These days, most men's movie roles feature hard-talking, heavy-hitting leads. Or self-conscious, awkward types bumbling through social relations. Or there are the sweet-hearted slacker dudes glued to the couch--and maybe their bongs--allergic to steady jobs but true to their friends. Sometimes the men are a combination of two of these types, as in the new bromance comedy I Love You, Man.
It might seem like we're getting variety, that we're starting to see fresh models of masculinity. But most of these pop-culture options are both limiting and more than mildly confusing. They're retreads of the Man Box--a place that ties masculinity to men, and traps guys in roles as tough, detached, or on the make. Basically, there's not a lot that's new about these pop-culture stereotypes.
Take the nearly all-male cast in films like American Gangster, which features old tropes of drug smuggling, street honor, shootouts, and death. Or the boyfest Superbad, whose breakout misfit Fogell (a.k.a. McLovin) is an everyday geek who wants the girl and is by no means sure he can get her. As the likes of McLovin navigate their social minefields, we might hope to see them treading new ground. But, as Thomas Keith, pop-culture critic and director of the 2008 film Generation M: Misogyny in Media and Culture, explains, the McLovin model of masculinity, like so many others, isn't really a new option. Because a McLovin man still puts his awkward desire for getting laid above all else, this fits within the existing box of masculinity that our culture allows: He's the stereotypical guy on the prowl. As long as a guy at least pretends he doesn't care about anything more than anger Superbad's Fogell and his cohorts in the growing crowd of Apatow-film regulars, it's to the funny-guy branch of the fraternity.
So what's a guy supposed to do? What does it mean to be a real man these days? Is it possible to find models of manhood to replace the old stereotypes that no longer seem to fit, or never felt right in the first place? And if these tropes are nothing new, then what is?
Fortunately for all of us, what it means to be a guy is getting a new spin, thanks to a slew of recent commentary about men and masculinity. A group of male feminist thinkers and activists are exposing the sexism and rigid ideas of masculinity that run rampant in movies, music, sports, and video games; these men are rapidly generating books, videos, workshops, websites, and conferences on gender politics. They're using research and multimedia to make sense of conflicting cultural messages and to expand our gender options, and taking on popular culture with the understanding that gender is political, but that social resources and power are not zero-sum games. What hangs in the balance is not just men's thriving and well-being: These men look at masculinity and pop culture knowing that violent masculinity is not good for--to adapt the old antiwar slogan--women, men, genderqueers, children, plants, the planet, or other living things. And when it comes to nonviolent but equally limiting depictions of men and boys, critically analyzing masculinity in pop culture goes a long way toward busting open the constraints of the Man Box, expanding gender options, and ending homophobia, transphobia, and sexual assault.
Cultural critics of a decidedly nonfeminist bent have been fretting about boys for a decade, with much of this commentary fueled by unfounded fears that young men are becoming emasculated. Books and magazine covers started screeching about the possibility that boys were suddenly "failing," and reactionary tomes proliferated. William Pollack's 1998 Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood claimed contemporary boys are "scared and disconnected." Then came Christina Hoff Sommers's 2000 The War Against Boys, which placed findings about boys' supposedly declining self-esteem at the feet of feminism. By 2003, news stories were routinely moaning about declining rates of young men in college. Newsweek's January 2006 cover photo featured four boys with furrowed brows and prematurely angsty expressions; the bold headline splashed across their pubescent chests read "The Boy Crisis: At Every Level of Education, They're Falling Behind. What to Do?" Soon after, Guy Garcia wrote his 2008 book The Decline of Men: How the American Male is Tuning Out, Giving Up, and Flipping Off His Future, which pointed to Jackass, metrosexual obsession, and gangsta culture as causing the titular decline.
