How did today’s man become a henpecked wuss?

Fans of Everybody Loves Raymond may recall the episode in which Ray Barone, alter ego of comedian Ray Romano, once again futilely attempts to assert himself in his household. His act of rebellion? He goes to the grocery store by himself and, without consulting his wife, buys 10 boxes of bathroom tissue.

But poor Ray, a sportswriter who never seems to watch any sports, can’t even do that right. He is ridiculed by his entire family for buying the wrong kind of tissue, and then sets the kitchen on fire with the stuff. As the countertop goes up in flames, he runs out the front door in a panic, grabs the garden hose and tries to turn it on the fire. But the hose is too short. A feeble stream spurts from its nozzle onto the living-room floor. Just in the nick of time, Debra, his capable wife, comes to the rescue. She reaches into a cabinet, gets the fire extinguisher and douses the flames in a shower of foam. Having saved their home, she turns to her husband, fixing him with that look of angry contempt that actress Patricia Heaton has perfected over the years. Ray can only stand there, holding his limp hose.

Sometimes a hose is just a hose. But not in this episode of the CBS sitcom. Everybody Loves Raymond has won its place in viewers’ hearts with a hero who has been emasculated twice, once by his mother and then by his wife. And he’s not alone. CBS’ Monday night lineup is wall-to-wall wusses from 8 to 10 p.m.

Freudians who saw a recent episode of Still Standing, which leads out of Raymond, witnessed a castration image to rival Ray’s hose: a shot of wife Judy leaning over hubby Bill with a very sharp razor. (They were fighting over who will receive the services of a sought-after hairdresser. Naturally, Bill loses.) In Yes, Dear—the very title a husband’s white flag—the hero, Greg, also goes shopping on his own, this time for furniture. The couch he buys (“boring,” according to wife Kim) doesn’t catch on fire, but it does get sent back to the store. And in a typical half-hour of The King of Queens, lovable fatso Doug Heffernan, played by Kevin James, jeopardizes his wife’s career prospects with his boorish behavior at a company retreat.

In the fun house mirror of popular culture, we live in a land of blubbery, infantile, incompetent husbands and vital, slim wives who earn half the money but get to spend all of it.

It’s a vision that isn’t limited to scripted entertainment. “Who calls the shots on The Osbournes? It’s Sharon, not Ozzie,” observes Marian Salzman, chief strategy officer at Euro RSCG Worldwide and author of the forthcoming book Buzz: The Power of Influence. “Who’s the driving force behind celebrity couples like Madonna and Guy Ritchie or Ben Affleck and J. Lo? The women clearly have the upper hand. And look at Katie Couric and Matt Lauer. She turned 40 and got sexy, and he turned 40 and got bald and fat.”

It is not surprising, Salzman says, that agency research shows fortysomething men, who’ve been caught in the crossfire of the gender wars since puberty, are a little lost, unsure of what it means to be a man these days. “They look for positive images of themselves, and there’s nothing there,” she says. “The media is not helping them, and marketers aren’t helping them.”

That is putting it mildly. In a long-running ad for Ameritrade from Ogilvy & Mather, a busy woman, about to leave house, makes one simple request of her domestic partner, who is already glued to the tube: Go online and open an Ameritrade account. The man proceeds to lie in front of the TV like a beached whale as morning turns into afternoon, afternoon into night. Only the sound of the return of his better half—and, presumably, fear of her wrath—can rouse him to the computer.

In an homage to Home Improvement, an ad from McCann-Erickson’s 2002 holiday campaign for Black and Decker shows a dad who claims to have the “carpentry gene” but can’t even hang a picture straight, much to the annoyance of his wife. In another execution, a young do-it-yourselfer can’t get his Zip Saw back from an old lady.

To be fair, not all men on television are ineffectual. In a very funny spot for S.C. Johnson from Foote, Cone & Belding, we find a group of guys in their traditional pose: in front of the TV. But this time they strike up a conversation about how one of them manages to keep the toilet clean with Scrubbing Bubbles Toilet Wipes. “Now if I could just get my wife to use them,” he tells his buddies. Yes, we have seen competent men, and they are women.

