So no one told you life was gonna be this way. Thankfully we have the media to spell out for us the way it is going to be. Whether we like it or not. The images of masculinity in television have changed quite dramatically since the 90’s. In order to demonstrate what I mean I will use the globally wide syndicated show ‘Friends’, in contrast I will also be looking at the more recent show ‘How I Met Your Mother’.
So it is the 1990’s. The cold war has came to a close, Clinton is in the White House and a new phenomena hits the TV called Friends. What appears as just another 20/30 something sit-com quickly garnered cult then popular status. Rather than describe the show, because we have all watched it at some point (yes, even you, admit it) I want to jump straight into the forms, and kinds, of masculinity portrayed in the show. This was around the period of ‘The New Man’. This was the more sensitive, understanding and caring male figure. One who was in tune with mainstream feminism, and in touch with his own emotions. All the male characters within this show fit this description. Even the frightfully sexist, dumb character Joey. Though to a much lesser extent than say the characters Ross and Chandler who for all purposes and intents are the flag ship example of ‘The New Man’. So far so good. A show which features strong, independent female characters and sensitive, emotional and in-touch males. This is just surface though. Closer scrutiny shows the same masculinity we have always seen. Rating ‘chicks’. Watching vast amounts of porn. Treating all women as potential sex. Mothers, best friends, friends’ sisters and so on. Essentially these males repeatedly fail to fit into the masculinity box and this provides for much of the humour around them. So we are essentially either laughing at them for not being ‘real men’ or laughing along when they do things that so called ‘real men’ do. This right here is the problem, and it is not one for which I personally hold the writers/creators responsible. They exists in a world where this is the unquestioned norm. Woman are feminine and men are masculine and both of these have rules and restrictions which we all learn growing up. Rather, I see shows like this as reflections of where we are at as a society. Friends is tame and almost progressive looking in comparison to the newer sitcom ‘How I Met Your Mother’.
Earlier I stated that media is simply a big mirror which shows us what we are and where we are as a society in general. If this is to be the case, then I would suggest we are in the most dire of situations when you look at ‘How I Met Your Mother’.
The males in this show routinely refer to women as ‘sluts’, ‘whores’, easy ‘lays’ and son. Whether it is the sensitive big dumb guy Marshall or the clever, neurotic yet sensitive Ted. The show seems to focus all of the misogyny and sexism through the character Barney Stinson. This character is hugely problematic in so many ways. The casual comments about avoiding law suits over sexual harassment, using women like fast food, discarding them when he has gotten what he wants from them. Never emotionally attaching to any woman. On top of this he is a corporate executive who works for a horrible company involved in arms deals. So all round he is odious, and by and large we are supposed to be laughing at him throughout the show. This would be a funny character were it not the case that he is the norm of male masculinity in the 21st Century. The writers make a point of revealing the sensitive side of this character and attempting to explain why he is this way. However, they never really get to the heart of the issue and all along his four other friends in the show basically support him as a group, whilst finding his antics disgusting yet amusing.
The most fascinating aspect of this show for me is how the female characters will often use lines like “man up” or “grow a pair”. They are actively a part of enforcing masculinity in the male characters in the show. Also, everything revolves around one thing, sex. Despite disliking the archetype of all things bad in men, Barney, they never challenge him in any meaningful way.
I would like to move on now to what has become so popular a concept it has spawned a book from the show, meant to be written by the character Barney. Not to mention numerous websites in support of this concept. The Bro Code. The Bro Code is a set of rules which men must follow if they are to be ‘true bros’. The following is a description of the Bro Code from the book. This is a lengthy quote but worth putting here to demonstrate what a horrible state the male culture is in.
“Whether we know it or not, each of us lives a life governed by an internalized code of conduct. Some call it morality. Others call it religion. I call it “the Bro Code.
“For centuries men have attempted to follow this code with no universal understanding of what such an arrangement meant: Is it okay to hug a Bro?* If I’m invited to a Bro’s wedding, do I really have to bring a gift? Can I sleep with a Bro’s sister or mother or both?
“Now, for the first time on paper, I have recorded the rules of social decorum that Bros have practised since the dawn of man…if not before. The Bro Code previously existed only as an oral tradition (heh), so I have journeyed the globe to piece together and transcribe the scattered fragments of the Bro Code, pausing only to flesh it out myself (double heh). While not intending to write a “Guide to Being a Bro,” if men should treat it as such and pass this compendium of knowledge from one generation to the next, I have little doubt it would bring a tear to my eye. But not out of it. That would be a violation of Article 41: A Bro never cries.
