Work is Where the Heart Is

While the narratives around women in the workplace have shifted over time, the centrality of having a job to the construction of what a ‘good husband’ looks like is as strong now as it was in the 1950s in I Love Lucy. With layoffs in working-class jobs in the 1980s, the increased competition for jobs with both men and women in the workplace, and the structural division of labour under capitalism into blue collar and white collar jobs, there has been a crisis of masculinity as men are unable to live up to the expectations of their masculinity. [1] Writing in the early 1970s, the Men’s Free Press Collective observes the disenfranchisement of men in the workplace, and its connection to capitalism:

“Out of the pressures and contradictions of this double employment the modern women’s movement was born.  In the same period, men’s work is deskilled and downgraded.  Craft jobs, and the power over the work process that goes with them, are gradually phased out.  Work is increasingly unpleasant.  We are…. more and more at the service of the machinery we are supposed to control.  We work for money, for the means to survival.  Pride in work disappears, to be replaced by price in consumption.” [2]

 

While feminism has constructed men as being in positions of power within society, Homi Bhabha makes the point that men have very few avenues to act outside traditional gender scripts. [3] This inability to live up to idealized masculinity causes men to become anxious, and consequently attempt to adhere as closely as possible to the aspects of masculinity left available to them. [4] This does bring to light the shift that is apparent in the portrayal of masculinity over time, and that is the increasing group displays of heteronormative masculinity, such as the NOMAAM group in Married with Children. This attempt to reassert masculinity as dominant is crucial, because as Joseph Pleck notes, the feeling of power men obtain by being able to choose to be the sole income earner, and the privilege that comes with not having to “scrub floors” is powerful.  [5] In some ways this works against feminism, as men who are insecure in their masculinity seek to disassociate themselves from “women’s work” for fear of further straining their tenuous ties to masculinity. 

 

In All in the Family, the masculinity and credibility of Michael Stivic is frequently called into question by Archie. Mike is called a number of demeaning names over the course of the show, with “meathead,” “polack” and “pinko” being particular favourites. In a typical episode, Gloria and Mike, and occasionally Edith, contest Archie’s unkind words, and construct Archie as jealous of Mike’s University degree, Mike’s ticket to upward mobility that Archie will never achieve. However, when Gloria becomes unexpectedly pregnant, both Mike and Archie become anxious over how Mike will support Gloria and the baby. Mike quits school without a second thought, and begins looking for a job and an apartment. This unquestioned responsibility of a man to support his family coming out of the mouth of a character who usually undermines and contradicts Archie’s conservative views is a very powerful indicator of the expectations masculinity places upon men.

 

Even in Roseanne, when Dan’s father comes to town and begins nagging at Dan because of his job, Dan feels the strain of the pressure to support his family. The strained dialogue between the two men shows Dan’s attempt to resist his father’s construction of Dan as a bad father for not working “smart, not hard.” Dan’s father accuses him of not sufficiently supporting his family, which upsets Dan, presumably because he feels torn between the expectation of his role as a father-provider and the knowledge that he is doing the best he can. Dan is ultimately revealed to be mostly afraid that he will end up just like his father. This attempt to disrupt the cycle of fathers passing the script of man-as-sole-breadwinner on to sons shows again how Roseanne is remarkably subversive for a mainstream sitcom. [6] 

 

 

When Al quits his job because he feels under-appreciated by his employer, he becomes the object of ridicule by his family and neighbours. [7] Steve suggests a number of job-alternatives for Al, each one even more demeaning than the last one. When it is suggested he sell his blood, Peggy drives home the fact that Al is no longer providing for his family by saying “gee Al, if you can manage to stagger home without spilling the juice that could be dinner for the family!” When his daughter arrives home from school with a friend, who questions why there is a man in his pajamas sitting on the sofa, Kelly replies that he is her mother’s boyfriend, her father is in prison. The shame of being unemployed is constructed as greater than the shame of being a criminal. In the end, Al returns to his old job, signaling that it is more important that he support his family than feel job satisfaction. 

 

The Scavo family story arc in Desperate Housewives offers an example of how men who feel emasculated in the workplace often try to reassert their dominance at home. When Lynette becomes her husband’s boss at work, he confronts her, saying that he cannot be made to feel subordinate both in the workplace and at home. They attempt to resolve the conflict, but when Lynette refuses to be on the bottom during sex Tom becomes upset again. He regains his dominance the next day in the elevator on the way to work when he admits that he knows the reason they are fighting is because he has issues with her being his boss, but that he is going to deal with it, and proceeds to kiss her aggressively. Lynette submits to his advances this time, and they have sex in the elevator. This appears to be a resolution to their argument, implying that he has now reasserted his dominance over Lynette both at home and in the workplace. [8] In later episodes, when Tom takes on the role of stay-at-home dad, he articulates that he feels as though he has failed to live up to his role as a man because he is failing to be the breadwinner. While feminism has allowed Lynette to move with ease between being a full time mother and a full time breadwinner, Tom is shown to fail as a man because he fails to be a breadwinner. He is also constructed as being incapable of living up to Lynette’s legacy as a childcare provider or a housekeeper. For example, in one episode, Lynette becomes so frustrated with how messy the house is, she buys rats at the pet store in order to manipulate him into cleaning. Although not nearly as subversive as Dan’s character in Roseanne, simply naming the problem in the way that Desperate Housewives does is a step forward in overcoming the “blocked reflexivity” Bhabha argues is restricting self-examination of masculinity by men. [9]  Unfortunately, in the same way that Married With Children was a man’s articulation of the crisis of masculinity coming out of Peggy’s character, Desperate Housewives features a women’s articulation of the problem coming out of Tom’s character, causing the effectiveness of the message to become diluted. 

 

[1] MacKinnon, Kenneth. 2003. Representing Men: Maleness and masculinity in the Media. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[2] Men’s Free Press Collective of Achilles Heel. 1971. “Hopes and Dreams: Creating a Men’s Politics.” Pp. 80- 92 in Feminism & Masculnities, edited by Peter F. Murphy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[3] Bhabha, Homi. 1995. “Are You a Man or a Mouse?” in Gender. Reader in Cultural Criticism. 2000. Anna Tripp, ed. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave.

[4] Katz, Jackson. 1995. “Advertising and the Construction of Violent White Masculinity.” Pp. 133-141 in Gender, race and class in media: A text-reader, edited by Gail Dines and Jean M. Humez. Thousand Oaks, California: SAGE Publications, Inc.

[5] Pleck, Joseph H. 1980. “Men’s Power with Women, Other Men, and Society: a Men’s Movement Analysis.” Pp. 57- 68 in Feminism & Masculnities, edited by Peter F. Murphy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[6] Bhabha, Homi. 1995. “Are You a Man or a Mouse?” in Gender. Reader in Cultural Criticism. 2000. Anna Tripp, ed. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave.

[7] Sawyer, Jack. 1974. “On Male Liberation.” Pp. 25- 40 in Feminism & Masculinities, edited by Peter F. Murphy. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

[8] Vickery, Jacqueline. 2007. “Sometimes a Woman just Wants to Be on Top: Desperate Housewives and a ‘Woman’s Place.’” flowtv.org. Retrieved April 17, 2007. (http://flowtv.org/?p=64).

[9] Bhabha, Homi. 1995. “Are You a Man or a Mouse?” in Gender. Reader in Cultural Criticism. 2000. Anna Tripp, ed. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire and New York: Palgrave.

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