Thursday, November 18, 2010

Socially constructed masculinities: The role of media

This article was written for school (what else is new) - but it was based on a post that originally appeared here and was then expanded a bit for Elephant Journal.

There are two "appendices" at the end, referenced in the article - and a complete list of references, but no links, sorry.

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Socially constructed masculinities: The role of media

In his recent article for the Big Hollywood site (2010), “America Loves Manly Men Not Metrosexual Emos,” conservative blogger Ben Shapiro pronounces his preference that his leading men be manly men, not metrosexuals like Johnny Depp. Shapiro laments the decline of traditionally masculine men in Hollywood films and as stars in the film industry. At one point he even refers to the current crop of male stars as “douchefaces” (which he qualifies by adding, “in Greg Gutfeld’s terminology” – a disingenuous attempt to use an insult without taking credit for its baseness). Among those he singles out for his disdain are Johnny Depp, Taylor Lautner, Jude Law, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Zach Braff. Shapiro claims that Hollywood prefers male leads that look like women (para. 9).

Shapiro looks fondly back to manly men like John Wayne (of course), Clint Eastwood, Errol Flynn, and Marlon Brando, although he also acknowledges Christian Bale and Russell Crowe as current manly men. He is also fond of now-past-their-prime action stars such as Sylvester Stallone—whose 60+ year-old muscles are growth hormone and testosterone powered (Stein, 2008, p. 2)—Bruce Willis, Liam Neeson, and even Harrison Ford. Shapiro’s reasoning that these guys are still cool despite their advancing age, besides the obvious fact of their talent, is as follows:
It’s not because they’re old. It’s because they’re dudes. Men want to be them. Women want to be with them. They kick ass, take names, and don’t shave their chests. (para. 13)
The new crop of male leads are the guys that young women swoon over, to use a phrase that recalls stars of the past such as Humphrey Bogart or Frank Sinatra. The new male stars Shapiro so dislikes represent the end of the hegemony of conservative, traditional masculinity [see Appendix A]. These younger men and the new masculinities they enact represent a post-modern social construction of gender roles rather than the pre-modern God-given version of manliness, or the essentialist modern version epitomized by John Wayne, Roger Moore (as “Bond, James Bond”), or even Stallone as Rocky and Rambo. To Shapiro, this transition is both sacrilegious and seems to threaten his own sense of gender identity.

Breaking down the terms

To move forward, a look back to the period when the nature of the debate began to change can set the stage for further explorations. Naming distinctions in human experience, especially abstractions such as sex and gender, can shape and define future conversation. In fact, when new concepts are spread from mind to mind by language (memes), they act much like genes in propagating themselves (Dennett, 1994; Dawkins, 1976). Academic terms are only as useful as they are descriptive.

In the latter half of the last century, as feminism gained ground in both academia and the larger culture, gender studies acquired more influence, eventually redefining the terms of the debate around sex and gender. One of the first distinctions made was between just those two terms—“sex” was defined as a biological trait (male or female), and “gender” was defined as a socially constructed trait (masculine or feminine) (Champagne, 2007, p. 614). Further distinctions based on roles, stereotypes, and attitudes were also suggested, as outlined by Stets and Burke (2000):
It is important to distinguish gender identity, as presented above, from other gender-related concepts such as gender roles which are shared expectations of behavior given one's gender. ... The concept of gender identity is also different from gender stereotypes which are shared views of personality traits often tied to one's gender such as instrumentality in men and expressiveness in women (Spence and Helmreich, 1978). And, gender identity is different from gender attitudes that are the views of others or situations commonly associated with one's gender…. (p. 997)
The most important groundwork was conducted in the 1970s, but as male studies developed, so did the terminology.

In the masculinity literature, distinctions between core gender identity and gender-role identity also were proposed. According to Stoller (1985), core gender identity is the absolute sense of being a male or female, generally achieved around 24 months. This is nearly identical to one’s biological sex (with an exception for transgendered people whose core gender identity is opposite of their biological sex). Person and Ovesey (1983), proposed gender-role identity as the internalized awareness of oneself as masculine or feminine—a distinction that is “multiply determined by biological, sociological, and psychological components” (Meissner, 2005, p. 2). Finally, the idea of gender order was proposed by Jill Matthews (1984), and expanded upon by Robert Connell (1987), to describe the ways in which culture enforces and propagates gender stereotypes through socialization.

Naming the stereotypes

A culture’s media enforces and perpetuates gender stereotypes: literature (classic fiction offers the most complex depictions of men, but few people read any more), film (offering the widest cross-cultural possibilities if one watches foreign or independent films), television (where men are hero crime solvers or buffoon fathers), magazines (where advertisements reflect impossible ideals of masculinity [see Appendix B]), music (with hard rock and rap often singled out for their misogyny and degradation of women), and so on. When people experience perspectives outside of their comfort zone, they can either reject them as wrong, evil, and so on, or they can allow that exposure to create an opening into their own experience.

Becoming aware of one’s own gender roles, stereotypes, and attitudes is challenging because of the degree to which most people are culturally embedded (Harryman, 2010b). Sometimes that “blind spot” changes through the simple process of “exposure” that often happens when young people go away to college. However, in relationship to male stereotypes, several have already been identified that, once one becomes aware of them, seem obvious and cliché. A few of the best-known include “The Joker, The Jock, The Strong Silent Type, The Big Shot, and The Action Hero” (Children Now, 1999, p. 3). Each of these characters are essentially
one-dimensional, especially in film, whether one looks at John Belushi (1979) in Animal House or Adam Sandler in any film he makes (the joker), Clint Eastwood as The Man with No Name in the Sergio Leone’s spaghetti western trilogy of the 1960s (strong silent type), Robert Redford (1984) in The Natural (the jock, the strong silent type), Michael Douglas (1987) in Wall Street (the big shot), or everyone from George Reeves (1951) to Christopher Reeve (1978) as Superman (the action hero).

