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The media's stereotyping of men

By Peter West - posted Tuesday, 18 October 2016


Our media are fond of attacking gender stereotyping. Time and again we see some program about a pattern in society. Maybe it's women footballers. It could be girls achieving in maths. Or it could be male ballet dancers. And then there is the inevitable pious statement about how this is breaking down barriers and smashing stereotypes. In fact the worst gender stereotypes are made up by the media themselves.

The commercial TV stations do this, of course. We don't expect anything more than endless programs about tough men (footballers and male politicians and so on) while women seem stuck in 'softer' roles, talking about areas familiar to us as 'women's space' - family, dresses, appearance, fashion, self-improvement. And I encourage the women who protest against the silly ways that the media write about them and trivialise them. I want to concentrate here on what's said about men.

In our media, discussion about men is monitored by, and largely written by, women. Men are weighed in the balance and found wanting. Their behaviour, their manners or lack of them, their clothing and their habits are all measured with a feminine ruler. Here's a program about families. It's done from a woman's perspective. Is there any other? And so we have to listen while women talk about fatherhood or raising boys- something that was once the domain of a father and other men, according to my research.

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But other domains which were once simply male are now subject to female opinion. How should I behave in the gym? Here is Jill Brown with her helpful suggestions. 'People will just take one dumbbell and leave it's mate on the rack. It's frustrating'. (Oh dear, and your spell-check didn't correct your grammar! How frustrating, for a reader who expects better.)

But our helpful friend continues. Check your clothing, lest you have a 'wardrobe malfunction'. God forbid if I should show a bit of thigh -or worse- in the gym! Here's another example. Men go to the gym for the wrong reasons, says Sarah Berry. Surely I can go to the gym for whatever reason I like without my motivation being critiqued by some journalist.

Clothing seems to be a favourite of the feminine critics of men. Australian men have trouble adhering to dress codes, scolds Lee Tulloch. To be fair, she also criticises women's clothing styles. But to draw generalisations about all Australian men who travel around the world from the over-publicised 'Budgie Nine', a bunch of silly fellows from wealthy private schools, is a far stretch. But then, journalists are good at making generalisations based on a tiny sample. And telling us that what they see, hear or feel must be what we all experience. Journalism has turned into a poor attempt at a personal memoir.

On ABC TV, the first things any visitor might notice are the tedious English quiz shows and the never-ending programs in which Stephen Fry pontificates endlessly. There are of course the quality programs: Wolf Hall, Poldark, and similar. Dig deeper and you'll get programs like this. Just listen to the titles. The Honourable Woman. Murder, She Wrote. Agatha Christie. Agatha Raisin. Call the Midwife. Birds of a Feather. And then a new program is announced: Home Fires. The promo reads: 'Charts the trials and tribulations of women on the Home Front during World War II'.

Are we seeing a pattern yet? Women are presented as champions, heroic people, architects of success, breakers of harmful stereotypes. This leaves men as various unpleasant types. Jim Macnamara's study of men in the media found that men were

....predominantly portrayed in media as villains, aggressors, perverts and philanderers.

More than 75 per cent of all mass media representations of men and male identity categorized into profiles portrayed men in one of these four ways. In total, more than 80 per cent of media profiles of men were negative, compared with 18.4 per cent which showed positive profiles .

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Macnamara detailed his work in an earlier article. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) has comfortable funding and a superior attitude, not to say constant self-congratulation about doing everything better than the rest. But instead of the ABC being an exception to the pattern we have observed, it is outstanding in its negative stereotyping of men. The notable exception is the current offering Man Up. This program seems well intentioned, though inclined to drift towards stereotyping. I switched off when the presenter sat in a barber's chair and out came the predictable 'metrosexual' talk. This term, according to Macnamara's research, is a fantasy created by the media, and probably created in the USA at that. In any case, one solitary program sympathetic to the question of being a better man doesn't change the negative pattern of relentlessly blaming, condemning and vilifying men. It's not OK to say negative things about Aboriginal men; or Chinese-Australians. Or Sudanese immigrants. Or Italian-Australians. That would be racist. But it's acceptable to say any number of bad things about the same people when they are labelled as 'men'.

People seem to wonder why men feel negative about themselves at times, get downcast and at times attempt suicide. But it seems that nowhere is a safe place for men to be and act, without being subject to a female critique. Women have long established their rules in the home. "You can't speak like that in this house", said my Mum when I ventured to use the term 'bloody' after I had been coarsened by contact with rough boys at school cadet camp. There must be many similar examples, especially before the 1960s or so, when 'men worked outside; women worked inside', as I found researching my book Fathers, Sons and Lovers. Surely we must allow males some room, and some places, to talk without being constantly criticised as being too this or too that, according to female standards. No wonder we need men's sheds and the Men's Shed movement. And no, when in any place at all I don't want the coarse language displayed and behaviour described by a certain candidate for President of the USA.

Gender stereotyping is unnecessary. It limits the thinking of boys and girls as they grow up. It's harmful wherever it occurs. Female trials and journeys are articulated from a sympathetic viewpoint. And this is as it should be. If women are limited by some foolish person, they protest; and they have every right to speak up. But men's journeys, sensitivities and feelings are too often made light of or ridiculed. The different ways that a man expresses his masculinity get pigeonholed into silly, patronising comments. Men themselves are not allowed to talk about their issues in their own words without being condemned or summarised by a person who thinks from a different perspective. It all makes for an imbalance in our society, and it comes especially from those who think they are above such things. Our kids, and our grandkids, deserve a lot better.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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