Contents of this Issue Continuum Contents Reading Room CRCC OzFilm MU

The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
vol. 7 no 2 (1994)

Screening Cultural Studies

Edited by Tom O'Regan & Toby Miller

Charmaine McEachern, 'Bringing the wildman back home: television and the politics of masculinity'

The deepening academic debates about the construction of masculinity in the eighties and nineties (For example Brod; Carrigan, Connell, and Lee; Clatterbaugh; Connell; Hearn; Kaufman; Pleck) have been accompanied by a similar concern in popular culture. In turn, this public contestation and negotiation over masculinity has fed into academic discourses and debates. In Australia this double movement has been dominated by popular culture products from abroad. At times mediated by highly popular works like Robert Bly's Iron John, Sam Keen's Fire in the Belly and John Lee's At My Father's Wedding, film and the media have provided spaces in which the themes, issues and theoretical debates of the still very small areas of men's studies and the men's movement reach a far larger audience. For example, Hook explored the theme of the absent father so central for Bly and Lee, but also for analysts from a variety of other perspectives, its narrative successfully retrieving the father/son relationship. From Wimps to Warriors gave form to the recognition of the multifarious and changing nature of masculinity, shaping the study of men and patriarchy in western society and, on a lighter note, Fast Forward has confirmed the Sensitive New Age Guy (SNAG) as a male stereotype in Australian culture. The men's movement itself has been a media theme. Australian television has seen Oprah Winfrey's studio discussion on the men's movement and the situation comedies Murphy Brown and Mother and Son have used some version of it for their stories.

Contestation and negotiation over the construction of masculinity and men is highly political, involving questions of domination, patriarchy, the distribution of society's resources and the autonomy of men and women. In engaging with, translating and transforming those discourses, attitudes, arguments and debates concerned with and constitutive of these political issues, the media through its products takes part in these political processes. This leaves the question of how any one product is political, of its articulation with the politics of masculinity. This is the kind of question which Elspeth Probyn raises in trying to go outside of the system of the text to identify the politics of thirtysomething as it relates to post-feminism. Drawing on the work of Michele le Doeuff, Probyn suggests that, from the perspective of discourses as "points of view", television programmes may be seen as instances of a discourse being 'trained on itself' (157). She argues that because television's discourses of family, home and women are attached to other, differently framed, representations and experiences, there can be an articulation of television's representation with the representations of the family with which we construct our own social realities. Discourses about masculinity and the social construction of men are not just reproduced or circulated in media products. In production these discourses are given form and content through character, event, interaction, motivation and action. This is a reflective even reflexive process (Babcock; Myerhoff and Ruby 1 ) which interrogates the discourses as points of view as they "re-position" men's lived relations with others and their place in the social world; that is the relations between men, between men and women, within the home and family and in the relationship between home and work, all of which draw on other representations and discourses. This process makes it possible to use the implications and consequences of re-positioning to interrogate the discourses of masculinity, particularly points of tension or contradiction which have been highlighted.

This paper explores the relationship between media representations and the politics of masculinity from this perspective of a discourse interrogating itself. Focusing particularly on one strand of current attempts to renegotiate masculinity in western society, the spiritualist perspective, and considering its interrogation in a television situation comedy, itself offering a particular kind of interrogative process and re-positioning, the paper is able to explore some important tensions in that strand, ones which have implications for the contestation and construction of masculinity more generally. That this sitcom is American not Australian is not surprising. First it reflects the influence of American works in popular culture's engagement with masculinity debates. Second, it results from the particular configuration of contemporary Australian television transmission where American programmes are so well represented.

Spirituality and Healing in the Men's Movement: The Search for the Wildman

There are many perspectives in the men's movement. This paper seeks only to explore the relationship between media representations and some of the discourses which are influential in the renegotiation of masculinity in the late twentieth century, for the light which may be shed on the latter by the former. In order to do this, the paper singles out one discourse, that of the spiritual perspective which is also called the mythopoetic movement or even the Wildman Movement. The ideas of mythopoets like Robert Bly, Shepherd Bliss and James Hillman and associated therapists like John Lee and Marvin Allen have captured the imagination of the media such that the spiritualists have often been used to stand for the entire men's movement (as in Murphy Brown, and Mother and Son). In Australia's SBS About Men series (1992), the mythopoetics dominated the consideration of the men's movement, their perspective well represented in the documentaries Wild Men and A Gathering of Men. Though the spiritualist perspective focuses on using myths, music, drumming and fairystories to get men in touch with their deep masculinity, the discourse itself is organised around a central theme of the need for men's individual healing.

