Beth Haile’s recent post on Portraying Working Women Positively in the Media prodded me to finally write about what I see as a complementary problem: the depictions of men in the media.
As I see it, there are roughly five different scripts—socially mediated roles for identity—that depict what a man is and, by implication, should be. Rarely do they come close to capturing the character of the countless men I know, from those in my family and in my circle of friends to my numerous colleagues and students.
- Bullies: These are the people with power and who are in control. Everyone fears them, including those in authority. The script is basic: if you are strong, you can always get your way and need not care about others. Examples are countless, but Scut Farkas from A Christmas Story, Nelson Munce from The Simpsons, and Flash Thompson in the cartoon versions of Spiderman, all quickly come to my mind.
- Fat and Dumb: Of course, if you are big and not mean, you had better be funny, ideally a buffoon. Think Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin or, if you are a bit older, John Buleshi and Chris Farley. I once had this big, hulking male student in one of my upper division theology class. He turned in one of the best papers I had read in years. When I spoke with him after class about how good his paper was, he quipped, “Yeah, most people think I am dumb because I am big.” We both laughed, but his comment perfectly captured this script.
- Nerds: Guys are dumb, well except nerds. They are smart, but, as the script goes, it comes with some serious side-effects: miserable social skills, inability to relate to women, and victims of bullies. The Big Bang Theory is the most recent show to play with these stereotypes, but the type has been around for a while, even before George McFly and Steve Urkel.
- Megalomaniac: The only other possibility for male intelligence is to mix it with being a megalomaniac (and thus a kind of bully). Think House or Stewie on The Family Guy. Even the recent depictions of Sherlock Holmes, either the movies with Robert Downey Jr. or the new PBS series, where Holmes states, “I’m not a psychopath . . . I’m a high-functioning sociopath.”
- Sex crazed: While not every man is dumb (just most of them), they are all sex crazed. They will do whatever to have sex. Think of any of the characters on Three and Half Men or (and here I am dating myself) Joey on Friends or (dating myself even more) Dan Fielding on Night Court. Even nerds are sex crazed, think Howard on The Big Bang Theory.
Basically, the options for being a man appear to be: mean, stupid, smart and mean, or smart and awkward. Sex focused is not an option.
As portrayed in the media, men are not expected to be kind, respectful, responsible, smart, loving spouses, and good fathers. Men can be these things, but they do not seem to pertain to being a man. I wager both that we know many men like this and that many men want to be like this. In fact, my male students, those still working out who they are and want they want to be, seem to be the ones most frustrated by these scripts, frequently expressing their frustration with the limits these depictions create.
Some significant work on what it means to be a man in today’s world needs to be done. (No works in theology readily come to my mind, but I would love to hear of some good ones.) Let me make two quick starting points for doing so. First, no genuine understanding of maleness can come at the expensive of women. Patriarchy is a system destructive of women as well as men. It subjugates women and most men to the rule of a few. It is not the way forward.
Second, what it means to be a man is ultimately rooted in what it means to be a human being made in the image and likeness of God. Like it is for women as well, God must be the starting point.
Past these points, man, there is a lot of work to do.
Thanks for doing this post. I wonder if we were to focus on family comedies and dramas, which stereotypes would prevail? At least for a while, I’ll bet it was the fat and dumb (Peter on Family Guy, Raymond on Everybody Loves Raymond). In family settings, this character is also what I call the “buffoon”– incompetent with housework and child-rearing (though he probably likes his kids). Basically, his job is to work, watch football, and drink beer while the wife nags him. i think we like this stereotype because it seems the most innocuous, the most fit for prime time. It allows us as a society to bash on men without the men doing something really egregious (like Don Draper sleeping with his kids’ teacher). But it is a dangerous stereotype for both men and women and a serious threat to the family in our society today.
I think a big part of the problem is that we don’t know how to define masculinity. Generally, it’s been defined as “what isn’t feminine.” So if women are gentle, men are violent; if women are chaste, men are sex-crazed; if women are dumb, men are nerds. This creates a problem for defining femininity in our world today, which simply becomes “what men have always been” (hence the Sex and the City craze). We need a new conceptualization of both masculinity and femininity where the two are not defined against each other. We need a relational model of femininity and masculinity rather than a hierarchical or antagonistic model. I think that model, in addition to be grounded what it means to be created in the imago Dei, as you note, needs also to be grounded in the family as the building block of society.
In addition to Beth’s point, it not only needs to be relational but the new conceptions of masculinity and femininity must not be essentialized. Unless they become more relational, more inclusive, and less important then our humanity – the very concepts of masculinity and femininity will continue to be used as a weapon against men and women who “don’t fit this type.”
Most boys get their understanding of masculinity from violent video games and ‘guy’ movies (or perhaps sports…but not sitcoms), and yet violent crime has gone dramatically down in recent years:
I share the frustration with these images, but is there any data to show that they have an effect on behavior and understanding? I think kids (and people more generally) are more sophisticated and independent than we give them credit for. Their minds are constantly inundated with images of hero-men acting violently and they actually are acting less violently than the previous generation.
Jason, great post! I wonder if it is primarily men or women perpetuating these stereotypes? I suppose both are drawn to such easy (and often easily comical) portrayals of men.
Anyway, I was trying to think of good examples of men in the media. Since I don’t really watch television, I thought of two recent movies, Harry Potter and The King’s Speech. Both the Potter series (admittedly, a book series originally) and The King’s Speech showed good character development of men who did not fit conventional stereotypes. And both highlighted the importance of relationality, which I agree with Beth is important.
For some reason I just had a flashback to my childhood days (when I did have time to watch t.v.) and the show Full House. Didn’t that have kind of a good portrayal of men?
Also – as regards Charlie’s comment – I’m glad to hear that violence has gone down, but definitely think boys can benefit from good models of virtuous men… and it’s possible media could have a good effect here.