For the month of November, Men's Health Awareness Month, TV Guide is presenting "I See You Man," a series of stories that take a deeper look at representations of men on TV today. Check back here throughout the month for more stories about men on television.
One of the more touching moments on NBC's hit show This Is Us came in Season 4 when Jack (Milo Ventimiglia) tried to tell his best friend, Miguel (Jon Huertas), how he felt about him. Just a few hours prior, Miguel had stormed into his boss's office on Jack's behalf, telling their boss that if he didn't reverse his decision to fire Jack over an honest (albeit expensive) mistake, he'd quit. Miguel, the company's top earner, saved Jack's job. Jack calls to thank him.
"Hey, look, I know we don't ever say mushy things to each other, but if we did, that would be one of those times," Jack says. He clearly wants to say I love you, but Jack — a war veteran and the son of a physically abusive alcoholic father — cannot.
"Are you trying to tell me that you love me?" Miguel replies, grinning. "Because if that's what you're trying to do, I gotta tell you, I'm a married man." Miguel is being funny, but he's dodging what could be an intense moment. He is also acknowledging their mutual, unspoken belief that two men talking about their feelings for each other is "gay." "What I'm trying to tell you is," says Jack, "if you ever need anything, and I hear you went to anyone else but me, I'm going to kick your sorry ass." Joking about violence, it seems, is easier for Jack than saying, "I appreciate you," or "I love you, man."
Though Jack and Miguel's conversation takes place in a flashback to the mid 1990s, it could very well have taken place in 2019. Seeing two straight (or even, for that matter, queer) men say "I love you" is still a rare event on television, which isn't surprising. Men, as a whole, are divided on the practice of saying "I love you" to male friends and relatives; some long to hear it and never do, some say it all the time, some believe articulating what's already evident would create an uncomfortable ripple on otherwise tranquil waters. But regardless of how men feel about that particular phrase, there's no denying they don't talk about their feelings much in general — it's part of the reason, experts believe, that men are 3.5 times more likely to die by suicide and why they commit most acts of domestic violence. "We believe men's health is in a state of crisis," said Mark Hedstrom, executive director of Movember, one of the country's leading men's health groups. "Seventy-five percent of people who die by suicide are men, and the number is growing in the wrong direction. Something is happening."
One big reason Hedstrom believes men are struggling is that they lack models of positive masculinity to aspire to. "Mass media plays a critical role in changing the conversation," Hedstrom told TV Guide. "It can positively or negatively influence how men perceive the dynamic between father and son, or with women, or how men see themselves."
It's hard to be what you don't see, and for a long time, TV shows conveyed what manhood means in confining and arguably unhealthy ways. A man was a gun-slinging cowboy like Marshall Matt Dillon (James Arness) on Gunsmoke; a benevolent father like Ward Cleaver (Hugh Beaumont) on Leave It to Beaver; a tough loudmouth like Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor); or a man-child like Homer Simpson or Doug (Kevin James) on King of Queens. Up until very recently, leading men were almost always white, the head of the household, straight and often a little homophobic, and oblivious or indifferent to their female counterparts — archetypes that put up rigid lines about what was considered "manly" or not.
But now, our culture is in the midst of a messy, long-overdue societal reckoning with pervasive sexism, rampant sexual assault, and toxic masculinity that infects almost every sector of modern life. An important revolution in how we think about gender and what we expect from people in a gender group is underway, and in the thick of it, a great many men seem unsure about how, exactly, to be a man; what does being a man or being masculine even mean in 2019? TV is finally making some attempts to answer that question, offering sketches of what manhood and masculinity could look like going into a new decade.
This Is Us might be the vanguard for its presentations of men as sensitive, emotional human beings trying to navigate complex relationships — Randall (Sterling K. Brown) battles anxiety, Kevin (Justin Hartley) addiction, and Toby (Chris Sullivan) depression — and that show is just one of an increasing number of TV programs showing men handling life's challenges in ways that defy old, narrow templates for manhood and masculinity. Take Ramy Youssef's titular character in Ramy: a young Egyptian-American man who grapples with wanting to be a devout Muslim while also being as horny as a preteen American boy who just discovered porn. Or consider Atypical, about a kid named Sam (Keir Gilchrist), who's trying to figure out the already complicated rituals of dating while managing the specific challenges that come with being on the autism spectrum. And on FX's success story Pose, Pray Tell (Billy Porter) is a man who embraces traditionally feminine traits, like in the Season 2 finale when he finds the courage to put on a pair of heels to strut his stuff in support of his trans friends in the ballroom community.
Now more than ever, role models for a more evolved, progressive definition of what it means to be a man are popping up across broadcast, cable, and streaming, and in recognition of this sea change, TV Guide is presenting "I See You Man," a series of stories throughout the month of November that take a deeper look at representations of men on TV today. Our first looks at why Keith Bang (Bashir Salahuddin) of GLOW might be the model husband in more ways than one. Another discusses how Chidi (William Jackson Harper) of The Good Place offers a positive portrayal of a man with anxiety, while still another will dig into how TV dads today look different than those of eras past. Each of these stories probe how shows are helping definitions of manhood evolve to a better place — a space where guys like Jack and Miguel can say how they feel (or not) without shame or lame jokes.
(Disclosure: TV Guide is owned by CBS Interactive, a division of ViacomCBS.)