Many masculinities appear in the mythopoetic/healing discourse, though not all of these are affirmed. In Iron John, Bly uses the Grimms' fairy story of Iron Hans to demonstrate what he sees as age old truths about men and true masculinity and to identify masculinities harmful to men. For Bly, the 'soft male' (2-4)', the flying boy' (57-90), men who have lost their 'interior warrior' (146-9), are the most common masculinities today; each reveal ways in which men have been wounded and shamed. At the level of Jungian archetypes so central to the spiritualist discourse, each of these derives from the operation of the shadow side of positive archetypes like the King, the Warrior or Lover (see also Moore and Gillette; Arnold 2 ). The absence of these positive archetypes in men's lives has produced their lack of fierceness, strength and purpose. Above all, men have lost touch with their Wild Man, their deep, primal masculine force which is spontaneity, instinct, sexuality, initiative, creativity, the masculine wildness (not the 'savage', Bly stresses) within. These losses and negativities result from men being deeply wounded in our society.

Though several analysts (Clatterbaugh 102; Lee 178) have tended to assume that the spiritual perspective of the men's movement can be politically benign, simply operating to get men in touch with their feelings and so heal, the social critique at the heart of this perspective has important political implications. When it comes to how men have become 'soft males', men lacking in fierceness and purpose, who are 'life-preserving but not exactly life-giving' (Bly 3; see also Lee 44), Bly and Lee argue that men have been wounded, first by the absence of their fathers. Changes in work practices because of the Industrial Revolution meant men were absent from the homes as their sons grew up (Bly 19), producing a fear of the absent father and an inability to be fathers themselves (Lee 22-30, 43). The father's absence enables women to shame and wound their sons, denigrate the father and his masculinity and tie their sons to them. Female teachers criticise men, particularly the physical work which should bring father and son together. Such criticism and denigration is reinforced by images of men as weak and foolish in popular culture. 3 As mothers and lovers, women, especially feminists, have been the active agents in turning men into the 'softer, receptive male', carriers of the masculinity which they preferred (Bly 3). Though Bly stresses that he is not attacking feminism, he draws a clear relationship between feminism empowering women and the weakening of men which he deplores (Chapter 1).

The third element of Bly's social critique is the absence of male initiation in western society, unlike 'primitive' or 'traditional' societies (cf Lee 13-4; Arnold 42-3). Men need a mentor, a 'male mother', who will take them from their mothers and initiate them into the world of men. This is also healing (Bly 36). Only men can change boys into men. Women trying to do this (through feminism) has weakened masculinity (Bly 16-9). As a result, many of the men's gatherings and weekends associated with this perspective highlight separation from the 'world of women' and the initiation of men (Clatterbaugh).

Through this social critique there is a problematic tension built into the heart of this discourse. The discourse focuses on men and their search for their essential masculinity through healing. It has little positive to say about the relations between men and women, which is why Susan Faludi has seen Iron John and the Wild Man weekends as part of the back-lash against feminism, contemplating power (which women are seen to have seized) and how men can get it back (contra Rowan).

Elsewhere I have pointed out that the search for this deep masculinity is characterised through images which stress the heroic, the extraordinary, the breaking away from the world of women and the home, leaving intact a public/private tension in the attainment of a masculinity which is opposed to the the domestic and the female in every way. Bly, Moore and Gillette and Arnold never address the issue of how this deep masculinity actually operates in the home and the everyday or how it is implicated in relations between men and women. Lee does and the sheer inadequacy of his account highlights this tension in the spiritualist perspective. 4 The inward looking, essentialist bent of his and other works in this vein leaves nothing to say about constructions of masculinity and their relationship with the everyday of home and family and the bringing up of children. Nor do the works address the power and domination bound up in these relations and the public/private distinctions which they find so easy to use when it comes to the original question of how men have been wounded by women and by roles, and so easy to lose when it comes to healing. The quest for true and deep masculinity has to transcend the private and everyday 'ordinariness' (see Arnold 50). The discourse builds on a public/private dichotomy; from the perspective of masculinity negatively valorising a female private, yet leaving it untheorised.

In the tension between the attainment of masculinity and the domestic and everyday, these discourses tap into a problematic which has shaped gender construction and male/female relations; the public/private distinction within which dominant masculinity is usually forged against and outside of the private (Hartsock, Jeffords, Rosaldo). The relationship between a public/private dichotomy and the social construction of masculinity and femininity is also an important issue in the men's movement and men's studies. From the historical studies of Kimmel and Filene, through the many explorations of the constitution of the masculine self (see Ochberg; Poole; Seidler) and its representation (Wernick), to Ehrenreich's highly influential analysis of the American family and men's revolt against the 'bread-winner ethic' since the 1950s, the public/private dichotomy influences the construction of masculinity in difference from femininity and highlights problematic areas for men and masculinity, particularly in relation to women and the family. Clatterbaugh (15-7) points out that, for the conservative perspective of the men's movement, this distinction underpins what is understood as natural difference between men and women. This perspective receives anthropological support by Gilmore who, though he insists upon the cultural construction of gender, argues that transcendence is a universal feature of the construction of masculinity. Insofar as men's rights men feel that feminists have destroyed the family, they adhere to this kind of distinction and alliance. At the other end of the political spectrum, men influenced by socialist feminism, who insist on foregrounding men's power over women in their analyses, include the family and men's appropriation of the labour of women (both productive and reproductive) as part of the analysis of the construction of gender and gender power relations within capitalist relations of production.

