A few years back I found myself thinking about the broadcasting politics of network television specialty stations, in particular with regard to gender, identity regulation, and sexuality. I ultimately chose to write about Spike from the point of view as a male (a gay one) who watches Spike and nonetheless feels excluded from or ghettoized by its reductive notions of masculinity, the male demographic, and masculine interests. The resulting essay, first published in Xtra, still holds up as relevant and as an accurate reflection of my sentiments.
Not Man Enough? Can a Gay Man Ever be ‘One of the Guys’?”
Broadcasting an assortment of revved-up programs that faithfully upholds a promised “Get More Action” mandate, Spike is the American TV network that wears brash masculinity proudly, as though chest thumping is the singular male pledge of belonging.
Part of MTV Networks (a youth-focused and edge-of-mainstream subsidiary of media conglomerate Viacom), Spike TV was initially launched in 2003 as “The First Network for Men.” Having subsequently dropped that claim and the final two syllables its name, Spike has remained steadfast in its commitment to masculinity — feeding guys the kind of meaty content they apparently crave.
And if the ‘by men, for men’ network idolizes a James Bond version of masculinity — and that’s evidently the case — it does so only in part. Spike has little time for sophistication, civility or tuxes; what it truly favours are the fight/drink/gamble/drive/get laid facets of the Bond personality.
In fact, a quick survey of Spike’s current programming demonstrates just how ruthlessly emphatic the network is about promoting masculine extremes: each day it serves viewers male-on-male fighting (The Ultimate Fighter), wrestling (TNA Impact!) and competition (Pros vs Joes), truck and car refits (Xtreme 4×4, Trucks!, MuscleCar), and caught-on-tape police chases (Disorderly Conduct) — as well as invigorating doses of vampire battling (Blade: The Series), criminal hunting (CSI, DEA), spaceship adventuring (Star Trek: Voyager) and Pamela Anderson in muscle cars (VIP).
There are also manly movies and limited-run specialty programs like the Hooters Swimsuit Pageant and Manswers (“Answers all the questions you guys wanna know” — how to extract a bullet if you’re shot, for example, or, in an episode called ‘Hooker or Cop?’, how to purchase the services of that real buxom blonde in heels without getting arrested by the impersonator who’s actually an undercover police officer).
The network presents itself as the only answer to the question, “How would a TV network keep the citizens of Guy City contented?”
Born in Guy City myself and a fan of the Star Trek franchise for years, I ordinarily watch episodes on Spike on afternoons when I’m home grading student essays and exams.
On paper, we’re a solid meat-and-potatoes match: I am male and Spike’s programming is expressly geared toward men. What could be simpler?The problem, Spike lets me know through signs both subtle and bold, is that I’m not a man, not truly. Spike never bothers to spell it out, of course, but its peculiar definition of “man” takes it for granted that everyone will completely understand that the word does not refer to “an individual possessing XY chromosomes.” Spike is talking culture and not biology, so despite appearances what it means is quite specific: “a particular kind of heterosexual male with a restricted set of linked interests.” There’s no need for accuracy because Spike assumes that its definition is also the popular or dominant one — and therefore the only one that matters.
Its baffling logic isn’t exactly alert-the-media news. Spike just has the dubious honour of being a highly conspicuous (because so widely viewed) symptom of that commonplace pop culture habit of collapsing the actual biological and cultural heterogeneity of males into the exclusive uniformity of “for men.”
Spike’s well advertised dedication to “men” is a typical semantic sleight of hand, and one familiar to any gay male who flips through a “general interest men’s magazine” like Esquire, Maxim or Men’s Fitness and notices few if any of his interests or concerns being addressed. (Needless to say, any lesbian encountering “women’s media” — such as O, The Oprah Magazine or the W Network — will face a similar predicament.)
Spike and its brethren claim to serve a specialty demographic (the so-called men’s market), but rather than being a powerless vassal completely subservient to the wishes of this demanding market segment, they actually wield power — to actively define and shape the material that red-blooded men are supposedly drawn to by nature.
In showing men what they want while repeatedly underscoring the tiny scope of men’s natural interests — “action,” that is, preferably involving cars, breasts or fighting — they serve but also preserve a reductive status quo.
Like a fraternity, Spike upholds a norm that may seem democratic and inclusive (“Any guy can join”), but in truth is not (“That’s if we choose to accept him”).
So long as gay men fail to salivate at the sight of an amply filled Hooters t-shirt sitting astride the oversized engine of a vintage Ford muscle car, they’re effectively blacklisted. They’re not men.
While I watch Spike and am informed over and again about the required interests of virile red-blooded men, I do feel pangs — of irritation often, but also regret. Spike and its print journalism compatriots exclude me, and their doing so makes me feel unwelcome: I was born in Guy City and yet the governing body there tells me that I don’t belong, at least not in the respectable part of town. Thanks to my pink blood (which, I surmise, is categorically different from, incompatible with and inferior to red blood), I am ghettoized.
