The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Television Collision: The Disturbing Message of “Mancession”

Written by: Phoebe Raven, CC2K Staff Writer

 As the line-up of new shows premiering in this Fall of 2011 was revealed months and months ago, critics remarked on a peculiar trend: there seemed to be a lot of new comedies coming out that focused on the theme of “what it means to be a man in America”.
And as these shows subsequently came on the air, this phenomenon was then aptly titled “mancession”, and it’s one of the most disturbing social commentaries to come out of TV of late.

The moniker of “mancession” came about because the shows in question – mainly ABC’s Last Man Standing and Man Up and CBS’s How to Be A Gentleman – were operating around the premise that men in America have forgotten how to take charge of their manhood and were threatened by their environment in their manliness and consequently turned into whiny crybabies or worse. The clear message was: “Men, take back your manhood and embrace your inner macho!” This message deeply disturbs me, because it is most definitely the wrong one in a world that seems to be politically and socially regressing.


In Last Man Standing Tim Allen plays essentially the same character as he did on Home Improvement, only this time he has three daughters instead of sons and works at a shop called “The Outdoor Man”, you can guess what items they sell there.
Many have bemoaned that this sitcom feels straight out of the Nineties, but that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad sitcom. And I do appreciate the snide remarks Allen’s dad characters makes about his teenage daughter getting pregnant and having a kid, because while it is obvious that he supports her in raising her son – she lives with her parents and they help out with the baby – I feel it is right that she is reprimanded for her lapse in judgment (though the same would go for the parents).
What gets me about Last Man Standing is not the fact that the dad struggles with hanging on to “manly things” in a household full of women, because that is a natural struggle. It’s that he is trying to hold on to all the wrong things of manhood; the machismo, the refusal to go with the times when it comes to parenting methods (New Age kindergartens are not the worst thing to ever have happened) and the general attitude of “Bitches be crazy, but we gotta deal” that seeps through the seems.

By no means is Last Man Standing the worst offender in this “mancession” epidemic though. Man Up and How to Be A Gentlemen are/were far worse.
The latter has already been canceled after a short and thankfully almost unnoticed run of four episodes. The title was a misnomer anyway, as the show focused on Kevin Dillon’s airhead of ex-high-school-bully turned pumped-up macho turning the perfectly acceptable nice guy David Hornsby into “a real man”, meaning one that likes to drink beer, knows nothing about wine, travel or politics and doesn’t do his own laundry or own a salmon-colored button up shirt. When did writers get the idea in their heads that this is the kind of man women desire? Maybe it’s the kind of man some men wish that women would desire, because that would require so much less work on their part, but at the end of the day you expect women to put in the effort too, don’t you? And besides, who said that it has to be hard work to know how to dress well or eat fine food or enjoy conversation more than Sunday Night Football? Why is it unacceptable for men to genuinely like those things? Believe me, the men who do are way more popular with the ladies than the muscled beefheads at your local gym.

The men in Man Up fall into a different category of “unmanly” yet. They enjoy their video games, are socially awkward (in varying degrees) and fail to assert physical dominance when threatened by another man. The implication is that they were probably geeks in high school and that even the women in their lives, be it wives or ex-girlfriends, want them to toughen up and be “more of a man”, which evidently in the context of the show means not wearing flip-flops and tackling dudes twice your size when they say something bad about your ex.
The married guy, Will, reminds me a lot of Phil Dunphy on Modern Family. He’s a goofball and he tries too hard to be cool, but he is good father, a reliable partner and he makes everybody laugh. And humor, above all, is the one thing women always name as a must-have for the guy they want to end up with. But while Modern Family, although taking jabs at Phil, always manages to portray him as a stand-up guy and hence justify that he has a stable home life with three wonderful children, Man Up takes essentially the same character and tries to convince us that even his own wife wishes he was “more of a man”, meaning less in touch with his emotions, more focused on appearing strong, more Bruce Willis in Die Hard than Ryan Gosling in The Notebook.


What irks me so about this apparent nostalgia for a time “when men could still be men” is the underlying unwillingness to move forward and evolve that speaks through it. I agree that we need to redefine what it “means to be a man”, just as we need to redefine what it means “to be a woman”, because we live in turbulent times that more than anything put before us the question of what it means to be human. Regressing to old role models and manifestation of gender roles is the worst possible message to put out there these days. We need progress, we need evolution, we need new ideas, because all the old ones are collapsing around us.
And in a society that is currently so obsessed with talking about (cyber) bullying and bullying in high school, the least I would expect are TV shows that show these bullied high school boys that things will get better and that they can be goofy and educated and sophisticated and still be called a man, more so than their aggressors will ever be.