Tuned In

Up All Night, Modern Family and TV’s Feminism for Men

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Colleen Hayes/NBC

In last night’s Up All Night, stay-at-home dad Chris (Will Arnett) and wife Reagan (Christina Applegate) are looking for a part-time babysitter so Chris can get some time to himself. One of his first requirements: “I don’t want a dude babysitter. I know that I’m supposed to be OK with it. But come on! You’re a dude, dude!”

It’s a weird statement for him to be making considering his own life choices. But it also shows the complexity of his position: He made the decision to stay at home while his wife worked willingly and without drama, and he knows that there can still be stigma and awkwardness around stay-at-home dads—yet he can’t help carrying some of that same baggage. It’s an intriguing moment, and one that makes me feel that, in a season distinguished by women stars and creators, Chris, a dude, is one of the most feminist new characters on TV.

Up All Night is one of those shows created by a female writer, Emily Spivey. And its impressive achievement in its handling of the labor division between Reagan and Chris is how matter-of-fact it is. Up All Night is a show with a stay-a-home dad and a work-in-the-office mom; it’s not a show about a stay-a-home dad and a work-in-the-office mom. That is, it’s a show about the challenges of new parenting, not the Mr. Mom weirdness of gender role reversal. (Compare the upcoming ABC sitcom Work It, in which the male stars literally dress in drag to get jobs in female-dominated pharmaceutical sales. Because they’re doing lady work!)

The easiest ways for TV to deal with gender differences (like race or anything else) is to ignore them or obsess over them. What’s tougher, and what Up All Night has been pulling off well (even if it’s still finding its way as a comedy) is treating them as simply one factor among many, sometimes more important than others.

So yeah, it’s funny, say, when we see Chris male-bonding with his buddies at a hockey game while talking on the bench about the importance of buying the right bottle-nipple size for your baby’s age. But Chris also deals with the same kinds of issues that a new stay-at-home mom does; for instance, dealing with the fact that the baby is more excited to see the parent who’s been away all day than the one who’s wearing the sweet potatoes from lunch. Chris’ being a guy affects his parenting sometimes—his nervousness in hiring an attractive woman as a sitter, for instance—but it doesn’t define it.

And choosing not to let it define him, or to make easy jokes about it, is probably the most enlightened thing Up All Night can do. It recognizes that it’s not, in fact, essentially weird or hilarious that a man should rather spend all day with his baby than in a law office, even if, sometimes, our expectations of him can lead to weirdness or hilariousness.

In the same way that a show called Mad Men turns out to be, more than anything, a fascinating show about women in the 1960s, it may be that having more new sitcoms created by women is the best way to get more interesting and varied male characters on TV. Likewise on Fox’s New Girl—created by Liz Meriweather—the best-drawn character is often not Zooey Deschanel’s Jess but her male roommates, who play off, but not into, our sitcom ideas of How to Be a Dude, Dude.

Certainly male writers can defy male-character stereotypes too. Modern Family, for instance—with two male creators—does a lot of interesting work with the idea of what men are today. It has fun with the idea that Phil, say, enjoys a day at the spa or is a massage-giving prodigy, but it doesn’t use that to make fun of him as an effete metrosexual; it’s all part of his character’s drive to be an obsessive fan of a lot of things, be it skin treatments or his iPad.

Likewise, the relationship between Cam and Mitchell resists dividing them into “husband” and “wife” roles. Cam has some stereotypically diva qualities, but also is pointedly proud of his rugged farm-boy upbringing. (And in last night’s episode we saw that he, like Chris, carries his own baggage. After spending the episode pointedly trying to bust a stereotype by showing that he can drive a truck, he scoffs when the girls ask help from a male bystander with a queeny voice: “Oh, like she’ll be able to help us.”)

One thing that helps Modern Family offers these different takes on masculinity—let’s not forget sophisticated Manny, my favorite boy-dandy on TV since Bobby Hill—is that it has a big cast. Which is instructive: it’s simply easier for shows, individually or collectively, to draw a fuller picture of life as we live it when they show more different kinds of people.

Of course, it’s not exactly as if men have exactly had a hard time getting prominent roles on TV, whereas it was news this fall when a sizeable number of new shows had female leads. But it’s still worthwhile for sitcoms to recognize that real men can both bring home the bacon—by truck if necessary—and fry it up in a pan.