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No country for smart men

When i was young we liked smart men and dumb women. Oh my god, now don’t get your back up - please. I can feel the waves of Weinstein-fueled disdain coming off everyone. Hear me out. 

Remember I Dream of Jeannie? Major Whoever, an actual astronaut, and Jeannie. OK, maybe she wasn’t dumb but she was naive and that’s good enough. It played as dumb. How about Marilyn Monroe - the character not the woman. Woman: pretty smart. Brand: Curvy and dumb.

Betty Boop.

Goldie Hawn; sock it to me.

How about Three’s Company? Jack had to pretend to be gay to live with two hot women. But were they two hot women? Or was Janet SMART, and Chrissy HOT? Dumb blonde. (Smart brunette.) How about Charlie’s Angels? Poor Kate Jackson; she was smart.

Somewhere along the way the rules changed. Smart women became powerful, attractive, desirable: JK Rowling, Rosario Dawson, Kerry Washington, Madonna. I watched Miss Americana on Netflix recently and only then did I realize it was not cool to like Taylor Swift for a period of time because she was naive and insecure and let herself be bullied by world-class unmedicated jackass Kanye West. But now it’s cool to be #TSwiftForever because she’s political and a boss. Smart.

For the record, I never abandoned you Taylor. Call me.

Where am I going with this? Am I longing for the days of dumb women? Celebrating the days of smart ones? Nope, neither. I am thinking about the flip side of the coin: Dumb men. We are supremely comfortable with the notion of dumb men, we welcome them. And no one seems to have a problem with it.

My least favorite commercial is the one for Nissan showing the dad pushing his little girl on a little wheeled scooter thing, and she comes close to colliding with the trash can - heavens me! The mom saves her, and shoots a death glare at her husband, who responds with his best “hyuk hyuk oh shucks” look. Moments later they are backing out of their driveway in their brand new Nissan Rogue when he takes his eye off what he’s doing and nearly collides with - I don’t know what. A tricycle? A toddler? A sleeping puppy? Doesn’t matter. My head explodes before the commercial ends anyway.

Just like the iconic women of yesteryear, the dumb guys are often objectively good looking: Matt LeBlanc on Friends. Would we have accepted a dumb guy who looked like Ross? Doubt it. 

Then there are the dumb guys who are just likable, they don’t need to be attractive. Steve Carell in The 40-Year-Old-Virgin. Think about how long it took Steve to graduate to non-dumb roles: The road from Virgin to The Big Short was long, brother. 

Some would say fair’s fair. Dumb women had their moment, it’s only fair that dumb men have theirs. But that’s not what bothers me. Fairness doesn’t bother me. What bothers me is the motivation behind the stereotypes. There’s always a reason behind a stereotype. Maybe it’s a grain of truth, maybe it’s a sinister objective. But dig, and you’ll find something.

Dumb women were attractive because being dumb made them non-threatening to men. Men ran everything, and decided everything and made all the money and they didn’t need the Hilary Clintons of their day messing up the good thing they had going. Fact is, generations of smart women were counseled to PLAY dumb in order to attract a man. I can’t imagine taking that feedback and running with it. I can’t imagine my daughter taking that feedback. But countless women did, they walked the walk.

Dumb men are attractive NOT because it makes them non-threatening to women. Let’s face it, they’re women; they’re used to being threatened by men. Smart men, dumb men, tall, short. Who even knew that so many women lived in fear of being threatened by virtually every man? I certainly didn’t. I guess some women knew, but they were trained to believe that’s just how things are. The same way they were trained to play dumb. 

Side note: When the whole Harvey Weinstein thing came out, and #MeToo didn’t mean anything yet, I thought, “What a scumbag.” And then when the movement began and grew, I thought, “Wait, really? I’m calling bullshit..” Everybody? Every person in Hollywood? And music? And business? But then more and more kept coming out. And they weren’t just tales of Masters of the Universe using their power and control to demand sexual submission. There were just as many pathetic tales like Aziz Ansari, who just had a picture in his head, like his Tom Haverford character on Parks and Rec, that this is one of the reasons you strive to become famous. He didn’t mean anything by it, it was just the world he discovered on the way. Just like all those women discovered the world and found out, “Oh crap, I have to be treated this way to get close enough to the power to even have a shot to shine?”

So yeah, disgusting. Reprehensible all around.

But nonetheless, the mystery of the Dumb Guy is not solved by women trying to avoid being threatened. And it predated MeToo. What is it then? I believe it’s because women today equate smart men with mean men.

