“I am the golden god!” Deconstructing white urban masculinity in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

by Joseph D. Pecorelli and Joshua D. Martin

In the United States, questions of masculinity have long informed popular culture, media discourse, and the products that emerge from both. Just as masculinities arise through historically contingent matrices of gender, geography, race, ability, and sexuality, among others (Kimmel, Manhood 5; Connell 68; Gardiner 14; Pyke 531-532), so too have popular sitcoms often represented U.S. masculinities as a fraught arena of competing ideals and cultural assumptions. In the post-9/11 era, the televisual representations of masculinities have continued to attract scholarly attention, as viewers and academics alike question characters’ access to power and masculine capital in ways that either reinforce or disrupt preconceptions regarding gender and identity.

A show that has consistently tackled taboos as its modus operandi, the popular FX program It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-present) has compelled viewers to interrogate the legitimacy and boundaries of gender scripts through parodies of masculine excess, homophobia, homosociality, and sexual bravado, to name only a few negative aspects. Indeed, whereas U.S. sitcoms such as Full House (1987-1995), Roseanne (1988-1997), and Friends (1994-2004) have at times typecast their male characters through a narrow prism of acceptable masculinity (MacKinnon 66-67), Sunny reverses this expectation by positing its principal male characters as invariably incompetent, effete, laughably downtrodden, and downright pathetic. The patriarchs in Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006), Arrested Development (2003-2006, 2013, 2018-2019), and Modern Family (2009-2020) depart from established gender scripts, but the contemporary sitcoms in which they headline constitute “meta spins” on a well-established television genre, whose updated sets “accommodate all manner of wised-up anarchy without any loss of old-fashioned heart” (Carson 58). While each episode of Sunny (shortened title follows) features a familiar status quo in accordance with formulaic situational comedies, there is no ritual error, and the characters, both female and male, learn no ritual lesson (Marc 190).

While in the foregoing programs, the male characters (all white) grow through trials that test and often reaffirm their male identities, in Sunny the principal male characters (also all white) engage in some of the most toxic derivatives of exaggerated masculinity without any substantive payoffs, redemptive knowledge, or moral clarity informing their character arcs. With these important narrative staples lacking, the show has nonetheless enjoyed enormous popularity, and few scholars have addressed the role of Sunny’s representations of masculinity. How then does the dearth of any redemptive male qualities intersect with Sunny’s representations of male scripts? Moreover, how does the show use the tensions arising from characters’ performances of masculinity to expose and deconstruct their toxic qualities as part of a broader cultural commentary, all through the microcosm of Paddy’s Pub?

Between fragile and foundering: representations of masculinities in two case studies

When we speak of masculinities, we should understand them as historically and culturally specific commodities and as performance-based forms of identity in a broader context of gender relations. Accordingly, masculinities draw upon a vast range of social and cultural elements that inform one’s consciousness of self and society while intersecting with hierarchies of power and place (Connell 68-72; Cornwall and Lindisfarne 12). In their attempts to establish legitimacy and power, white men in the U.S. have often performed their masculinities through exclusionary practices by opposing, to varying degrees, perceived threats and liabilities, including those allegedly leveraged by women, racial minorities, and gay or non-gender conforming men (Kimmel, “Masculinity as Homophobia” 120; Messerschmidt, Nine Lives 95).[1] Crises, real or imagined, thus emerge, and overcoming them has long stood as a hallmark of white U.S. masculinities (Kimmel, Manhood 78).

In the present article, we analyze two case studies in the figures of Dennis Reynolds (portrayed by Glenn Howerton) and Mac McDonald (played by Rob McElhenney), both of whom work to emulate a white, urban hegemonic masculinity rooted in exaggerated behaviors and heteropatriarchal expectations that find validity only within their shared, homosocial milieu. Nevertheless, each character experiences failures and inadequacies that reflect the innate frailty of their respective masculinities and the unattainability of this idealized brand of white masculinity to which they both strive in unique ways.[2] Through the lens of contemporary masculinity studies, this study argues that each character represents a parodic embodiment of homohysteria and heterosexual instability on the one hand (Mac), and on the other, the assumed necessity of hypersexuality and an imagined social superiority against women and non-white individuals to achieve desired masculine capital (Dennis).[3]

