The other day I found myself at the Football Factory, a licensed establishment here in Toronna, watching the closing minutes of the UEFA Champions League semi-final game between Bayern Munich and FC Barcelona. The game, a 4-0 triumph for Bayern, duly ended. The bar, packed to standing room only, about 75 per cent male, kept watching the TV screen as the Bayern players lingered on the field, the commentators babbled and then came a commercial break.
There was a mass groan. Not loud, but notable enough. Reason was, the commercial that appeared was a Conservative attack ad against Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau. In over his head, yada yada. A man standing near me swore aloud.
It is a fact, now almost universally acknowledged, that these attack ads are aimed at men and the point is to question Trudeau’s manliness. They air during sports events, for a presumed audience of men and what they offer us is a faceoff between Trudeau and Our Glorious Leader. A faceoff on manliness. A faceoff between (as the ads suggest) a fey, winsome fella, and the other guy – the incredibly controlling, kinda robotic guy in the ill-fitting suit. A faceoff between a young dandy and a middle-aged guy who just takes care of business.
Well, the mostly male audience for a big European soccer game wasn’t buying it. Some of them, anyway.
Mind you, some might say that a whiff of the unmanly wafts around soccer itself and its followers. There are few pugilists among professional soccer players. Soccer is often looked on with suspicion, in Canada and the United States, as metrosexual, not old-fashioned manly at all.
One has to wonder why an attack on Justin Trudeau’s manliness was positioned during a soccer game on TV in the first place. One has to wonder about a lot of things in the attack-ad war – because the definition of manliness is now more mercurial. One way to examine it is through sports, another way is through the narratives told in populist TV.
The Following (Fox, CTV, 9 p.m.) reaches its season finale tonight. One of the best series of this TV season, it is essentially about manliness. There’s our hero, the FBI agent Ryan Hardy (Kevin Bacon) and his arch-enemy, the man he’s trying to recapture, the charismatic serial killer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy). Ryan is a essentially a loner, a guy with a heart problem and a drinking problem. He’s been weakened by his pursuit of the killer. Joe Carroll, on the other hand, is a true leader, a man who can command a fanatical following, and he’s ruthless.
Anyone who has followed this terrific, fast-paced thriller knows that a key element of the plot is the fact that Ryan Hardy fell for Joe Carroll’s wife after capturing Carroll years ago. A great deal of the storyline has been the battle between two men over one woman. Carroll, a leader and compelling man of action, cannot comprehend why his wife became enamoured of the slight, damaged and decent Hardy.
Inside the main plot there has also been an intriguing sub-story about characters named Jacob and Paul. Followers of Joe, they posed as a gay couple in order to befriend the only woman who survived an attack by Joe. Although heterosexual, Paul developed a crush on Jacob while they pretended to be gay. Angst about his masculinity and sexual urges has driven Paul insane.
For all its adherence to the traditional thriller plot of a cop tracking a serial killer, The Following is a treasure trove of themes, hints and suggestions about men, masculinity and power. We are asked to understand that Carroll has fanatical followers even if he’s evil. And understand that these followers are devoted because they want a strong leader who fills some emptiness in their lives. At the same time, it is revealed to us that Joe Carroll is really just a petty-minded macho creep who wants his woman back from that weak, melancholy other man.
The series toys with traditional ideas of authentic manliness. It suggests that the old ideal, the authentic manly man, is an enigmatic spectre, a figure whose solidity masks a wealth of perversity.
It also tells us that, right now, nobody knows what defines a man as a leader. One person’s leader is another person’s weirdo. And that should be kept in mind as we watch this attack-ad war unfold. Trudeau is, after all, a pugilist of some note. He thrashed the then-Conservative Senator Patrick Brazeau in a boxing ring last year.
In a counterattack against those Conservative attack ads, that could be used. Then again, it might not be necessary, because nobody knows what manliness means any more.
Also airing tonight
Nurse Jackie (TMN, Movie Central, 9 p.m.) has returned, better than ever. In its fifth season, it has Jackie (Edie Falco) still sober, but barely. Her marriage has ended, her ex-husband is being difficult and work in the hospital’s emergency ward is as fraught as ever. There is less mordant focus on Jackie and more on the awfulness of the hospital, but it’s done with wit and sagacity.
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