January 27, 2009

There has been a sudden influx of television shows about self-discovery -- but not in the old 1960s sense. Rather, the protagonist of these shows recognises that somehow life has not gone as expected, that the expectations and dreams and hopes of previous years have somehow been derailed. That insight is usually not a long time coming. The protagonist had already known they had become stuck in a hamster wheel. Sometimes they have known it for years. The ways of dealing are various: but the vast majority of them seem to involve disconnecting from societal expectations -- indeed, from any expectations, even of self. Life then may be monotonous or matter-of-fact or uncaring or even deeply unhappy, but it is no longer demanding of self.

And so it stays: until a force from beyond kicks them in the teeth. It may be a talking animal figurine which says what needs to be heard (Wonderfalls). It may be a therapist with the power to open doors to your own past (Being Erica). It may even be having died, and only then being forced to learn truly how to live (Dead Like Me). One way or another, the spin cycle is kicked off its axle, and these protagonists begin to face who they are, what made them who they are, and above all the fact that as of here and now, the responsibility for how they live their lives rests entirely upon their own willingness to face life.

In every one of these television shows, the protagonist is female.

So I started searching for a male equivalent to these shows -- and did not find one. The closest any show with a male protagonist came to these issues was the odd sitcom's half-mocking toe-test of "male bonding": and the attitudes in those were not close at all. Above all, the male protagonist shows -- and even many of the family sitcoms -- now suggest stasis in life as a simple matter of fact: this is what you do, this is who you are, this is who you will always be. Almost invariably, this approach made the male equivalent to any hint of self-examination and self-awareness into: "This is life, sucks to be you."

Which led me directly to such shows as Clerks, Office Space, and the earlier Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Here, the only answer to job stasis and life stasis is sarcasm, petty and not so petty theft, and low-grade, meaningless sabotage. Even the acclaimed and skillfully written Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is little more than a disguised "stoner comedy" (thanks for that term, Beth!): where one of the guys repeatedly finds things that look profound on the surface of it (but lacks any will to pursue the observation), and the other doesn't do too much more than go, "Woah." Above all, in a stoner comedy -- and increasingly in those tragicomedies which reflect life -- it seems easier to drift with fate than to buck the tide: and if you are male, that is also where it stops.

Thus where the female protagonist shows have been flashing a strong message of taking personal responsibility for one's own circumstances and one's own choices, even knowing that most things outside oneself and one's own attitude will always be outside one's control, the messages of the male protagonist shows are just the opposite: tiny boat, large ocean, why bother?

It would be easy to assume that these two sharply differing approaches are due simply to differing expectations made of the two genders. Yet closer examination of current shows reveals about the same percentage of male bachelors as female "bachelorettes", with similar job levels and similar environments -- with the single exception that the voice of the disappointed family is much stronger for the women than for the men. At the same time, we find a curious trend in real-life university admissions: whereby female applicants are now so much more qualified on average than male applicants that many universities (including all the Ivy League) have established different qualifying standards for men and women. These are necessary lest the university end up with more than 60% women, and thereby be labelled a "woman's university".

It makes an ironic and possibly relevant note that had Bart Simpson's "underachiever and proud of it" been allowed to grow up, he would now be almost exactly the same age as these "trapped" protagonists, both male and female.

We always knew that the brilliant satire of The Simpsons was becoming no such thing to its increasingly young audience. Now, it seems we are reaping the earliest fruits -- not of its satire, but of our own laziness in monitoring what our children watched and absorbed and took at face value, unquestioning.

Comments: Post a Comment



<< Home