Archive for June 9th, 2010


Don, Dex, Walter White, and How Television Reclaimed Masculinity

Okay, so an Ad Man, a serial killer and a meth dealer walk into a bar… alright, I don’t have a good joke to go with this set-up but seriously there is something unique, and yet strikingly simmilar about three characters found on t.v. right now. Don Draper, Walter White, and Dexter Morgan, the protagonists for Mad Men, Breaking Bad, and Dexter respectively are all decidedly masculine characters, and I don’t think I realized until just the other day that this is really key to driving these show’s success.

The most successful shows on television are pushing the envelope more and more these days. HBO’s True Blood and the very masculine Hung are other examples, but I don’t think it is the nudity, the violence, or the exremism found in these shows protagonists that accounts for their success. What all of these shows have in common, and something that few shows in recent years had going for them is a strong male lead, and a decidedly masculine point of view.

In the T.V. show Dexter Michael C. Hall plays a nebbish, lab-rat working inside Miami’s homicide department by day and ridding the town of killers by nights. Dexter is a serial killer who only kills other killers (or mostly does). Hall’s performance in Dexter is brilliant, not unlike his performance as David on Six Feet Under. Dexter is not your normal guy of course. In many ways he is an evil and horrible person. Yet Dexter’s attitudes towards his career and his family are representative of traditional male values. Dexter works hard, tries to fit in and help out with his co-workers and community, and loves his wife and kids (although not as much as he loves killing people). If Dexter were not a killer he would be almost the idea family man, and a role model for other young men to look up to. It is also true that in Dexter the leading male character has all the power and makes all the critical decisions. Dexter has held the lives of his sister, his wife, and his co-workers in his capable hands, and it his decisions, good and bad, that drive the show.

In Mad Men we have a slightly less idealized version of what masculinity entails, but a male perspective never-the-less. Don Draper, and to a lesser extent his male cohorts at Sterling Cooper are the kings of their domain, and they have the freedom and luxury of behaving however they want. In most dramas and sitcoms men are beholden to their wifes and family, but not in Mad Men. Don Draper is a serial liar, a man who cheats on his wife regularly, hides his entire past from his family, and yet… feels fine about all this. Draper never begs his wife for forgiveness, he never shows remorse for all the terrible things he does. Draper is the embodiment of  a post-war mindset that whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Draper is hardly the ideal role model, but their is a rugged determinism about him that makes him very appealing to both men (and definately women) alike. In Mad Men it is the men who rule the roost, and this is very different than what you will see on most television shows. I think this explains why Mad Men has brought in such a large male demographic of viewers. Most men can’t (or shouldn’t) behave the way that Don does, but it is fun to see him doing it…

In Breaking Bad Walter White (played briliantly by Bryan Cranston) learns he has cancer and may not have long to live. In order to support his family and pay his medical bills he uses one skill he has (chemistry) to manufacture and sell methamphetamine. The consequences of his actions lead to a downward spiral of death and destruction, but in the short term the reason why we root for Walter is because most men can empathize with him.

Walter’s wife is a control freak who monitors her husbands spending, tells him when to be home and what to eat, and controls their family dynamic. His boss at his second job does not respect him and he is embarrased that many of his colleagues from college have gone on to bigger and better things while he is stuck teaching chemistry. When Walter decides to “break bad” all of this changes. All of the sudden Walter claims the positions of power he feels were denied him. He makes more money than his peers, he is feared and respected, and even his wife is pleased with his new-found attitude and dignity.

Walter is a classic example of the everyman who one day wakes up and lashes out. The reason why we support Walter is that many men feel disabled, impotent, just like him. When Walter reclaims his masculinity we hope that we too might do the same (though maybe not in such extreme ways.)

What has made these shows unique and made television so successful is the attempt to reconnect audiences with strong male protagonists, something that was lacking in television and film for years. It is not that Walter, Dex, and Don are perfect men (far from it) but the fact that they are men that makes them special. Real men aren’t always in touch with their feelings, they don’t look like Brad Pitt, and they aren’t always home for dinner on time. Real men are men precisely because they are flawed but don’t apologize for it.

I don’t know where these shows are heading, but male themed shows seem to be on the rise in both availability and popularity. HBO’s Hung which debuted last summer is another example of this. I for one look forward to this new point of view. It is okay now for men to reconnect with their masculinity. T.V. has brought the alpha male back, and it’s about damn time.


Jack B.