From Screening Images of American Masculinity in the Age of Postfeminism, 2015

Chapter 8 in (2015) Screening Images of Masculinity in the Age of Post-Feminism, edited by Elizabeth Abele. Lexington Books, Rowman & Littlefield: New York, p. 120-134.


Feminist media studies and television studies have not explored the role that male-only spaces in television programming play in buttressing patriarchy and resisting feminism. Yet popular American television dramas featuring male heroes include a troubling and recurring feature—a clubhouse that is only for men. These boys’ clubs are physical spaces that ban women and ideological spaces that present troubling retrograde sexual politics. This intertextual narrative analysis examines Rescue Me, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Boston Legal, finding two unifying narrative themes—enforced boundaries against women and intense bromance relationships that foreclose relationships with women—that are enabled and empowered by the physical space of the boys’ club spaces depicted in these programs. Television boys’ clubs create physical space in which patriarchy is protected and celebrated, and this physical space helps create ideological and cultural space that contributes to naturalizing misogyny and patriarchy and to legitimizing misogynist beliefs and behaviors. 


They call it “the clubhouse.” The male characters in the American television dramas Rescue Me, The Shield, Nip/Tuck, and Boston Legal regularly gather in boys’ clubs—buildings, rooms, or spaces where men keep company with other men and where women rarely, if ever, dare to (or are allowed to) tread. In these male-centered television dramas of the early millennium, the boys’ club is not only an ideological space but a physical one, where men construct and foster friendships and partnerships exclusively with men and forbid the presence and influence of women. These boys’ clubs of television take several forms: the New York firehouse of Rescue Me, the special forces meeting room in a police station of The Shield, the plastic surgery operating room and condo of Nip/Tuck, the law office balcony with Scotch, armchairs, and cigars in Boston Legal. 

Existing scholarly work explores objectified and limited representations of women in television and has begun to explore gendered representations of men, and these projects deserve continued examination. However, little has been written on the physical spaces in television drama which support and protect male-only socialization and patriarchal exclusion of women. Feminist media studies and television studies have not yet recognized the role that male-only spaces in television programming play in buttressing patriarchy and resisting feminism. 

This essay identifies and illuminates the cultural role of the physical spaces—the scenes and sets—of four television programs, drawing out how these physical spaces contribute to naturalizing ideological and cultural spaces in which the absence of females is enforced, the authority of males goes unchallenged, and male companionship is elevated to the level of family and couplehood, to the exclusion of women. This work contributes to media studies and to feminist media studies by identifying the characteristics of boys’ clubs in male-centered television of the new millennium and postulating potential links between television’s physical spaces that foreclose the presence of women and the culture’s ideologies and attitudes that exclude women.

In an effort to examine the boys’ club spaces of male-centered television and how they may act to enforce retrograde gender politics in a post-feminist era, this research looks at four television series that originated between 2002 and 2004 and lasted at least four consecutive seasons. Criteria for selection of these texts were: a male-centered dramatic or drama/comedy series; a male-only space figuring in a central, recurring way in the narrative, and critical and cultural acclaim for the series establishing its impact. 

This research employs intertextual narrative analysis, a method which identifies common themes across related texts. These themes, considered together, can illuminate social meanings, cultural norms, and shared cultural values (Cloud 1992; Condit 1989; Hoerl and Kelly 2010). Here, the common theme being examined is that of the presence of a boys’ club, and the related texts are The Shield (FX 2002-2007), Nip/Tuck (FX 2003-2010), Boston Legal (ABC 2004-2008), and Rescue Me (FX 2004-2011). This intertextual narrative analysis is undertaken in the context of feminist inquiry, considering the intersections of gender, race, and class, and the expressions of hegemonic forces.

This intertextual narrative analysis is situated within the body of feminist media studies and within the cultural studies perspective of Stuart Hall’s theories of media representation (1997; 1980a; 1980b). Hall delineates how mass media create and reinforce ideologies (1997; 1992; 1980b) and Williams describes how mass media produce meaning and value, along with representations (and misrepresentations) of lived experience (1982; 1981). Lana Rakow contends that media don’t carry messages about culture, media are culture, and that the role of popular media in disseminating patriarchal ideology must be recognized before social and cultural change can occur (2001). Media messages are the terrain upon which hegemonic values are worked out, expressed, and reinforced, and those hegemonic values include ideas of hegemonic masculinity and of masculine dominance. Media play an important role in producing that hegemonic masculinity (Hanke 1998). Prushank argued that the media’s reinforcement and construction of patriarchy is so naturalized “that men find the domination and exploitation of women and other men to be not only expected, but actually demanded” (Prushank 2007: 161). 

Spaces and Gender

This essay explores the meaning of gendered space in television. Though the scholarship on the meaning of space as it is represented on television is limited, the existing scholarship on gendered “real life” space offers a context for considering television boys’ clubs. Architecture helps shape ideas of masculinity and femininity by configuring space in particular ways that influence social interaction and enforce cultural codes, although the role architecture plays in producing gender expectations and roles is often overlooked (Sanders 1996a; Sanders 1996b). Space, argues Sanders, can “quietly participate in the manufacturing of male as well as female identities” (1996a: 83).

Space is a feminist issue, but one that receives little discussion among feminists. Leslie Weisman suggests that recognizing the power relationships inherent in the arrangement and design of space may have come slowly to feminist scholars because female architects were a rarity for so many years. She positions the claiming and occupying of space as a political act, communicating power relations and social status. The configuration of space can appear to be naturalized, inactive, and unimportant to the visibility and equality of women, but in fact, the way in which space and communities are configured reflects and enforces the dominance of some groups and the subordination of others (Weisman 1992)….

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