New Title Trend

Happy 2012, everyone! (It’s not past the point where I can still say that, right?)

I’m beginning my 2012 posts the same way most writers begin their novels – with titles.

Titles matter. Sometimes a bad title can ruin a good thing (Cougartown, anyone? But more on that later.). I’ve been having a problem with titles lately. Specifically, titles of television shows. It’s not so much what they are as what they reflect on society. I’m not liking what I see. Usually when I talk about TV on the blog, it’s about something that translates to novel writing, and the title trend I’ve been seeing in the latest crop of sitcoms is no different.

I’ve spoken before about “strong female characters” and what term means to me. Surprisingly, I think TV has been getting “strong” right more often than many novels lately. There was a lull in the past decade (I blame producers who tried to find “the next Sex and the City” by missing the point of the show.) Things are far from perfect, but in recent years we’ve been reassured that characters like Mary Richards (and Rhoda!), Murphy Brown, and Roseanne actually mattered. Women have come a long way. We get to be in charge of our sexuality, choose our own destinies, and have dragon tattoos (but more on that later). We get characters like Alicia from The Good Wife, Leslie from Parks & Recreation, and Caroline from The Vampire Diaries.

So if I’m so happy with the way women are finally starting to be portrayed, what’s my problem? Men are my problem.

Don’t mistake my italics for an emphasis on “men.” I like men, as most feminists do. My problem with Men are the titles the word keeps appearing in. It’s talked about less, but men suffer from sexism on TV, in movies, and in books too. The difference is that most of the better characters are written for men, so the good often outweighs the bad, and the sexism isn’t always as noticeable. But apparently someone over at ABC noticed and wants something to be done about it. Only instead of creating better characters for women, they’re leveling the playing field by creating worse characters for men.

ABC seems to be leading the Man Revolution, beginning with its already-canceled Man Up and Tim Allen’s return to TV, Last Man Standing. Both shows are about men taking their gender back. From whom, you ask? Apparently women, liberals, and gay/intellectual/vegan/hipsters who are not considered “real men.”  

Man Up is about friends who need to grow up, but can’t seem to shake their college lifestyle. It’s a typical boys will be boys character trope that we’re used to seeing in small doses, usually through a supporting character in an ensemble cast. Not to be outdone, CBS had the good sense to kill its new show How to be a Gentleman before it spread, yet is holding on tight to the wizened patriarch of all Men shows, Two and a Half Men. Like Man Up, both of these shows feature men in their 30s and 40s behaving like boys. It’s all fast cars, hot babes, no ambition, and zero self-reflection. On the other side of the “man” spectrum is Last Man Standing, in which Tim Allen has sacrificed his manhood by living in the same house as his wife and daughters, and now needs to return to his manly, undomesticated roots.

ABC’s crowning achievement this year might be their mid-season replacement, Work It, a remake of Bosom Buddies, which should tell you all you need to know. But to elaborate, this is a 2012 sitcom with a premise that was tacky and outdated even in 1980. Two men – extra macho-looking for comedic effect – decide the only way they can get jobs is by dressing up as women. Hilarity, weak premises, and sexism ensue. From the previews, the men look as convincing as women as the Wayans Brothers looked in White Girls. Not only do they neglect shaving and general upkeep even though they are passing as women, but they only wear shoulder-padded pantsuits that I can only assume ABC still had laying around from Bosom Buddies. It’s offensive to men as much as it is women. There is no equivalent to these men in real life, and the level of immaturity and stupidity they celebrate is insulting.

But I digress. Back to Men.

I described these shows in case you hadn’t heard of them, but what it boils down to is that every man featured on these shows wishes for simpler times (for men) when gender roles were defined and all men were created equal, with the same interests, thoughts, education level, and goals. While each show features men in arrested development, they still get to proudly wave their Man title high. And yet, every magazine cover, news article, and end-of-year round-up has been about women (“finally”) being recognized as equals in comedy.

We got to see Bridesmaids… and, um… If you’re waiting for me to name another well-received all-female comedy made in the past year (or ten), then you’ll have to wait until Bridesmaids 2 comes out. Our “Year in Comedy” consisted of one movie, and two new sitcoms, New Girl and 2 Broke Girls.

Notice the immediate shift in title choices. The irony, of course, is that while Men get to celebrate their lack of growth, the Girl shows feature young women trying to make it on their own as adults. Admittedly, New Woman doesn’t have the same cache, but even teen heroines Buffy, Clarissa, Veronica, and Alex Mack got to at least have their names in their titles. (Oh, this year we also got Whitney, which did for female empowerment what its ad campaign did to get me to watch the show.)