“It is my hope that, with a better understanding of the Bro Code, Bros the world over can put aside their differences and strengthen the bonds of brotherhood. It is then, and only then, that we might work together as one to accomplish perhaps the most important challenge society faces — getting laid. Before dismissing this pursuit as crass and ignoble, consider this postulate: without the sport inherent in trying to bang chicks, would men willingly have sex for the sole purpose of producing smelly, screaming babies?”
If this is morality then all is lost. I believe this to be part of a kick back from the 1990’s ‘New Man’. A return to misogyny in it’s most brutal, infantile and dangerous form. Essentially it is about men uniting to manipulate and use women as sex objects. While some may be reading this thinking “but it is just comedy, they are making fun of this kind of sexism”. The reality is quite the opposite I would argue. Yes, the Bro Code existed long before this show but it has become a globally accepted thing amongst males now, in no small part a result of this hit TV sitcom. The website The Bro Code – The Online Collaborative Bro Code Site (https://brocode.wordpress.com/page/2/ ) has posts from males all over the world adding rules of their own to this ‘Code’:
“Mom of a Bro is always off limits, but a Stepmom is fair game if she initiates it or is wearing at least one piece of leopard print.“
“A Bro will, in a timely manner, alert his Bro of an impending or ongoing girl fight.“
“In the event that two Bros acquire the same target, the Bro with the longer dry spell has dibs. Should the dry spells be of equal length, a game of discreet roshambo shall determine the outcome.“
That characters such as Barney Stinson are so popular tells us volumes about where we are in our culture in terms of masculinity. A culture of jokes about date rape, objectification, manipulation where women are viewed as someone to have sex with rather than human beings with complex emotions, feelings, thoughts and lives with worth and meaning. Men are sociopathic, infantile beings who never show much emotion beyond high fives and a delight at ‘scoring with as many chicks as they can’. There are no accepted in-betweens here. This is hugely problematic on so many levels. In a world where someone accused of rape is held as a left wing hero and excuses are made for him from his supporters and followers (overwhelmingly young males). Where the more mainstream heroes such as football players, rock stars and actors are also involved in such horrible things. Where are the positive role models for kids growing up? Where are the examples of anything other than that which fits into the masculinity or femininity box? Where are the popular public figures who break out of this gender binary, this hetero-norm?
One crucial difference between these two shows is the Internet. Up until around early 2000 most homes did not have Internet, by the time How I Met Your Mother first aired the Internet was running on full cylinders. With this came to the forefront a much harsher demonstration of sexism , rape jokes, objectification of women etc. that sites like ” The Bro-Code” exist is less a result of TV shows, like the one previously mentioned, and more an insight on where these shows grew from. The internet allowed misogyny a constant platform 365 days a year non stop. Like many things, the internet gives you a decent overview of a global culture if you look around the right sites. A brief 5-10 minute random browse (go on, try it) will show you a ton of misogyny and hetero-gender norms. These ideas are spreading through to young people more intensely than they ever could to previous generations. When women are portrayed on billboards, in our newspapers, video games, movies, music and the Internet as purely objects for men’s desires and needs this puts us in a pretty horrible place, not just as a society but as a greater global whole. Like it or not (and I really don’t) the mainstream sets the bar. It is the example to our young, the representation and main influence on our culture. Shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother are two of the most popular mainstream TV shows with massive global audiences but in different decades. Through these shows we can see differences in what is acceptable in mainstream culture and what is still not. The differences in tone and attitude, in terms of how they treat women or how masculinity is portrayed has significantly shifted, but for the worse it would seem. These shows are only two small examples of a global collage of problematic content which promotes gender binary, hetero-norms, misogyny and patriarchy.
We also see a change in male predatory behaviour. Whereas Joey would entice with faux romantic gestures and puppy dog eyes to get his prey, Barney Stinson cuts to the chase and goes straight to undermining the woman’s confidence, separating her from ‘the herd’ (the character’s own words in one episode). He sleeps with them then gets back to the bar. Joey sleeps with them then slips away in the morning. Patriarchy has become much more confident and with that the dehumanisation of women far more prevalent. Alongside this we see a massive increase in rape, sexual assault and battery. The tide must be drawn back, we fight to make things better on an intellectual and personal way much of the time but maybe it is time we started fighting back through art and mainstream culture. Until we can affect and change the mainstream, we will be struggling against the waves more and more as time goes on.