Masculinity and Authenticity: Reality TV’s Real Men
Christopher Lockett / Memorial University

deadliest catch

“We’re going to need a bigger boat:” men at work on Deadliest Catch

It has been fourteen years since Tyler Durden looked at the burnished abs of a male model in an underwear ad and asked the nameless narrator of Chuck Palahniuk’s novel Fight Club (1996), “Is that what a man looks like?”

In the last few years it would seem that a certain offshoot of reality television programming has resoundingly answered Tyler’s rhetorical utterance with a slew of series focused on the kind of jobs at which, one imagines, he would nod approvingly: logging, salvage, oil rigs, driving trucks over ice, and of course crab fishing. The vastly expanded cable universe of the past decade or so has provided a forum in which television shows featuring a particular species of über-masculine blue-collar worker have enough of an audience to spawn a significant number of series. Deadliest Catch, arguably the flash-point for these series, is an ongoing documentary about crab fisherman in Alaska; it first aired in 2005 and is currently going into its sixth season. The crews on the collection of boats featured battle winter seas and long, sleepless hours in order to bring in a catch of Alaskan crab that will (hopefully) settle them financially for the coming year. The ethos articulated by the show is quite simple: it is grueling work that requires both expertise and implacable stamina; there is no place for slackers and whiners; and those that can’t hack it have no place on a crab boat.

Following the success of Deadliest Catch has been a clutch of series like Oil, Sweat, and Rigs, Black Gold, American Loggers, Salvage Code Red, and the unsubtly but memorably titled Ice Road Truckers. Like Deadliest Catch, these shows chronicle the lives of men working dangerous jobs with little room for error, and who wear the scars of their professions with pride. They are rugged and grizzled and embody an unapologetically rough-edged masculinity preoccupied with responsibility and attention to the job at hand. Many of the main figures featured are portrayed as loyal family men, missing their wives and children as they do a difficult job that puts bread in their mouths; those with sons old enough to join them on the job perform a paternal agon in which the son is either competitive with his father, or disappointingly revealed to not be up to the work.

ice road truckers

Ice Road Truckers

What is most interesting about this relatively small but striking subsection of reality television, which principally finds a home on such networks as Discovery or OLN, is its idealization of working-class labor at a time when blue-collar workers as such have effectively disappeared from the cultural imaginary. While sitcoms occasionally feature a hapless or shlubby blue collar man as their main character (King of Queens, for example) the working-class figures making it onto the small screen usually embody something more than a nine-to-five, simple honest paycheque ethos—cops, for example, or firefighters, or EMTs (Rescue Me, Third Watch), whose jobs are who the characters are. The working stiff with the lunch pail, never a powerful presence in postwar popular culture to begin with, has effectively disappeared; the one great exception to this absence effectively proves the rule: season two of The Wire was centered on a stevedores’ union on the Baltimore docks and functioned as an elegy for the American working class. The unionized wage-earner has been reinvented by reality television as a weathered, laconic, gimlet-eyed professional who will get the job done, whatever the hardship or dangers. The proudly unexceptional unionized proletarian of leftist lore, in other words, has been replaced by the exceptional and elite expert fisherman, logger, rig worker, and so forth—the central irony of which being that, taken in the broader context of current American political and cultural discourses, the latter embodies a distinctly anti-elitist posture that seeks rhetorically to figure itself as somehow the norm: “real America,” as Sarah Palin conceives it.

That this idealization of working-class masculinity takes place by way of reality television speaks to its preoccupation with an authentic masculinity, one best accessed unalloyed and unmediated. We should not however be surprised that the men portrayed in these series are familiar, as they possess the same attraction as a Clint Eastwood or John Wayne character, and indeed trade on the same frontier mythos that informs the Western as a popular genre. These series, further, tend to take place at geographical extremities such as the Bering Sea, the Arctic, or forest wilderness, and in this respect redramatize the mythic struggle between man and untamed wilderness that Frederick Jackson Turner identified as such a crucial element of the American character. “As successive terminal moraines result from successive glaciations,” Turner wrote, “so each frontier leaves its traces behind it, and when it becomes a settled area the region still partakes of the frontier characteristics.”1 These series are however only symbolically related to the civilizing project of taming the frontier, for their various wildernesses do not yield land for settlement, nor do the men of these series “tame” them—rather, their forays up to the Arctic or out to sea or into the forest occur in the name of sustaining a remote and unmanly civilization with the resources of those wilds. Ultimately, whether the object is oil or crabs, the drama played out is that of testing one’s masculinity against nature; crucially, because the pockets of wilderness depicted are specifically not sites of colonization (as the actual frontier was—Turner characterized American history up to the end of the nineteenth century as “the history of the colonization of the Great West”), they appear as enduring symbolic spaces existing in perpetuity.2


