Sometimes, popular culture is uncanny at predicting the future. “Star Trek” famously predicted cell phones. “2001: A Space Odyssey” predicted tablet computers. Then, there’s “The Simpsons,” which has predicted so many things that it’s creepy. Some predictions, however, fly under the radar. Some aren’t even predictions as much as they are worst case scenarios.
One such scenario played out in “Two and a Half Men,” a show more famous for its off-screen drama than its on-screen antics. Granted, those antics were fairly crude. Most episodes revolved around dirty jokes, sexual innuendo, and glorified hedonism. In today’s social climate, this show would trigger mass protests with every episode.
That didn’t stop it from being funny. I consider myself a fan of the show. However, this is one of those shows that could never be made today, even with an emotionally-stable Charlie Sheen. Its brand of comedy just wouldn’t work in an era where sexy Halloween costumes are considered controversial.
However, the message “Two and a Half Men” conveyed goes beyond its brand of humor and the actors who made it controversial. It’s a message that probably wasn’t intended when the show first aired, but one that manifested with time. That message centers around the only male character to make it through every season alive and unaltered, Alan Harper.
As a character, Alan is the catalyst for the whole show. It begins with him getting kicked out of his house by his wife, forcing him to live with his brother, Charlie. It serves as the foundation for the antics that follow. However, in light of recent trends in feminism, Alan Harper has become more of a concept than a character.
Simply put, Alan Harper is the perfect embodiment of a defeated, emasculated man. He’s a step below the stereotypical beta male. He’s the masculine equivalent of rock bottom. Even the entire cast of “The Big Bang Theory” or Al Bundy from “Married With Children” would feel sorry for him.
You don’t need to watch every episode of every season to see how this plays out. The show rarely goes more than a few minutes without highlighting how pathetic Alan is. The denigration goes beyond his ex-wife kicking him out of his house, divorcing him, and hitting him with egregious alimony payments.
Alan Harper, at his core, is a man dependent on everyone around him for affirmation, but is incapable or unwilling to earn it. His womanizing brother, Charlie Harper, often describes him as a parasitic leech who feeds on the pity of others to survive. In terms if how he conducts himself throughout the show, that’s pretty accurate.
Everything Alan does, from trying to make a living to pursuing romance, is done from a position of dependence. He depends on his brother for a place to live. He depends on his ex-wife to see his son, Jake. He depends on all the women he encounters for love, sex, and affection. He never has any leverage, always working from a position of weakness.
This earns him sympathy, but he’s no lovable loser. In addition to being dependent and weak, he’s also neurotic, selfish, and lazy. He rarely puts much effort into improving his lot in life. He never stands up for himself, rarely accepts responsibility for his mistakes, and endures failure without ever learning from it.
This is especially true in the later seasons of the show after Charlie Sheen was fired. Instead of having to leech off his brother, Alan managed to leech off a total stranger in Walden Schmidt. He makes every possible excuse to keep living in his brother’s house, never pay for anything, and avoid any semblance of personal growth.
Even if you pity Alan Harper, there’s little reason to respect him. Whenever he has a chance to make choices that can change that, he either makes the wrong decision or avoids it entirely. He’s not just a perpetual victim of a vindictive ex-wife, a hedonistic brother, and an idiot son. He actually clings to his victimhood, as though it were part of his identity.
It was fodder for comedy when “Two and a Half Men” was still on the air. Now, it’s a serious issue that affects men and women alike. That’s because leveraging victimhood has become less a comedy trope and more an ideological tactic.
The current discourse, especially when it comes to gender, is often built around who victimizes who. A big part of the anti-harassment movement is driven by the idea that women have been victims for years, suffering in silence under the thumb of misogynistic men. There are more than a few situations like that in “Two and a Half Men.”
Men are just as guilty of using that tactic too, albeit not to the extent of Alan Harper. Men have cited the lack of attention people give Terry Crews or Corey Feldman whenever they talk about issues like sexual abuse. They’ll point out the ways in which women get preferential treatment in our society, some of which actually plays out in “Two and a Half Men.”
There’s no question that harassment and inequality are problems, but just being a victim can’t be the end of the conversation. Alan Harper is, in essence, the personification of what happens when we don’t attempt to further that conversation. It impacts everybody, but it’s especially relevant for men.
Alan reflects a worst-case-scenario. In the overall gender dynamic, he draws every bad card and makes every wrong move. He marries a woman who hates him and exerts immense control over his life. He has a callous, egocentric mother who gives him no affection, guidance, or support. The entire world takes advantage of him and he does nothing to stop it.
To make matters worse, there’s very little Alan can do to stop it. Even if he stands up for himself, he has no support because he’s so dependent on other people. If he gets kicked out of the house, he has nowhere to go. If he makes any money, someone else ends up getting it, often his ex-wife or an ex-girlfriend. He’s not just pathetic in how he handles it. He’s utterly trapped.
This is the kind of nightmare scenario that men genuinely worry about. Many women may laugh it off, but men aren’t blind to the bigger picture. If Alan Harper were gay or transsexual, then he would have organizations that support him. There are many groups that work hard to help disadvantaged members in the LGBT community.
There are also plenty of organizations that help women as well. If Alan were a woman who had been kicked out of his house by a vindictive husband, then there’s no way that the comedy in “Two and a Half Men” would’ve worked. It’s not funny to see a poor woman get thrown out on the streets and denied custody of her child. When it happens to a man like Alan, though, it’s hilarious.
That’s where the humor in “Two and a Half Men” becomes distressingly serious. A character like Alan Harper lends himself to ridicule, but his situation is no laughing matter. He’s the pinnacle of a defeated man. Society does nothing to help him and everything to mock him. If he weren’t a man, it would be a tragedy. Instead, it’s a comedy.
For men, that’s a scary thought. On top of that, his situation can manifest in the real world, minus the laugh track. It is possible for a man to lose his home, his kid, and his money thanks to a vindictive wife. It is possible for a man to be so utterly helpless that he has to depend on everyone’s pity to survive.
The fact that it’s possible, but still funny in the context of a sitcom, gives men more pause today than it did when “Two and a Half Men” was still on the air. Men’s lives are being ruined by a society that does not give them the benefit of the doubt. Any debate that tries to take the side of men tends to get labeled as misogynistic.
We can either take those concerns seriously or create a society where men may end up like Alan Harper, laughably pathetic and utterly destitute. “Two and a Half Men” was still a funny show. However, the core of its comedy has serious implications and that are worth taking seriously, now more than ever.