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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Therapy. The way a man would do it.

Posted By on 08.14.12 at 07:35 AM

Feelings: not just for the ladies anymore
  • Feelings: not just for the ladies anymore
TV shows and commercials love to parody the stereotype of the ultimate manly man—and embrace that stereotype at the same time. Isaiah Mustafa flexes his pecs for Old Spice and tells you to "smell like a man, man"; Ron Swanson's pyramid of greatness outlines everything a man should value; and do I even have to mention beer commercials? TVtropes.org, which calls the trope testosterone poisoning, has plenty more examples of this phenomenon. Now the trope has been co-opted to promote something else: therapy.

A few weeks ago, suicide-prevention organizations in Colorado launched a PSA to promote the website mantherapy.org. The ad's star is a Swansonesque paragon of virility named Dr. Rich Mahogany. He sits in his leather chair, his office flanked by a moose head that he no doubt shot himself, and talks about therapy "the way a man would do it."

"Man therapy is a place where men can come to be men," the fake doctor announces on his website. "So here, we won't be complaining, whining, or moping about. No, we'll be getting off our keisters and form-tackling feelings like anger, stress, sadness, substance abuse, and even suicidal thoughts head-on!"

Dr. Mahogany invites men to take an 18-question quiz about their lives. ("Don't bullshit me," he warns. "There's nothing I hate more than bullshit. Except for maybe shopping malls.") Based on the results of the quiz, he'll give the man tips on how to deal with stress along with the contact information for therapists, substance abuse counselors, and other resources in his area. Men can click on a red telephone on Dr. Mahogany's desk to find the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The idea behind mantherapy.org is that men aged 25-54 make up the largest number of suicides in Colorado, but they are the demographic least likely to seek help. There's a stigma surrounding therapy for men, and using humor to get around that stigma is a smart idea.

Still, when I heard about the website, I wondered if the testosterone poisoning trope would really be effective. There's a risk that an ad that uses this trope could end up reinforcing the very stereotypes about men that it's trying to discount. ("Did you know that men have feelings too?" asks the doctor. "No, not just the hippies.")

I asked two male friends, both of whom have attended therapy, what they thought of Man Therapy. "Manny," who will be a college senior, was raised on the east coast, while "Ralph," who will be a junior, was raised in Arizona and Colorado—he currently goes to school in Chicago. When I asked Manny and Ralph what role their sex played in their views on mental illness, they had completely different answers.

Manny has suffered from depression since middle school, but only started seeking help a year and a half ago; even when he was close to suicide, it took serious pressure from his girlfriend to get him to take action. Nevertheless, being a man had nothing to do with his reluctance to address his mental illness. The real problem was that "it didn't occur to me that it was a real illness that needs treatment.

"I don't think it's being a man versus being a woman," he said. "It's just that I and probably most people don't view depression as that serious an illness. You can get by and not be sick, just living your life with depression on the side."

Even if he had seen the Man Therapy ad before he went to therapy, he doubts it would have made any difference. He also wasn't sure if insurance would pay for treatment, and he didn't want to tell his parents about his depression if he could just live with it.

Ralph, on the other hand, can completely understand where the makers of the PSA are coming from, and why they wanted to take the humorous, macho-man route. He's definitely noticed a bias against therapy in the two conservative states where he was raised.

"Therapy is just a really uncomfortable topic, and it is seen as being unmanly. [Dr. Mahogany] made a joke about whining about things—I think that it's seen as whining. You're complaining. 'Tough it out, be a man,' those are words my father said to me."

His father committed suicide when Ralph was nine years old. He never told his family that he was depressed, and he left no note. Ralph's paternal grandmother also tried to commit suicide "at least a dozen times."

"In our family, before my dad died, people would talk about how my grandmother was bipolar, but they wouldn't talk about it," he says. "You'd get little snips."

After his dad died, however, "everyone was supervigilant about it. Everyone would go to the doctor. . . I think those wake-up calls come when people die, unfortunately."

That's why he thinks that Dr. Rich Mahogany is a great way to reach out to men: there doesn't have to be a tragic wake-up call. By using humor, it can "ease them into" considering therapy as an option. Both Ralph and Manny found therapy unhelpful for various reasons, but they agree that men need to know what resources are out there that deal with mental illness.

"I like this guy," Ralph said. He reminds him of his stepfather, who is, ironically, a therapist. "I think it's a great way to get men to go to therapy. He does what my [step]dad does, which is just talk. We'll just talk about how life is hard, then we'll commiserate and we'll get over it."

Ralph says that men in the demographic that the ads are aiming for "really need something like this, which is really lighthearted humor. I really like his message and I think it's a very simple message. It doesn't have to be very complicated. You can just see someone and talk about it. I like how empowering that is."

Whenever I see the "testosterone poisoning" trope in ads and videos, I think it's funny, but I've never before thought of it as empowering. I laugh because the ads are absurd: they harken back to a view of manhood that nowadays seem archaic. Manny calls it "the modern view of the traditional view of manliness." For Ralph, however, the ads aren't meant to be enjoyed ironically—they are still ultimately a celebration of manliness.

"It's just something to be proud of," he said. "You're on the team of manhood and you're rooting for it. I like how over-the-top it is. Yeah, we're men and we love being men, but it's also kind of goofy that we love being men."

Michael Miner wrote recently about the dwindling supply of male role models. While I disagree with his view, considering how men still make up the vast majority of senators and CEOs, he has a point: serious, straight-faced models of machismo, like the Marlboro Man, are now rare in advertising. Celebrations of manliness still exist, but they're almost always presented as a joke. Does that make it any less of a celebration? I think not. In fact, it makes me wonder if the media could do the same for women.

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