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Tim Allen Was the Jordan Peterson of the ’90s

As men struggled to understand their place in a feminist society, one movie perfectly captured their anxiety: ‘The Santa Clause.’

Twenty-five years ago, for a week in December 1994, Tim Allen had the No. 1 TV show, movie and book in America. Home Improvement had recently dethroned Roseanne as the nation’s most-watched sitcom; The Santa Clause, Allen’s first feature film (excluding a bit part as a baggage handler in the 1988 cocaine-smuggling drama Tropical Snow), had emerged as the year’s big Christmas movie, soon to join the post-Halloween cable syndication canon; and Allen’s comic memoir Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man had won a good deal of critical and commercial success, climbing atop the bestseller list. It was the absolute peak of his career.

Why was Tim Allen having such a big moment? And what exactly did he mean to America in 1994? It’s worth taking a closer look at Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man, where we find real anxiety about men’s place in society after the sexual revolution and the women’s rights movement. The book certainly sheds some light on The Santa Clause, too, in which Allen plays a divorced dad who accidentally becomes Santa, struggles to accept his new role, only to ultimately rebuild his relationship with his son. Out of it all, Allen emerges as a symbol of liberal Boomer masculinity, not wanting to restore the old patriarchy but also not sure what men should do next. Both the book and The Santa Clause suggest an answer: something like feminism but, ya know, for the fellas.

Allen actually wrote Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man himself. He didn’t just sit down with a ghostwriter or string together a bunch of stand-up riffs; in fact, he took so long on it that he spoiled the publisher’s initial goal of getting it on shelves before Father’s Day. And though the book has its share of women-be-shopping shtick, there are some genuinely funny observations and well-spun yarns.

The book is also surprisingly vulnerable. We learn how frightened Allen was by his dad’s penis when he first saw him urinate (“I swore I would never want anything like that in all my life”) and how traumatized he was when his dad was killed by a drunk driver (“I realized there is no one here to protect us”). Allen also frankly discusses his 28-month stint in a federal penitentiary, after getting caught with more than 650 grams of cocaine at the Kalamazoo airport in October 1978. And while he assures us that he didn’t go in for all “the touching and feeling” that happened in prison, he admits there was a time when an inmate put his hand on Allen’s shoulder during a conversation and Allen “leaned in toward him anyway just because having somebody touch you meant a lot.”

The vulnerability is deliberate, and it’s a sign that Allen represents a distinctly liberal-Boomer brand of masculinity. (Yes, I know Allen is a Republican, or to my way of thinking, a liberal Boomer.) This isn’t a guy who wants to go back to the mythical era of docile housewives and white-picket fences. He took feminist classes in college, where he learned feminism wasn’t just “the study of what men do wrong.” He then prided himself on developing friendships with women where he “was actually interested in what they were saying” and “wasn’t trying to dominate the conversation like a man.” He scorns men who objectify women, and philosophizes that men only feel like they have to “own the world” because they’re so terrified by women’s ability to produce life.

But while Allen doesn’t want to turn back the clock, he’s also not sure what the future holds for men. “So much is happening to guys today,” he writes, “from the women’s movement to changing social values to the demise of the Sears catalog.” He depicts a world where men are being constantly emasculated and told they’re pigs: “I can’t believe you’re going to wear that, I can’t believe you’re going to eat that, I can’t believe you leave the seat up.” He laments that while women have more choices than ever, men “have the same choice we’ve always had — we can work or we can go to jail.”

Even Allen’s name is a form of emasculation, since his real name is Timothy Alan Dick. He was teased for it as a kid, which he found unfair “given the male organ’s important role in society.” But it wasn’t fit for show business, so early in his stand-up career he reluctantly “relinquished the Dick.” That’s life for a man in Tim Allen’s America: relinquishing the dick, time and again, because there’s no longer any respect for that once-noble member.

