How the Media Define Masculinity

Families, friends, teachers, and community leaders all play a role in helping boys define what it means to be a man. Mainstream media representations also play a role in reinforcing ideas about what it means to be a “real” man in our society. In most media portrayals, male characters are rewarded for self-control and the control of others, aggression and violence, financial independence, and physical desirability.

In Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity, Jackson Katz and Jeremy Earp argue that the media provide an important perspective on social attitudes – and that while the media are not the cause of violent behaviour in men and boys, they do portray male violence as a normal expression of masculinity. [1]

In 1999, Children Now, a California-based organization that examines the impact of media on children and youth, released a report entitled Boys to Men: Media Messages About Masculinity. The report argues that the media’s portrayal of men tends to reinforce men’s social dominance.

The report observes that:

  • the majority of male characters in media are heterosexual
  • male characters are more often associated with the public sphere of work, rather than the private sphere of the home, and issues and problems related to work are more significant than personal issues
  • non-white male characters are more likely to experience personal problems and are more likely to use physical aggression or violence to solve those problems. [2]

A more recent study found similar patterns in how male characters were portrayed in children’s television around the world: boys are portrayed as tough, powerful and either as a loner or leader, while girls were most often shown as depending on boys to lead them and being most interested in romance. [3]

These portrayals are of particular concern when it comes to young boys, who may be more influenced by media images than girls. In the 2008 article Media and the Make-Believe Worlds of Boys and Girls, Maya Götz and Dafna Lemish note that girls generally pick and choose what media content to integrate into their imaginary worlds – an approach the authors summarize as “leave something out, take something in and dissociate from it.” Boys, on the other hand, tend to incorporate media content into their own imaginations wholesale, “taking it in, assimilating it, and then taking the story further.”  According to Götz and Lemish, “boys… dream themselves into the position of their heroes and experience a story similar to the one in the original medium.” [4]

The portrayal and acceptance of men by the media as socially powerful and physically violent serve to reinforce assumptions about how men and boys should act in society, how they should treat each other, as well as how they should treat women and children.


[1] Earp, Jeremy and Jackson Katz. Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity (study guide). Media Education Foundation, 1999.
[2] Boys to Men: Media Messages About Masculinity. Children Now, 1999.
[3] Gotz, Maya. Girls and Boys on Television. International Central Institute for Youth and Educational Television, 2008.
[4] Götz, Maya and Dafna Lemish. Media and the make-believe worlds of boys and girls. Televizion,  No. 1, 2008.