The problems of the spiritual/healing perspective on masculinity in relation to the domestic arena thus inhabit an important area of investigation into men and masculinities within wider issues of gender construction, contestation and power. The significance of a public/private problematic is why situation comedy suggests itself as fruitful ground when we turn to the media's reproduction and contestation of this discourse about masculinity. The family is usually taken as the dominant theme of situation comedy as a genre (Hamamoto; Neale and Krutnik 237; Mellencamp 81; Tulloch 253-4). Hamamoto also, arguing that American sitcom is an important means by which contradictions in liberal democratic thought are addressed and symbolically resolved, sees the public/private distinction as central to the form. It could also be argued that sitcoms have been equally concerned with masculinity, admittedly with particular emphasis on the relationship between masculinity and family. An important source of humour in the sitcom for example, has always been the shortcomings and insecurities of men. Masculinity is really only discussed in Hamamoto's account of the 1950s, yet it is still a theme today. The role of the father, which Hamamoto discusses, is an obvious issue. The centrality of social contradictions and oppositions to the sitcom also raises for interrogation husband/wife relations, tensions between different masculinities and relations between men, particularly intergenerational relations (Tulloch 250-4), all of which keep masculinity and men on the situation comedy agenda.

Sitcoms have also responded to changes in society and related transformations in the dominant constructions of masculinity. As reflection upon and contestation over masculinity has found its way into other popular culture/media products, so too it has been taken up by situation comedy, enabling the interplay of 'residual' and 'emergent' cultures which Tulloch sees as central to the situation comedy genre (254, 258-60). In 1992, an American situation comedy, Home Improvement, a sitcom which directly takes masculinity as its central problematic, reached Australian television screens.

Home Improvement as a Situation Comedy

Produced by the Disney Organisation, Home Improvement is based on the stand-up comedy routines of its star, Tim Allen, who has focused on men, male/female relations and constructions of American masculinity for some time. His cable TV special, Men Are Pigs, won an award in 1989. Home Improvement is an extension of this work, its narrative forming a complex interrogation of masculinity which provides the 'structural basis' (Eaton 23) for the gags and jokes which generate the comedy each week. These reflections on masculinity routinely take the spiritualist perspective as one of the discourses interrogated. Indeed we shall see this perspective is built into both character and situation.

The title, Home Improvement, encompasses two spatial elements of this sitcom. At the most obvious level, it refers to the television home improvement programme, Tool Time, which the lead character Tim Taylor (Tim Allen) hosts. The title also connotes the Taylor home and family, Tim's wife Jill (Patricia Richardson) and their three sons, Brad (Zachery Ty Bryan), Randy (Jonathan Taylor Thomas) and Mark (Taran Noah Smith). The relationship between these public and private domains provides the full dimensions of the title and locates the programme precisely at the public/private point of tension for the spiritualist discourse of masculinity. Public and private are constituted only within this relationship on the programme, but the two will be separated for ease of discussion.

The Public

The Tool Time, public space, also Tim's work place, has all of the ambiguity of the television medium, being public but also private, its product designed to be viewed within the family home. Tim's little chats and gripes to the men of the show's audience, usually beginning with something like, 'Men, I want to say someth'n'', are thus also addressed to men located within home and family. Tim's work place also combines the home of home improvement with maleness, a double identification of the maleness of this television studio 5 and the culturally defined maleness of the activity of home improvement tasks. Through Tool Time, the public arena declares masculinity and the home central for interrogation.

In the narrative of this sitcom, the performance of actual home improvement tasks usually takes second place to Tim's musings and gripes about gender relations, particularly what he sees as problems between men and women (as husbands and wives) in the home. These musings are directly delivered to the male dominated audience in a way which reinforces his strong affirmation of maleness. Over the full season of programmes, Tim projects different masculinities on the show, in one programme advocating better communication between men and women and in another encouraging men to avoid attempts to dominate women through the use of highly technical language about household facilities. There are though, two conventions which appear in all Tool Time shows which establish Tim's most common position within the multiple discourses about masculinity.

The first convention is his identification of men with "power", particularly symbolised by bigger and more powerful tools. This focuses the regular, 'What do we want? (Audience shouted response) More power!', which is often the signal for Lisa to bring out the required tool, but may also punctuate his on-show musings on household gender relations as he prepares to offer his solution to something like why men don't do the housework (it's because household implements are soft, feminine and deficient in power, chrome and steel). The other convention dovetails with the 'More power' one and is what, in one programme, Tim called 'a simian grunt', a kind of 'Aarghf, aarghf' delivered with the head thrown back. This is either an assertion of masculinity (as in moments of anger and frustration when maleness seems to be losing or ineffectual against women or things female), or an affirmation of masculinity, as on the occasions when Tim introduces manual ("real") workers onto the programme or he waxes enthusiastic about something "really masculine" like a powerful sander, sledgehammer or motor. Tim always begins this grunt which is taken up by the audience (and at times the crew). It may reflexively relate to the practice of using the word "Ho" at men's gatherings, according to Lee whenever something very powerful or male affirming has been said (see also Stanton 118).