Nineties America was obsessed with men like Allen, who wanted to adapt to a rapidly changing society but couldn’t figure out how. A common shorthand for this sort of man was the divorced dad, whose status was ideal for conveying the neither-here-nor-there-ness of the middle-aged Boomer man. As such, the early 1990s were the golden era of the Divorced Dad Comedy — e.g., Jim Carrey in Liar Liar, Robin Williams in Mrs. Doubtfire and Allen in The Santa Clause.

Unlike in Liar Liar or Mrs. Doubtfire, however, The Santa Clause’s protagonist, Scott Calvin, has no moral arc. Allen was clearly unwilling to let his character ever be too mean. We never see him neglect, yell at or lie to his son Charlie. He doesn’t undergo a Scrooge-like transformation; he always seems to like Christmas, and he’s upset when Charlie’s mom and stepdad tell Charlie there’s no Santa. Basically, it’s not a movie about a man discovering the true meaning of Christmas; it’s about a man figuring out his place in society.

The opening scenes of the film highlight Scott’s sense of alienation. His son doesn’t want to spend Christmas with him; his ex-wife has married his polar opposite, an egghead psychiatrist who talks in soft, careful tones and wears tacky sweaters; he’s unable to make a Christmas dinner for his son, setting the turkey on fire and forcing them to eat at a Denny’s instead, where they’re escorted to a wing of the restaurant solely occupied by sad-sack divorced dads and their kids.

When Scott accidentally becomes Santa — in brief, he discovers Santa on his roof and startles him, causing Santa to fall to his death and then disappear like a Jedi, leaving behind an empty suit that Charlie pressures Scott to put on, which we later find out legally binds Scott to be Santa until he dies — he loses all sense of self and any illusion of control over his life. He’s taken to the North Pole, where he sees a tool belt and tries to put it on, only to find it’s meant for an elf and doesn’t fit him.

After returning home, he starts putting on weight and grows a thick white beard, leading to a real body-horror moment when he shaves his face and then watches, in the mirror, the beard grow back within seconds. He becomes soft and pudgy, and he weirds out his coworkers when he orders four desserts for lunch. His transformation is so unnerving that his ex-wife successfully petitions a court to take away his visitation rights, so even his status as a dad is in question. There’s no script that works for him.

Meanwhile, in Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man, Allen proposes a remedy for this kind of alienation and rootlessness men feel: “masculinism.” It’s meant to be complementary with feminism, not in opposition to it: “Feminism celebrates female traits. Masculinism celebrates male traits.” Allen is quite happy that women have “an ideology with an ongoing agenda to support women’s self-image,” but he wants men to have something like that, too.

You can tell Allen was drawn, in his scattered reading as an undergrad, to feminist thinkers who were more liberatory than egalitarian — who emphasized not so much that men and women are equal, but rather that women should be liberated to be women in the fullest sense. The book contains multiple references to Camille Paglia, the controversial theorist whom many other feminists have called an anti-feminist. He’s drawn to her thesis that men and women embody different energies, one of order (male/Apollonian/sky-god-worshiping) and one of chaos (female/Dionysian/earth-god-worshiping). Yes, it’s Jordan Peterson–type stuff; or, like Jordan Peterson, more like rehashed Jung stuff.

Allen spoke at length about Paglia’s book Sexual Personae when he went on Charlie Rose’s show to promote Don’t Stand Too Close to a Naked Man: “It’s not male-bashing. She just says males traditionally have been these roles and women these roles. She’s very much like me. She’ll go at both species, and it seems like the women are winning, as they usually do, but then she’ll go, on the other hand, men have this capacity — she says, the George Washington Bridge, only a man would think of sinking a pylon into the riverbed to conquer the river.”

Paglia gave Allen a sort of Jungian, evo-pysch gloss to what might otherwise be a stale men-are-from-Mars-women-are-from-Venus routine. “Women are lateral thinkers,” he writes. “They have communities. They share information and help one another.” Men, on the other hand, “think vertically.” They ask, “What can I do to go higher, get there, move that, acquire this?”

