The Tuesday Zone: ‘Fargo’ and the Reaffirmation of Masculinity Narrative

The Tuesday Zone

This fine week, I had the chance to relax as I wait to receive rejection emails from various employers. During this time, I watched the first season of new television series Fargo, of which seven of ten episodes have aired. The series has several, several flaws in plotting, characterization, and tone, but is still pretty enjoyable—although I must admit that the mass critical acclaim baffles me for the aforementioned reasons. Still, I’m not here to debate the merits of the series, per se; instead, I want to talk about something I noticed in this show’s story that intrigues and troubles me no small amount, and that is the narrative of Lester Nygaard (played by Martin Freeman).


MGM Television & FX Productions

First, let me explain the basic plot. Obviously, there will be some spoilers, but nothing huge outside of the pilot. The series starts with an overview of Lester’s suburban life in Bemidji, Minnesota. His wife, Pearl (Kelly Holden Bashar), doesn’t respect him, and she frequently mentions his brother Chaz’s (Joshua Close) successes in order to undermine him for his impotency at work and other situations; his brother also has children, and is more traditionally handsome. Everyone disrespects Lester, and this culminates in his high school bully, Sam Hess (Kevin O’Grady), embarrassing Lester in public. Sam mentions Pearl and their sexual liaison in high school—which is supposed to devastate Lester by (somehow?) undermining his current marriage—and threatens him with violence.

Clearly, we have a character whose masculinity is questioned in every capacity. He cannot stand up for himself; he talks a lot but rarely says anything (this contrasts other characters who invoke the silent cowboy type, those paragons of traditional narrative masculinity); his wife thinks him inadequate, and he cannot provide for the two of them; he’s an incompetent employee; and his wife doesn’t treat him with any respect. We’ve seen something very similar, although a bit more carefully done, in Breaking Bad, where the main character (Bryan Cranston‘s Walter White) goes through the same arc as Lester, albeit over 62 episodes as opposed to 10.

The issue here is that the undermining of the character is, of course, defined in direct relation to traditional masculinity. After all, a “real man” doesn’t talk often, and speaks clearly when he does; a “real man” is respected by his wife, family, and coworkers; a “real man” can’t be bullied and is not physically overpowered; a “real man” has a wife who hasn’t had sex with someone else (or something like that); and all that other drivel. This is lazy writing because it settles for tired gender norms, and seems in line with conservative reactions to shifting gender roles (see here for a few hundred examples).

Although that coat is manly as hell.

MGM Television & FX Productions
Although that coat is manly as hell.

But criticizing TV for conforming to traditional gender roles—although necessary in terms of improving discourse on the matter—is not exactly new. My main issue here is Lester’s narrative arc that results from this, and its reception by audiences. After all, the pilot focuses on what I’ve discussed only in its first half, whereas in the second half the concentration is on Lester’s “redemption” as a protagonist. At the hospital—where Lester waits due to running into a wall when Sam Hess faked a punch at him—he meets Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), who offers to kill Hess. After this, Lester decides he’s not gonna take all the disrespect anymore, and then kills his wife for “nagging” at him.

What follows is Lester’s descent not only into darkness, but also a redeemed masculinity. Yes, what he is doing is “wrong,” but as he does more evil deeds, he is also depicted as becoming less pathetic: he speaks clearly, knows what he wants, and—in what is definitely portrayed as a “manly” act—has sex with Sam’s scantily clad and traditionally “sexy” wife while staring down a portrait of the murdered ex-husband. He is a bad guy in the show, but his arc, while portrayed as socially negative, is also depicted as characteristically positive. Lester becomes a character that people like more. I certainly can’t be alone in thinking that audiences relish this development; people ate it up for all the wrong reasons in Breaking Bad, and there are certainly other forms of it listed in these related TV Tropes pages (here, here, and here).

That haircut probably has a page of its own. (Source)

MGM Television & FX Productions
Billy Bob Thornton’s haircut has its own TV Tropes page called “uninspired rehashes of Anton Chigurh.”