Tim as the male presenter of Tool Time is constructed in opposition to Al Borland (Richard Karn), his assistant, who always remains distant from this excess of assertive and basic masculinity. Al is the 'soft male' who Carrigan and others argue predominates on prime-time television (94). Al responds to Tim's most chauvinistic comments (which Tim excuses as only kidding) by holding up a graphic with the address to which viewers who wish to complain should write. The narrative of Tool Time conventionally plays with the opposition this sets up, making Al always knowledgeable about "male" home improvement tasks against Tim's wise-cracking attitude to them. Further, Tim invariably ruins things or has accidents like super-glueing his head to a table or dying his hands green, usually making light of Al's cautions or responding to them as an attack on his manhood by calling him 'Mr Negativity'.

The Private

The home of Home Improvement is also the Taylor home in which Tim joins Jill, Brad, Randy and Mark as family. As Kimmel points out, the social conception of masculinity and femininity is always relational; this is given spatial form in the series in the interrelation between the Tool Time show and the home. Tim's relationships with Jill, the boys and the realities of the everyday and domestic interacts with the positions on masculinity, men and women which he advocates on his show in several ways. First, gender relations and issues in the home may give rise to the specific discourse or aspect of the discourse given voice in the programme. Tim may directly introduce his conclusions about some element of women and femininity which has arisen in the domestic situation into the mid-show chat to the men of the audience (and thus the men at home). In one show for example, Jill's use of one of "his" screwdrivers to unblock the sink prompts him to teach her plumbing. His impatience and ensuing anger carries over into Tool Time, where he spuriously argues (he has already admitted to Jill that he never does the laundry) that though men are now 'helping women' with 'their housework' women never in turn help men:

Hey come on, come on, we should help around the house right? Y'know, problem is, women want us to help with their work but do they help with our work? NO! [Audience shouts No]. They expect you to do the laundry, clean the over, mop the floor, huh? [Yeah]. Do you ever get her out there, gap and change a spark plug? No [No!]. Unclogging a drain? No. Their excuse is, 'Well you know about this stuff. I don't. And besides I might break a nail'.

The other major interrelationship between Tim's show and his home which is encompassed by and problematises discourses of masculinity, begins with Tim's most consistent position of basic and assertive masculinity; the 'more power' cry and sentiment, strong male affirming "Aarghf, aarghf", excessive enthusiasm for tools, sport, machinery, competition, achievement, status (he is constantly reminding everyone that Al is his assistant) and overt displays of manliness which construct his regular persona on Tool Time. One dimension of his operation in the home as a man is an extension of this persona, so that he tries to apply such a masculinity to problems, situations and relationships in the domestic sphere. Good examples here are those occasions on which Tim installs bigger and stronger motors in household appliances on the grounds that they are 'female' and weak, therefore requiring 'more power'. In the very first programme he decides that the household needs a 'man's dishwasher' with 'more power'. After nearly electrocuting himself he achieves this, only to blow out the entire back of the dishwasher as soon as he turns it on to demonstrate to Jill how much better a 'man's dishwasher' is.

This movement backwards and forwards between Tool Time and the Taylor household becomes the dominant device by which discourses of masculinity are interrogated through the various positionings of Tim's masculine identity in public and private spheres. Through events and relations in the private/domestic the narrative problematises the assertive masculinity which Tim finds affirmed in the outside/public/television studio, so that when Tim appears next on Tool Time, he has often modified the discourse, advocating better communication or non-dominating behaviour on the basis of a re-positioning he has been forced to adopt by events.

The reflection on masculinity and relations between men and women which is the driving force of this process of modification is achieved through the agency of Wilson (Earl Hindman), the Taylors' next door neighbour. Wilson remains a man of mystery by virtue of the fact that we usually only see him over the fence, which means that from the front only the top of his head from the eyes up is ever visible (we do see his whole back when we have a mid or wider shot). He is the Robert Bly figure of this sitcom, a mentor who attempts to impart wisdom to Tim and who calls on myths, folk stories and practices and "Jungian" psychology to do so. He also brings together the communion with nature, love of music and poetry in which Bly finds meaning for deep masculinity and the healing of men. He makes a canoe in the backyard ('you just chip away everything that's not a canoe'), watches the stars through a telescope ('checking the expanding universe'), flameproofs his scarecrow for winter and paints (a self portrait which is only the top of his face). As Tim's mentor, Wilson has found his deep masculinity, his wild man. This is quintessentially spiritualist, since we never see him operate in the domestic sphere. Rather it is expressed through his relationship with his 'true love...Mother Nature' and in the myths and folk sayings through which he tries to convey the "truths" about masculinity and femininity to Tim. These exchanges occur when Tim's wildman has encountered difficulty in the home, particularly with Jill, and typically, Wilson's advice is only ever half-helpful to Tim who often doesn't understand it. Wilson's job of initiating Tim is thus ongoing, making him a mediator between Tim and Jill.