But despite all the talk about epidemic anomie among the XY crowd, boys--specifically white, suburban, affluent boys--are scoring higher in school performance than ever before, say researchers like Sara Mead of the Education Sector think tank and University of Michigan education professor Valerie Lee. At the very least, any boy-girl differences in verbal, math, and reading skills are small. Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Chait Barnett reported in their 2006 Washington Post article, "The Myth of 'The Boy Crisis,'" that media was rampant with misinformed panic about boys' inability to focus, sit still, or stay out of trouble, with news stories alternately blaming this condition on boys' biology or an overabundance of female teachers who simply don't like boys. In the July 2007 Time magazine article "The Myth About Boys," David Von Drehle waxed skeptical about alarm bells concerning the New Emasculated Man. Headlines like "Boy Trouble" and "The Boy Crisis" are "enough to make people long for the [fictitious] good old days," he wrote, noting that things just weren't that bad among contemporary boys, what with safer sex practices up and reckless drinking down: Seven in 10 teen guys claimed to use condoms. Fewer than three in 10 teens reported slamming five or more consecutive drinks in the previous two weeks--the lowest rate on record, Von Drehle reported. Rivers and Barnett echoed Drehle in their Washington Post piece, citing National Education Association figures that put aggregate college enrollments at 51 percent female and 49 percent male, with men still outnumbering women at Ivy League schools.
So what's the worry? The boys are all right. Right?
Well, not quite right. There is a masculinity crisis; it's just not the kind gussied up by Hoff Sommers and her ilk and used to scorn feminism and slag off women's and girls' progress. So how can we separate the productive wheat from the reactionary chaff when it comes to decoding the politics of masculinity and pop culture?
Enter a new group of pundits, a movement of loosely connected men who are asking us to rethink the limitations and dangers of pop-culture representations of manhood that re-create stereotypes about violence or irresponsibility. These men join the feminist women, transfolk, and genderqueers who have spearheaded these efforts for decades. One group addressing the issues of pop culture and "growing up guy" is the Masculinity Project, an ambitious web-based conversation hosted by BlackPublicMedia.org that's redefining what it means to be a man. Challenging assumptions about masculinity, this project (in partnership with the National Black Programming Consortium and the Independent Television Service) highlights how black men have gotten uniquely short shrift in a pop culture that perpetuates stereotypes while ignoring real solutions to poverty and prejudice. To confront this chasm, the website raises intergenerational conversation around topics like male self-esteem, teen pregnancy, and men's roles in sexual assault prevention.
Other feminist masculinity thinkers work to reveal how male violence is profitable pop cultural fodder. In fall 2009, the Media Education Foundation plans to release an updated version of Tough Guise: Violence, Media, & the Crisis in Masculinity, a video by leading antiviolence educator Jackson Katz. Tough Guise 2 looks closely at Ultimate Fighting, the Harry Potter and Spiderman franchises, and other pop culture biggies, examining their contributions to patterns of male violence and to what Katz calls "the crisis in masculinity."
But Katz isn't talking about the backlash version of the gender story. Instead, Katz explains that the way sexism is made sexy in porn, advertisements, and other visual entertainment--combined with unprecedented violent interactivity in video games and post-9/11 constructions of masculine strength--means there's cause for concern about men's health, global masculinities, and how men's violence against women is normalized in pop culture. Katz also codirected, with Sut Jhally, the documentary Wrestling with Manhood: Boys, Bullying, and Battering, which covers professional wrestling and its telanovela-style storylines that bring high ratings and draw viewers back week after week. The film explores how the violence so many young boys learn to emulate reveals important messages about social norms and values that shape our everyday attitudes. For instance, World Wrestling Entertainment's Friday Night SmackDown regularly features a male wrestler assaulting his female love interest who, thrown from the ring in spandex and gummy-boob implants, writhes provocatively on the floor, visually melding sex with abuse. Famous WWE characters with names like The Undertaker, Edge, and Triple H vie for glory through ruthless violence and faked-out mayhem. Far from just silly mischief, the WWE franchise is a prime-time paradigm of hyperaggressive masculinity and an integrated marketing monster incorporating tv, live events, film, Internet, and sideline bobbleheads that grossed nearly $500 million dollars in 2007.
WWE is only one obvious example of how hypermasculinity brings in the bucks, so it's worth asking what happens when we keep seeing messages that being a "real guy" means posing, fronting, fighting, and not backing down.
