When James Garner died last weekend, most of us were familiar with the lengthy, laudable entertainment career of the 86 year-old actor. It’s clear from his more than 50 films and unforgettable TV roles that Garner holds a prestigious place in the pantheon of Hollywood.
But perhaps even more noteworthy is the impact Garner’s had on many males and how they view themselves as boys and men. Mass media serves as critical building blocks of our culture’s gender role behaviors. In that arena, James Garner was more than an actor; he was an influential male role model.
In the early to mid-20th century, most men tried to emulate movie tough guys like Humphrey Bogart, John Wayne, and Gary Cooper. Young males learned that when times got tough, use your fists first. Showing any emotion other than anger was left for the women. Fear? Sadness? Grief? Take a stiff drink and move on.
But in the late 50’s, Garner came on the scene in the hit TV western, Maverick. It’s hard for younger people to realize now, but in those days there were only a few television channels to choose from, no internet, no smart phones, no social media. Television was extremely impactful in affecting the mass culture.
Garner’s gambler, Bret Maverick (guided by talented writer Roy Huggins), was perhaps the first TV anti-hero. He was different; he didn’t have the standard knee-jerk reaction to violence with equal force—he did everything to avoid a fight. He used his wits, was vulnerable, real, human. And with television’s engaging intimacy, entering our living rooms, he had a subtle influence on the minds of many growing males.
Garner reinforced this new male role model in the 70’s on television with another classic character, private eye Jim Rockford in The Rockford Files. Again shaped by writer Roy Huggins, Rockford also used his mind over muscles. In each weekly episode, he exemplified the message that real men choose their brains and feel real pain. A man can avoid a fight and still end up the hero.
Many thoughtful obituaries of Jim Garner running this week point out his pivotal place in the ongoing development of male gender role behaviors. These commentaries are in sharp contrast to the news event last weekend involving country singer Tim McGraw.
McGraw, while performing in a concert in Atlanta, allegedly slapped a woman in the head after she grabbed his leg. This “slap heard ‘round the world”, as the press has called it, was described as a “common reaction” by Atlanta police. Some argue McGraw had a right to punish a female fan when she wouldn’t let go of his leg while he was performing. For McGraw, maybe it was simply an unthinking, self-protective reflex.
Perhaps most painful wasn’t McGraw’s slap but rather much of the public reaction afterward. Many have commented that he was justified in physically communicating to the adoring woman that she’d exceeded the proper boundary. But as a popular performer, McGraw is something of a role model himself. Even if it’s an accident, is it ever justifiable for a man to strike a woman? Doesn’t his behavior give the message male to female violence is acceptable under certain circumstances?
On the occasion of the passing of James Garner, it’s thought-provoking to consider: what would Bret Maverick or Jim Rockford have done? More than likely, they would’ve used their wits rather than reacting with a hit.