The New Escapism for Men Is ‘Manliness’


Let’s briefly delve into stereotypes, shall we? As it goes with reality television programming, women like to watch “real housewives” get drunk and catfight in stilettos while carrying tiny dogs wearing velour jumpsuits. Women also like to watch shows in which large groups of women compete for the love of a man, who will definitely, definitely find his wife among them. Women love makeover shows! And sometimes women like to watch shows in which people have babies, or get married, or raise a bunch of babies, eventually separating from the husband while continuing to do reality TV shows. But what of the manlier sex, that is to say, men? We’re glad you asked!

The New York Times has a revealing look at what appears a trend in the reality man-shows on offer. They tend to involve danger, manly men (frequently with facial hair), and hardcore names like Coal, Dangerous Catch, Ice Road Truckers, Black Gold, Swamp People, and so on. We’re watching real people do their difficult, scary, real jobs. This is new. And, as the Times says,

It’s an uneasy modern dynamic. The men on these “documentary-reality” shows sacrifice their bodies and risk their lives doing down and dangerous jobs to try to provide a good life for themselves and their families. But what the producers and viewers want is what they call “good TV” — in this case, working-class fantasies aimed at men craving televised booster shots of testosterone. (Ratings show that these series consistently reel in men in the prized but elusive 18-to-49 age group, many of them upscale.)

In essence, it’s men who work outside, in the wilderness; men who don’t wear suits or have to suck up to bosses; men who would never utter the words “commute,” or “hipster,” or “feelings.” For today’s upscale urban dwelling man, this is apparently the TV escapism of choice.

It’s great for the show’s producers, with built-in danger and drama, the best stuff you can get in a reality show. (A character, as in a real, live person, actually died on Deadliest Catch, albeit via a stroke that killed him eventually, not as everyone was watching. Another crew member was found dead in a hotel room.)

Dana Jennings in the Times points out the icky voyeuristic — maybe even exploitative — element to all this, worrying that these men are becoming “as commodified as the natural resources that control their destinies,” their ordinary lives turned into entertainment for the masses. (We could say the same for virtually any reality TV, though the real housewives would never consider themselves ordinary, and their natural resources involve plastic and silicone rather than fish or coal.)

Watching danger, of course, is par for the course with entertainment — the interesting, or horrifying, part is that this is real danger, with real people, who are far different demographically than the target audience of their shows. But are these guys less in on the game of reality TV, simply because they’re blue-collared and working hard for their livings? Might it even be good for America to watch them instead of “executives” being “fired” by Donald Trump, or people “trying to survive” so as to win big prizes?

Also interesting is how, with these sorts of entries, reality TV returns to very traditional “male” and “female” stereotypes — and yet masculinity and femininity have become ever more fuzzy in real life. Are these shows a backlash against that?

For guys, maybe watching them is a way to embrace a rugged, “Into Thin Air” sense of manhood that there’s little place for in New York City life. And for women…how many of us spend our days shopping and bitching and eating small bites of food we can’t pronounce, or failing that, competing on a show to win a husband? Very few. Thank God.

What we do for escape says a lot about us. Bring on the Everest-climbing, crocodile-wrestling housewives. Anything’s better than The Bachelor.

Grab a Brew While They Face Death [NYT]