Illustration by Dave van Patten

MacGyver Invented DIY Manliness

How a cheesy action hero became the role model for a new generation of American men (using only a paperclip!)

If the cheesy action shows of the ‘80s are remembered at all, it’s as a single, goofy image. Miami Vice is speedboats and white suits, Knight Rider is David Hasselhoff talking to a car with Mr. Feeny’s voice, The A-Team is just Mr. T, maybe jumping into or out of a van. But in the case of MacGyver, originally played by Richard Dean Anderson, the image is so strong, and so enduringly appealing, that it’s officially listed as a verb in the Oxford Dictionary:

MacGyver (informal): Make or repair (an object) in an improvised or inventive way, making use of whatever items are at hand.

Examples:
‘he MacGyvered a makeshift jack with a log’

‘he has a shock of short red hair and a pair of rectangular-framed glasses MacGyvered with duct tape’

And now, more than 30 years after the show first aired, a rebooted MacGyver is due to premiere this Friday on CBS, starring Lucas Till in the lead role. In all likelihood, given the abject corniness of the original show and the general advances in TV production technology since the ‘80s, the new one will do right by the MacGyver legacy. But it seems fair to ask: Why does this TV character have a legacy in the first place?

What made the original MacGyver so appealing, and what gave the idea of MacGyver such incredible staying power, was that it gave rise to a new type of hero for American men. It’s telling that for six of its seven years on air, MacGyver was a lead-in to Monday Night Football, the foremost celebration of American manhood. More than Michael Knight, Thomas Magnum, or B.A. Baracus, MacGyver was the emblem of a new mode of masculinity, one that’s still going strong today — the hypercompetent DIY hero, always ready to save the day with some science trivia, a paperclip, and a smile.

The idea that do-it-yourself home repair is a core component of American masculinity took off in the 1950s, when suburban homeownership skyrocketed and the workforce shifted toward white-collar jobs. Fixing things around the house and tinkering with the car became distinctly dudely things, linked to the history of skilled labor and military maintenance duty, separate from the womanly domestic sphere of cooking and housekeeping.

But even as that ideal developed on the home front, the media heroes of the ’50s and the following decades played more to the masculine fears that domesticity and nonviolence in a peacetime suburban world were essentially unmanly and un-free. James Bond murdered and fucked his way around the world, Easy Riders set off on the open road, and an endless string of cowboys and spacemen wandered the open range.

Researchers have said that men see the DIY weekend warrior ethos as a mix of manly duty and class drag, with higher-income white-collar workers play-acting as blue-collar handymen as a way to assert that they’re not like the other nerds they work with.

By the time MacGyver premiered in 1985, smack in the middle of a decade defined by union-busting, an unprecedented decline in good blue-collar jobs, and the explosion of the computer in the workplace, that fear of weak, unmanly nerd-dom was growing larger in the American psyche. Men were ready for a hero who could fix the world’s problems the same way they fixed a leaky faucet.

Mac never used existing gadgets; he built them out using only a Swiss Army knife and things he could find on the ground around him. Just to pick a handful from the excellent list of problems solved by MacGyver: He used resin-rich pine cones as low-power explosives; temporarily blinded dirty CIA agents pursuing him at a strip club with a blast of makeup powder from a confetti cannon; stopped a bomb from exploding by patching a blown fuse with the wrapper from a stick of gum; and built a cradle for a baby out of some hockey sticks, climbing rope, a storage net and some duct tape.

And he never used a gun, much to the chagrin of the NRA, even though he was an operative for an indeterminate outfit called the Phoenix Foundation and, before that, a former agent of the CIA-ish Department of External Services. Within the show, his aversion to guns is explained with a story about a childhood accident with a rifle, in which a friend of MacGyver’s got shot in the chest, but as a fictional device, MacGyver’s gunlessness just highlights how he’s a domestic DIY hero, using nothing but know-how to get the job done.

MacGyver shares his anti-gun stance and his shaggy, everyman charm with two TV detectives from the 70s who also engaged in some appealing class drag, Columbo (of Columbo) and Jim Rockford (of The Rockford Files). A recurring gag in Columbo is that his high-class clients mistake him for a bum, and Jim Rockford was a broke ex-con living in a trailer by the beach who had to hobnob with the high society of Southern California as a part of his private eye work — clever heroes who get by without a gun.

But MacGyver took that earlier TV formula — the seemingly down-and-out blue-collar guy with secret smarts — and inverted it. He’s the smart, international man of espionage with secret blue-collar skills.

The show finished its run in 1992, just in time for Mac to become a heroic mascot of man on the Internet, the networked world of homemade action, and the kind of white-collar class drag that he made heroic is at the heart of the lifehacking Maker movement. Make magazine, the movement’s flagship publication and the host of Maker Faires across the country, was started by a company that publishes user manuals for new programming languages, for its high-tech readers to be able to play at a low-tech lifestyle.

DIY culture is strongest among the geekiest not only because building your own drone can get a little technical, but because manual labor and technical problem-solving carries a charge of old-timey manliness. In the same way that you can feel like John Wayne if you swagger into a bar the right way, or James Bond if someone at that bar ends up giving you their number (or replies on Tinder), a new generation of lifehackers can feel like MacGyver when they work out using equipment they made with duct tape or cobble together a storage bed using Ikea cabinets.

As fun as it was to watch those other guys blast their way through bad guys and stare off stoically into distances, MacGyver is the only action hero to actually become a part of our language. His appeal endures because he perfectly embodies the nerd/action hero hybrid that the men of post-industrial, tech-centric America needed.

So why is MacGyver a verb? In part because he came along at the right time to catch the wave of a shifting economy, and to capture the class anxieties that we’ve been living with ever since. But mostly because we all want to do what he does, and he did it best.