Identifying “masculinity” is a fairly abstract concept — just as “obscenity” is, I guess. It’s not really something you can define, but you know it when you see it.
And, as of late, I’m not seeing much of it on television. It used to be that movies and TV had a way of portraying actors and characters in a light where you couldn’t really question their masculinity. This filled screens with a stereotype of what a man should be and, as with anything else, it eventually got played out and society evolved past it, and that’s OK. As society changes, so does our entertainment. The arts often reflect the world around them and, at some point, the world around us started to reject those old-school ideals associated with masculinity.
In recent years, however, TV has been awash with celebs so overproduced and phony that they should have “Made in Disney” tattooed on the bottom of their feet. It has led to a complete change in tone and attitude on screen, and has left an entire generation of viewers without any sort of “man’s man” to call their own. And I understand that pretty boys draw ratings (and this means you, to the person who shamelessly cast Bieber on CSI), but is it too much to ask for one guy? One seemingly real man who our generation can cling to, like my dad did with Clint Eastwood and Charles Bronson, or my grandfather with Lee Marvin and John Wayne? Where’s our Steve McQueen? Hell, where’s our James T. Kirk?
I guess that speaks to how long it’s been since we’ve really had an icon of their stature and depth. When I was a kid, we had guys like Schwarzenegger, who were never really identifiable to the “everyman,” as they were more akin to superheroes than real people. As much as I love 1980s action movies, something relatable was lost.
From there, an entire generation grew up watching mostly unattainable examples of manhood, with the somewhat imperfect John McClane and Indiana Jones as two of the few exceptions. But now, as Bruce Willis is pushing 60 and Harrison Ford is near 70, we have no heirs apparent. And that explains why you’re seeing these guys still do action movies, like The Expendables with Sylvester Stallone or Red with Willis — simply because no one has pushed them out. Sorry, but The Rock and the host of other proposed heirs to the throne just don’t cut it.
At least that was the case until 2010, when FX premiered Justified. Here was the exact type of character whom I felt was missing from TV and movies, and played by an actor — Timothy Olyphant — who fit into that old mold. The show follows a well-mannered, principle-driven, hard-ass who slams his whiskey, tells the truth and looks a man in the eye before he shoots him — and does it all with a tip of his hat. What makes him stand out is the stark contrast to the other few badasses left on modern-day television.
Where is our Steve McQueen? Hell, where is our James T. Kirk?
The last, best example may have been Jack Bauer, a former Special Forces, government-trained killing machine. He endured torture and imprisonment and you never doubted that he would escape and kill everyone in the room. Now, don’t get me wrong, 24 is one of my favorite shows of all time, but can you imagine grabbing a beer with Jack? What would you talk about? Sports? Movies? Terrorist attacks? Perhaps how inept his daughter is? Bauer is no doubt a man, and one you could respect for his fortitude and willingness to get the job done no matter what, but you can’t really relate to him.
Another recent example would be Vic Mackey of The Shield. The difference here was Mackey was a dirty cop, and every time you started to really side with him, he’d do something unforgivable. Same with The Sopranos — Tony had an old-school masculinity about him, but whenever you really wanted to like him, he’d commit some heinous act to remind you he was a bad guy. Now all three of those shows are already off the air, but there is a more recent example you could look to, what I call “the fatherly caveman.” Perfect example here would be Zeek Braverman (Craig T. Nelson) on NBC’s Parenthood. The problem here is that he’s almost always displayed in negative light. It seems like the only way to show an acceptable character of this type on TV anymore is in a period piece, like Deadwood (Olyphant, again).
When Justified made its debut, Marshal Givens became TV’s most genuine badass. Here was a modern-day lawman who, for the most part, follows the rules, isn’t corrupt and is able to have a normal conversation. From the way Givens carries himself and interacts with others to more basic stuff like the manner in which he speaks and dresses, he was endearing. It’s the simple things about him that work — the fact that he tips his hat in the presence of a lady and has faith in his ability to win the quick draw, yet he isn’t overly cocky about it, just calm and confident. Givens is the most attainable example of a man’s man on TV today who doesn’t have Special Forces training or biceps the size of a Volkswagen.
Unlike Bauer, Givens is not some Terminator-like, unstoppable killing machine. He actually loses fights on occasion and is mellow enough that you could see yourself having a beer with him. Juxtaposed against Braverman, Givens has a masculine feel about him, but without the constant crutch of always being questioned, looked down upon or ridiculed for it by the characters around him. He is ever the rarity.
It’s odd to think of Givens as being a novelty, considering that he’s such a classic character, but that’s how rare his breed has become on TV. Perhaps I have a penchant for that old style, but I think this character came along at the right time to give us something that has been missing for years — a hero who exudes masculine ideals yet remains relatable.