The men of American Loggers

Of course, the extraction of resources from a given pocket of wilderness can often ensure it does not exist in perpetuity. At a time when ambivalence about overfishing, clearcutting, dependence on fossil fuels and the damage done to the environment by all these practices is so prevalent, the success of these series is striking. On one hand, it displays the ability of post-network cable television to find niche audiences; more significantly however, it betrays a nostalgia for a fictional America associated with frontier mythos and the singular masculinity—independent, competent, uncomplaining—popularly associated with it. It is also symptomatic of a uniquely American schizophrenia for which Sarah Palin is merely one of the most flamboyant current examples: that is, a valorization of “ordinary,” “real,” or “authentic” America, typically defined in contradistinction to “liberal,” “elite” America (Palin’s obsessive self-identification with Alaska, arguably, trades heavily on exactly the same geographical rhetoric of these series). That this figuration is nativist and deeply anti-intellectual is obvious, and nothing new. But it also manages to celebrate this illusion of ordinary Americans at the very same time as it expresses contempt for them in deed. The popularity of series like Deadliest Catch gives the lie to the cynical valorization of “ordinary Americans” in the very way it and similar series highlight the fact that well-paying blue collar employment remains almost solely in the realm of elites.

Image Credits:
1. “We’re going to need a bigger boat:” men at work on Deadliest Catch
2. Ice Road Truckers
3. The men of American Loggers

Please feel free to comment.

  1. Frederick Jackson Turner, The Frontier in American History, (New York: Dover, 1996), 4 []
  2. Ibid. 1 []


  • Very interesting column. I’m curious if the rugged masculinity you linked with the frontier ethos and its tension with conservation and preservation of the frontier could be further explored in the shift in Deadliest Catch‘s structure from the earlier derby style to current quota format for the crab fishing. Certainly the change was due to questions of conservation, but it might be interesting to look at how the show dealt with the resulting reduction of the pushed-to-the-limits nature of the show’s presentation of rugged masculinity.

  • Maybe these shows are successful because the working class characters have been de-politicized and gendered. This allows audiences to engage with the “masculine adventure” and “drama” of being working class without having to deal with job security, fair wages other working class concerns.

  • Very intriguing discussion of both the reality genre and the political figure of the working man. I would be interested to know about the class and gender of the audience here. I know The Deadliest Catch has broader appeal, but I wonder if the other shows appeal mostly to men and women who work desk jobs and do not get their adrenaline out on a day-to-day basis. Or are blue-collared workers watching “their own” in an otherwise very middle class medium.

  • I am also curious if viewers of shows like Ice Road Truckers and Deadliest Catch also tune in for the reality TV programming on these networks that are more material culture oriented. For example, Pawn Stars and American Pickers are shows largely populated by men, but does the audience skew more female due to the subject matter? It seems that the emphasis on preservation and revenue in these shows also underscores aspects of masculinity that compliment or expand those seen in the more rugged, blue collar reality shows. Overall, a very thought-provoking piece.

  • Charlotte: That hadn’t occurred to me, but is a good point; certainly, as someone living and working in Newfoundland and therefore made constantly aware of the issue of fisheries conservation, it makes me think of an episode (I don’t know which season) when the Northwestern has hedging on starting the crab fishing, because it was doing so well catching cod. Sig Hansen kept saying that normally pacific cod wouldn’t be as profitable as the crab, but that for some reason cod prices had been high for a number of years. I kept thinking, “Um … the Atlantic cod moratorium, perhaps?”

    Nestor: Yes! Exactly the point, I think. These shows valorize blue-collar men as a set of qualities without referents, and further tend to feature the last bastions of working-class labour that still yield living wages. So, disingenuous AND misleading.

    Caroline: I honestly have no idea, but would love to know that. I suspect (based on the people I know who are great fans of these shows), that the larger portion of the audience uses these shows as a sort of nostalgic wish-fulfillment, people dissatisfied with their employment (be it white-collar or otherwise).

    Brittany: That’s an interesting question — I was just at a conference this weekend, and one of the papers I saw dealt with What Not To Wear and the enduring cachet of metrosexual makeover shows. I raised the question of how to read these shows in contrast to Deadliest Catch et al, and someone else in the audience mentioned Pawn Stars and American Pickers. I have unfortunately never seen them, so I can’t really comment at any length; but they seem, not unlike the shows I talk about here, to embody a kind of nativist intelligence–street smarts rather than education, the wily ability to make it by one’s wits.

  • Dear Christopher and Others:

    I, too, have been interested in these programs and find your observations very interesting and similar to ones I and others have made in published work. I would like to direct you and your readers to an article I have published on this topic:

    Meltzer, Kimberly. “A Different Sort of Reality TV Hero: Extreme Fishermen, Loggers, and Truckers on the Edge.” Reel Politics: Reality Television as a Platform for Political Discourse. Ed. Lemi Baruh and Ji Hoon Park. Newcastle upon Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2010.

    The article was first presented in September 2008 at:
    Reel Politics: Reality Television as a Platform for Political Discourse
    International Reality Television Conference
    Location: Kadir Has University, Istanbul, TURKEY
    Date: September 12, 2008 – September 14, 2008

    On the idea of blue collar/working class masculinity, you can also see:

    Carroll, Hamilton (2008, July) “Men’s Soaps: Automotive Television Programming and Contemporary Working-Class Masculinities.” Television & New Media, Vol. 9, No. 4: 263-283.

    I hope you’ll find these references useful in furthering the discussion on this topic.

    Kimberly Meltzer

  • The New Masculine Men of Reality TV:
    A Response to the Metro-sexual Men of Other Popular Reality Programming

    This article describes an interesting niche of reality programming that chronicles the life of men that are “…rugged and grizzled and embody an unapologetically rough-edged masculinity…” (Lockett). The lives they lead, and jobs they hold are extremely tough. The show gives us a new side of the working-class male living in America. However, I believe that the success of these shows is due in large part to some of the reality television shows that were offered, and are still offered, before shows such as Deadliest Catch and Ice Road Truckers ever came to the television screen.

    Some of the very first reality shows to gain mass popularity, such as Laguna Beach, and The Real World, featured men who mostly came from wealthy backgrounds, were youthful, and had probably never worked a day of hard labor in their lives. As reality television popularity grew, the man more in touch with his feminine side, careful about his appearance, and in touch with his feelings (the “metro-sexual”) was seen increasingly more and more in reality television. Specifically, characters such as the boys of Jersey Shore, and two in particular who come to mind, Scott Disik of Keeping Up with the Kardashians and Spencer Pratt of The Hills, fed into this male persona being presented to American audiences.

    With television programming and channel choices becoming increasingly segmented, and catering to specific audiences, there seemed to be a lack of the persona of the rugged, masculine man. This seems to be the reason for the current uprising and increased popularity of the “tough man” shows that are popping up everywhere. And they are not just showing up in episodic television. Even the fairly new SpikeTV, an entire channel dedicated specifically towards painfully “manly,” heterosexual men was formed, and became increasingly popular, with this demographic of audiences over the last few years.

    How authentic are any of these personas to the American male? Or more importantly, as this article suggests, the “real” man. In order to be authentically masculine, a man must be engaged in an extremely physically demanding, labor-intensive job. Otherwise, does he not retain any masculine features? It is also interesting to note how the male is perceived in our culture and has two vastly polar opposite personas, according to reality television. With the increase in segmentation in television, comes even more niche and segmented reality characters who must be displayed as over-the-top and possess extremely differing personalities to find and capture audiences in order to be successful in ratings. The masculine man: Reality? Or just another reality television character?

  • handsomerandyblackladbrad1953

    O.K.,but what about us life-size Brads?(From 1968-’72,Brad was Barbie’s then-boyfriend Ken’s handsome black buddy;Yours Truly is a black Canadian lad,62 July 6,said cover boy handsome,muscular,a bit beefyI’m 5’9″,201 lb.,boasting 18″ arms,but like a LOT of older chaps,am attempting to shed 15-20 lb.Also,along with my penchant for Western duds,i.e.,cowboy hat,shirt,Wranglers jeans and occasionally boots,and desire to become a song-writer,I possess a 150-160 IQ-GENIUS LEVEL!!!!)
    With today’s emphasis on slaves/Civil Rights-Era leaders,black ensemble cast members and/or de-sexed buddy/sidekick to the star/stud,we telegenic black men are ALMOST ENTIRELY MISSING FROM ALL MEDIA!!!!(Why do you think Kevin Hart,a talented though physically unattractive black comedian,is Hollywood’s go-to black actor/comedian?Because producers don’t have to worry about his becoming some (esepecially white) babe’s love interest,as frankly,they would for me.
    WE’RE the victims of seemingly unyielding media antipathy!!!!!

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