I definitely cannot say that this is a trend, per se, although I am sure there are several similar shows, movies, and books with which I am unfamiliar. Still, I can’t help but find this Reaffirmation of Masculinity Narrative incredibly problematic. The main character is despicable, but in a way that audiences adore, and the way that is accomplished is by defining the characters as pathetic due to their inability to conform to the masculinity of cowboys and Han Solo types, then having them redeem themselves by lying, killing (Lester’s homicide is filmed as a comical response to his wife’s “nagging”, and the under/overtones of glee at violence against women certainly ring out), and cleverly screwing over others.

Maybe I am wrong to read this as a response to the numerous outcries on the “Crisis of Masculinity,” but the connection to me is too direct and the praise for Fargo too baffling for me to see many other possibilities. Is Fargo, for all its purported quirkiness and subversive qualities, really a reactionary narrative that privileges traditional gender norms in men? I personally think so. Even the great character of Molly Solverson (played brilliantly by Allison Tolman) is often portrayed positively due to her ability to out-man the men, which isn’t as nuanced as the character from which she originates: Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand).

She's such a super lady. (Source)

Polygram Filmed Entertainment & Working Title Films
She’s such a super lady.

Fargo is not a terrible show by any means, but it utilizes a narrative that betrays its rooting in traditional and conservative methods despite its attempts to seem new and quirky. The characters on this show are a rehashing—not only of the Coen film (and the other works in their filmography that the show mindlessly takes from rather than incorporates), but of types we have seen several times before. I can’t say that the Reaffirmation of Masculinity Narrative over-saturates television programs, but I won’t be surprised if we see it showing up more frequently over the next several years.

17 thoughts on “The Tuesday Zone: ‘Fargo’ and the Reaffirmation of Masculinity Narrative

  1. Interesting article, but I do think you’re trying too hard to shoehorn in an argument here.

    “This is lazy writing because it settles for tired gender norms, and seems in line with conservative reactions to shifting gender roles ”

    I disagree. I don’t think you’ve considered the context and location in the show: traditional and conservative Nebraska. It is fully in-line with the tone of the show that traditional norms are upheld. I’d argue traditional ‘masculinity’ is even exposed for its ridiculousness. Lester is a fool in every instance that he tries to attain the next level of ‘masculinity’; the whole pursuit is reckless and idiotic. Lester is not a traditional ‘masculine’ character, and I think if you were to interpret the show in terms of gender stereotypes, the real message is that it’s foolish to pretend to be something your not. And that disregarding ‘Masculinity’ is the wisest choice.

  2. Spot on reading of the show. I too was struck by ‘the crisis of masculinity’ narrative that seems to inflect all forms of discourse these days.

    I just can’t cope with Freeman’s permanently perplexed face!!

  3. I am also a fan of Fargo and watched every episode but my English isn’t that great so please excuse my language if I cannot very well express myself. I remember when every episode starts it says this is based on a true story and nothing has been altered out of respect for the deceased. So assuming this is true, then there really shouldn’t be any question as to the plot development of the show since writers have to stick to the real events that actually happened and depict all characters just as they were in real life, and life does not always teach the right lessons (though schools or books do not either, after all who is to really define what is right). From a screenplay point of view, this can be problematic as you suggested because the plot inevitably deviates from what a screenplay usually looks like (good trumps evil, love trumps hatred, justice wins in the end, etc.), but if you see it as a reflection of real life, it is really not that far off. In real life, not every criminal receives the punishment he/she deserves soon enough (we know some do get caught but the really scary thing is no one really knows how many didn’t), neither is every person we come across either good or evil, instead, in real life, it is not uncommon to see the rich/powerful/cunning/daring/privileged preying on the weak/dumb/cowardly/uninformed/simple folks, without breaking any law or sometimes even with the law on their side. Also in this show we saw Nygaard swung the hammer at his wife and we say this is a most horrid crime, but when he is belittled by his wife, brother, or bullied by Hess, we say oh poor little Nygaard we pity you and shame on your wife/brother/Hess but they have done no crime so you better learn to live with that. I know both killing and belittling and bullying are vicious, but unfortunately justice only recognize the former as a crime, and for the latter if you want payback then you just have to do it by taking matters into your own hands, speaking of which, the Malvo character is certainly a clear example. To Malvo the world is simple (kind of reminds me of Putin), he goes out to get what he wants and if someone/something stands in his way he has it removed. We know killing Hess or the police chief wasn’t part of his assignment, the reason he did so was to help Nygaard, and why he decided to help Nygaard and not just once (killing Hess) but twice (killing the police chief) is really an interesting question. Maybe he couldn’t stand seeing the weak being bullied, or maybe when he went to meet Hess he didn’t like his disrespectful attitude. whatever his motivations may be, one thing for sure is that Nygaard is certainly picking up some traits from Malvo, and started thinking and acting for himself. There is no question they will both get caught eventually though, not because “good trumps evil”, but rather, since this is a show based on a real story, there wouldn’t have been a story had they not been caught. Interestingly though, just as we saw Nygaard killed his wife and cleverly got away, we also saw Putin took Crimea and seems to be getting away with it, and no one knows whether Putin will ever get caught. Hey, isn’t this world just a “reaffirmation of masculinity” as well ?

