depictions of masculinity on television throughout the 00s can best be characterized as “a He Decade: 10 years of men gazing at their navels.” But is she right?

Stanley begins her piece by blaming the empowering women’s programs of the 80s and 90s for the rise of the neurotic male on 00s television, noting: “all those sitcoms and dramas of the ’80s and ’90s that reflected women’s liberation, self-actualization and consciousness raising paid off by wearing down the opposite sex; even made men buckled under the pressure. Accordingly, many of the most notable series of the last 10 years showcased men who examined their feelings or at least acknowledged their limitations.”

Stanley then compares the “girl power” of Sex and the City (no neurosis in that show, eh?) to the therapy-seeking ways of the likes of Tony Soprano, Dr. House, and Monk, amongst others, arguing that the decade was defined by flawed men seeking insights into their own psychologically disturbed selves. Interestingly enough, Stanley also brings up Law & Order: SVU, and notes that “some of the most lurid moments were found in the romantic and psychological entanglements of its central characters,” but doesn’t mention anything about Detective Olivia Benson’s struggles with her mother’s alcoholism and rape before segueing into a paragraph on how “female detectives are messed up as well, but in a welcome reversal of gender roles they are far more repressed about their feelings and failings.” Because more repression in women is…a good thing?

While I understand, I think, what Stanley is going for, in that the depiction of masculinity on the screen has become overwhelmingly self-analytical and, at times, a bit frustrating in its self-absorption, there’s something a bit off-putting about the piece, in that it seems at times that Stanley is connecting mental illness with some kind of personality flaw, as if men aren’t really men if they’re dealing with schizophrenia or obsessive-compulsive disorder or manic depression, and that women are somehow winning a gender war when they’re able to hide their demons and show their “girl power” by buying shoes.

Stanley points out that cable programs, like Mad Men, are successfully showcasing the opposite end of the spectrum: men who hide their feelings, no matter the cost. But Don Draper is arguably a more neurotic character than Dr. House, perhaps even more so, in that he’s trapped between within his own creation and cannot rectify his two identities. I doubt we’ll see Don Draper on a couch anytime soon (unless it belongs to a hot stewardess or something), but not going through therapy doesn’t necessarily present Draper as “stronger” than his modern-day ratings rivals. The reason we see more men in therapy on screen is because the stigmas that kept the Don Drapers of the world out of the office in the 1960s are slowly (very slowly) being chipped away at.

However, I won’t argue that therapy scenes on television are a bit overdone and that the use of mental illness as some kind of quirk or character flaw is fairly irritating, as well. Stanley argues that “2010 could be the beginning of the end of the years of living introspectively.” But there has to be something in between the Don Drapers and the Monks of the world, for both men and women, and instead of trying to push all characters towards one end or another, maybe creating characters to fill the void between the extremes should be the ultimate goal.

Men With A Message: Help Wanted [NYTimes]

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