The failure of satires of masculinity

Much belated, let’s talk about Pickle Rick.

“Pickle Rick” was a 2017 episode of Rick and Morty, and the only one I ever watched. After I saw it, I thought to myself, I don’t need to watch any more of this show. For me, the episode represents a common pattern in fiction, where the intention is to satirize masculinity, but at some level, it fails to do so.

In “Pickle Rick”, Rick turns himself into a pickle to avoid going to therapy with the rest of his family. He sets up a mechanism to turn himself back as soon as his family leaves without him, but something goes wrong and hijinx ensue. He has to use his limited means as a pickle to pull himself through a sequence of over the top action scenes. Eventually, he lands in therapy, where the counselor explains the absurdity of his actions to him.

Although I never watched more of Rick and Morty, I’ve certainly seen the discourse surrounding it. Supposedly, the fanbase is obnoxious (a common complaint about fan communities, I observe), and celebrates the jerkass character of Rick, even though Rick is, and is supposed to be, a terrible person, and not in any way a role model.

However, based on my limited experience I’ve suspected it wasn’t entirely the fans’ fault. The seed of the problem lay in the show itself, which glorified masculinity as much as it satirized it.

In games criticism, we’d call this ludonarrative dissonance, a disagreement between what the narrative is trying to convey, and what the gameplay conveys. For example, Stardew Valley is about leaving a soul-crushing office job for a chill idealized rural life, but the gameplay encourages ruthless regimentation and optimization. Or take anti-war games.  According to the narrative, war is supposed to be bad; but war is represented through first person shooter combat, which if you’re playing these games, you presumably find engaging and entertaining.

Although a TV show doesn’t have gameplay per se, there is a dissonance between what the story is saying, and how it feels to watch. The story is about Rick’s self-destructive efforts to avoid the problems in his familial relationships. But the main appeal is the farcical action scenes, and Rick’s clever ways to come out on top.  Explicitly, the story is mocking Rick. But the action scenes are so lovingly depicted, that the feeling it evokes is a sort of admiration. Rick fails, but fails in a way that effectively demonstrates his prowess, as well as his commitment to the masculine ideal of not giving a shit about other people. Rick is depicted as a failure, but it’s precisely the kind of failure that masculinity wants us to strive for, and therefore a kind of success.

Obviously, there are many ways to read the episode and the show, and if you got the right message out of it, then let’s take that at face value and say the episode succeeded. However, in addition to succeeding, the episode also failed. And for me, it failed in such spectacular way that it highlighted the problems with “asshole” men in fiction.  Is it possible to depict an unsympathetic masculine figure, when being an asshole is precisely that which masculinity idealizes?


  1. Callinectes says

    There are other episodes that did that better. In fact, the magnitude of his failure in the last season finale exceeds that of any I’ve seen before and absolutely leaves him diminished.

  2. uncategory says

    As a woman of a certain age, I am definitely not the target demographic of Rick and Morty. It is a problematic show for many reasons, some of which are highlighted in this article. The fan base is truly whack and Rick is definitely not a hero by any stretch of the imagination. However, there is more to the show than Pickle Rick and some of the episodes are brutally on-the-nose about life. The writers seem to always fling some puerile toxicity at every episode, because that is apparently their thing. Even incredible episodes like Rick Potion #9 and The Ricklantis Mixup (aka Tales From the Citadel) have to throw some in. Every episode seems to succeed and fail spectacularly and simultaneously to varying degrees.

  3. says

    @Callinectes & uncategory
    Pickle Rick made a pretty poor first impression, but I haven’t seen any of the rest of the show, so I’m not trying to pass any judgment on it.

  4. uncategory says

    @Siggy, if you do watch any more Rick and Morty, be aware that after the third episode or so, there is a post-credit scene that sometimes is just a stupid sop thrown to the fans but sometimes is a good coda and sometimes is the only thing that makes the episode make sense.

    It is an infuriating show to me, where top shelf writing and voice talent is so often squandered. But, hey, it’s not my show, so Roiland and Harmon et al can do what they like 🙂

  5. Rob Grigjanis says

    Is it possible to depict an unsympathetic masculine figure, when being an asshole is precisely that which masculinity idealizes?

    Iago in Othello. Judge Holden in Blood Meridian. Ramsay Bolton in Game of Thrones. Cornelius Hickey in The Terror. Many many more.

  6. says

    @Rob Grigjanis #5,
    I’m not familiar with any of those examples, but I do think the question can be answered in the affirmative.

    For example, I liked Bojack Horseman a lot, and you could say that the show spends an awful lot of time trying to grapple with the problem of the lovable asshole protagonist. I think the way the show addresses it, is by depicting Bojack as striving to become less of an asshole. He’s a protagonist, so it’s hard to get around the fact that he’s sympathetic, but those sympathies are directed towards his effort to change, while the asshole tendencies are framed as the main conflict. (YMMV on how effective it is.)

    I would not even be surprised if Rick and Morty has much better on offer than “Pickle Rick”. I mean, we can tell what the writers were going for, and perhaps they’ve thought of better ways to align the show with their intentions.

    I do think it’s a persistent issue though, and media needs to do something to avoid the tendency towards celebrating asshole masculinity.

  7. Mara Jade says

    I watched the first episode of The Looney Tunes Show today on HBO Max, and it did something similar. Daffy Duck is best friends with Bugs Bunny and wants to win a game show about best friends. The best friends who know each other the best win the game, but Daffy doesn’t know even basic questions about Bugs (in typical masculine fashion). He doesn’t know Bugs’ birthday, last name, favorite catch phrase, etc. Eventually, even Bugs has to question whether or not Daffy is his bestie, and Daffy goes to extreme lengths (including advocating committing crimes in the name of best friendship) in order to prove he’s a bestie. Bugs comes to the conclusion that besties are all different. Some people know a lot about their best friends and others don’t even know last names. Daffy’s failure and inability to give a fuck about others is glorified. We’re supposed to think Bugs is the better person, but Daffy’s lunacy is also shown as a kind of virtue. It’s like they’re just two sides of the same coin and one kind of masculinity really isn’t better than the other.

  8. brucegee1962 says

    I am reminded of when I was a drama student and read some of the plays of Federico Garcia Lorca. They tended to center heavily around tragic revenge — men who felt obligated to take revenge against some woman or man whom they felt had wronged them, with devastating results to everyone the man cared about.
    Even though it was clear as I read the plays that Lorca despised this “revenge mentality” that was engrained in his culture, I also couldn’t help feeling that his work glorified it in a sense as well. Men who kill their partners because they believe the woman was unfaithful seem to commit violence, not because they think this is the best solution to their problems that will lead to maximum happiness for all concerned in the long run, but rather because that’s what they feel the cultural expectation is for men in their position in their culture. And what creates that expectation? Popular culture. Lorca himself. Pickle Rick.

    It makes me wonder if people go to these cultural role models, not so much for the message they contain, but rather for the role model itself. Making ethical decisions about the best way to behave is hard, but imitating the behavior of someone you have seen on stage or television is easy.

    So I’m skeptical of antiheroes like Rick.

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