There is nothing new about role-reversal ads or the paterfamilias as boob-tube boob. The type has been around as long as the laugh track. Fifty years ago, the role was filled by the immortal loser Ralph Kramden on The Honeymooners, ineffectually blustering and scheming under the skeptical scrutiny of his wife, Alice. But Ralph kept prime-time company with those stalwarts of gray-flannel-suit masculinity, Ward Cleaver and Jim Anderson, as well as with Lucy and Gracie. And while Alice was the more capable member of the Kramden household, it was still her job to fill the lunchbox of her breadwinning husband. Competent or not, Ralph was the king of the castle.

What distinguishes today’s version of the type is that he is ubiquitous. Every family sitcom needs a foil, and these days the husband/father is the default dolt. In addition to being featured on CBS Mondays, the dunderhead dad shows up in ABC’s 8 Simple Rules for Dating My Teenage Daughter. He’s in Fox’s My Wife and Kids and The Bernie Mac Show (although Bernie, who has the power to talk directly to the audience, possesses a little more dignity). Even in the anarchic context of Malcolm in the Middle, the dad sets the infantile standard.

And no one minds. There is no National Organization for Men to chastise the networks for sins against their sex, as the National Organization for Women does every year. In a politically correct world, men are the one group that can be ridiculed with impunity.

Moreover, the context in which today’s male characters blunder has changed. With wives who work, these TV dads are just as likely to be making the lunches. “Gender roles are completely and totally different from what they were 30 years ago,” says Robert Thompson, professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. “These sitcoms show how all that change gets worked out. Television is the derriere-garde of the avant-garde of all that change.”

It makes sense that things are not working out well for guys in the new environment, says Lionel Tiger, anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of the 1999 book The Decline of Males. “In part these shows reflect the fantastic, sentimental popularity of feminist rhetoric, particularly in the universities,” he says. This feminist orthodoxy is not surprising, he adds, given the fact that the university population in the U.S. is now 56 percent female and the student bodies of professional and medical schools are similarly divided. “It’s almost impossible to be at a university today and not be a feminist—and this includes the universities that the creators of media come from,” Tiger says.

One does not have to look far to find feminist rhetoric in the family sitcoms. 8 Simple Rules, for example, is founded on the most P.C. of premises: Paul Hennessy, played by John Ritter, takes on more of the parenting duties to allow his wife, Cate (Katey Sagal), to go back work. In one episode, Cate uncovers her pubescent son’s stash of girlie magazines. She tells the boy (who, by the way, is constantly getting beaten up by his sisters), “I know you find this stuff alluring at your age, but it’s insulting to women, to your sisters and me.” But having dispensed this lesson in respect for women, she has no qualms about setting up her hapless hubby for a comeuppance at the hands of his daughters. Women must not be insulted, but men can be—and need to be—shown up.

The writers of these sitcoms are male and female. But then, these days feminist attitudes are almost as likely to be held by men as by women, particularly among the college educated. Surveys and focus groups with fortysomething men done by Euro RSCG found that these guys have completely bought into the feminist model of domestic life. One respondent described the ideal 40-ish man as “fit, capable, multitalented, sensitive—sharing duties with the spouse.” He’s the kind of guy who happily shares both the breadwinning and parenting tasks, who can “enjoy his role as a father and not feel overwhelmed by the traditional sense of duty shouldered by his father.”

The same research suggests some men are even ready to relinquish their Darwinian prerogative to enjoy as many sexual partners as possible. The trophy wife is no longer a decorative piece of arm candy distinguished by her breeder waistline. These days, many men attest, the real trophy is “a woman with her own career who happens to be beautiful, stylish, graceful and the mother of his children.” She sounds a lot like the heroine of the famous Enjoli perfume commercial from the late ’70s, the you-can-have-it-all gal who “brings home the bacon” and “fries it up in the pan.” Back then, the careerist-cum-sexpot was a female fantasy. Now it appears to be a male fantasy, too.