Once women are old enough to be taken seriously in the real world, television and media find new ways to infantilize them. Isn’t it so darn cute how those Girls are single and independent and trying to live in a man’s world? Someday they’ll make 3/4 of what those Men do. Then maybe when they outgrow their youthful optimism they can move to Cougartown or become a Good Wife or if they really snap under the pressure, remain a Girl, but ones covered with dragon tattoos. I suppose it’s too much to think they’ll ever be called Women though, right?

Since two of these Man shows have been canceled already, I have some hope that this trend won’t last. I hope that writers will stop thinking that the type of humor that worked 30 years ago is still relevant today, and that the most critically acclaimed shows on TV right now are the ones that challenge gender stereotypes and create non-archetypal characters. And mostly I hope that you, the novel writers, won’t let this trend infect your work.

(Parting exercise: Type in “wife” into the Amazon search bar under Books. Scroll through the bestsellers and acclaimed novels that tell stories of women overshadowed by powerful men. Then type in “husband.”)

13 thoughts on “New Title Trend

  1. They are getting it more right than wrong as of late, but we need a bit more. We also buy more books and that's a fact. Imho, Modern Family is a comedy which does have more right than wrong with regard to gender roles (and sexuality being just not a issue). There's alot of good out there.

    @Sarah: Rizzoli & Isles is pretty darn good! I totally relate to the Isles character (a medical examiner).

    @Huntress: I also love Lucy and wish she would have told Ricky to stick it, and Fred too, for that matter.


  2. @OneDVRebel – I tried to keep my focus on network TV since they are what's supposed to reflect “the masses.” I've never seen Rizzoli & Isles, but I think cable is generally better at creating stronger characters. They have less pressure on them to please everybody (i.e. advertisers), so their shows become more nuanced and fresh.


  3. I agree with you about Man Up, Work It, and Two and a Half Men, but I actually really like Last Man Standing. It's not so much about a man wishing for a time when gender roles were clearly defined (though he occasionally does), but about a man learning to live in a world where those don't exist. He's a good father to his girls, a supportive husband, and probably much more liberal in his social policy than he realistically would be. So I suppose this would fall into line with shows whose titles don't accurately represent the content (a la Cougartown).

    Also, you excluded Rizzoli & Isles (TNT) from your list of strong women shows (and one where their names are in the title!). Crime shows in general seem to be making a push toward having strong female main characters, though many of them (like Chase and Unforgettable) didn't do/aren't doing so well in the ratings.


  4. I wouldn't worry so much about ABC and their line of thinking – pretty much all of those shows are failing, no? In their traditional silly ways, the networks desperately tried to copy the hot new thing on cable (Mad Men) sloppily, producing direct clones that sucked (The Playboy Club, Pan-Am) and shows with elements they thought the audience wanted (ABC's lineup of man-aimed crap).


  5. I grew up in the decades of I Love Lucy and Gilligan's Island. Loved 'em then. Hate them now for their treatment of women. *Dang it, Lucy, tell Ricky where he can stuff it*

    Today's TV portrays men as weak, ineffectual idiots. I hate that as much as I do the old shows.

    Example of a strong woman: Ripley in the first two Alien movies.


  6. A lot of it is perspective, tbh. There's always some aspect of -isms trickling down through the generations and, while slowly whittling down, I don't think it'll ever cease to exist.

    I'm beginning to think that television is afraid of holding people to impossible standards by showing them the true strength that members of both sex truly possess. The most entertaining shows I've seen always deal with people who make mistakes – lots of them – but slowly evolve. (see also: Scrubs, Chuck, Raising Hope)

    Once people achieve adulthood, Hollywood fades to happily ever after – before reality has an opportunity to step in the way and hang it from the flag-pole by its underwear like some junior high bully.


  7. Oh god. I was watching Once Upon a Time on the ABC website last month and had to watch the preview for Work It at EVERY ad break. Twice in one.



  8. Honestly, I feel stupider most times I turn on the tv and try to watch a half-hour sitcom.

    There are a few shows I'm enjoying this season though (more than usual), 2 Broke Girls is one, but I'm also enjoying 'Revenge', 'Unforgettable' and 'Once Upon a Time' -> pretty much all four shows 'cause the premise intrigued me.


  9. Sexism and stereotypes abound in every medium, as much as most viewers/readers might not want it to. To me, it smacks of laziness, and churns out two dimensional characters by the dozen. Of course, if cardboard is what you're looking for in a character, and you like your plots predictable and repetitive, you're in luck.

    It's all about the money, not the story.


  10. I find most comedies on network TV, or anything on network TV for that matter, plays to the lowest common denominator. Ignorance is a best seller.

    (Okay, there are exceptions.)

    I loved this post. It's amazing how many chick flicks are so sexist against men. Maybe it's just bad writing all around, though.


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