Jill has no job outside the home. Interestingly, for the first two programmes she was actively seeking employment (and in later series did take up a part time position), but for the rest of the first series she operated as home manager, giving the private, everyday, domestic constellation a femininity. On occasion this has been the focus of rebellion for her as in the programme in which she took up potting in an attempt to find some source of self expression which transcended her role as carer for home and family. Many of the features of femininity and women through which Tim defines a broadly oppositional masculinity derive from the identification of the domestic and domestic care with Jill, and its consequent gendering as female. This is emphasised by Tim's insistence that the garage, the place of dirt, sweat, noise, grease, power and steel, is a 'man zone', gendered masculine. This gendering of the domestic female and the marginality of male space sets up the crucial relational character of masculinity and femininity, at the same time providing the parameters for the discourses of masculinity with which the programme engages.

Home Improvement as an Interrogation of the Spiritualist Discourse

Several masculinities inhabit the male space of Home Improvement, as do several different kinds of male relationships. This paper is only concerned with those which interrogate the spiritualists' healing and deep masculinity discourse, though one of the things the interrogative re-positioning of Tim demonstrates is how the "Wild Man" discourse resonates with other representations and discourses of masculinity.

The dialogue between the presentation of masculinity and men's relationships in Home Improvement and the spiritualist discourse of masculinity raises many suggestive points, not all of which can be covered in this paper. The poetic form of the spiritualists' discourse makes it easy for separate elements of deep masculinity to be brought individually into Home Improvement, usually attached to the excess of masculinity which seems to be the programme's version of Bly's identification between the wild man and excess. For example, a strong message in most versions of the spiritualist perspective is that men who have found deep masculinity 'know their own limitations' (Bly 47). On a Tool Time show, guest star, 'Mr More Power', George Foreman explained to Tim that he learned that 'a man's gotta know his limitations' at a seafood buffet dinner where he tried to eat sixteen plates of food but 'keeled over' on the fourteenth plate. In another programme Tim focused on the creativity of male power, particularly the power of man and tools. This assertion engages with Bly's contention that, through the wild man, men reconnect with creativity, that true masculinity is creative rather than destructive (57, see also Moore and Gillette 39, 80, 140). Though Tim demonstrates the accomplishments of men's 'hands and tools' with, among other things, a beautiful, Chinese wooden screen, the excitement which he usually generates as he dwells at length upon masculinity, not only produces his "simian grunt" but also an excess of spontaneity which results in him snapping off a piece of the ancient and delicate screen. The relationship between masculinity, power, creativity and destruction remains problematic.

The phrases of the spiritualists' narratives and their attributes of deep masculinity thus crop up in the programme narrative, isolated to promote reflection and contextualised in comic structure to render them funny. Wilson, as Tim's mentor, will offer some folk saying or myth like, 'As the ancient Celtic saying goes - 'Never give a sword to a man who can't dance'', which Tim will either not connect with the problem he's been recounting, as in this case, or will simply misunderstand. His rendering of Wilson's telling him that his need to make the bathroom bigger and better is in response to the deep truth of 'the visceral male urge to create' in the face of not being able to bear children, was 'I can't give birth...It's a problem in my gut with the visceral's really, really hard to explain'. These comic devices detach the elements of the spiritualist discourse from the construction of deep masculinity, producing a disturbance in the discourse's communication which has reflexive potential (Neale and Krutnik 49).

This paper cannot deal with each of the attributes of deep masculinity which are foregrounded for comic interrogation in the programme. Instead, it focuses on the the dialogue between the spiritualist discourse and Home Improvement at that point of tension for the spiritualists, relations between women and men, the public and the private. The first issue which this focus raises is the relationship between two masculinities, the soft, sensitive man and the man who has found his wild man, his deep masculinity. For Bly and others there is an historical element to this relationship. Men today have become soft in response to the demands of women and feminism. Barely able to help themselves, they are of no use to the planet, and the implication is, society itself. Sensitive and lacking in energy, these soft males have lost their Wild Man, their inner, primal masculinity. In the discourse the "soft male" and the "Wild Man" are inextricably linked. So it is with Home Improvement.

In this series, Tim is constructed as situation comedy's version of "the wild man" and Al as the soft, sensitive male. This dynamic is built into the very structure of Tool Time, Tim's show, as indicated above, but it also generated the story line on one occasion, making the often unspoken assumptions behind the characterisations explicit. One piece of dialogue from this programme, "Al's Fair in Love and War", demonstrates these characterisations and the elements of the discourse they engage. It comes in response to Al explaining how women don't seem to want to become seriously involved with him:

Tim: Al, you know what your problem is? You're too darn nice.

Al: Well, I'm just trying to be sensitive to their needs.

Tim: (exasperated) Uh, I hate hearing that. Women always say they want a sensitive man. Then they end up running off with a kick boxer named Dolf. Women like a primitive, raw, wild man, a man of sensuality, outdoors, that kind of guy.