Like Paglia (and Jung, and Peterson), Allen thinks social harmony comes from an equal embrace of both the male and female energies. He frequently cites his experience in prison for what happens to men when they’re not around women; they become aggressive, violent and sullen. He also thinks women are unhappy when men aren’t men. This is why he believes the success of feminism requires the creation of masculinism to restore equilibrium.

What masculinism actually entailed for Allen is harder to pin down. He was kinda into the men’s movement popularized by the poet Robert Bly in the 1980s, where men would go “hang out naked around a roaring fire in the wilderness, chant and bang on drums until dawn.” But he didn’t think it would go far. His suggestions instead are twofold: 1) that men should have and preserve their own spaces where they can be men, like locker rooms, tool sheds, strip clubs and golf courses; and 2) that men and women should embrace and celebrate their different energies, without there needing to be any competition. “The point of this book,” he writes toward the end, “is to have fun with those differences; have fun and move on.”

This all more or less plays out in The Santa Claus. At the start, Scott Calvin is a somewhat ridiculous figure, standing befuddled in the snow wearing a jacket and boxers. He can’t even drink the milk a little girl leaves out for him, because he’s lactose-intolerant. But once he’s embraced his new role as Santa, he’s more sure of himself and more traditionally masculine. He’s no longer lactose-intolerant, for one thing, and he balks when he visits the same little girl’s house a year later and finds she’s left out soy milk for him. After all, Santa is no soyboy.

A little earlier in the film, at the beginning of the third act, Scott reveals his full Santa-ness when he shows up to Charlie’s house on Thanksgiving — beard full, belly large (but not in a soft pudgy way) and no more Home Improvement–style wisecracks. He’s confident enough to straight-up kidnap Charlie and take him to the North Pole, court order be damned.

And when Scott (or now, Santa) finally brings Charlie back home on Christmas Eve, the sheer weight of his presence — his piercing stare, his knowledge of who is naughty and who is nice — is so overwhelming that Charlie’s mom and stepdad aren’t even mad that their son has been missing for a solid month! They’re just happy to meet Santa — who, if we’re going to use Paglia’s language, is definitely a paternal sky-god type, dispensing judgment on everyone and flying through the air on a sleigh and making his home at the literal top of the globe.

Oddly enough, the sleigh in The Santa Clause (not Santa’s workshop) is the kind of male space Allen cherishes. Only Scott and Charlie are even seen riding the sleigh; only male elves are seen working on the sleigh; the reindeer are all male, and they fart a lot, as befits a male space. Then Charlie and the elf Quintin trick out the sleigh with headlights, radar-jamming jingle bells, a DC-10 alert, an air freshener and a cocoa dispenser. You know, dude stuff.

In the end, of course, it all works out. After Scott/Santa does the responsible thing and tells Charlie he needs to stay home with his mom, Charlie shakes a snow globe that makes his dad come back and offer Charlie a ride on his sleigh anyway. Charlie’s mom agrees on the condition that Scott/Santa not take Charlie across any oceans. When Scott doesn’t respond, his ex-wife starts freaking out and calling out his different names (“Scott??? Santa???”) as the boys fly off into the sky. And this is supposed to be charming! Charlie’s magical father is ostensibly kidnapping him again, while the nagging mom is trying to tell them how to have their fun, not appreciating the sanctity of their masculine space and the raw power of their phallic Apollonian energy.

What we end up with, in other words, is Tim Allen’s masculinism. And 25 years later, we’re still struggling to come up with a better answer for what men should do next. We’re told to go to therapy, practice self-care and make more male friends. We’re urged to start our own conversations with each other about power, work, love and sex rather than making feminists do all the work. We shouldn’t just be allies; we should be creating own spaces and figuring our own shit out.

But when you put this all together, it looks rather like masculinism, too. It poses the same danger of sliding into misogyny and gender essentialism, a He-Man Woman Haters Club but with more lobster analogies. And it’s too often constrained by that old zero-sum mentality: In order for me to change, someone else must lose. In order to be transformed, someone else must fall — or be pushed — off the roof.