Here's what being the kind of "real guy" lionized by so much pop culture can lead to: Reports indicate that more than 90 percent of serious domestic violence is perpetrated by men and that men are involved in more than 95 percent of all incidents of road rage. School violence like the killings at Columbine and Virginia Tech have come at the hands of boys and men. Yet gender and masculinity is often ignored by the media, school administrators, psychologists, and other experts tasked with responding to these problems.
Contrary to what people like Randy Thornhill and Craig T. Palmer, authors of the 2001 book A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases of Sexual Coercion, might have you believe, male aggression is not a biological condition; it doesn't "just happen." Boys (and girls) are taught the masculinity-equals-violence equation every time they turn on the TV, pop in a CD, or watch a news clip that features storylines about masculine dominance. Pop culture relentlessly tells boys they'll become "real men" by using power and control, says Katz, who suggests that the real question is not--as mainstream media glosses--"What's going on with our kids?" but, rather, quite specifically, "What's going on with our boys?"
Sociologist Michael Kimmel sets out to answer this question in his latest book, Guyland: The Perilous World Where Boys Become Men. In this look at the lives of young men between the ages of 16 and 26, Kimmel draws on his 30 years of experience in education and interviews with hundreds of young men. These critical growing-up years contribute to the formation of a certain kind of masculinity. Think boys and their toys, beer, babes, and (foot/base/basket)ball. That's not to say that all guys live in Guyland. As Kimmel makes clear, most guys are trying to carve out lives of meaning and integrity. But what he finds-0and what many of us already know--is that bullies, contradictions, and a missing road map for how to do things differently affect so many young men.
The main message boys have always gotten from pop culture is that being male in our society means being tough and invulnerable. The McLovin man or the geek-guy character is a bait-and-switch where media corporations trade authentic masculinity and manhood for stereotypes and big bucks. Boys are taught to avoid any style of masculinity tinged with sensitivity and compassion. "Part of that style involves viewing women as eye candy or in supportive roles as compared to our so-called primary and important roles as men," says Thomas Keith. "We see this throughout society from cheerleaders to fashion models, but even more importantly, in the way that women who have achieved political power are treated. Men are taught that women should be seen and not heard, and this sexist training instructs males to devalue anything a woman says or any achievement a woman attains."
Like Kimmel, Katz, and Keith, Kevin Powell is also concerned about confronting sexism and breaking down the stereotypes of masculinity. Editor of 2008's The Black Male Handbook: A Blueprint for Life, Powell makes a strong case for supporting men in the black community, noting that improving men's lives requires attention to women's as well. In this collection of highly personal essays, Powell--who became a public figure on the first season of MTV's The Real World--argues that men have a responsibility in preventing violence against women. Powell lays out his seven steps for ending violence against women and girls, which include taking responsibility, knowing that violence against women is a men's issue, listening to women, making a conscious decision to "be the change," and challenging other men about their "physical, emotional, and spiritual violence toward women and girls."
Actor Hill Harper, star of CSI:NY and author of Letters to a Young Brother, writes in the Handbook's foreword that many young black men "feel stuck" or lost. But when one in nine black men are incarcerated, we're clearly in crisis mode. It's time, Harper demands, that we address the cultural challenges of black masculinity head-on in order to achieve greatness and true potential. These issues have political roots and personal consequences. To that end, other Handbook contributors like Jeff Johnson and Ryan Mack provide concrete plans for improving economic conditions, creating physical health, and developing spiritual and political consciousness in their essays on, respectively, "Developing Political Awareness" and "Starting a Plan for Economic Empowerment."
Spoken-word poet Rafael Casal also connects sexual politics and unrealistic pop-culture standards. On HBO's Def Poetry, he holds advertising accountable for its role in perpetuating unattainable gender expectations. "Sometimes I feel like I'm sittin' in the back row of Barbie and Ken 101," Casal spits, adding:
A class we are all in, but never seem to learn from
Some general ed requirement for
Students of American culture
One that convinces even the brightest
of young women that sex is survival of the thinnest.
