Why are Alan Alda and Phil Donahue the archetypical "wimpy men?"

This has been baffling me for some time now and I simply need to ask about it. I have not only seen this sentiment expressed on this board, I’ve also heard people say it, and it even appears on The Sopranos - Tony Soprano makes fun of two guys by calling them “Alan Alda and Phil Donahue.” What is it about these guys that is so incredibly wimpy that it actually merits them becoming the catch-all “wimp” reference guys? I was born in 1986 so I did not grow up with Alan Alda on TV and I never watched MASH or anything - is this a generational thing? Is his character on that show ridiculously wimpy or something? What about Phil Donahue? I looked at some clips of his show on YouTube and he sounds…like a talk-show host hosting a talk show. I don’t get what’s so wimpy about the guy.

Could someone please help me understand this whole “Alan Alda and Phil Donahue are wimps” meme?

I really don’t know. I’m two years younger than you but I am pretty dang familiar with MASH. His character was a womanizing boozehound but also the mouthpiece for pretty standard liberal ideology. He was a pacifist who refused to carry a gun, he operated on enemy combatants, had blatant disregard for military regulation, etc. If the insult is because of his character on MASH, I’d wager it dates from the pacifism. He also did a lot of movies like, The Band Played On that was a sympathetic look at AIDS at a time when it wasn’t always regarded seriously by the mainstream (read straight) community.

I remember some around the late 70’s/early 80’s that Alan Alda became something of a feminist activist, He was sort of a token male celebrity for the women’s movement for a while. That was unusual enough at the time to make him the butt of jokes, and for people to perceive him as emasculated, but I bet he was hip deep in it while it was going on.
Donohue was Oprah before Oprah. He basically invented that daytime talk format, had a primarily female audience and talked about feelings.

Yes, he was (is, as far as I know) a feminist and proud of it, which brought him a lot of derision. Seems like a pretty tired and dusty reference to bring out in the 2000s, but maybe the context justified it.

Also, since Alda/Hawkey was skinny, smart, and much more likely to use words than fists as weapons, he didn’t fit the macho stereotype of what a hero should be. Although the character started out as a crass womanizer, he became increasingly sensitive and liberal as the series progressed, due at least in part to Alda’s influence. And even first-season Hawkeye was softer than the version played by Donald Sutherland in the film.

Just a correction for you young’uns: the Alan-Alda-As-Wimp concept is not from MASH; it is from his post-MASH activities and activism.

Your correction is incorrect. Alda actively campaigned for the Equal Rights Amendment and was named “the quintessential Honarary Woman, a feminist icon” by the Boston Globe while MAS*H was at the height of its popularity, and his views definitely shaped the characterization of Hawkeye, especially as he became involved in writing and directing.

My memory is vague on it, but I think the Phil Donahue reference was based on appearance. The guy had silver or white hair, similar to Phil Donahue’s.

Well, after looking up the script for that episode it looks like I’m wrong on that.

I also want to say that this is dead wrong. The stereotype appeared during MAS*H’s run.

It would have to. The whole rise of feminism as a movement was a 70s phenomenon, not an 80s one. The show Donahue is famous for started syndication in 1970. MAS*H started in 1972. They were the foremost portrayers of sensitive males, the kind that women were supposed to want, stereotypically, at the time that the trope came about. It wouldn’t make any sense for the association to hold off until after 1983 and especially not to wait to appear until Alda stopped being on television every week.

I was an adult during that entire time, BTW.

Another thing about Phil was his show had a primarily female audience and at the time most female oriented talk shows were mostly fluff. Phil challenged the common wisdom that women were not interested in the hard topics and his show at least at the beginning dealt with very serious issues not seen on television before. I believe his very first guest was Madalyn Murray O’Hair, you did not see that of day time TV every day. It sure was not Dianah Shore. Hell, I remember a show with Carl Sagan and Steve Gould on at the same time. The fact he championed intelligent women was enough to cause derision among some ant-feminist elements like the Limbaugh types.

It’s just that they were around in the 70s. If a similar acting man in the 60s or 80s had been classed that way, they wouldn’t have gotten the tag.

It’s hard to imagine but looking back at the early to mid 70s, the women’s movement was very strong and it appeared that equal rights were really going to be a thing that came about.

Look how fast the ERA was passing in states, then it just stalled out. The activism of the Vietnam War spilled over to not only the Women’s movement but also various black empowerment movents and other such things.

The women’s movement in the 70s was very much heading toward a total liberation of woman. But then there was minor backlash as there usually is in all movements.

It went from the “let’s burn the bra,” to “Well it’s OK to burn a bra if you want to, but if it makes you more comfortable to wear one and you’re not doing it for a man, then it’s OK.”

The attitude of the 70s was everyone is the same. And it went for male/female, and black/white etc etc.

