In Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood and American Culture, Jackson Katz argues that the “epidemic” of male violence is rooted in the media’s inability to move away from stereotypical versions of what it means to be a man. Katz argues that young men and boys receive constant messages, both subliminal or apparent, from sources of media such as television, video games and films that reinforce violent, sexist and homophobic ways of thinking.[i]
The 2020 report If He Can See It, Will He Be It? analyzed TV programs aimed at boys, finding that male characters were:
- less likely to show emotions than female characters, including stereotypically feminine emotions such as empathy, stereotypically masculine ones such as anger, or even happiness
- more likely to be shown taking risks
- less likely to have onscreen parents
- more likely to be both perpetrators and victims of violence
The study also found that:
- LGBTQ characters were underrepresented in boys’ TV compared to the US or Canadian population
- characters with disabilities were underrepresented by a factor of more than ten
- non-white male characters were even less likely to show emotions than white ones.[ii]
Stereotyped views start early and can last a lifetime: according to Dr. Rebecca Martin, interim head of psychology at South Dakota State University, “children are developing stereotypes by age 2. By 3 or 4 they have a lot and begin to start expressing them.”[iii] 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.”[iv]
“Media reinforce the idea that masculine traits and behaviors are more valued than feminine traits and behaviors, and boys who consume these media messages are more likely to exhibit masculine behaviors and beliefs.”[v]
Children’s media habits have a clear effect on their views about gender: four-year olds who watch more TV are more likely to say that boys are better than girls.[vi] Boys who feel strongly defined by male stereotypes are up to seven times more likely to have been more violent and six times more likely to have sexually harassed someone than those who do not.[vii] Boys are hurt by these stereotypes, as well, with those who subscribe to male stereotypes being twice as likely to have had suicidal thoughts,[viii] half as likely to get preventative health care[ix] and significantly more likely to engage in risky behaviours such as smoking or heavy drinking.[x] Similarly, a survey of over a thousand boys aged 10-19 found that a third felt society expected them to hide or suppress their feelings and almost half felt society expected them to be aggressive or violent when they are angry.[xi]
While many of the issues around gender representation are the same for girls and boys, the effects can be different. As writer and researcher Peggy Orenstein puts it, “the kind of core issue with girls was that they were being cut off from their bodies and not understanding their bodies’ response and their needs and their limits and their desires. With boys, it felt like they were being cut off from their hearts.”[xii]
[i] Katz,J & Earp, J (2013). Tough Guise 2: Violence, Manhood and American Culture (study guide). Media Education Foundation.
[ii] If He Can See It, Will He Be It? Representations of Masculinity in Boys’ Television (Rep.). (2020). Geena Davis Insitutte on Gender in Media.
[iii] Campbell, O. (2017) Why Gender Stereotypes in Kids’ shows are a REALLY big deal. Refinery29. Retrieved from https://www.refinery29.com/en-us/kids-shows-gender-roles-stereotypes
[iv] Götz, Maya and Dafna Lemish. Media and the make-believe worlds of boys and girls. Televizion, No. 1, 2008
[v] Common Sense Media (2017) Watching Gender: How stereotypes in Movies and on TV Impact Kids’ Development. Retrieved from https://www.commonsensemedia.org/sites/default/files/uploads/pdfs/2017_commonsense_watchinggender_executivesummary_0620_1.pdf
[vi] Halim ML, Ruble DN, Tamis-LeMonda CS. Four-year-olds’ beliefs about how others regard males and females. Br J Dev Psychol. 2013;31(Pt 1):128-135. doi:10.1111/j.2044-835X.2012.02084.
[vii] Heilman, B., Guerrero-López, C. M., Ragonese, C., Kelberg, M., and Barker, G. (2019). The Cost of the Man Box: A study on the economic impacts of harmful masculine stereotypes in the US, UK, and Mexico - Executive Summary. Washington, DC, and London: Promundo-US and Unilever.
[viii] Heilman, B., Guerrero-López, C. M., Ragonese, C., Kelberg, M., and Barker, G. (2019). The Cost of the Man Box: A study on the economic impacts of harmful masculine stereotypes in the US, UK, and Mexico - Executive Summary. Washington, DC, and London: Promundo-US and Unilever.
[ix] Springer, Kristen W, and Dawne M Mouzon. “”Macho men” and preventive health care: implications for older men in different social classes.” Journal of health and social behavior vol. 52,2 (2011): 212-27. doi:10.1177/0022146510393972
[x] Mahalik, James R et al. “Masculinity and perceived normative health behaviors as predictors of men’s health behaviors.” Social science & medicine (1982) vol. 64,11 (2007): 2201-9. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2007.02.035
[xi] 10 Research-Based Insights to Evolve On-Screen Male Representation. (n.d.) Center for Scholars & Storytellers.
[xii] Gross, Terry. “‘Boys & Sex’ Reveals That Young Men Feel ‘Cut Off From Their Hearts.’” NPR, January 7, 2020. Retrieved from < https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2020/01/07/794182826/boys-sex-reveals-that-young-men-feel-cut-off-from-their-hearts>