Masculinity in Popular Sitcoms, 1955-1960 and 2000-2005

Article excerpt

Common wisdom holds that men as represented in sitcoms have changed substantially from the wise, loving patriarchs of the 1950s, but we currently lack a broad understanding of these changes. Using a random sample of sitcoms from 1955-1960 and 2000-2005, this paper shows that masculinity in sitcoms has actually evolved little since the 1950s. Some changes reflect real evolutions in masculinities and prevent male sitcom characters from becoming dated, such as their move away from nuclear families. Other changes demonstrate a complex relationship between the representation and reality of masculinity, and I argue that understanding the conditions under which sitcoms are produced, as well as their content, helps us unpack this relationship.

KEYWORDS MASCUUNITY, MEDIA STUDIES, SITCOMS, CULTURAL SOCIOLOGY, CULTURE INDUSTRY

Common wisdom holds that representations of masculinity in sitcoms have changed substantially since the beginning of the television era. While 1950s sitcom fathers like Ward Cleaver and Ozzy Nelson are remembered as wise and loving patriarchs, modern sitcom men are often selfish, dependent, or otherwise flawed Reimers, 2003; Scharrer, 2001). Some scholars suggest that evolving representations of masculinity on television reflect the evolution of masculinity in real life Douglas & Olson, 1995; Schrarrer). But has masculinity in sitcoms really changed, or is this view distorted by nostalgia and selective cultural memory? In what ways do modern representations of masculinity differ from those in 1950s sitcoms, and in what ways are they unchanged? Furthermore, how do representations of masculinity in the sitcom universe map onto or disconnect from North American masculinities?

Many studies provide in-depth analyses of particular aspects of masculinity in a few sitcoms see Hanke, 1998; Linder, 2005; McEachern, 1999). Yet, there is also a need to understand generally how masculinity is represented in sitcoms, and how that representation has or has not changed. Furthermore, many studies relate television characters to social contexts as if the former is an unproblematic representation of the latter see Klumas & Marchant, 1994). However, no form of culture is mirror. Sitcoms, like any cultural object, are shaped by the societies in which they emerge, but also by the specific people, processes, and industries that produce them Alexander, 2003; Griswold, 1981), and understanding the production processes can provide a deeper understanding of the points at which representation and reality connect and diverge.

I use a content analysis of randomly sampled popular sitcoms from two time periods, 1955-1960 and 2000-2005, to address the question: how, if at all, have portrayals of masculinity in sitcoms changed from the 1950s to the present day? I find that men in sitcoms have not changed as much as common wisdom may suggest. Their family structures have changed to keep up with real demographic changes and they have largely abandoned behaviors that would make them appear outdated, such as a formal politeness and unidirectional displays of authority. However, men in modern sitcoms are more similar overall to men in 1950s sitcoms than they are different.

I also argue that a thorough understanding of the few observed changes requires an analysis of both North American masculinities and the incentives and constraints of the television industry. Some changes in culturally available ways of doing masculinity are taken up fairly unproblematically in the sitcom universe, but others are transformed or not taken up at all. Understanding the processes by which sitcoms are produced sheds light on why and how images of masculinity in sitcoms take the forms that they do.

This overall picture of how men are portrayed in sitcoms is significant because media images fundamentally shape the social contexts in which individuals act. Whether we understand media images as texts that organize discourse and local social relations Smith, 1989) or as "symbolic resources" that people strategically apply to their own lives Swidler, 1986), the point is the same: media portrayals of men provide models that individual men can emulate or reject, and that shape culturally available standards to which men may be held accountable West & Zimmerman, 1987). …