This we found out isn’t exactly. People are basically the same but there are differences. Women are woman but black women face issues white women don’t in terms of body structure. And vice versa.

So the liberation movements of the 70s went from demanding TOTAL equality to “basic equality” but recognizing differences, do and will always exist.

So Phil and Alan Alda came out in support of the women’s lib and got the label, because no one else was there. Had Alda done this later on, no label would’ve been there.

There have always been “sensitive” type actors and personalities, like Jimmy Stewart that avoided the label because there was no association to apply it to

When Alda got control of MASH, his character became a total wimp/wuss/crybaby/asshole. This reflected Alda’s politics and beliefs, so it is a small jump to ascribe these characteristics to the actor as well.

The conservatives pushed back hard and one of the issues they used to stop ERA was the claim women could be sent into combat. It’s Ironic even without the ERA women are often in combat right now in Iraq & Afghanistan. It is often fun to hear conservatives refer to our fighting men & women, which would have been an anathema to most of them.

The only time (before reading the OP, that is) I can recall the two being linked in this way was in a “Bloom County” cartoon. Opus was working the Personals Desk at the newspaper office and a beautiful woman in a Playboy Bunny costume comes in to place an ad. Her request is for someone “big and dumb”. “No more Alan Alda / Phil Donahue types,” she says. “I’m so glad the 70s are over, aren’t you?”

“Big and dumb. I’m talking Jethro Clampett.”


Don’t you think that perhaps the feeling is that since they are there, risking their lives for us, they deserve support whether we’d prefer to see them there or not?

And it’s nice to see people around here finally acknowledging that there are differences between men and women. That kind of thing would get you roundly excoriated and angrily called vile names by the tolerance crowd back in the '70s. :rolleyes:

I never thought “wimpy” as much as “quintessential ‘sensitive’ men.” Which I guess includes a sort of wimpiness, but isn’t exactly the same.

“I’ll carry your books, I’ll carry a torch, I’ll carry a tune, I’ll carry on, carry over, carry forward, Cary Grant, cash and carry, carry me back to Old Virginnny. I’ll even hara kiri if you show me how, but I will not carry a gun!”

I seem to recall one of the big points levied against Phil Donahue in the 1980s by people putting down his manliness was that he did an entire episode wearing a skirt. I don’t recall the context of the episode, whether it was a show about transvestites, transgenders, feminist issues, etc., but it was during the escalation of gimmicks in daytime TV talk shows of the decade.

Actually, the comparison between Sutherland and Alda of their portrayal of the same (nominal) character is instructive. Sutherland could be totally hippy-dippy and still carry an aura of menace, the sort of guy you wouldn’t want to cross in a dark alley. Alda was the sort of guy that just seemed like he’d be a total pushover in any situation. When Sutherland got angry, his voice gets deeper; Alda gets screechy.

Save for The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, I can’t think of a role that Steward comes off as unmanly in any way. (And heck, on screen in between John Wayne and Lee Marvin, even Lee “The Bad” Van Cleef comes off looking pretty wimpy.) Stewart wasn’t a Gregory Peck or Burt Lancaster–he was always more of a thinking man’s man–but he was hardly a wimp.

Also, unlike any other then-successful studio actor of the day (Sterling Hayden is the only other notable I can remember, and he was far from being a Hollywood A-lister at that point), Stewart enlisted in the United States Army as a private prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor (as an already highly experienced civilian pilot), became commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant and pilot instructor, and fought vigorously to fly combat missions rather than being just a flight instructor or war bond spokesman. Stewart ended up flying combat bombing missions over Germany with the 445th and 453th Bombardment Groups as Operations Officer, often flying in the lead plane in formation and earning numerous commendations (including the DFC and Air Medal with multiple clusters) and promotion to full colonel. I suspect one would call Mr. Steward a “wimp” at peril of grave injury to reputation if not dentition integrity.


Yeah–especially since lots of women really like “sensitive” men; whereas wimpy is usually taken to mean a character type that would be unattractive to women as well as men.

Tony Soprano of course would not appreciate the appeal. But then lots of what Tony says functions as a window into Tony rather than a map of how things are for the average viewer.

I’d add Alda’s role in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors to the list that would tend to see him associated with troubled masculinity.

George Carlin (as best I remember) on dialog between Mohammad Ali and the boxing commission after Ali declared as a conscientious objector:

Ali: "Nope, that’s where I draw the line. I’ll beat 'em up, but I won’t kill 'em.

Boxing commission: “Well, if you won’t kill 'em, we won’t let you beat 'em up.”


Anyway, while Ali was insulted and called cowardly by some back then, nobody really thought of him as a girly man in the way that came to be the case with Alda and Donohue. I, too, believe A & D’s strong support of feminist issues and their promotion of sensitivity as a virtue in men is what has caused them to have the reputation they have now of being ‘wimpy’ men.