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Gender roles trap boys in a suffocating box of masculinity

Matty Ennis/YJI

Debates around the representation and disparity between men and women in media are certainly nothing new. One instance particularly caught my eye, with the gender swap of the titular character of UK television show Doctor Who

Like James Bond, the role of the Doctor is passed between different actors, all of which had been men for the show’s first 54 years, yet in 2017 directors cast Jodie Whittaker as the first woman to ever play the role.

In reaction, Peter Davidson, who played the fifth incarnation of the character, protested, saying it was sad to see the loss of “a role model for boys.”

Of course, this opinion was received with all the absence of nuance one would expect from the ‘twitterverse’ and beyond, met with widespread scorn and anger directed at Davidson being ‘unable to move with the times.’

But I don’t think the world quite listened to what he had to say. 

Of course, it would be ridiculous to argue that there is a lack of representation for men in the media in terms of numbers – they‘re everywhere.

But I believe that Davidson was not talking about the amount of, but rather the type of male heroes we see. It’s not that a woman would be unable to play the role, but rather that there is some value in seeing a man portraying these characteristics that are not usually shown.

The character of the Doctor has traditionally been presented as highly empathetic and caring. He acts out of compassion for others and solves problems using intellect rather than brute force: a notable key element of the lore being that the Doctor never uses guns.

As a child, I gravitated towards this character, largely because he was one of the only male heroes I was introduced to that didn’t act out of violence and aggression, a sense of superiority or an eagerness to fight – none of which I could particularly relate to.

So many male roles are reduced to fighting and aggression: just think of the male-led war films, superhero movies and the James Bond franchise that dominates the box office.

These role models, while certainly not inherently bad, do suggest that a ‘good man’ acts aggressively, quickly entering high risk situations to pursue what he wants, not thinking of the repercussions on others. If he encounters any emotional turmoil associated with this, he surely doesn’t show it.

A study by The Geena Davis institute suggests that, in TV shows, male characters commit 62.5% of violent acts against another person yet are less likely to show emotions. For example, male characters are less likely than female characters to show empathy, with 22.5% of men compared with 30.6% of women. 

We can see this so clearly through the representation of men crying in the media. As Pop Culture Detective phrases it, the masculine ideal is not quite ‘boys don’t cry’ but, rather, and perhaps more damagingly, ‘boys aren’t supposed to cry.’

In TV shows, men liking anything that isn’t seen as strictly masculine and emotionless is seen as a joke, an attack on one’s masculinity or some sort of evidence of homosexuality. 

Everywhere you look, you will notice the application of a strict criteria for the specific circumstances in which a man should cry – namely deaths such as those of the male protagonist’s wife or children. Even at this point, the moment that a man cries is treated as a huge emotional climax rather than something that should be a completely natural reaction from the beginning. 

In the episode of Riverdale that serves as a tribute to the death of character Fred Andrews, the father of lead Archie Andrews, his female friends cry openly from the opening of the episode while their male counterparts remain composed. It is not until the very climax of the episode that we see Archie himself shed a reserved tear, and this is supposed to be a shocking and harrowing moment for the audience.

When male tears aren’t shown as shocking in the most dire moments, they are treated as a joke. It’s difficult to even find evidence for this as the image of the blubbering man used for comedy is so rampant. In fact, men expressing any sort of emotion at all is often played for comedy. 

In February, a Saturday Night Live skit picked up on this by showing a group of men getting emotional over Olivia Rodrigo’s breakup pop anthem Drivers License and pretending they had never heard it before. The skit picks up on the issue but in many ways only further perpetuates the idea of men not crying, suggesting that the very notion of men feeling emotional over a song, particularly one written by a woman, is inherently a joke.

And it’s so much more than being permitted to cry. This repression of male emotion extends to putting constraints on liking or doing pretty much anything: whether it be wearing colorful or expressive clothing, liking pop music, or even how a man sits on a chair.

In TV shows, men liking anything that isn’t seen as strictly masculine and emotionless is seen as a joke, an attack on one’s masculinity or some sort of evidence of homosexuality. 

