When Dan Quayle criticized the television character Murphy Brown in 1992 for "mocking the importance of fathers by bearing a child alone and calling it just another lifestyle choice," he was the one mocked in much of the media for his supposed naivete about television images and social reality.
But the furor of the debate he ignited should have told us that maybe he was onto something. It wasn't about family values, working women or allegations of a liberal bias in Hollywood -- the context within which his remarks were mainly discussed. It was instead about the way men were starting to be depicted on television -- a context virtually ignored at the time and still rarely examined with any objectivity.
A dramatic change has been taking place in such representations of male identity, with the result that a good man is getting harder and harder to find in prime time. Whereas men were once primarily depicted as heroes, doers, fixers and protectors -- going back at least as far as European fairy tale and myth -- male characters are now more likely to be sexual harassers, rapists, child molesters or murderers on American television.
It varies by genre. The man-as-monster motif is found primarily in made-for-TV movies, while sitcoms are more likely to show men as neurotic, inadequate, incompetent, unnecessary or merely foolish. Police and doctor dramas, meanwhile, tend to depict men in a fairly positive way.
But it is the sheer volume of negative portrayals of men on television this season that has Hollywood producers, actors and academic critics alike taking notice and wondering what sense viewers -- especially young viewers -- are making of this new brand of gender bending on television.
"It's my impression that the number of these highly negative portrayals of men on television is new -- along with the apparent disappearance of the man as protector," says Jo Paoletti, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland College Park, who teaches a seminar titled "Masculinity in American Culture."
"Oh, it's not even subtle anymore -- each year there has been a discernible absence of [positive] male roles in television," says actor Peter Strauss. "The male role is [now] 99 percent abusive. You know, I've got to kick my pregnant wife down the steps. I've got to abuse my child. I have to be an alcoholic. Or, in my past somewhere, there's a horrible story.
"I don't know if it's to get even, in the sense that for so many years so many films were male-driven. I don't know if it's the nature of our day and age. I don't know if it's the nature of what demographics demand, and what numbers [ratings] win.
"But, in the end, it does a great disservice, because television to me is an important medium for society. And I think this emphasis on male roles as basically these figures of abuse has a very terrifying, subtle consequence to it in time," says Strauss, who has gone from playing traditional male heroes in television films such as "Rich Man, Poor Man" to the kinds of characters he describes in films such as last month's "In the Lake of the Woods" on Fox.
Actor Joe Penny, who plays one of the man-as-monster roles in a television movie airing tonight on ABC, agrees with Strauss on the changing image of men on television. "From a male's point of view, I have to say the range of roles for men has changed dramatically in the last few years to the point where you wonder what's going on," he says.
"It's at the point where you get a little tired of seeing script after script, movie after movie with male characters doing these horrible things. I mean, my God, how many women have to be beaten? How many women have to be mutilated? How many children have to be abused? How many bad fathers do we have to see in these films? And where does this pattern, this whole trend come from anyway?" asks Penny, who co-stars in "She Woke Up Pregnant" as a dentist who rapes one of his patients while she's unconscious after oral surgery.
There is more than one pattern at play in the trend toward negative depictions of men. The most obvious, formulaic and egregious manifestation is found in made-for-television movies.
The formula is called woman-in-jeopardy, and the elements are pretty basic. A woman is either in the process of being or has been terribly victimized. For example, she's being stalked or finds herself in an abusive marriage, or she has been raped or savagely beaten.
For a while, she sinks deeper and deeper into victimization, while the men in her life abandon her, often blaming the woman herself for her plight.
Midway through the film, the heroine hits bottom, takes control of her life and then fights back -- generally without the help of any man -- to avenge the wrong that had been done to her and find "empowerment."