  4. What is taught in university about what Gender roles should or shouldn’t be is not necessarily in keeping with the real world.

    Plus, as you get further into the show, you’ll find it’s a lot less about “Being a man,” and more about being sharp, decisive, and principled in a dog-eat-dog world. Those aren’t characteristics of masculinity, they are characteristics of a purposeful and assertive individual. It’s anti doddling.

    • I guess I wouldn’t know, as I didn’t take any Sociology courses, only Lit/Film ones, that discussed gender. That being said, the aspects that are typically associated with masculinity across media (and, to a large extent, time, at least in regard to American culture) are really present—and in extreme quantities—in this show. I don’t think I say a word in regards to what gender roles should or should not be, and I definitely don’t see the tie in to what is or is not being taught in university about that subject.

      • Well the point is more about normative vs positive. For example, if I wanted to make a crime show that was very down to earth, like a crime show, I’d make it about how society is; unfair gender roles included, rather than about how it ought to be. It’s supposed to be a quaint area with quaint people.

        I certainly agree with most of your analysis, and yeah, it retreads a lot of breaking bad-esque stuff. Maybe that’s why I enjoy it.

        • Fargo as a series is far from down to earth. The whole point is that it exaggerates both people and places, as does the movie it’s based on; it even goes out of its way to make points that are not “the way it is,” per se, but attempt to reveal something through the exaggerations (e.g. Stavros thinking he will stop being punished for returning the money, and his bodyguard/son die immediately after). To say Fargo is how anything actually is really misses the whole driving force of the show, I think.

          But even then, I still don’t really see how that has anything to do with my argument (unless it doesn’t, in which case the comment about University education is really out of place, as the only context it makes sense in is that I went to University and am writing about gender; it seems dismissive in that whole “That stuff taught in school has no application to the REAL world” kind of way). My whole point is that the show is engaging viewers (exciting them to watch more, in a way) by having Lester be a character we think is pathetic, then making him interesting and fun to watch by having him take on masculine qualities. It’s like romanticization in the Godfather movies. It’s not even about intention, or “reality,” but how the show is selling itself. An analogous example would be ‘The Hunger Games.’ The movies, at least, are saying, “Violence is wrong, and glorifying it is wrong, which is what our society does,” but definitely excite audiences and engage them by reveling in violent action. It’s how the story—or depiction of it—entices audiences that is of interest to me here.

          • You’re misinterpreting my point about college-culture gender perceptions; which is either my fault or is hostile attribution bias, however I’ll take the blame because it’s easier than arguing about it. It’s not a knock on education, but rather a deeper lying disagreement with some of the common perceptions about action (the characterization of a given action as masculine or feminine) that I disagree with.

            The big thing here, is that I really don’t agree with you that the intent of the writers is to make Lester a more likeable character through his “masculine” actions. I’d characterize them as sociopathic, self-interested, and aggressive actions. If that’s the way a lot of people respond to it, when certainly we have to consider the kinds of people our society glorifies. I’d hope that the Coen bros and anyone they worked with had a bit more of a subtle narrative going here, or at the very least aren’t working to argue that all weak men should “man up,” if you will.

            Colin Hank’s character is indecisive and nervous. That’s seen as a big problem when faced with tough opposition. Thornton is a stone cold psychopath, that’s certainly not working in his favor. He’s entertaining, sure, but likeable?

            When I link the theme back to the movie, I still think it’s a moral message. The quaint hard working small town police against the more cynical forces of the nastiness of the human condition.