This is perpetuated relentlessly in the show Friends. The main recurring gag of one episode is the character of Joey having a bag instead of using his pockets to carry things, in another, Chandler is emasculated for liking musical theatre soundtracks. Even showing affection between male friends is prohibited under the laws of masculinity in this show as every time two male characters hug the laugh track starts and the implications of homosexuality begin. In terms of the representation of masculinity, then, it’s somewhat worrying that this is one of the most popular shows of all time.

The exact same situations are just as prevalent in real life.

Men, it seems, aren’t allowed – or more accurately, don’t allow themselves – to like anything. Liking female artists like Ariana Grande or Doja Cat makes you ‘gay,’ yet male pop stars like Shawn Mendes are aimed at being heartthrobs for girls. Boy bands like 1D  are targeted towards teenage girls but boys aren’t expected to equally like girl bands like Little Mix.

From personal experience, boys walk around with acne because they are too afraid to use skincare products or dare step into a Lush store. They wear all black gym-wear all the time because they again think it’s ‘gay’ to wear anything else and they won’t drink iced coffee or go to Starbucks for the same reason.

I’ve noticed the absurd number of times I have seen boys roll their eyes at being ‘forced’ to listen to Taylor Swift or watch romantic comedies and musicals with their girlfriends, when in reality they are happy for the opportunity to listen to different music or watch a film that doesn’t involve guns. 

It’s apparent that it’s much more socially accepted for a girl to be a ‘tomboy’ than for a guy to be into more typically feminine things.

There’s almost no avoiding that this directly feeds into male aggression and violence.

This conflict men have in seeking diverse interests has been well-documented, but even the pieces of media that seek to show men engaging in more varied activities resort back to the idea of physicality. In what I would call the Troy Bolton archetype, a man is allowed by society to have interests outside of the masculine ideal, but, like the criteria for crying, this is allowed under specific terms. In this case a boy is allowed to pursue an arts-based interest as long as his masculinity is reaffirmed through prowess in sports or other traditionally ‘masculine’ activities. 

In High School Musical, Troy has to choose between his newfound passion for theater and his pre-existing commitment to basketball. By the end of the movie, he is able to pursue both, and it is seen as a victory that his basketball friends support him in this.

But it’s interesting to note that these basketball players respect Troy pursuing theater because they already respect his sportsmanship. They pay no particular respect to the male characters like Ryan Evans who participate in theater without sports.

This is exemplified again with characters like Archie in Riverdale gaining respect from his peers to pursue music because he has earned their respect through sports. Even in David Walliams’ convention-defying The Boy in the Dress, the protagonists friends can only relate and support the titular boy because they already respect him as a talented football player. 

All in all, it creates an almost suffocating self-imposed box of masculinity and male representation to attain.

While none of these stereotypes or characters are necessarily bad, together they create a society that seems to tell boys not only not to cry but not to feel anything, or like anything, ever. This is reaffirmed by male ‘role models’ who often express little to no emotion and instead use physical force to pursue what they want, acting as emotionless creatures who have no need for talking or expression as they pursue their prey. 

When we create this divide between the stereotypical emotionless men and over-emotional women, we only further push men out of society. It breeds competitiveness, rivalry, hostility and an aggressive and abusive drive.

It would be ludicrous to suggest that the way men are shown on screen directly leads to rape culture – or worse, suggest this is an excuse – but it’s important to be aware that when we take away expression, emotion, empathy, passion or sensitivity, this void has to be replaced by something.

When men aren’t told they should express themselves or even consider the emotions of the people in the way of what they want, when they aren’t advised to go about things through talking and empathising, they will act aggressively and violently instead.

Maybe in the same way we have the necessary movement to involve women in S.T.E.M (science, technology, engineering and math), we need something similar that promotes men engaging in the arts.

Perhaps more significant change needs to be brought into not just creating more roles for women, but also re-evaluating the type of roles provided for men.

Whatever happens, suggesting that men can only be violent and aggressive is never going to help create the future we want to see: one without male violence.

Matty Ennis is a Reporter and Illustrator with Youth Journalism International.

This article is part of the No one is safe project about sexual assault around the world. It is being published in five parts of six article each on Mondays and Thursday, beginning Nov. 29, 2021. For links to the published project, click below.

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