Everyone struggles with performed identities. As children, we learn by mimicking the adults around us. It’s oh so cute until our personalities take shape, and when those little rebellions begin to emerge, they can irk our parents. Jimmy and Shannon illustrate this quite well in “The Real Man,” as they buck up against Pat and Eileen’s expectations of masculinity and faith, respectively.
The episode opens with Kenny watching his father and brother wrestling in a so-called “boy battle.” (He declares it too gay for even him.) When Eileen interrupts the guys with an old tent she found while cleaning up, Pat decides to take Jimmy camping to carry on the father-son bonding. Kenny feels left out and assumes it’s because he’s gay. Pat reminds him that he’s afraid of nature — a terrified Kenny once killed a rare butterfly just because it landed on his shoulder — but Kenny assures everyone he’s game. Into the Woods is his favorite musical, after all! Over the course of the night, Kenny watches Wild twice and overprepares for a single night of camping. He even packs a milk frother, just in case a cappuccino emergency arises.
Kenny’s excessive preparedness is a sitcom staple, and the entire plot is reminiscent of a Frasier episode titled “Breaking the Ice,” which first aired back in 1995. To prepare for an ice-fishing trip, Niles spends a ridiculous amount of money on equipment, then stays up all night to study ice fishing. Frasier resents his brother’s eager-to-please attitude, and gets upset when he ends up bonding with their father Martin. Surprisingly enough, the same thing happens with Jimmy in this episode. Kenny’s over-preparedness impresses Pat, so Jimmy winds up complaining throughout the trip.
Of the two Crane brothers, Niles is considered the more delicate of the two. (Sound familiar?) Just as he wanted to prove his manhood to his father, so does Kenny. And like Frasier, Jimmy is irritated by his presence — but there’s more to it than typical sibling rivalry. Jimmy has quit wrestling and doesn’t want to tell Pat, who’s excited to watch his son compete in the regionals championship. Pat’s so eager, in fact, he had custom shirts made for the whole family. Jimmy doesn’t want to be held to an impossible standard of athleticism, which helps Kenny to realize that expectations of masculinity can be just as exhausting for straight men.
It’s important to acknowledge how the performance of manhood can be restrictive, and in many cases, harmful. Jimmy feels constrained by his role as a champion wrestler, so he wants out. This would’ve been the perfect time to revisit his anorexia, but once again, there was no mention of it. It’s safe to say that detail has been abandoned — Eileen cured him with Jesus pancakes, or something — and that is a missed opportunity. It’s tough to make light of an eating disorder, so maybe it’s best that it was abandoned. Nevertheless, it would’ve fit perfectly with Jimmy confronting the idea of what a man is supposed to look like.
The kids were surprisingly honest with Pat in last week’s episode, so it’s odd that Jimmy would suddenly insist on hiding the truth. He does eventually tell Pat, but there’s still so much tension between them that Kenny calls for another boy battle — these two need to wrestle out their feelings. And oh, do those feelings come out: Jimmy thinks Pat only sees him as a wrestler; Pat says he just wants Jimmy to wrestle so he’ll get into college. It wasn’t about making Pat proud. He just wants Jimmy to build a future for himself.
While the boys are on their male-bonding adventure, Shannon is preparing for her own journey into adulthood with confirmation classes. Or she would be, if she hadn’t been ditching to go to the mall. Eileen is furious and asks Father Phil to talk to Shannon. She’s is concerned about her daughter’s spiritual well-being, but even Father Phil can’t answer the tough questions Shannon throws his way. After chasing him out of the house with her relentless questions, she once again escapes to the mall. It turns out she actually has a job there, selling pretzels.
When Shannon climbs back through her bedroom window, Eileen is waiting to confront her. Confirmation is important, she says; it will give Shannon the tools to make proper decisions and grow into a mature adult. Shannon fires back that she’s been already been making adult decisions — she’s so good at her job, she was promoted to shift manager after two weeks. If she can be trusted with the safe combination of a business, she can be trusted to live her life without being confirmed. Plus, she’s naturally curious, so it’s hard for her to believe in something she can’t see. Eileen points out that she does have faith, though: She believes she will be paid on time and the banks will function properly, which is something she can’t see.
Eileen wants to see Shannon accept the Catholic faith, whether or not she fully believes in it. Shannon doesn’t like being forced to perform the religious routine, especially if she’s able to achieve similar results without it. Shannon loves her job. She knows why she’s doing it, she knows whom she works for, and it gives her immediate, tangible results. As far as Catholicism is concerned, how can someone know a lifetime spent following the rules will lead to heaven?
In the end, Jimmy goes back to wrestling and Shannon attends her confirmation classes, just to be on the safe side. Kenny tells his parents to “man up” when he sees them crying with pride at Jimmy and Shannon. Later, the O’Neal boys watch Wild and Kenny is disgusted at Pat and Jimmy’s comments about Reese’s body, particularly when Jimmy gets excited to see Reese’s pieces in a shower scene. This is one male-bonding ritual Kenny can do without.
While the episode goes for some quick jokes about Kenny disrupting stereotypical ideas about masculinity, it ultimately takes a less-traveled road by examining the way Jimmy chafes against the expectations of what it is to be a real man. The Real O’Neals is about a family coming to terms with their true selves, but even more than that, it’s about breaking free of the roles that leave us boxed in. Kenny broke free of pretending to be heterosexual. Pat and Eileen dropped their performance as a happily married couple. Jimmy broke free, however temporarily, of being a star athlete. And Shannon no longer feels the need to have unquestionable faith. As the main attraction of the show, Kenny is now free to try as many roles as he wants. It’s time for him to figure out who he is, and all the world’s a stage.