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The recession of 2008 helped popularize the somewhat silly and context-free term “mancession,” which suggested that the brunt of the crisis’ job losses were felt by men.
Whether or not it was a true economic shift or just a temporary anomaly, the collective freak-out about the mancession and its impact on masculine identity made its way into a bunch of schlocky broadcast sitcoms— ABC’s Last Man Standing succeeded, while Man Up!, Work It and a half dozen others did not — that are more frequently remembered as punch lines than for their punch lines, especially given that they all arrived on TV well after the mancession, if it ever existed at all, was statistically over.
As we approach the 72nd Emmy Awards, we find ourselves in another real-world recession, one that early indications suggest is hurting women in greater numbers (as economic downturns traditionally have done), but you wouldn’t necessarily know it from looking at the male performances highlighted in key categories.
Masculinity in crisis is the running theme across almost all the actor fields, where men are stumbling to find their way in a changing world or grappling with the potential for displacement, a fate that can be tragic or comic.
In HBO’s Succession, Brian Cox may have the most classically familiar descent, as his King Lear-esque media mogul continues a multi-season process of losing his company and his legacy, a digression that started in the pilot with a stroke. Health concerns also are contributing to the psychological breakdown stemming from his new political responsibilities (and his mother’s dementia) of Sterling K. Brown’s Randall on This Is Us and to the way that Billy Porter’s Pray Tell may be witnessing his beloved ball scene recede in the midst of the AIDS crisis and mainstream assimilation of his underground world on Pose. Those figures are easier to sympathize with, surely, than Steve Carell’s Mitch Kessler, who spent the duration of the first Morning Show season lamenting that changing social mores have suddenly made his sexual improprieties unacceptable. Poor Mitch!
The loss of mojo dominates the comedy side as well, where you have Michael Douglas’ Sandy Kominsky, he of the Netflix comedy’s eponymous method, balancing health issues and a lack of control over his beloved acting studio as his daughter suggests his students might prefer to hear from successful actors (like Allison Janney); Don Cheadle’s Mo Monroe coping with the Black Monday economic catastrophe and on the run after being framed for murder; and Anthony Anderson’s Dre, who spent much of the most recent Black-ish season worrying that he might be usurped in the workplace by his eldest son. Even the youngest actor in the category, Ramy star and creator Ramy Youssef, crafted an arc for himself in which his spiritual and personal failings both hit rock bottom with the intersection of a new spiritual guru (the great Mahershala Ali) and ill-fated potential love interest.
Movies and limited series offered no thematic respite. Jeremy Irons’ Adrian Veidt has been ostracized literally into outer space on Watchmen, the twin siblings played by Mark Ruffalo in I Know This Much Is True are equally adrift in a psychiatric facility and in their ordinary lives, and if Hugh Jackman’s Bad Education administrator begins the HBO film looking like he’s got a high-rolling life under complete control, he spends the next 90-plus minutes falling apart professionally and in his carefully maintained physicality.
This group of men coping with a loss of power is attributable mainly to this being the next step of any Hero’s Journey. Once you reach a pinnacle, the only place to go is down, especially in a TV landscape where anti-heroes usurped heroes 20 years ago, putting a premium on character downfalls.
Finding resonance with the wider world, we have media figures struggling with a changing media landscape, educators dreaming of lifestyles beyond the means offered by an underappreciated profession and countless examples of men threatened by the elevation of strong women, something doubtlessly mirroring certain reactions to Hillary Clinton or The Squad or Kamala Harris’ recent rise to vice presidential nominee.
It’s surely a reflection of the state of TV as well, where the fears of Jason Bateman’s Marty Byrde about his declining worth as an organized crime accountant mirror the character’s general usurpation by multiple women in his life, with the third Ozark season dominated by Laura Linney, Julia Garner and Janet McTeer. The domination of TV by strong female characters and top-tier actresses is evident when you look at how many great actresses failed to earn nominations this year while, at the same time, the male lead categories had to be filled out by performances that, if anybody valued accuracy, should have been deemed “supporting” instead. I’m looking at you, Brian Cox, Steve Carell, Jeremy Irons and several others as well.
The shifting landscape is once again spurring conversations about the idea of eliminating gender classifications from awards show categories, something the Television Critics Association Awards has done for decades with only positive feedback. Don’t expect such a big shift any time soon, because it’s bad enough that all these male characters are losing their grasp on the world. Stripping them of shiny trophies as well would just be cruel.
This story first appeared in an August stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media