The dilemma of the post-feminist male is not, however, limited to the home. It plays itself out in the workplace as well. The crisis in corporate leadership, says Jeff DeJoseph, partner and chief strategic officer at Doremus, is inseparable from the larger crisis in masculinity. While scandals have done their part to erode faith in that great corporate father figure, the CEO, DeJoseph also blames management practices of the egalitarian ’90s. The leveling influence of computer networking undermined corporate leadership, leaving corporate culture without “vision,” DeJoseph claims. “There’s no passion, there’s no authenticity. Everyone’s just phoning it in.”

The big thing in the ’90s was “consensus management,” he observes. “It was all about empowering employees. Everyone could have an opinion, no matter what their expertise.” But the practice clouded leadership, without necessarily making businesses smarter. Nor were matters helped by the casual-dress virus that infected corporations high and low. Casual dressing turned out to be a “disaster” for men, DeJoseph says. “Everyone in the office was dressed like children,” he says. “Everyone is in Gap—your baby, your toddler, your teenager, your adult, your man, your woman.”

So it is no surprise that “all you see in the media are guys who are infantilized,” DeJoseph says. “Look at the Volkswagen ads. Every one has a skinny guy in ill-fitting clothes, Teva sandals and a bad haircut.” Compare that work to the recent female-targeted BMW spot that shows an elegant, new-model trophy wife/mom negotiating a traffic accident with the aplomb of a stunt driver. In an new ad for Saturn, a stop at the gas pump gives one gal a chance to ogle her guy’s buns in the rearview mirror. Then the two of them pay with her credit card.

Euro RSCG’s Salzman calls on marketers to stop adding insult to injury and help shore up the battered male psyche. But in fact, marketers may be serving their interests better by feminizing men rather than reinforcing their masculinity. It’s not for nothing that in sitcomville, the male characters lay claim to their autonomy by going shopping. They seek to prove their masculinity in the traditional arena of female competence, household consumption. It’s the male equivalent of women joining the military.

Following in the footsteps of Raymond and Yes, Dear, Still Standing sent dad Bill (Mark Addy) to the mall in one episode to help his daughter buy a dress for the school dance. Of course, he proves completely unequal to the task, and has his daughter’s prized dress snatched from under his nose by a competing female shopper. Naturally, the day is saved by the arrival of Bill’s wife, Judy (Jami Gertz), who shows all the classic symptoms of testosterone poisoning. She muscles the offending woman into giving the dress back. The moral of this story is that if Bill were a better shopper, he’d be more of a man.

Men appear to getting this message. Shopping-challenged Bill is the derriere-garde of an avant-garde of young male consumers who do, in fact, shop like girls. “How America Shops 2002,” a report from consultancy WSL Strategic Retail, showed that men 18-34 made an average of 3.6 shopping trips per week in 2001, compared to the 4.1 trips made by women. Men’s stamina is improving, too: They visit 1.6 stores per trip, compared to 1.9 for women.

“Men are marrying later in life and shopping for their own apartments without female help,” the report observes. “When they do marry, they are active participants in the selections that go in the bridal registry. They choose their own hair gel and shampoo. L’Oréal Feria hair color targets them. Neutrogena and Nivea have launched skin care for them.” Whatever else he is, the feminized man is good for the consumer economy.

Tiger, the Rutgers anthropologist, insists the collapse of male authority in popular culture is not just a matter of image but a reflection of a real shift in the balance of power between the sexes. “Men are alienated from the means of reproduction,” he says. “It started with the pill in 1963 and was reinforced in 1973 with Roe v. Wade.” Artificial insemination makes men that much more superfluous and, down the road, cloning could as well.

Just as women no longer need men to make babies, the economy no longer needs masculine brawn to make money. Last month the U.S. government released figures showing households owe almost all their income gains in the ’90s to working women. Women still suffer from a wage gap, earning 77 cents to the man’s dollar, but the long-term trend is clear: Women are gaining, and men are stagnating. No wonder poor Raymond’s hose is limp.