Am I making this up? Modern Family just aired its last episode in an 11-year arc. If you’re a fan, tell me your favorite male character from the show, right off the top of your head. Odds are it’s Ty Burrell (Phil), Eric Stonestreet (Cam), Nolan Gould (Luke) or even Adam Devine (Andy). It was almost certainly not Jay (Ed O’Neill) or Mitch (Jesse Tyler Ferguson) or Manny (Rico Rodriguez). Mitch’s rich, uber-successful boss was portrayed as a douche. Hayley’s first fashion internship was with a successful male Devil-Wears-Prada type.  

Some of you are shaking your heads, wondering if my entire thesis is based on a sitcom. Fair criticism. Others of you are thinking, “Wait a minute, what about Dylan?! He was a bag of rocks with hair!”  

And to you I would say, “HA! You have fallen into my trap!” Because Reid Ewing’s character started out as the purely comic, brutally stupid and socially clumsy foil 11 years ago. And when the series ended he was the nurturing, supportive nurse who helplessly loved the same girl for half his life and didn’t mind being a father of twins. We started laughing at Dylan, but that wasn’t good enough. Look at all the capital they invested in getting us to LIKE Dylan.

OK, one last pop culture example and I’m out.

Many, many years ago, a writer on Saturday Night Live prat-fell his way into a cast role and became anchor of the weekly news spoof, Weekend Update. Chevy Chase was a genius at being a moron. And he left the show after one season and had a multibillion dollar film career as a moron (#ClarkGriswold).

Some time later, Dennis Miller replaced him at the anchor desk, dry and smart like a James Bond martini. One of his greatest foils on Update was Adam Sandler: as Opera Man, singing the Hanukkah Song, etc.

Both were successful way beyond you and I. One of them became the most consistently successful one-note comic actor since...well, truth be told, probably since Chevy Chase. 

Coincidence? I think not.

In comedy it’s a safe bet to go stupid, albeit never “full word-we-can’t-say,” as Robert Downey Jr. advised in Tropic Thunder. Play Donald Trump as a bumbling egomaniac, play Bernie Sanders as your lovable crazy Uncle Irv, play Joe Biden as a Good Time Charlie in early stage dementia. But God help you if you play the female candidates as dumb these days. They can be quirky, but dumb is off limits.

I worry about our future. I worry about our tolerance for smart men in an age when we need all the smart people we can get. Smart men AND smart women. I don’t see a road to a better place, and we need to find that road. So we need some smart people to help us find it.

And when one comes along, if he happens to be a man, I don’t want to lose his contributions because we’ve lost our ability to rally behind smart men.

Comments

  1. My own aha moment on this point was when I used to read The Berenstain Bears, to my (now 27 year-old ) daughter. Papa Bear was consistently, reliably stupid and, at times, ethically suspect - to my nightly irritation.

    I guess it had its upside. I went way out of my way to demonstrate to my daughter that Papa Bear was the exception. I hope she bought it.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I feel like there’s probably an NYU post-grad film student who wrote a thesis on this bc this is the exact type of fascinating observation I could waste lots of time researching! But since I’m not going to let myself fall down that rabbit hole, here are my knee-jerk, incomplete, disjointed thoughts:

    1) Maybe it would make you feel better to remember that you’re speaking in terms of the comedy genre. I know there are plenty of smart men in the other genres.

    2) Airheads are funny. It’s much harder to be smart and funny (John Stewart IRL, George Costanza, Sheldon Cooper).

    3) Every airhead needs a straight counterpart to bounce off of (Lucy & Desi, Jack & Will from Will&Grace).

    4) Aside from the Simpsons, 80s & 90s sitcoms were full of smart dads (Cosby, Growing Pains, Family Ties, Full House, Fresh Prince).

    5) The female airhead is REALLY hard to pull off without feeling like Chrissy 2.0 (Clueless, Legally Blonde) ... and making the MOTHER the dummy would probably be really taboo bc I don’t think we as an audience are ready to laugh AT a mom character, not WITH her. (But I haven’t seen many current sitcoms so maybe it’s already happening.)

    6) My instincts say that Phil from Modern Family was part of an attempt to catch lightening in a bottle twice by applying The Office’s “formula” to a family show... even the “documentary” format is the same. And I think they did this for Parks & Recreation also, but with Amy Pohler as they ditz(?)

    7) They brought Roseanne back and John Goodman is the quintessential smart dad if it makes you feel better!

    ReplyDelete

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