To be fair, this is describing the man living with his wild man in the bluntest of terms, as befits the comic of sitcom. It nonetheless has the sensuality, nature and indeed the primalness which are elements of the spiritualists' deep masculinity. It is also interesting to note the conviction that masculinity is responsive to what women want, something which drives the rest of this narrative.

Having finally asked a woman to go out with him, Al mistakenly takes Tim's advice to reveal his deep masculinity (phrased as 'show her you've got hair on your chest') if she comments on how sensitive she finds him. His literal display of chest hair, accompanied by howling at the moon, almost destroys his relationship with Greta before it begins. It seems that Tim is wrong on two counts; Greta really does like Al because he is sensitive and Al simply cannot manage as a wild man. As he explains to Tim, 'I'm, not a wild man Tim. I'm not like you. I'm a nice guy'. He and Greta make up and are last seen on their way to Bingo.

Obviously this is played for laughs, but if we think about this against the spiritualists' discourse it is suggestive. Probably for the wrong motives, since he should have been more concerned with finding himself rather than a woman (see also Chapple and Talbot in Faludi 344; Lee 58, 67), Al nonetheless tries to achieve Tim's somewhat distorted and comic version of the wild man as the truly masculine. He tries this at precisely the point at which Bly certainly has very little to say; in his relationships with women. What happens? It is unsuccessful and nearly loses him the relationship. Why does the wild man fail? Because as Tim makes very plain when he tells Al to 'show some metal' and 'tell' her rather than ask her, it represents a highly assertive masculinity, striving to dominate and control women.

This scenario links directly to Tim's own manifestation as the "wild man". In his character this becomes an identifiable masculinity as some elements of the spiritualist discourse are concretised and routinised as characteristics and habits of Tim as a man. The focus on physical work at the centre of masculine identity is important here because it constructs masculinity at one point where Bly and others claim men and relations between men have been harmed through the office and desk dominated work practices of modern society. The comedy forces reflection upon this location of masculinity in physical work, at the same time authorising the extremeness of its depiction. Tim as television workman wears designer clothes, always with a tie, and his actual execution of physical tasks on the show is fraught with disaster. His white collar image aligns with Bly's largely middle class conception of modern men.

The sitcom's construction of male "power" is also generated out of the physical work focus of masculinity. Tim's 'more power' cry simplifies and concretises the spiritualists' notions of "male energy" and "power" so that their "deep masculinity" is manifest for him in men's relationship with powerful tools and machines. In this formulation or re-positioning, power is rendered unarguably male, an attribute of masculinity. Here, Home Improvement is subversive in relation to the spiritualist discourse. It makes explicit and questionable an implicit argument of the discourse, that men have lost their privilege and power to women and that the time has come to seize it back, a declaration of a 'battle on the domestic front' (Faludi 345).

The sitcom is subversive on this domestic front too, by pushing the wild man into the domestic place of women and children and re-positioning wild man Tim in spaces, relationships and experiences about which Bly has little to say. Again the comedy provides a particular kind of interrogation of the spiritualist discourse. At times the association between true masculinity and "more power" expressed as more powerful machines, has been shown to be totally untranslatable from public television studio where it meets with audience enthusiasm to the Taylor household domestic situation where it simply destroys things. The dishwasher was a case in point. So too was Tim's attempt to make the vacuum cleaner more powerful, his proposition being that men don't do housecleaning because of the wimpy female implements which are customarily used. The exercise of rewiring a 'power suck mode' into the vacuum made a shambles of the living room and the youngest son, Mark only saved himself by clinging to the door knob as his feet left the floor. In its structure the vacuum visual gag sets Tim up to be laughed at by the viewer, establishing a relationship in which he is inept and the viewer superior (Neale and Krutnik 58; Eaton; Neale). In terms of content and meaning, Tim is actually reflexively constructed within and against the wild man discourse, so that dimensions of this discourse actually constitute the maleness of the character, Tim Taylor, at whose ineptness the audience laughs.

Jill is an important element in this reflexively constructed comic situation. She also laughs at these moments, so that she, as the female and the signifier of the domestic, joins with the audience outside of the discourse to judge the inappropriateness of Tim's wild man masculinity in the home and family. Dependent in a domestic situation which seems to define her, Jill does not resist as Lucy resisted in the 1950s (Mellencamp). Jill's laughter at Tim and her constant wise-cracking often provide the comic moments within the context of the narrative (Neale and Krutnik 44-7). Jill's structural position does not resist patriarchy but, through these comic moments directed against Tim's version of masculinity she (at times supported by her feminist friend Karen) certainly resists any assertion of male authority embedded in discourses of masculinity, like that of the spiritualists, which are based on a reaction to feminist critiques. Through verbal resistance embedded in the comic moment, Jill makes more transparent the gender politics which are obscured in the rhetoric of the spiritualists.

