Television has a neatly packaged way of projecting what it means to be ‘a man.’ That can put a lot of pressure on men to be a certain way, and it comes with some fairly high expectations. Some of them are based firmly in reality; others are far-fetched fantasy. So what’s the true measure of a man? Despite what TV has instilled in me over the years, I have come to understand there is no single meaning of manhood. Yet television works hard to insist there is.
Growing up, I learned that to be a man was to be like rancher Ben Cartwright, the fictional patriarch from the hit TV drama “Bonanza.” Ben always did the right thing. He could throw a punch, shoot a gun and ride a horse with the best of them. Ben always knew the right thing to say and do and was never wrong. The show’s writers saw to that. As a youth, I believed if I behaved as Ben Cartwright, life would be easy. Or at the very least I’d be looked at as a man. In retrospect, I think my dad did too, along with most of the rest of America’s men.
Fast forward to today. Ben Cartwright and “Bonanza” have been replaced by Leroy Gibbs and “NCIS”. On that TV series, Agent Gibbs (Mark Harmon) is a criminal investigator. Like Cartwright, Gibbs can throw a punch and shoot a gun. I haven’t seen him ride a horse but he can certainly drive a car with the best of them. But television dramas have matured. So unlike Cartwright, Gibbs isn’t right all the time – he’s only right when it counts. The show’s writers see to that. Times change.
Over the years, images, role models and signifiers associated with fictional men like Ben Cartwright and Agent Gibbs have affected me in ways so deeply rooted that I had rarely stopped to examine them. Lately, I am coming to realize these one-dimensional characters are damaging to the extent that they create inadequate measures for all the ways and means for being a man. TV dramas aren’t the only medium that tries to tell me how I need to act in order to be considered a man. It’s also on “Sports Center,” in most movies, as well as magazines and online. Typically, images associated with manhood involve fast cars, fast women, looking buff, making quick decisions and remaining emotionless (except when angry).
I have begun to question why I think the way I do about being a man. More and more, I’m coming to the conclusion that many of my most deeply engrained arguments about what it means to be one are flawed. Or at the very least prejudiced by a belief system that the media has worked long and hard to embed in me.
TV’s version of a man doesn’t wash with the complex realities of my own personal life. I’m not always right, even when it counts. I don’t go around throwing punches or carry a gun. I pull weeds in my mom’s yard’s flower bed; I volunteer around the community, and wash dishes after dinner (okay, throw them in the dishwasher). I also mountain bike, work out at the gym and read military-inspired novels by Tom Clancy. In short, I am a man in full – one that eclipses media’s portrayal of who I should be. So why do I continue to often feel so inadequate?