As such, Sunny posits the endeavor toward this idealized masculinity as a self-defeating process, given to perpetual crises and failures that demonstrate the contemptibility of their shared masculine standard. If indeed “[t]he history of American men as men ... collectively writes itself as an actual history of American masculinity as crisis” (Traister 287 original italics), we should understand “that certain kinds of crises are also constitutive of subjectivity” (Walsh 9) as they relate to the performance of masculinity. Ultimately, both Mac and Dennis strive to achieve ideals rooted in hyper-masculine bravado, but they confront situations that comically locate them in subordinate positions of power, much to the delight of the show’s viewers. Thus, by parodying both characters’ masculinity performances as a fragile and foundering enterprise, Sunny elevates failure and incompetence as foundational hallmarks of its characters’ white urban masculinity, contrasting longstanding expectations that fetter power and dominance to masculinity proper and deconstructing the “masquerade of naturalness” (Gardiner 8) that has endowed masculinities with such power and longevity in the first place. To conclude, this analysis briefly considers historical phenomena that have informed the representations of these masculinity variants since the show’s inception.

From humble beginnings to cultural phenomenon

Currently the longest running live-action comedy show in history, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follows five friends who run a failing bar on Philadelphia’s south side. In each episode, viewers witness the socially uninformed, self-interested protagonists Frank Reynolds (Danny DeVito), Charlie Kelly (Charlie Day), Deandra “Sweet Dee” Reynolds (Kaitlin Olsen), and the aforementioned Dennis and Mac scheme and plot their way to easy money, only to end up even worse off than they were before. Since its debut on the FX network on August 4, 2005, Sunny has pushed the boundaries of situational comedies by tackling contentious societal issues through hyperbolic parodies. These, in turn, have encouraged viewers to question dominant cultural narratives, including those regarding gender roles, especially white masculinities. Perhaps in response to the show’s brazen representations of such themes and what Hannah Strong identifies as a lack of explicit “life lessons” and moralistic overtones, critics offered mixed reviews of the first season. Lambasting what she saw as recycled taboo motifs of classic sitcoms and literature, including consciously apathetic and oversexed male characters, Gillian Flynn characterized the show as “smug enough to think it’s breaking ground, but not smart enough to know it isn’t,” later adding that “the guys get themselves into all sorts of wry mischief, but none of it goes anywhere.”

Not all critics of season one considered the characters’ lack of redemption, remorse, or self-awareness in a negative light, nor were they dismissive of the comedic value of characters’ vapidity and scarcity of moral guideposts. Brian Lowry, for one, lauded the humor to be found in the way characters approached issues through “the self-obsessed prism of their [respective] lives,” later predicting the show’s staying power in spite of its alleged lack of the mass appeal that other sitcoms such as Seinfeld (1989-1998) have refined. The insight proved true. In 2020, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia was renewed through season eighteen, thereby solidifying its status as the longest running live action-comedy series in U.S. history (Cook).

From its inception, reviewers have praised subsequent seasons of Sunny for their perceived absurdity and dark humor, citing the show’s “‘can you top this?’ sense of shamelessness” (Murray) and its characters’ disillusionment with modern American life as a microcosm of the United States’ supposed entropy (Strong).  Kevin Steinmetz and Don Kurtz attest that the success of Sunny resides in its “quest for deplorability,” its interrogation of the U.S. cultural id, and its characters’ ability to shed light on inconsistencies regarding access, diversity, and social equity within U.S. society (225). How, then, do the masculinities of Dennis and Mac adapt to or resist the crises and perils that have endeared the show to many, and how does the sitcom more broadly portray their masculinity construction against the backdrop of its urban setting?

Setting the stage of masculine fragility:
Philadelphia and Paddy’s Pub

In conjunction with the main characters’ dysfunctional childhoods, Philadelphia’s working-class milieu informs the male identities that Mac and Dennis cultivate with varying degrees of success and characteristic disappointment. The protagonists of Sunny are all native city dwellers who witness substantial cultural and demographic changes occurring in their native Philadelphia. They generally lack the ability or willingness to truly engage with or adapt to those same shifts, a stubbornness that often elicits disillusionment and spotlights their failed masculinities.

