Redefining masculinity

Captain America

Captain America: a Marvel-lous example of hypermasculinity…

Society has a huge problem. It is dangerous and highly pervasive, yet normally remains undetected. Have you guessed it yet? It’s a skewed definition of masculinity. Today millions of young people around the world are without positive male role models, and the problem is getting worse. In 2012, 1 in 3 U.S. children (15 million individuals) lived without a father, three times more than in 1960 (Washington Times, 2012). While many of those fathers may still be in contact with their children and may be excellent role models to them, I suspect that number is balanced out by those fathers who, despite sticking around to help raise their children, aren’t good role models at all. Many boys and young men are desperately searching for a pattern to follow to show them how to become a man, and if they don’t have one in the family home, it makes sense for them to look to their teachers at school. However, as a quarter of primary schools in England are staffed entirely by women and men only present 12% of the primary school workforce (Daily Telegraph, 2013), that search may prove futile, causing them to turn to other sources; characters on TV and in films, for example. While watching the film Captain America 2 a while ago, I was struck by its unhelpful portrayal of masculinity, and I soon realised that most superhero films I’d seen portrayed a similarly unhelpful image.

To be fair to Captain America, he does show some genuinely desirable masculine traits, such as unwavering loyalty to his best friend and his boss, and a drive to make a difference to society. However, they remain overshadowed by his overly-muscly body, and the film actually portrays the message that without his muscles, Captain America would be a failure: skinny, powerless, and undesirable in the eyes of women. He is a striking example of ‘hypermasculinity’, ‘a psychological term for the exaggeration of male stereotypical behavior, such as an emphasis on physical strength, aggression, and sexuality’ (Wikipedia, 2014). It’s a similar story with the Hulk, whose physical prowess and aggression are his dominant features. Furthermore, the Hulk’s strength comes from getting angry, suggesting to the film’s audience that it’s okay to become angry and wreak destruction to achieve a certain end. Iron Man, too, portrays a similarly problematic pattern: Tony Stark cannot save the world as himself, so instead he clothes himself in a big metal suit to do so. Superman, Spiderman, and Batman also have to conceal their true identity behind a costume, portraying the message that they can only succeed by adopting a constructed persona and concealing the real person beneath. Furthermore, all these male heroes have an attractive girl by their side, encouraging us to believe that real men need to have a woman to define themselves against.

So in a nutshell, these films portray the message that to be a real man, you need to have big muscles, be physically powerful, be angry, conceal the real ‘you’, and be in a relationship. They also portray women as weaker than, and reliant upon, men, reinforcing sexist discourse in society. Just to clarify, I do really enjoy watching these superhero films, and I could have picked lots of other examples of ‘role models’ who portray skewed versions of masculinity (e.g. many footballers, pop-stars, and other characters on TV and in films), which unfortunately demonstrates how widespread the problem is. However good these films are, though, they provide undeniable evidence of the skewed version of masculinity valued and perpetuated by our society (even the term ‘superheroes’ sets these characters up as ideals to be aspired to!) which actually puts intense pressure on men to conform to a standard they can never reach.

The effects of males having poor role models can be seen in the ‘lad culture’ which is all too visible at uni, pressurising young men to sleep around, get drunk on a regular basis, and be incredibly misogynist. However, as ‘it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness’ (the awesome quote which Amnesty International’s iconic logo is based on), I’m going to end this blog post by giving three excellent examples of what a man should be like. The first is a guy called Gideon, who I’ve actually mentioned on my blog before. Despite seeing himself as weak and feeble, he was commanded to lead an army, and with him in charge they won a memorable victory against their enemies, demonstrating courage and assertive leadership in the process. The second is someone called Daniel, who was a highly educated young man taken prisoner in a foreign country. Despite unbelievable pressure to give up everything he believed in to fit this new culture, he refused to compromise his identity and core beliefs and was eventually rewarded with status and success as a reward for his conduct. And the third is called Jesus, who loved His friends so much – ordinary people like you and me – that He sacrificed His own life to save them from death. Even under intense pressure He demonstrated resilience and determination, doing whatever it took to keep His promise. Also, the shortest verse in the Bible – ‘Jesus wept’ – shows us that real men are allowed to cry; we don’t have to conceal our emotions behind a constructed persona.

Contrary to what society might tell us, then, real men aren’t those who get hench, get drunk, and get laid; real men are selfless, have conviction in their beliefs, take responsibility for effecting positive change, and have the courage, wisdom, sensitivity and empathy to lead well. Society needs more men like this today if masculinity is to be redefined and if all boys and young men are to have access to positive male role models. In the words of Kid President, ‘Grown ups, it’s scary but true: kids are learning how to be people by watching you.’