Last week at my school, we devoted a week of chapels and discussions to “Gender, Faith & Equality.” The week challenged our traditional thoughts on gender roles and allowed us to evaluate our individual beliefs. This week, I wanted to look at my definition of masculinity and how it has been formed through years of education from the media.
So, what does masculinity look like?
In a study from Children Now in 1999, about how male characters are portrayed in children’s TV shows, researchers found males were portrayed as angry, violent, “tough, powerful, and either as a loner or leader.” Dr. William Pollock, co-director of the Center for Men at McLean Hospital/Harvard Medical School in 1999, had these sobering words:
“Our study shows that boys are exposed relentlessly to a narrow, confining picture of masculinity in America…I’m struck by how trapped they feel. Our culture puts boys in a gender straitjacket, channeling their full range of healthy emotions into narrow forms of expression, often aggressive ones.”
From a very young age, we are fed material that shapes our character and who we develop into as adults. I look back at my perception of what a man was, and I thought men fought wars and were always the hero. I remember dressing up in camo and play-fighting with my friends outside while the girls played dress-up and dolls (though G.I. Joe’s were most definitely dolls for boys and I had a lot of them).
To reinforce my point, in an article by The Good Men Project, psychologist Dr. Kal Heller points out that men struggle with intimacy because it requires vulnerability and the risk of getting hurt. Yet our culture and society stands in stark contrast and teaches men early on to “strive for independence” and to “never let them see you sweat.”
The big problem is the long-term implication of all the messages and images in TV shows and movies. I suppose one can argue “that was then, this is now” but I think something very important is forgotten when we think this way. The things shown to young developing males sticks in their minds. Sure times have changed in media and the “modern man” is different, but the messages from 15 years ago developed a person’s character qualities now like unhealthy competitiveness, pride, an inability to be vulnerable or dependent and misogynistic attitudes. From personal experience, I felt trapped in a system of suppressed emotions and trying to fit into a mold of how I should act as a boy. The contrast is I am an inherently emotional person, and I believe men, in general, are too. I respond to things very strongly, but over the years I have developed what I call an emotion box that I throw my emotions into. The emotions men are “allowed” to have are much more surface level impulses than deep emotions and are restricted to happiness, anger and love — in the form of lust.
I cannot definitively say media is the origin of these issues, but it is an undeniable fact that media perpetuates the unhealthy and borderline insane ideals of masculinity. These things we strive for puts an incredible amount of pressure on who we “need” to be and how we are supposed to act.
How can adult men unlearn these things instilled in them as children? How do we combat an identity that is woven into our society?
For starters, if you feel these pressures know you are not alone. More and more men are recognizing the ridiculousness of traditional masculinity and are working to educate men. The Good Men Project is a great example of men seeking ways to redefine what it means to be a good man in the 21st century. They offer tons of articles covering several relevant topics for the modern man.
Second — and the main reason I struggle against what it means to be a man in our culture — my faith in God constantly breaks down my barriers and ideas of manhood. Jesus lived a radically different life than what we currently strive towards; humility, compassion, vulnerability and genuine love characterize Jesus’ life. I have experienced the most growth from studying Scripture because it challenges me to think about why I suppress my emotions, why I am afraid to be vulnerable and instead of receiving condemnation or shame I am confronted with overwhelming grace and understanding from God. Rather than trying to live up to some unrealistic standard, I am constantly learning how to accept myself and love who I am, flaws and all.