Sunny’s single-camera setup reveals character interactions that take place largely within Paddy’s Pub, a dank, dimly lit, and unhygienic microcosm persisting in Philadelphia’s evolving urban landscape. The pub itself is an economic failure as it hemorrhages money and appeals to the lowest common denominator. It serves as a throwback to the City of Brotherly Love’s gritty past as “the poor man’s New York,” the home of white, working-class Rocky Balboa and the Scarfo-Testa crime family, one of the most violent and unstable organized crime factions on the East Coast. Light-hearted music by German composer Heinz Kiessling (1926-2003) defies the decrepit setting and bookends the protagonists’ conversations and commercial breaks. Instead of a laugh track, the compositions (including the show’s theme song “Temptation Sensation”) lend irony to the show’s macabre humor, the gang’s depravity and hijinks, and the squalor of their surroundings. While the city changes, the male characters do not, creating a disjuncture that allows opportunities for growth and redemption which never occur.

Place has long been associated as a key component of gender performance (Massey 186), and urban settings in particular have strongly informed the construction of masculinities given the former’s relation to industrialization and globalization. Thomas Hylland Eriksen, for one, describes urban spaces as “characterized by frictions, tensions and breathless competition for jobs, money, sex, power and other people’s attention” (81-82). Indeed, urban populations have become increasingly heterogeneous and competitive, dynamics that hold the potential to threaten the power hierarchies that have traditionally proven advantageous to white, heterosexual men. Ken Moffatt argues that in urban settings, globalizing processes “standardize and normalize dominant identities such as masculinity” while simultaneously “challeng[ing] overarching definitions of these same identities” (1). When non-heteronormative gender identities and sexual orientations acquire increased visibility and legitimacy, they can threaten hegemonic masculinities by weakening the cultural appeal and perceived timelessness in which much of the latter’s power takes root. In order to resist irrelevance and maintain their presence among profitable retail establishments, the owners of Paddy’s Pub find that they have to adjust their business model (at least superficially) to remain competitive with non-heteronormative, immigrant restaurateurs offering upscale atmospheres and superior products (“The Gang Solves the North Korea Situation”). Additionally, they work to expand their marketing in order to appeal to Philadelphia’s LGBTQ+ and multicultural communities (“The Gang Gets Racist”; “Mac Finds His Pride”).

Throughout Sunny’s fifteen seasons, Dennis embodies a spectrum of grievances and entitlements that reflect the privileges of his racial identity and reinforce the perniciousness of his male identity.  He generally gravitates toward anything that supports his insular worldview, thereby stunting his social consciousness and cementing a cycle of noxious actions that he undertakes to acquire or demonstrate masculine capital. Time and again, he negates opportunities to integrate minority voices into his own worldview and leisure activities. When he listens to soul music, for example, he opts for the songs of Rick Astley, a white, British pop singer best known for his 1987 single, “Never Gonna Give You Up,” a hackneyed dance-pop staple that would be laughable to most, yet is beloved by Dennis. When characters of color pass through, Dennis ostracizes them and reasserts his status as the lynchpin of the Gang, despite the fact that his presence results in his and his friends’ perpetual stagnation.

In season thirteen’s opener, “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again,” the Gang recruits Cindy (Mindy Kaling), an intelligent and ambitious woman of color who not only renders the cohort more diverse but is also able to successfully execute scams, thereby increasing Paddy’s profit margins. Cindy also establishes a sentiment of solidarity with Dee, thereby empowering the only other woman in the male-dominated friend group. In a turn of events, Dennis, who had departed during season twelve’s finale, makes his return, sneaking into the bar off-camera and surprising both the viewers and his friends. Mac, Charlie, Dee, and Frank fail to notice Dennis’s arrival since they are engaged in a conversation with the business-minded and sharply dressed Cindy, who justifies herself as a productive addition to the group by extolling their potential:

“You are better than this. I know you can be better than this, and I can help you! But you’ve got to make a choice. You can either leave Dennis behind, or you can stay the same. Keep doing what you’re doing.”

With no effort, Dennis supplants Cindy’s place in the group as he laughs off her insults regarding his wardrobe (“You dress like it’s 1998.”) and his overall demeanor (“You’re basic.”). Here, as elsewhere, Dennis’s actions are self-referential—they feed into a white, masculine aura that self-immunizes against any critique and that lacks any self-awareness or impetus toward consciousness-raising. And yet this is the point. With such narrow worldviews informing the Paddy’s Pub microcosm, Dennis and Mac encapsulate the privilege of not being in tune with their own privilege.

S13E1: “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again.” Cindy recounts a plan to get a competing bar shut down so that Paddy’s can poach all their customers. S13E1: “The Gang Makes Paddy’s Great Again.” Dennis makes a stealthy return.