Pop culture did something to men over the past 20 years, something very bad and not at all reversible.
Start with television. If we look at what are, arguably, the two best examples of being a man from television in that time frame we find a sociopathic mob boss from New Jersey and a brilliant ad man doubling as a serial womanizer and functioning alcoholic.
There are very few similarities between Tony Soprano and Don Draper, other than they are both men stuck in the past. Tony is pining for the good old, pre-RICO days his father lived through, a time when men were strong silent types, like Gary Cooper (a description of masculinity Tony made to a female psychiatrist trying to help Tony address his own anger management problems and mommy issues).
Don Draper’s ideals and style are firmly rooted in the 1950’s as the narrative arc of Mad Men races through the 1960’s in six seasons, with Don seemingly the lone holdout for the way things used to be. Even Roger Sterling, his white-haired partner, is dropping acid, going to therapy and growing sideburns while Don sticks to brown liquor, stony silence and hair wax.
Still, if you get past Tony’s tendency to murder loved ones and friends as a matter of convenience, and Don’s massive identity theft that has rendered his whole life a lie, you can see why some men want to, at least secretly, emulate them. Both men have been wrong at least once per season, but neither has ever been accused of being indecisive. Tony struggles to be a good father (one of his biggest character conflicts is trying to toughen up his son while simultaneously protecting him from the violent world of mob rule) and Don has that rare gift of being the very best at what he does, both qualities that many men crave. They dress well, play hard and have those personalities that draw people into their orbit, a certain kind of effortless charm that endears people to them even when they are, for the most part, being massive dicks.
The two men have one other thing that, in my mind, makes them massively likable, or at least likable enough to get us to spend six or seven seasons of Sunday nights with them: neither Jon Hamm as Don Draper or James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano are anything like Ray Romano.
Loves Should Hate Raymond
Because Ray Romano – first as the namesake character in the painfully popular sitcom “Everybody Loves Raymond” and more recently in TBS’s “Men Of A Certain Age” — has become the 21st ideal of manhood in America. He’s the lovable idiot, the live-action version of Homer Simpson or Peter Griffin, the guy whose incompetence, indecisiveness and sad-sack nature leaves his wife endlessly frustrated but also endlessly secure and, ultimately, in love with guys like Ray.
Hollywood executives have built on this, giving us different versions of what amounts to the same character. There’s Jim Halpert on the American version of “The Office,” the dopey-eyed everyman with boyish good looks that makes him the lesser of all evils in a world full of underachievers and misfits. The ultimate take away from Jim’s character with the just completed series-ending season is it is wrong for men to to want it all, and even worse to at least try to have it all. The Ray Romano model carries over into movies in a wide range of forms. The Hangover franchise is about how stupid men can be without adult supervision, and the romantic comedy Knocked Up’s saddest moments come when Paul Rudd’s character has to hide his participation in a fantasy baseball league from his wife – so much so that she suspects he is having an affair. In fact, most anything written by Judd Apatow or starring Seth Rogen is a good example of just how far masculinity has fallen in the first decade oif the millenium.
Modern situation comedies make any man who embodies the traditional stereotypes and ideas of masculinity into a comic sideshow. Think Nick Offerman’s Ron Swanson on “Parks And Recreation” or Alec Baldwin’s Jack Donaghy on “30 Rock.” Ron Swanson doesn’t want to have it all because he doesn’t want to end up having to move the things he loves – his tools, his Bobby Knight poster and his photo album full of memorable meals at steakhouses – into the sad corner of the modern, shared household called “The Man Cave.” We love ROn Swanson because he embraces a lifestyle that, for most men, is unrealistic.
Meanwhile, Jack Donaghy is comical in a world defined by Ray Romano because he puts his career before everything else and after seven seasons of telling Liz Lemon she can’t have everything is the one who ends up alone and unfulfilled. Jack’s relationships constantly mess us his career and his career constantly messes up his relationship. In that light, he’s not that much different than Jim Halpert, whose marriage, over the last two seasons of “The Office” fell close to a darker version of the same chaos every time he made a serious effort to advance his career.
Words No Better Than Pictures
If we look for definitions of manhood in other areas of media, we’re just as lost. The pioneering men’s magazines that have all been Maximed into shells of their former selves now seem to preach the same, tired mantra. They define manhood not by what you know, or even what you do, but by what you own. It doesn’t matter if you’re a vapid ex-frat boy, as long as you grow up and know how to fold a pocket square and play golf.
Manhood, as someone who is admittedly a few years past the 18-34 demo these magazines target, is equal parts playing video games and drinking beer, ogling pictures of hot girls and aspiring for six pack abs.
And if the men of letters that defined previous generations had names like Faulkner, Hemingway and Wolfe, today we have Tucker Max, an “author” who has turned a series of regrettable sexual encounters into a blog, two books and a movie (which, to the relief of anyone who loves literature, tanked).
Pop Culture’s portrayal of men, circa 1999-2013, isn’t just an issue for men. Judd Apatow has simplified the formula for writing female leads in his movies into two words: shrill bitch. And, in the final season of “The Office,” Pam becomes the most hateable character in a cast full of dislikable characters who were all retired three or four seasons too late. Before I met my fiancee, one of the worst of a series of awful first dates was with a woman who bragged that the night before she had ridden her moped to an appearance by Tucker Max and had sex with him. This is a woman who ultimately decided that having a good story was better than holding out to try and find a good man.
Save Us Liz Phair
We used to be able to find male role models in music. Then Kurt Cobain ate a shotgun shell and alternative music went mainstream. It spent 20 years getting soft, as if around 2004 someone turned on the “Reality Bites” soundtrack on repeat for a generation of songwriters, slowing the tempo and lowering the volume every few years. Alternative went from being edgy and angsty to being sappy and emo and, most of all, unlistenable. The new model for success was write upbeat hits with ironic lyrics about the perceived injustices of life (think The Strokes) or sad, slow songs about breaking up and contemplating suicide (Snow Patrol).
Punk rock now has an installation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and soccer moms listen to the Dropkick Murphys. Somewhere along the way people forgot that listening to the same music as your kids doesn’t make you, as a parent, cool. It makes your kids lame.
Perhaps the best music-inspired role models for men are not men in rock, but the men rock is about. I’m talking about the type of guy Liz Phair would sleep with. Or at least write a song about.
And I’m pretty sure “Fuck And Run” and “Big Tall Man” aren’t about Ray Romano.