Wednesday, November 17, 2010

"Does He Touch You?": Emotional Detachment as a Factor of Masculinity in Pushing Daisies

In its short run—a grand total of less than one standard American television season—Pushing Daisies became known for its colorful aesthetic, sharp writing, and ability to blend and balance romance and dark comedy. The show centers around Ned, a pie-maker with the extraordinary ability to revive dead things by touching them, and his relationships with the three people he knows: Emerson Cod, a private investigator and Ned’s alternative business partner; Olive Snook, the waitress in Ned’s pie shop; and Charlotte Charles, or Chuck, Ned’s alive-again childhood best friend and sweetheart. Although both Emerson and Ned provide equally compelling insight into the role and construction of masculinity in Pushing Daisies, for purposes of staying (somewhat) within the wordcount margin, I will focus this analysis on Ned’s portrayal of masculinity, which can ultimately be seen as a critique on the cultural expectation of emotional insensitivity as a trait germane to and maintained by all “real” men.

From the show’s beginning, Ned is defined as a character and as a man by his extreme emotional disconnect from the world and people around him. Much of this disconnect originates in the rules surrounding his gift: first, that reviving anything for more than one minute will cause something else to die in its place; and second, that anything he revives will permanently return to death if he touches it a second time. For Ned, these rules come to represent not only actual physical restrictions on his ability to connect to people, but emotional ones as well. Because he is afraid of his own power, especially in the context of the deaths and possible revivals of those he loves, Ned “[avoids] social interactions” (“Pie-lette”) as both a child and an adult, coming to identify himself first and foremost as someone who must necessarily exist in isolation from the larger world. In this way, he exemplifies a part of Paul Kivel’s Act-Like-a-Man Box, which lists having/showing no feelings as one of the confining cultural expectations for “acceptable” men (Kivel 84).

And there is no doubt that in Ned’s case, the consequences of possessing and performing this traditional masculine trait are confining. The magnitude of Ned’s emotional detachment lends him, to an extent, a hypermasculine quality, and, with it, a certain sense of greater social power and privilege. Ned’s resurrecting touch, the source of his extreme detachment, gives him some near god-like authority over life and death and, in a more practical sense, provides him with the opportunity to make fast, easy money by using his ability to solve murders and collect the monetary rewards. Yet even as he benefits from his gift and the new social privilege it gives him access to, Ned views it as more of a curse than a boon, and arguably rightfully so. The gift and the resulting emotional detachment Ned develops may afford him significant new social and economic opportunities, but it is at the complete expense of his ability to interact successfully with other people on any real level. He has no social filter and often awkwardly narrates his own actions as he performs them in front of others. His conversational skills are severely lacking and frequently leave him unable to talk to anyone, even the woman he loves, for more than a few consecutive minutes. And for much of the show, even the people he interacts with regularly—Emerson, Olive, and Chuck—are kept at a distance through Ned’s social mistakes and inexperience, such that they are more simply people he knows than actual friends. Essentially, Ned’s emotional detachment has developed to a point of solidification, forming a veritable (and sometimes literal, as is seen in the included screencap) wall between himself and the rest of the world that makes it impossible for him to fully function in the public sphere.

Chuck, a childhood love whom Ned resurrects in the pilot episode, brings the most significant challenge to Ned’s emotional detachment. In many ways—her sense of dress and self-image, her unfailing optimism, her sheltered upbringing, her almost virginal naïveté about the nature of larger society—Chuck represents the traditional feminine ideal and serves as a sort of hyperfeminine counterpart to Ned’s hypermasculine qualities, adding another layer to her desirability to Ned. In a sense of story, Chuck represents the happy, peaceful childhood Ned had before his gift emerged and his mother died; in a sense of gender presentation, Chuck’s embodiment of the traditional feminine represents the emotional and social connections Ned’s gift and subsequent embodiment of the traditional masculine have denied him throughout his life. On both levels, she is unattainable, and this status remains unchanged throughout the series. With Chuck, Ned’s emotional detachment becomes even more of an insurmountable barrier than it ordinarily is. Because she is someone Ned has resurrected, her staying alive depends entirely on them never directly touching. Thus, even when Ned does attempt real, higher interaction, it is still impossible for him to ever completely make contact with someone. In all areas of emotional involvement, including the only one where Ned is significantly self-aware, true connection remains elusive as a result of the emotional wall he has constructed around himself.

In the end, Pushing Daisies offers a clear picture of the damaging effects of defining “masculine” as necessarily emotionally detached. In Ned, we are shown a man who not only has no concept of social interaction, but who has also been so emotionally disconnected that his ability to know even himself has been compromised. Ned has only a minimal understanding of himself as an individual, and most of that is centered in his career as a pie-maker (reflected in the narration, which most commonly refers to him by this title rather than his name); as a result, his propensity for successful interaction with the world outside of himself is almost nonexistent. The image we are given is certainly hyperbolized, and in terms of masculinity construction, Ned functions more as an example of an unrealistic, unattainable extreme than anything else. But even in his unrealistic portrayal, Ned as a character still raises significant challenges to the qualities we as a society tend to idealize and value in men. What, he forces us to consider, are the real consequences of expecting and too often demanding emotional detachment from people who identify as men? And how many men, as a result of these expectations, have, like Ned, reached a point where true connection with anyone, even themselves, would require an impossible violation of restrictive social rules?

Works Cited

Kivel, Paul. “The Act-Like-a-Man Box.” Men’s Lives. Ed. Michael S. Kimmel and Michael A. Messner. Eighth ed. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010. 83-85. Print.

“Pie-lette.” Pushing Daisies. ABC. WFTV, Orlando. 3 Oct 2007.

No comments: