Sexist, yet Sympathetic?

CheersLogoI’ve been marathoning Cheers on Netflix lately. It’s one of the greatest sitcoms of all times. The bar where everyone knows your name. Filled with loveable characters (who never drive home drunk; the show was praised for frequent portrayals of Designated Drivers). It’s also a show that was full of all kinds of sexism and negative gender stereotypes.

And yet, we still love it?

I’ve been paying close attention to the way Cheers depicts the main character, Sam Malone, played by Ted Danson. He portrayed as the stereotypical “hunk,” a trope you may know I really get annoyed with. Yet I don’t get annoyed with Sam, even with his incessant flirting, the way he treats women like sex object, and the way all the men in the bar treat him like he’s a role model because of the number of women he’s “conquered.” By every measurable trait, Sam Malone should come off as a sleazeball, a character I’d hate, and someone you would never tune in to watch week after week. So how can be be so sexist, yet still remain sympathetic?

CheersThe theory I’ve come up with has a few key points. I’ll list them one by one.

First, Sam Malone gets shot down constantly.

It’s true. Watch a few episodes of Cheers, and you’ll see Sam in usually one of three situations: pursuing girls who are better than him, pursuing girls who are equal to him, and pursuing another main character (such as Diane Chambers in the first five seasons). When he’s pursuing girls who are better than him, his advances almost always fail. These are usually educated women, those with careers, strong morals, and other positive personality traits. They reject Sam because his advances are always childish and crude, usually involving a lot of innuendos and excessive bravado. When confronted by such a woman, Sam gets shot down again and again, which shows us that a strong, confident woman won’t fall for Sam’s ploys. In a way, it almost makes Sam a sort of clown; he makes a fool of himself for our amusement. It’s just that instead of taking a pie to the face, he ends up scurrying away with his tail between his legs. He’s not seen as “threatening.” He’s more like a pathetic puppy who keeps begging, seeming all the more sad the more he is denied.

Other times, he’s dating some random girl who usually isn’t too bright and who is usually portrayed as being fairly dumb, unsophisticated, and “easy.” When he’s dating this sort of girl, the girl is always portrayed as wanting Sam as much as he wants her. It seems to me that we don’t lose sympathy for Sam as a “skirt chaser” in this context mostly because he’s pursuing only the girls who want to be pursued. Sam himself is always portrayed as dumb, unsophisticated, and willing to sleep with anyone, so a girl who is portrayed in the same fashion is seen as his equal. And because the girl desires it as much as Sam does, it seems to make it okay.

There’s a quote from The Wheel of Time that explains this quite well. One of the characters in that series, Mat Cauthon, is also a “skirt chaser.” But at one point one of the other characters notes that Mat only ever seems to pursue women who want to be pursued. That, in many ways, is the difference between a man who is seen as a sexist pig, versus a man who is seen as charming.

Here’s an example: say some random man in the street calls a woman “sexy” as she walks by. He’ll be seen as a pig for “cat-calling,” and most women won’t give him the time of day. On the other hand, if a man in a relationship calls his girlfriend sexy (and if she likes that sort of compliment), it could be seen as acceptable, even desirable. The fact that it’s desired makes all the difference. Similarly, other behavior like physical contact is only acceptable if it’s desired and consensual. A total stranger who slaps a woman on the ass is a pig who deserves to be smacked himself, but some girls may enjoy a flirty spank as part of foreplay from someone they’re in a relationship with.

Diane ChambersWhich brings me to the third type of relationship Sam Malone is seen in: long-term, complicated relationships like the one he had with Diane Chambers. With Diane, Sam’s childish behavior and advances never succeed. On more than one occasion, she rejects his advances until he stops acting like a horny teenager and finally confesses his true feelings for her. Only when we see some deeper sign of maturity and affection from him does Diane allow things to proceed to the next level.

These variables are interesting to consider when looking at them from the point of view of a romance novel. It should be possible, in theory, to create a “Sam Malone” type character as the male lead of such a novel. Someone who constantly pursues all the wrong women, never finding satisfaction in any relationship and constantly being rejected by the women with deep personalities, intelligence, and strength. Until one day he cleans up his act and stops acting like sex is all that matters. Then, perhaps, he would find a deeper connection with someone (the female lead, naturally). He could grow past his juvenile ways and become more mature, while still retaining the charm and flirtation that (once he finds someone he respects and only flirts in the way she desires) will still help him be portrayed as a sexy and desirable man.

There’s sure to be a lot of flaws to such a character, but then again, flaws are what make a novel’s character’s fun. There would definitely be a lot of growth potential. Sam definitely grows over time, gradually becoming less of a womanizer. Mat Cauthon also develops into a more mature person when he meets the woman he ends up marrying. I think that growth is necessary, otherwise the audience would lose sympathy for the character and grow tired of his childish antics.

And, of course, there’s no reason why these roles I’m describing have to be stuck in a male/female binary. You could take any character, male/female/trans/etc, and have them start off as immature, pursuing relationships with all the wrong people and constantly getting rejected. Until they find the right person, someone they respect, someone they’re willing to grow and change for, and they take the steps necessary to make themselves a better person.

I think it would be challenging to write such a character, since you’d always be walking the line between portraying the “Sam Malone” of your story as either a charming scoundrel or a chauvinistic pig. But it might make for some interesting storytelling, since, if nothing else, a character like this would be a prime source of conflict. And conflict would keep the story moving forward, up until the final moment when “Sam” either wins the girl/boy/etc, or gets the final rejection and slinks away in defeat (hopefully having learned some valuable lesson along the way).

Either that, or Ted Danson is just a damn good actor.

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