            But the big thing is that I don’t necessarily agree with the notion (and this is what I was taught in psych/soc in university that I disagreed with) that there are inherently masculine and feminine actions and roles. It’s like saying that obesity is an impoverished action, simply because there is a trend there. I look to Jodie Foster’s character in “Inside Man,” amongst others, and I think if Thornton’s character was replaced by a female it wouldn’t be an entirely different story.

            • Not to belabor the first point, but I think you’re misunderstanding my issue with it; the comment was out of context it was meant to go against my argument, implying my view is out of touch with reality somehow (which, as I’ll get to, doesn’t matter anyways). It was stated as about college education in general, but since the only context in which that would be relevant is in how you perceive my education on the matter, I couldn’t help but read it as a tinge snide or dismissive. If it wasn’t intended that way, then fair enough. Tone on the internet, right? Moving on.

              First off, I’ll admit that “likable” is not the word I probably should have used. Maybe engaging? I think that we are expected to enjoy watching Lester more once he becomes closer to Lorne or Sam in certain ways. Walter White isn’t likable, but people LOVE to watch him. I think the reason is he goes from not having traditionally masculine qualities to adapting them. I can’t speak to the skills of the people working on the show since the Coens didn’t write or direct it, but their movie was certainly a lot more subtle in its characterization. In fact, that’s part of the reason I dislike aspects of the show’s characterization.

              Another really important thing to note here, that I did not make clear, is that I’m not talking about some objective or inherent idea of masculinity or femininity in the average American town. I don’t think that’s relevant, since this show exists in its own world, and is a story. It’s about these qualities in media. Lorne is definitely a combo-reimagining of the cowboy and outlaw (as seen in film, books, shows, etc.), and Lester is following the arc of the outlaw and other character types (listed in the article) as romanticized in American culture (and subsequent media). As such, even a female Lorne would not change my point, because the qualities embodied are traditionally masculine (in media, at the very least), and Lester is still adapting them. Again, this isn’t about “inherent” qualities, but about attributes associated with men through narratives (whether those affect perceptions in the “real world” is a different conversation) and how the absence of them define Lester’s “weaknesses” as a character—and moreover, how his decisions to adapt them are clearly meant to be something audiences enjoy watching, and follow a narrative that’s not all that new or clever.

              • I’m curious as to what qualities you’d characterize as feminine. That is to say; if there was a film where problems were resolved by a character being more agreeable, like 12 angry men, be a reinforcement of feminine ideals?

                You place the blame or at least guilt by association with conservative reactions to changing gender roles. But the show is more natural than that. Gender roles occur all throughout nature, from Lions to bears. I don’t see it going for a “be a man,” and the BB scene where Fring convinces Walter to work based on “A real man” dialogue I think had more to do with his manipulation than sending a social message.

                I’m a pretty peace love and understanding type guy. I think it’s about assertiveness. If there is a robbery going on and one person jumps up and down waving their arms and the person next to them dives in to stop the robbery attempt, I don’t see that as masculine or feminine. The show just seems to be about people being more assertive, more dog-eat-dog. It’d be one thing if this was a standard observation, but you have said that you’re baffled by the positive reviews because of it’s alleged pro-masculinity stance. That’s harsh. It’s not the best example, but I don’t think people would dismiss Vin Diesel’s character in “The Pacifier” just because he was forced to go from a tough military background to helping babysit kids. That can’t be dismissed outright and rejected on its merits because it’s feminist pro-stay-at-home dad propaganda that glorifies feminist tendencies.

                • In terms of media? Well, the ideas associated with femininity tend to be negative qualities like weakness or airiness, along with maternal qualities and several other things. I don’t know what would be seen as reinforcing feminine qualities, though, because most mainstream media associates femininity with those aforementioned qualities; most of the things I know that laud feminine qualities in a positive light are more subversive or independent things, which tend to laud masculine qualities in a more positive light too (but those are usually not aspects of femininity and masculinity as defined by major popular media). Quite plainly, though, this isn’t about femininity.