Turn on your tv, Casal tells us, and see this: "Y'all ladies ain't thin enough, fellas ain't trim enough, wanna be sexy? Y'all don't go to the gym enough...."
Asked about men's responsibility for calling out pop culture's sexism, Casal replies, "I think we all have a responsibility to draw attention to anything that is unfair or hurtful to specific groups of people." For men, Casal says, it is often an uphill battle to break the sexism habit. Yet the more we pay attention, the more possible change becomes.
Working to bring this critical awareness to everyday issues of masculinity is Byron Hurt, who recently directed the short film, Barack & Curtis: Manhood, Power & Respect. "Both are successful black men," Hurt says of his subjects, the new president and the rapper 50 Cent. "Both are rock stars. Both are admired and feared." But as Obama shatters the predominating myths about black masculinity, 50 Cent (who in 2008 was named Forbes magazine's top-earning rapper) epitomizes just as many. Juxtaposing the two promotes--in Hurt's words--historic-level conversations that hopefully also encourage us to think about new ways of doing masculinity.
These are enormous efforts toward envisioning manhood in new ways and expanding options for boys. With contributions by men like Kimmel, Katz, Hurt, and the rest as evidence, there are clearly plenty of men on the scene successfully stepping up to the challenge. But there's definitely room for more.
Shining a spotlight on masculinity and pop culture is crucial because dominance functions in part by remaining hidden. Yet, while pop culture is part of the problem, it can also be a tool for change, as the work of Powell, Harper, Casal, and others makes clear. What's exciting to see is that along with activist culture creators taking on the cultural myths of masculinity, there are slow rumblings of change in mainstream commercial media, too.
Take, for example, the ads currently sprouting from fashion magazines that feature gender-bending young men wearing Marc Jacobs dresses. And what about Dolce & Gabbana pushing both expensive accessories and the heteronormative envelope with a boy-boy kiss? There's MTV's new series Bromance, which tries (perhaps unsuccessfully) to flip the usual reality-tv setup by getting guys in the hot tub vying to be The Hills star Brody Jenner's new bff. In the music world, the pop-singing Jonas Brothers have made virginity pledges--traditionally something that is emphasized as the realm of girls. And change is even happening in pro sports: The National Hockey League put player Sean Avery on a six-game suspension for making crude public comments about two former girlfriends, perhaps signaling a new willingness to recognize that misogyny, even within that hypermasculine culture, should have negative consequences.
Are these pop-culture attention-getters actual fissures in a largely heteronormative, hypermasculine world of pop culture? Are they really putting the question mark on mainstream assumptions about men and masculinity? Or are these tv shows and two-second airtime blips just another way to let our wallets fall open while our jaws drop to the floor?
The answer: all of the above.
It's great that more men are paying attention to masculinity. But one caveat: Best to avoid a repeat of the fire-in-the-belly, let's-hang-out-in-the-woods-and-get-in-touch-with-our-feelings separatist pabulum spawned by the Iron John-type books on masculinity in the 1990s. That brand of masculinity studies--with its focus on men finding their inner archetypes--is more essentialist than progressive. And in order to move things forward when it comes to gender and masculinity, we have to ask a crucial question that's been left out in the past: Is all this attention heaped on men helpful for women? There's real hope that current cutting-edge commentary about men, by men, will lead to long-term change in the interest of improving gender conditions for all of us.
As Casal reports via his MySpace page, his hope to "help shift the idea that men feel simply about anything" is a powerful one. With social expectations that men are one-dimensional, and with pop culture images that reinforce them, we can all hope the work by men in the feminist trenches affords other men, and all the boys coming up, the space to feel empowered in their complexity. This can only be good--not just for men, but for everyone.
Shira Tarrant's books include the anthology Men Speak Out: Views on Gender, Sex and Power (Routledge) and Men and Feminism (Seal Press). She is the column editor of "The Man Files" at the blog Girl With Pen. She's currently coediting the anthology Fashion Talks: Undressing the Power of Style.