The Wild Man and the Renegotiation of Masculinity

Through comedy, Home Improvement engages with the spiritualist discourse of masculinity at precisely those points of tension which others have indicated to be problematic for the discourse and its construction of masculinity (Clatterbaugh; McEachern). Through Tim, Home Improvement suggests that the primal, deeply masculine wild man glorying in his male powers and absolute maleness cannot be domesticated. It is precisely when Tim is re-positioned in the home, understood as the place of women and family, that he is most unable to give expression to his wildness. What is interesting, even suggestive here, is that Tim is domesticated. In part this reflects Bee's point that, 'Sitcom accepts monogamy as natural and inevitable...' (quoted in Tulloch 253). It also indicates a transformation of Tim's wild man, one which becomes necessary at the dominant point of tension in the spiritualist discourse, between outside world and domestic arena.

What is interesting here are the other discourses and representations of masculinity and femininity which are drawn on to construct a domesticated Tim. The domestication of Tim's version of the wild man looks remarkably like the conservative masculinity which offers another critique of feminism in the late twentieth century (Clatterbaugh Chapter 1). About the house Tim bears little resemblance to the sensitive and caring men of nineteen eighties sitcoms like, The Cosby Show, Family Ties or Growing Pains. There is a break with the liberal discourse of these shows which constitutes one element of Home Improvement's reflexivity. Though Tim constantly asserts that Jill and he have an equal marriage, taking equal responsibility for everything, we actually see a fairly "traditional" division of labour. Jill cooks, cleans and cares for the family. Tim is the provider and protector, his work about the house fitting very conservative views of the male role, views which he at times passes on to his three sons.

Though this division of labour, particularly as it produces a male role which they see as damaging to men, is one of the things criticised by the spiritualists, it is actually a possibility in much of their discourse. Women remain associated with the everyday, with masculinity constituted outside of the domestic and the spiritualists' unwillingness to confront the question of the construction of masculinity in relation to gender roles and the sexual division of labour within the domestic leaves the status quo intact in this discourse. Women and femininity remain associated with home care and child raising. This significant absence leaves a space in the spiritualist discourse which can be comfortably inhabited by the conservatives' "traditional family" as the site in which natural masculinity is "civilised" (by women) into masculine roles (Clatterbaugh 15-21). Home Improvement is suggestive because, by going into territory spurned by the spiritualists, the everyday and the relations between men and women, it draws on the representations of this conservative masculinity to provide the details of Tim's actions and relations in the home. At times it is Tim's conservative male behaviour getting him into trouble in the household which leads him to consult his mentor, Wilson, who then produces some Bly-like advice. This easy movement between wild man and conservative man reminds us that the spiritualists rely heavily on Jung and, further, that the masculinity and femininity of Jung's own analysis was conservative, aligning femininity with home and masculinity with 'outside business' (Clatterbaugh 93). Though in other aspects of the discourse it is precisely this conservative masculinity and division of labour which the spiritualists see as so wounding for men, the conservatism embedded in the Jungian archetypes so central to the spiritualist discourse is avoided by the absence of male/female relations in the everyday domestic arena, but left unchallenged and able to be picked up in Home Improvement's comic interrogation. At this level, the sitcom subverts the discourse, highlighting the tensions within it. This is not always the case.

If in its re-positioning in the home of Tim as a man carrying attributes of the wild man, Home Improvement's dialogue with the spiritualist discourse operates critically to highlight some of the points of tension in that discourse, the programme is also sitcom, with all of the features of the genre. In particular, we must consider this sitcom's narrative closure, that point which, as Ricoeur argues, configures the narrative, providing meaning (66). Tulloch argues that what is distinctive about this moment of closure in sitcom is its lack of resolution of those oppositions, or 'opposed cultures' at the centre of the sitcom (250-8; see also Neale and Krutnik 234-5). This lack of resolution as the status quo is noteworthy in Home Improvement, since it often operates to construct masculinity in ways which are ultimately compatible with the spiritualist discourse. In closure any subversion of the discourse and its constitution of masculinity is contained (cf Mellencamp 90). In this dimension, Home Improvement can be understood to constitute Polan's 'formal' rather than 'political' reflexivity; a reflexivity, or in my terms reflection, on the discourse, which is ultimately non-threatening in terms of power since it leaves the world unchanged.

We saw earlier that Home Improvement presents different masculinities through its characterisations. Al was a "soft male" to Tim's "wild man" and it would have to be said that sometimes Tim's assertive masculinity is modified by sensitivity. Certainly, the comic takes any hard edge from his basic, assertive masculinity. At other times, Tim has encountered through Tool Time, working class men, some of whose reactionary expressions of masculinity have even perturbed him. Despite the existence of multiple masculinities on Home Improvement, when it comes to the resolution of any programme's particular issue, these differences tend to dissolve as most of the men agree that the really perplexing element of life is, women.