                  Also, you keep bringing this back to reality, and while there is overlap, I’m talking about these qualities as defined by media. I won’t repeat these point a billion more times, but I’m saying that Lester lacks all the qualities associated, in media, with masculinity, and then gains them, in my opinion much to audience enjoyment. He doesn’t have ’em, and the writers go out of their way to have characters represent those lacked qualities directly to him. Then, he gains them, and in my opinion the show is portraying that as an exciting improvement in terms of characters we want to watch. I might just be slow today, but I feel like your points are jumping to various alternate arguments but none are really attacking that point, so I don’t have much to say outside of that. Fring is manipulating Walt, and that might be the point, but either way I think that show also has a following that enjoyed seeing Walter become a more traditionally masculine character. Again, though, I’ve recognized that BB is an incredibly nuanced character study, and that my highlighting of this in Fargo is attempting to draw a line in audience interaction.

                  I do get your point about assertiveness, but I simply disagree. I think I made my point excessively clear in the article, though, so I won’t restate it. Obviously we can disagree on that, and I’m glad you’ve added that viewpoint to the discussion; I don’t think anyone in this situation can be objectively right. However, I think I stated clearly that I’m confused by the critical acclaim because I think the show is average to a little above average at best in most qualities; I probably should have left that out without attaching it directly to my argument, but I think I was trying to provide an explanation for why people are so intensely interested in this character, which would lead to acclaim. I didn’t state that directly though, I’ll admit.

                  I’m just trying to say that I find the whole thing strange and a bit problematic, because of the way it’s being done. I’m not saying, “This thinks masculinity isn’t the worst thing ever!” and dismissing it. I’m picking apart why I think it’s a problem. Masculinity isn’t a bad thing, obviously; reinforcing traditional media representations is lazy, though, and that’s bad. At the very least, the fact that people are reacting to it so fervently is problematic to me.

                  Can’t say I’ve seen “The Pacifier,” but I must admit it’s a bit odd to me that you’d call it feminist “propaganda” for saying it’s not a bad thing to be a stay-at-home-dad. Or is the way it’s done really awful, and it’s not just saying, “Hey, it’s okay do be this too if you’re a dude; be who you want to be”? Either way, maybe that’s another discussion entirely.

                  • No, I don’t think it’s propaganda. I was trying to use it as a “other side of the coin” comparison. I’m fully in favor of people choosing the lifestyle they prefer, independent of social norms, providing it doesn’t harm anyone else. I’m saying dismissing it as pro-feminist would be unfair.

                    • Ah, yes, I get what you’re saying now (brain lapse for a moment there). I agree. Dismissing it without discussion of how things are being portrayed and written would be wrong; analyzing it and providing evidence, though (if there were any), would not, which is the difference to me. I don’t think I’m saying anything without backing it up with examples and evidence, but we can of course disagree on that matter.

  5. This is a terrible and empty-headed analysis. Lester may be trying to reaffirm his masculinity but we as the audience are meant to see these attempts as the pathetic flailing of a lifelong loser. Even when he ‘succeeds’ in fitting his own idea of masculinity, he does so only by destroying the lives of everyone around him. And when he fails, he shows himself to be a coward and a creep at his core.

    We are not and never were meant to root for Lester the way the audience is initially meant to root for Walter in Breaking Bad. The first episode purposely makes you think the show is taking that route, but from the moment that Lester kills his wife you are supposed to revile him. In fact, the shocking violence of Lester murdering his wife is a kind of punishment for the audience member who wants the put-upon man to reclaim his masculinity through violence. It was as if the show’s producers were saying, “is this what you wanted? Here it is. This blood is on your hands.”

    You talk about how the audience roots for Lester or enjoys his evil actions. Not at all. I never saw any critics or fans rooting for Lester. I am sick and tired of every show with a villainous character drawing comparisons to Breaking Bad. Talk about laziness — that’s the absolute laziest kind of criticism I can imagine. The shows aim at two completely different things. Lester is a villain, period. Not an antihero. He has no redeeming qualities.

    And the same goes for Malvo, by the way. Lester is supposed to sicken you, Malvo is supposed to frighten you. They make the show entertaining, but not because we take a vicarious thrill in what they do. If these characters represent any ideal of masculinity, what they represent is traditional conceptions of masculinity run amok.

    • “This is a terrible and empty-headed analysis.”

      Hey, uh, kid? I think you misspelled “I disagree.”

      Thanks for the constructive (hahahahahahahahahahahahaha) criticism, though!

      The Boss (who did not write this article or even watch this show, but doesn’t like your tone, in spite of your many valid points)

  6. Pingback: What’s Current: Our breasts are not to blame for objectification | Feminist Current

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