What Kind of Man is He?

Marshall McLuhan taught us the medium is the message. Perhaps even more profoundly, Oscar Wilde noted, “Life imitates art far more often than art imitates life.”

As Marian Salzman, Ann O’Reilly and I started to put together The Future of Men, we couldn’t help but wonder, as both observers and practitioners of “the media,” what role the media have had in both building and reflecting the archetypes of men, particularly in the 50 years since the advent of television.

In 1964, when McLuhan’s Understanding Media was first published, the five top-rated TV series were Bonanza, Bewitched, Gomer Pyle, The Andy Griffith Show and The Fugitive. Four years after Father Knows Best had gone off the air, these five shows gave us a range of views of the nascent stages of America’s “Great Society” and the role of the man within it:

Bonanza brought us the macho, patriarchal Ben Cartwright. His youngest son, Little Joe, portrayed by Michael Landon, was a prototypical metrosexual: emotional, groomed, handsome, even soft. Hoss made up for in size, physical strength and good humor what he lacked in intellect; and eldest son Adam was the dark, mysterious (and responsible) second father in the family. Together, these four men provided a vision of what the male could and should be: honest, courageous and true to his word. The ultimate gentleman and protector.

And then there was Darren Stevens. A mere mortal vainly struggling to maintain some level of authority in a world of witches and warlocks. Even as his devoted wife, Samantha, tried in vain to elevate him to head of household, we saw in Darren little more than a hackneyed adman caught between the immovable forces of his dismissive mother-in-law, Endora, and his mercurial boss, Larry Tate. The storyline more often than not revolved around Darren getting himself into (or being gotten into) some sort of pickle, which could only be solved with a wiggle of his wife’s nose.

Gomer Pyle was introduced to us as a mechanic on The Andy Griffith Show. His spin-off centered on the adventures of this sweetly innocent, but none-too-smart young man dealing with life in the Marines. Of course, the parent program presented us with an anything but typical 1960s family unit. Andy was a widower, raising his young son, Opie (none other than media mogul Ron Howard), with the help of the doggedly matriarchal Aunt Bee. The absence of crime in the quiet town of Mayberry, N.C., gave Sheriff Andy plenty of time to develop and articulate his homespun, down-home philosophies on life. Of all the leading TV shows of the day, this was perhaps closest to the archetype portrayed in Father Knows Best. Sheriff Andy was a kind and loving father whose authority was unquestioned—by his son, by Aunt Bee and, indeed, by the townsfolk.

The last show in the top five, The Fugitive, saw a man engaged week after week in a lonely pursuit of justice—to catch his wife’s killer and clear his name—all the while relentlessly pursued by a police lieutenant obsessed with his capture. Adored by men and women alike, this complex, multifaceted character, roaming the country in a similar fashion to the mythic cowboy, was a consistent ratings grabber; in fact, until the “Who Shot JR?” episode of Dallas in 1978, the Fugitive series finale was the highest-rated episode in the history of television.

So, what can we learn in 2005 through the lens of this series of decades-old television programming? For starters, the more things change, the more they stay the same. With the industry in one of its most-prolonged box-office slumps, one of the most-anticipated films of the summer blockbuster season was Bewitched, this time played for maximum laughs by Nicole Kidman as Samantha and Will Ferrell as Darren. Clearly, of all the programming in our top five of 1964, not the most flattering portrayal of the contemporary male. The Fugitive? The theatrical remake with Harrison Ford is already more than a decade old, although we were also treated to a short-lived return to weekly television in 2000. Bonanza? Periodic updates in the form of made-for-TV movies, most recently in 1998, with the sons of the sons in charge of the Ponderosa. Andy and Gomer are long retired (though Andy seems to do a reunion show once a decade, last in 2003). But clearly, it is the more “unconventional” male role models that are resonating in Hollywood some 40 to 50 years later.

This year also saw a remake of another TV classic, one aired in 1955–1956: The Honeymooners. This time, the characters are African American, with Cedric the Entertainer in the role made famous by Jackie Gleason; but it remains true to the story of the working-class guy always trying to hatch a get-rich-quick scheme, only to fail and face the disdain of his clearly intellectually superior spouse. This basic relationship seems a relative constant in TV sitcoms, from the recently ended Everybody Loves Raymond to The King of Queens.

So, as we confront the hype and hoopla of the hapless in the summer of 2005, is there a glimmer of hope for the modern male? Perhaps so. The Internet Movie Database reports a remake of Father Knows Best is in production, starring Tim Allen. The archetype of the all-knowing, strong and kind male archetype is saved!

Or is it? Consider this plotline, as outlined on imdb.com: “Jim Anderson (Allen) is an insurance agent and single father living in Springfield, Ohio, with his three children. … This movie gets its start when Jim is entered in a ‘Father of the Year’ contest by Bud, with his accomplishments as paterfamilias greatly embellished in the entry. When Jim actually wins the contest, he promises his kids that he will tell the truth and not accept the prize, until … he sees the beautiful woman who will be giving him the award, at which point he decides to try to pose as the perfect dad in the hopes of winning the heart of … the perfect mom …”

What? Jim Anderson running a deception just so he can get a little? In that one plotline, we see the essence of how the portrayal of males has changed in the past half century: from steadfast and noble protector and authority to needy and greedy little boy dressed in men’s clothing. Do today’s media images provide a glimpse of the true future of men? For men’s sake—for everyone’s sake—we trust not. It’s time for new media archetypes that better reflect the true nature of today’s male, in all his complexity.

Ira Matathia is the development/integrated strategy director at Taxi Inc. He co-authored ‘The Future of Men,’ due out in September, from Palgrave/St. Martin’s. He can be reached at matathia@taxi-nyc.com.