Masculinity is killing men: The roots of men and trauma
By Kali Holloway
Little boys internalize this concept early; when I spoke to Real, he indicated that research suggests they begin to hide their feelings from as young as 3 to 5 years old. “It doesn’t mean that they have fewer emotions. But they’re already learning the game—that it’s not a good idea to express them,” Real says. Boys, conventional wisdom holds, are made men not by merely aging into manhood, but through the crushing socialization just described. But Real points out what should be obvious about cisgender boys: “[they] do not need to be turned into males. They are males. Boys do not need to develop their masculinity.”
It is impossible to downplay the concurrent influence of images and messages about masculinity embedded in our media. TV shows and movies inform kids—and all of us, really—not so much about who men (and women) are, but who they should be. While much of the scholarship about gender depictions in media has come from feminists deconstructing the endless damaging representations of women, there’s been far less research specifically about media-perpetuated constructions of masculinity. But certainly, we all recognize the traits that are valued among men in film, television, videogames, comic books, and more: strength, valor, independence, the ability to provide and protect.
While depictions of men have grown more complicated, nuanced and human over time (we’re long past the days of “Father Knows Best” and “Superman” archetypes), certain “masculine” qualities remain valued over others. As Amanda D. Lotz writes in her 2014 book, Cable Guys: Television and Masculinities in the 21st Century, though depictions of men in media have become more diverse, “storytelling has nevertheless performed significant ideological work by consistently supporting…male characters it constructs as heroic or admirable, while denigrating others. So although television series may have displayed a range of men and masculinities, they also circumscribed a ‘preferred’ or ‘best’ masculinity through attributes that were consistently idealized.”
We are all familiar with these recurring characters. They are fearless action heroes; prostitute-fucking psychopaths in Grand Theft Auto; shlubby, housework-averse sitcom dads with inexplicably beautiful wives; bumbling stoner twentysomethings who still manage to “nail” the hot girl in the end; and still, the impenetrable Superman. Even sensitive, loveable everyguy Paul Rudd somehow “mans up” before the credits roll in his films. Here, it seems important to mention a National Coalition on Television Violence study which finds that on average, 18-year-old American males have already witnessed some 26,000 murders on television, “almost all of them committed by men.” Couple those numbers with violence in film and other media, and the numbers are likely astronomical.
The result of all this—the early denial of boy’s feelings, and our collective insistence that they follow suit—is that boys are effectively cut off from their feelings and emotions, their deepest and most vulnerable selves. Historian Stephanie Coontz has labeled this effect the “masculine mystique.” It leaves little boys, and later, men, emotionally disembodied, afraid to show weakness and often unable to fully access, recognize or cope with their feelings.
The consequences for indigenous people and other ethnic groups are profound. "Taming the wilderness," aka the Frontier Thesis, is our national myth. We're great because we hunted and killed savage beasts and Indians like virile cavemen providing for their mates.
We're still great because of our manly ability to defeat our enemies: Nazis, Japs, Commies, terrorists, disease, crime, drugs, etc. We wage war on people, places, and things until they're dead and gone because that's what men do. That's why we elected and reelected Bush and invaded Iraq and Afghanistan: to prove our manhood to ourselves.
Anyway, read the whole article. It's worth it.
For more on the subject, see America the Warrior Society and America's Cultural Roots.
Below: Superman aka America's self-image.