My dispassionate and analytic side views Spike’s model of manhood as little other than an anxious symptom.
That grrr-masculinity aggressively patrols its fortified borders for undesirable (if strangely persistent) unmanly invaders — sensitivity, vulnerability, softness, compliance, an affinity for design, and a fondness for musical theatre. The only femininity it craves is definitely not found within.
No, for Spike, femininity — preferably strutting in stilettos while dressed in a bikini — exists to be ogled.
Viewed that way, Spike’s anxious gender corralling is a bit sad — he’s so on the defensive. Forever shouting out, “Here’s what real men do,” Spike can’t quite muffle the constant worry about the lurking presence of its perceived opposite. The narrow focus on fighting, beer, engines and breasts is, as a psychoanalyst might say, overcompensation: “the exertion of effort in excess of that needed to compensate for a physical or psychological characteristic or defect.”
Welcoming (or even acknowledging) bisexual or gay men — and their allegedly subversive feminine minds and interests — as part of the tribe would mean redefining the tribe’s true nature… and admitting to their inner girl and to the fact that some of the guy-armour is merely thin façade.
Filtered through that disinterested analyst’s point of view, Spike’s behaviour doesn’t bother me all that much. I take it as yet another example of society’s heterosexual politics — as ordinary as November rain, but tiresome in much the same way.
Still, I’m not always the above-it-all analyst, and that’s when I resent Spike.
I resent being ghettoized as an exotic, a specialty viewer with tastes and interests that Spike believes are too peculiar and could not therefore possibly seriously consider.
And I resent Spike’s unthinking monopolizing of “for men” (mostly, I’ll admit, because it makes me so conscious of how the balance of power is not in my favour).
I can’t help but yearn sometimes for the basic comfort that’s part of belonging to some kind of kinship group, however abstract: being “one of the guys,” for instance.
Men and woman alike, we all take occasional comfort in hanging out with the same sex; it’s a kind of instant familial communalism that comes from having shared values, perspectives, history and experiences — or at least shared pheromones, chromosomes and hormones.
That’s why I feel so irked and dejected when informed by Spike that in being gay I must check Other in the giant societal application form of belonging, directly below the acceptably conventional Man and Woman.
Unsurprisingly, that male-but-not-really-a-man status feels, well, emasculating. Spike’s implied message that I don’t measure up or that I’m not man enough to play on the team is particularly insulting because it transforms being gay into a bad fate or a social handicap (one that can be overcome, weirdly, by returning to the closet). Now there’s a pre-liberation ethos I can live without.
Spike’s message is one that gay guys are forced to ingest over and again.
It’s not a leap to guess that being told ad infinitum that you don’t measure up, or that you’re not welcome, or that you can’t fit in, leads to feelings of alienation, distorted self-perception and chronic low self-esteem for the listener.
In the David vs Goliath situation I’ve described, gigantic Goliath holds the accumulated weight of heterosexual tradition and influence (not to mention the director of programming gig at Spike).
In the biblical story, pint-sized David is victorious because his puny slingshot is propelled with deadly force by godly righteousness. I’ll console myself by believing that the force of historical change is on my side.
What do I want from Spike? My utopianism is in check, so my expectations are low. Still, there are some changes I’d applaud.Spike might at least rebrand itself with a soupçon of accuracy: “Spike — A TV Network Broadcasting Specialty Content (Which Market Research Has Shown That Heterosexual Males of a Certain Demeanor Prefer to Watch).”
It’s an absurd mouthful, I know, but at least it would have the merit of being simultaneously truthful and less of a bully in its annexing of the phrase “for men.”
And with that change, Spike would also announce itself as a kinder, gentler and certainly more self-aware Goliath — a giant who’s gone through sensitivity training and is now able to exhibit greater comprehension about its psychological footprint, so to speak.
Even more optimistically, I’d like Spike to undermine its own cult of manliness and wear a splash of pink — open itself, in short, to new points of view.
I don’t mean back-to-back Liza and Barbra concert marathons, but why not, for instance, broadcast Brokeback Mountain or Boys Don’t Cry or Kinsey instead of yet another action flick starring Stallone, Snipes, Seagal or Norris that promotes and entrenches the same dogma about grrr-masculinity?
A utopian dream it may be, but I’m taken with the idea of transforming the phrase “for men” into something more expansive, broad and less exclusive.
Imagine that when someone encounters a network or magazine “for men” they’d be likely to associate that demographic with “penis” or “person with a propensity for back hair.”
Or: “someone who is genetically predisposed to neglect to lower the toilet seat.” But not: “must drool over Hooters servers to belong.”
I’d happily commit to such a cultural renovation.
Avidly patrolling the conventionally acceptable borders of masculinity, though, Spike appears resolute in its commitment to ancient divisions and all-too-familiar prejudices.