Having been away from grad school for a while and deep into the job search, I have been exposed…or perhaps, saturated… to the new fall season of daytime TV. As I have been beating away on my laptop keyboard entering my work history for the 100th or 200th time, I have been becoming increasingly aware of the old yet new themes that seem to dominate this viewing season: female traditionalism.
I have identified these themes before in previous posts, such as with Dr. Phil; the prevalence of white men telling all manner of women how to live, eat, dress and generally behave. Daytime TV is a fascinating lens into the popular culture of the demographic of viewers likely to be viewing this kind of media: stay at home mothers and the unemployed or night employed. This kind of media overflows with gender and sexual stereotypes and assumptions, which have devastating effects on real human relationships. Talk TV that focuses on paternity tests, such as the Maury Show, are replete with sexual and gendered double standards. I have heard time and time again on these shows, women crying out in frustration how they sacrificed everything for their man, and that they were still cheated on or called names like slut, whore and bitch. What I do not hear is men saying they sacrificed anything, much less their friends and family, which illustrates the gendered social double standard of women giving up for men but not the reverse. Hearing women say this on these shows doesn’t stir up much of a fuss with the TV cast or the audience either, likely because it has been sufficiently normalized through mass media and other social institutions. I mean, of course women lose when they couple with men! They don’t even typically keep their own last names. Oh wait, those names were likely their father’s name anyway, but hey, that’s normal, isn’t it?
The sexual double standard perhaps gets the most limelight on daytime TV however, with most shows centered on marital or relationship infidelity. The way this unsavory behavior is framed on daytime TV is nearly on par with a real criminal act; women bring their men on the Steve Wilkos show to get them lie detector tests for cheating, while after questioning is it revealed that the women are actually physically and mentally abused –apparently a secondary issue to the real social crime of infidelity. Often, when women discover through a lie detector test that their man is having sex with others outside of the relationship, they rise to anger and even violence, but return to the men over time (women are more “forgiving?”). When men discover that their woman has cheated, the relationship is more likely to be over and irreconcilable. And ironically, women know this. I heard one woman say to her husband on a talk show, “…if I were the one who was cheating, you would leave me in a heartbeat.” To these men, women cheating are an aberration or an indication of a mental problem (low self-esteem), while male cheating is normal. Ah, there’s that word ‘normal’ again.
Sometimes, men who appear on talk TV openly discuss their expectation of the sexual double standard, even flaunt it, saying that its “different” when women cheat and typically use the fact that women get pregnant as a reason for this discrimination (they bear more responsibility for sexual behavior). Of course, the sexual double standard goes both ways; in the case of men, they are often accused of cheating or sexual activity with others outside of the relationship, regardless of the evidence, since it is assumed that men are more likely than women to cheat.
These sexual and gendered myths are especially prevalent on the new talk show, Steve Harvey, which appears to have two main segments. The first half of the show demonstrates Harvey’s apparently innate ability (since he has no formal training in relationships or counseling) to provide advice to women about men, relationships and their personal lives. Women (typically), stand up and direct a personal question at him -in which he makes humorous remarks about and answers- filled with assumptions and myths about perceived differences between men and women. The second half is filled with Harvey humorously interacting and participating with sponsors invited on the show to demonstrate products, everything from food and weight loss equipment to clothing. The bulk of the dialogue of the show is directed at men and women and the way they act towards each other, with an emphasis on women acting in certain ways to prevent upsetting and chasing men away while male advice tends to revolve around being more romantic. Harvey seems to be convinced that a strong understanding of male and female innate differences can lead to a successful relationship and social life, as these differences should be acknowledged and respected.
As I have said in posts before, social science and biological tests reveal that men and women are actually surprisingly similar in how they think and especially how they feel-what creates the changes we generally notice in society are the very different way we are socialized since birth, both intentionally and unintentionally. However Harvey frequently conflates biological difference and socialization, often using rhetoric such as “hard-wired”, “made that way” and “just that way” to elaborate why men do things that women do not understand, or vice-versa. Harvey often relies on perceived internal qualities of men, such as the desire to hunt, chase and be competitive, to relate to women why they are unsuccessful with men in their lives.
So, why in the world is this kind of talk TV so prevalent? I mean, when we pull back the lens and think to ourselves about the appropriateness of a man telling women how to behave and think in order to keep men in their lives, isn’t that kind of ridiculous? Yes, it’s ridiculous; the issues here are much deeper than men vs. women or gender binaries. But why is it all over the TV? Are women just sheep? Nope, actually, the sociological viewpoint can provide insight, especially located in a study about why male-centered jobs, such as deep sea fishing and gold miners have become so popular in recent years.
In the 2009 Journal of Popular Culture (42(3); pp.541-553), ”Monster Masculinity: Honey, I’ll Be In The Garage Reasserting My Manhood” by Peter Tragos, the author illuminates the social changes in recent decades that have complicated gender roles, and how men and women are now expected to not only have traditional gender roles but also “progressive” roles from the other gender. The incredible strain this paradox creates, nurtures a desire in individuals to a return to what seems like a simpler social situation. Thus the emergence of hyper-masculine reality TV shows which clearly and definitely defines masculinity as the inverse and utter lack of anything feminine; the ultra-dangerous deep sea fishing with “brave” men fighting a war with the ocean and the machine that is their ship, and the innovative, “tough” guys who make monster Harleys –not a shred of softness or femininity in sight -and that is exactly the point. So what does that have to do with our women and talk TV issue?
In the same vein, changing gender roles have complicated that way women feel about themselves and how they relate to men. The massive bulk of western history has defined women as being subsidiaries of men, property and under the control of the men in their lives. The prevalence of this kind of talk TV harkens back to this time, under the historical fallacy, which is the false assumption that the past were the “good ‘ol days”. So, much like men, women are seeking order in our transitory society, and the order that makes the most sense is the order of the past. The past just happens to be oppressive, sexist and undermining, just like the history of western masculinity (just less obviously).
While it is true that the social differences between men and women can be important as they make up our social reality in which we must navigate and bring our children into, it is important to also understand that these differences are not innate. The pressure of rigid gender roles and the chaos of multi-defined gender roles should not overshadow that emotional, social and downright human needs of individuals, whether male or female or the entire spectrum of genders in the world. Rigid gender roles, such as the ones that Harvey discusses and insist on in his talk show, can be dangerous, not just undermining. Framing men as wild, sexual creatures that respond –even without control- to visual stimuli can lead to justifying sexual assault and rape against women who “ask for it”. Also, focusing on what are essentially male or essentially female insults and neglects people who do not fit into those archetypes, fostering an “us vs. them” mentality towards the perceived difference. Of course, I think that Harvey’s personal philosophies are also informed by Christianity, which likely has an effect on his perception of gender and sexuality, but that is another post.
*Whew!* Well, that was a mouthful and probably a repeat of things I have said before.