There are many examples of the deep and profound schism between men and women which the programme proposes. On the basis of 45 years of marriage, Eddie Phillips, one of the working class men, tells Tim, 'You don't have to understand a woman. All you gotta do is love her'. Wilson tells Tim something of the same thing in an earlier programme, his solution being that Tim and Jill share what they do understand. In another programme Wilson uses a transcendence/immanence distinction to explain that there is a fundamental difference between men and women based on the location of femininity in biology compared with men's expression of their masculinity through acts of creation in the world. Overall, it is love, romantic love, which bridges this gender gap in story after story. Issues of gender construction are thus raised in each programme, but ultimately the historical, social and structural nature of these constructions is let slide as the stories' resolutions suggest a naturalness of gender and gender difference (cf Bee, cited in Tulloch 253) which can only be overcome on the higher plane of love. As all other differences are collapsed into it, gender becomes the difference in society, a crucial underpinning of the operation of patriarchal authority (Carrigan et al 90). At the same time, the emphasis on love sets gender up as difference only, obscuring the relations of power and domination implicated in constructions of masculinity and femininity and relations between men and women.

In this dimension, Home Improvement is quite compatible with the essentialising tendencies of the spiritualist discourse of masculinity (McEachern Wild Men 27-8). This compatibility demonstrates a need surfacing in the wider debates about the politics of masculinity, in which analysts are calling for explorations of masculinity to foreground differences among men (Carrigan et al 86). This whole issue thus alerts us to another point of tension in the spiritualist discourse, between the social and natural constitution of gender. Though at the level of social critique, Bly and others understand masculinity to be socially constructed, produced by the Industrial Revolution and feminism, the personal healing focus of the discourse urges men to seek their true, deep, primal masculinity, which as Lee says is the essential male self which can be 'lost' (150). As described above, Home Improvement too moves between the social construction and naturalness of gender, this time reproducing the point of tension in the discourse, rather than exposing it to critical attention. Closure ensures that the social constructedness of gender implicit in the interrogation of those discourses through which masculinity is constituted is encompassed by the idea of gender as natural. Reflexivity takes second place to reflection.


This paper sought to explore Home Improvement as a media product within the politics of masculinity. Part of the answer is provided by the programme's interrogation of the spiritualist discourse which constitutes one dimension of the political struggles over masculinity. As discussed in the paper, Home Improvement is important for highlighting tensions and contradictions in the discourse and its construction of masculinity. Drawing on other discourses and representations, enacted through the comic, the sitcom subverts the spiritualists' attempts to renegotiate masculinity but at the same time reproduces the troublesome naturalisation of gender which haunts the spiritualist discourse.

This naturalisation of gender, particularly as it obscures the social construction and contestation of gender, provides another dimension of the sitcom's significance within the politics of masculinity. A tension which unites Home Improvement and the spiritualist discourse, such naturalisation is vital in the perpetuation of ideology about gender, its role in feminist struggles and the renegotiation of masculinity. For Home Improvement, this raises another series of political questions about the relationship between the situation comedy form and exactly what is naturalised as "masculinity".


1. In distinguishing between "reflection" and "reflexivity" I draw on Barbara A. Babcock, "Reflexivity: Definitions and discriminations" (1-14), and Barbara Myerhoff and Jay Ruby's Introduction in A Crack in the Mirror: Reflexive Perspectives in Anthropology. The distinction is basically between reflections which show to the audience some element of their culture, often contesting a point of view, but which still operate within the taken-for-grantedness of culture and reflexivity which takes the very constructedness of culture and society as the object to be revealed to the audience. This distinction is compatible with that between formal and political reflexivity used by Polan as cited in John Tulloch, Television Drama, Agency, Audience and Myth (247), though its emphasis is somewhat different. See McEachern Down on the Farm, "Concluding Remarks".

2. Arnold's concern with the Catholic religion and its lack of appeal for men produces a set of archetypes for modern men which are derived from the Old Testament. The Wild Man is one of these.

3. Bly is very agitated by this point. He also makes much of it in the film A Gathering of Men. It seems to me that he mistakes the ideology inscribed in the narrative of situation comedies when he attacks them for portraying men as wimps. A more appropriate reading would focus on contradiction and tension observed in sitcom by Steve Neale and Frank Krutnik (170). We then note that these men invite laughter precisely because, through demonstrating insecurity, lack of strength, control, aggression or success in some way, they break the expected symbolic constellation within which masculinity is constructed through a strong provider and protector role. This could be seen as affirming constructions of dominant masculinity as much as portraying men negatively.

4. After giving his version of just how wounded men are, Lee uses accounts of men's retreats to explain the necessary kinds of spiritual healing processes, in a section he calls "The Journey" (67 - 107). This is followed by "Coming Down Off the Mountain", a section which begins with a six page account of "Taking the Journey into Everyday Life". In fact the section has nothing to say about everyday life, except how difficult it is to take those things learned in the retreats "back" there. Lee's solution is to find 'safe people' who have also been through the same thing, probably in men's groups, and if necessary to break relationships which do not fit.

5. There is only one female in the crew of this show, the deliberately attractive, blond Lisa, who brings out the tools as required rather in the manner of a quiz show hostess. Interestingly, women are quite well represented in the credits of Home Improvement.

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