Perhaps none of these is as pervasive and as potentially destructive as the stereotype of the strong silent type (SST). Whether it was John Wayne and Humphrey Bogart in the middle of the last century or Christian Bale and George Clooney in the current culture, the “real man” is in control, smooth with the women, capable of doing almost any “manly” task, emotionally restrained (or even stoic), and impossibly good looking. Further, the SST contains many of the others, including the jock, the action hero, and even the big shot—only the joker is represents a wider range of emotions and imperfections.

What young men learn from these enactments of masculinity is a very limited and limiting selection of acceptable traits considered manly. These men show no fear, reveal no tenderness or vulnerability, solve all problems with action (often violence), and never fumble for the right thing to say to a woman (which brings up another issue, they are never gay and rarely a minority). These depictions reinforce hegemonic masculinity for both men and women, continuing the intergenerational oppression of both men and women in their ability to be whole people.

Gender role strain and bricolage masculinity

Pervasive media images of masculinity shape many young male lives as they internalize this unconscious blueprint for how to be a man. Even if a young man receives different messages from his parents, his church, or his teachers, the pervasiveness of the media still shapes his gender identity. All the while, however, he may have feelings and desires that do not conform to the culturally approved gender role—he might feel scared, insecure, clumsy, or even attracted to other men. If he continues trying to conform to the external expectations, and if he does repress the internal dissonance, he will experience what Joseph Pleck named Gender Role Strain (GRS) in The Myth of Masculinity (1981). Pleck’s GRS model revolutionized gender studies because it overthrew the existing essentialist model and replaced it with a social constructionist model that better accounts for people’s experience.

The actors and images that Shapiro objected to in the article mentioned at the beginning of this paper represent the cultural norming of male gender role strain. Many of the actors he ridicules are enacting the transitional space between traditional masculinity and a “fluid” masculinity that comes with maturity and awareness (Harryman, 2010a). In the interim, these actors are assembling pieces of differing models that feel right for them:
Perhaps what we are currently witnessing at the start of the twenty-first century is nothing less than the emergence of a more fluid, bricolage masculinity, the result of ‘channel-hopping’ across versions of ‘the masculine.’ Narrow stereotypes, based upon biological differences, have finally been laid to rest. (Beynon, 2002, p. 6)
As these young men find personally meaningful pieces of what may be considered transgressive masculinities, and if those pieces address some of the GRS they are experiencing as they try to find their place within the masculine world, then they successfully reduce their GRS.

For all its power to reinforce and perpetuate limiting gender roles, identities, and attitudes, media can also open up new worlds for some who may not otherwise experience them. For a gender confused boy in the Bible-belt Midwest, seeing metrosexual and “gender-fuck” (Monro, 2007, para. 3.15) models in magazines and advertisements can be validating and supportive of his own experiments in enacting transgressive gender roles/identities. While those clinging to traditional hegemonic masculinity, such as Shapiro at the beginning of this paper, may be horrified by the ways younger men can now dress and behave, these transgressions represent an important transitional space toward healthier and balanced masculinities—plural.


Beynon, J. (2002).
Masculinities and culture. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Champagne, J. (2007). Gender identity. In Malti-Douglas, F. (Ed.),
Encyclopedia of sex and gender (Vol. 2, pp. 614-616). New York: Thomson Gale.

Children Now. (1999, December). Boys to men: Media messages about masculinity.
Sixth Annual Children & the Media Conference. Retrieved from

Connell, R. W. (1987).
Gender and power: Society, the person and sexual politics. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press.

Dawkins, R. (1976).
The selfish gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Dennett, D. C. (1994). The role of language in intelligence. Retrieved from

Harryman, W. (2010a, September). Multiplicity and fluidity in masculine identity development.
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Harryman, W. (2010b, October). The cultural self in Integral Psychology: Narratives of multiplicity in multicultural counseling and leadership coaching.
Integral Leadership Review, 10(5). Retrieved from

Matthews, J. J. (1984).
Good and mad women: The historical construction of femininity in twentieth-century Australia. Sydney, Australia: Allen and Unwin.

Meissner, W. W. (2005, February). Gender identity and the self: Part I. Gender formation in general and in masculinity.
The Psychoanalytic Review, 92(1).

Monro, S. (2007, January 31). Transmuting gender binaries: The theoretical challenge.
Sociological Research Online, 12(1). doi: 10.5153/sro.1514

Person, E. S. & Ovesey, L. (1983). Psychoanalytic theories of gender identity.
Journal of the American Association of Psychoanalysis; 11:203–226.

Pleck, J. (1981).
The myth of masculinity. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Shapiro, B. (2010, November 5). America loves manly men not metrosexual emos. Retrieved from

Stein, J. (2008, January 24). Stallone on a mission. Retrieved from,9171,1706759-1,00.html

Stoller, R. J. (1985).
Presentations of gender. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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Appendix A: “Safe” Transgressive Masculinities

Ambiguously gorgeous Johnny Depp

David Beckham in a sarong

Russell Brand is half pirate, half pretty girl

Appendix B: Unrealistic Images of Men

Not your father's underwear company

How long do they starve for those abs?

Arnold is small by today's bodybuilding standards

Even a more natural body is not realistic for most men

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