Last fall, I attended SkyWorks' Real Change Boys Film-making Project to watch a collection of short documentaries by young men between the ages of 14 and 21. Each film depicted issues around gender and masculinity: identity, stereotypes, expectations, and the images of boys and men in media and popular culture.
One film in particular stood out for me: Boxed In by Brandyn Pereira. In the eight-minute film, Brandyn describes his realization of the limitations in media's stereotypical portrayal of men and boys and how these images affect boys' self-esteem.
"I was watching TV the other day and I realized that almost every guy on TV liked beer and sports; they were the family man or the hero of the situation," Brandyn explains in the opening shots, "Boys always liked video games, sports, and they rarely showed any emotion with their friends.
"I'm wondering why the media depicts young men or boys like that?"
I believe that bad behaviour is learned and media is a teacher. Take reality television shows for example -- I think this TV genre brings out the worst in people. Reality shows glorify bad behaviour and for some reason, people assume that because it's on TV, that makes bad behaviour okay in real life.
Reality TV also milks the gender code and brings out gender-specific behaviour, so viewers witness screaming, scheming, gossiping women and silent, unresponsive tough guys, with little variation. Whether intentional or not, television somehow legitimizes these classic gender roles and shows viewers the way boys and girls and men and women could or should behave. I think this is what Brandyn means when he sees such a narrow view of men and boys in media.
He admits that products "make kids cool" and explained that a few grades ago, he and his friends picked up on the gender stereotypes and adopted them out of fear of not fitting in with the expected masculine ideal. Fear plays a strong role in motivation and retailers and marketers work this to their advantage.
Buying into gender differentiation means that a profit-driven media can easily hook you into buying gender-differentiated products because they know you believe it to be true. Pink and blue as gendered colours are manufactured and nothing more than manipulation to get you to spend more money. Gender-specific products and marketing drive profits, and sexism in media sustains gendered ideals that are best left in the dark ages.
"To be human is to be yourself; society is about trying to put you in a box," says Jeff Perera, Community Engagement Manager at the White Ribbon Campaign (WRC).
It's that gendered box that Brandyn's film is about.
When I met with the young filmmaker recently, we talked about the limitations of living in a gender-stereotyped box. "TV shows show only a few specific types of males: a) genius/smart guy, b) dim-witted, c) strong, or d) a wimp," Brandyn says, "I noticed how the stereotypes don't allow men and boys to be anything else."
These media stereotypes have the power to take us hostage and hold the dagger of social expectation to our throats. Media-generated gender stereotypes can create angst among all of us because we compare ourselves to these perfect, unattainable images and we (should) know that no matter how much we shop, we will never reach the media ideals.
For some people like Brandyn, the media-generated masculine stereotype is not only confusing, it is "depressing for young people when they recognize that they don't fit the role and image of what is presented in the media."
Contradiction, shame, insult
Brandyn is quick to call out the media's mixed messages of how and who to be. "I don't know how I should act," he says, "the message aimed at young people is 'be yourself,' but the next second we're being told to conform. It's confusing."
This constant tug-of-war between the celebration of our uniqueness and adherence to the strict gender lines is not only confusing but potentially damaging. Choosing no other way to live than inside a prison of prescribed gender behaviours limits us as individual authentic beings and robs us of self-discovery and self-awareness. Unfortunately, there are people in the world who do not think outside of the gender box and will cause trouble for others who fail to embody gender expectations.
Calling someone "gay" as the go-to insult of childhood is sadly still holding its ground (I remember it being used when I was a kid in the 1970s), and I'm horrified that it's still in use. Brandyn told me about a time when one of his friends accused him of being gay because he didn't like everything he was supposed to as a male.
Accusing someone of being "gay" really means that there is something "wrong" with that person because s/he doesn't conform to the (white, straight, patriarchal) media-generated and socially sustained gender expectation. The shame associated with not fitting into the gender box feeds off of fear of not fitting in. The fear of not fitting in is ultimately a fear of being oneself.
Jeff Perera believes that we need examples of diversity in media to see men from different racial backgrounds; men of different sizes, shapes, tastes, and talents, to offer people more options to relate to. I say that instead of basing everyone against an exclusive white masculine ideal, let's celebrate and appreciate men and boys as wonderful unique creatures who can enjoy sports and video games if they want to, but may also like to sing, cook, and write short stories. Guys like Brandyn.
Brandyn was just 14 when he asked questions and made his film. This outstanding young mind recognized the unnaturalness and manipulation of gender stereotypes in media and started a conversation about it. I hope this article continues that conversation.