Friday, July 15, 2011

Blog Post #1: Constructs of Masculinity and Femininity in Manswers

                One of the many powers inextricably linked with pop culture is its ability to construct and elaborate upon the widely accepted gender roles of a particular society.  Whether expressed outright in dialogue, or implied by character behavior and interactions, essentially every television show broadcasts some sort of “correct” or “ideal” model of a man or woman, which viewers are encouraged to use as a baseline for judging and comparing their peers. One example of a show which prominently shapes these models, both directly and indirectly, is SpikeTV’s Manswers. Marketed as a definitive source for all masculine concerns, this program blatantly defines its ideal male type, while also hinting more subtly at the ideal female type. Specifically, the content on episode 208 of Manswers suggests that men ought to reject homosexuality and aggressively pursue sex, while suggesting that women are essentially worthless unless they are able to accommodate the male’s aggressive sexual appetite.

                Before sinking our teeth into the content of this particular episode, however, it would be helpful to clarify the format of the show, as it is all at once unorthodox and critical to the way in which audiences perceive its content. Manswers is rather unique in the way it is delivered to an audience. It is not a typical plot-driven show featuring recurring characters, but rather, it is presented in a question and answer format. What normally happens is, a narrator will pose a question about a topic of “popular male interest,” and then proceed to interview “field experts” to arrive at a calculated, scientific resolution. The style, then, is almost like a visual presentation of choice topics in an encyclopedia for men, and is reminiscent of the style of educational programs you might find on Discovery or The History Channel. This faux-educational presentation introduces problems in itself. Not only does this format encourage audiences to accept the shows “fact-based” conclusions, but the fact that they recruit so-called experts to address the questions also credits some sort of validity to the questions themselves, that they are and ought to be legitimate male concerns. The end result is a product which appears to “scientifically” support its own one-dimensional representations of men and women. This becomes problematic because, while the answers on the show may be rooted in fact to some vague degree, the gender roles established by the show remain entirely subjective, and it can be difficult for a casual audience to differentiate between the two.

 Now that we are familiar with the format of the show, let’s continue by looking at the content itself. In episode 208, the first question posed by the narrator tackles the oft-pondered question of whether or not you can save a man’s life by administering CPR by farting into his airway, rather than by mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Of course, if possible, this alternative would be preferable because, as the narrator explains, “giving CPR to your buddy is down right nasty.”

 Just the premise of this question contributes heavily to the construction of what Manswers would define as an idealized man. Particularly, the audience is instructed that men should reject any behavior that so much as hints at homosexuality. Even in the midst of a dire medical emergency, men should be primarily concerned with the ways in which they project their heterosexuality, and if that means employing a rather grotesque substitution for traditional CPR, then so be it. And, if we are to accept Manswers as the source for male concerns which it claims to be, then we accept that masculinity and homophobia go hand in hand.

 Curiously, the homophobic sentiments expressed by Manswers are presented without any justification. The narrator does not bother explaining WHY a man giving CPR to another man is “nasty” but rather assumes it to be inherently “nasty.” This exemplifies the idea of “habitus” discussed by Raymond, which “describes how what is constructed can come to seem inevitable and natural” (Raymond 104). Thus, in developing homophobia as an important male quality without any justification, Manswers makes it appear that homophobia is natural.

 Episode 208 continues by asking two other important questions: “Where is the world’s biggest strip club?” and “In which country is oral sex most popular?” Both of these questions lend themselves toward the same idea - that men should chiefly concern themselves with satisfying their sexual cravings and should gravitate toward the places which are most capable at fulfilling them. Much like the way in which the show finesses a homophobic sentiment upon its audience in the opening segment, these questions reinforce the extreme heterosexuality which ought to be present in the ideal man.

 Though femininity is not dealt with or expressed with the same immediacy which masculinity is, there are certainly some implied statements being made by the show regarding the female role as well. This is accomplished in two ways.

  First, consider the female’s role in the questions being asked. They are either strippers or administers of oral sex. Throughout the show, females are consistently pegged as nothing more than objects of sexuality. And, if Manswers is dealing with the most prominent masculine concerns as it claims to, then it is implied that if women cannot meet the extreme sexual demands depicted on the show, they will always be considered an after-thought to men, so the ideal women must cater to hearty sexual appetites.

  Second, the segues between the show’s segments and the transitions into commercial breaks are dominated by clips of thin, blonde, large breasted women. They are meant to embody the idea of an idealized woman, and taken in the context of the show, which conveys the idealized woman as a pure symbol of sexuality, these clips demonstrate some of Wolf’s concerns about “the beauty myth.” Specifically, since these women are assumed to be objectively beautiful, then it follows that “women must want to embody” and “men must want to possess” thin, blond, large breasted women (Wolf 121). The audience is taught that having these specific qualities make some women inherently superior to others, and further contributes to the identity of the ideal female as Manswers sees it.

 All in all, though they are defined with varying degrees of subtlety, episode 208 of Manswers paints very vivid portraits of both masculinity and femininity. Focused heavily on sexuality, the show does not seem to differentiate this concept from gender, and the audience is left to figure that men are extremely and exclusively heterosexual, while women are meant to satisfy male appetites.

Raymond, Diane. "Popular Culture & Queer Representation: A Critical Perspective." Gender, Race, and Class in Media. 2nd ed. Sage Publications, 2003. Print.

Wolf, Naomi. "The Beauty Myth." Female Beauty. Print.