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Are men fools and clowns? Why media images of men matter

By Peter West - posted Monday, 8 September 2014


"Get your hand off it" says the girl in the ad. Here is a cowgirl type telling men not to play with anything while driving. It's the mobile that she means, ha ha.

Why should we be concerned? Because yet again, here's an ad showing men as fools, clowns or rogues. Time and again we'll be shown someone doing the wrong thing, then told off. It always seems to be the man doing the wrong thing, and a woman ridiculing him.

I see ads about littering on suburban litter bins . Here's a man shown dropping a wrapper. And here's a woman frowning at him unimpressed and thus no longer seeing the man as desirable. Dumb men, wanting the affection of women who don't welcome their interest.

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Think of some well-known men in the comedies you watch. There are many dumb males in "The Simpsons" and the worst is Homer. "Househusbands" has a clutch of guys struggling manfully (if that's the word) trying to manage a few kids while earning money. They don't seem to make a very successful go of it, either. And the men on "Home and Away" always seem to be getting into fights, mischief and trouble. "Brooklyn 99" is a new show on SBS. It's fun - but the male cops are all lazy, work-shy and trying to impress, mostly unsuccessfully.

Once we held men up for boys and girls to admire. There were Galileo, Cook the brilliant navigator, St Patrick who converted Ireland, and tons of other saints, martyrs and heroes. Today the only males held up for our admiration are young men with amazing bodies or superhuman powers. Think of "The Bachelor" or the movie "Hercules". Clearly, these are exceptions to the rule that most men shown in the media are fools and clowns. Sorry, most of us can't look like these muscle-men or do all those superhuman tricks.

Why does all this matter? Vast sums are spent on advertising. We're told that Tony Abbott employs large teams of people to promote the good news about all his government's achievements. Propaganda supporting the current war has been with us for centuries, certainly since the First World War. Goebbels' propaganda was a vital arm of every step in Hitler's march towards Nazi domination of Europe. Advertising and images in the media change people's behaviour.

Jim Macnamara analysed images of men in the Australian media in a doctoral thesis, later published as Media and Male Identity. He found that overwhelmingly, Australian men are confronted by "a misandric world that demonises, marginalizes, and objectifies men and tries to change them. "

The discourse of the "flawed male" in the media echoes that in many educational institutions. The doctrine of "most men are bad" is reported by male students in university subjects in sociology, history and education. The publicity officer of the NSW Teachers Federation said that she wanted to live in a world without men. This may please many women, but it doesn't offer much to men. And nasty images of men in the media reinforce the negative views of men current in many sectors of education.

The effect of all the negativity is that men bunker down. They say "oh well, here's another attack". It doesn't offer much hope to young males who are already searching for an acceptable masculinity.

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Perhaps many women would like men who are more sensitive, who listen more attentively and commit more easily. But if we change men too much they won't be recognizable as men. When there's a natural disaster such as a cyclone or bushfire we expect men will come and help out. If Australia commits itself to war in the Middle East, it will be mainly men who are expected to fight.

Young men are affected by what they see on TV and in social media. Just this week the boys next door were throwing buckets of cold water on each other. It was another example of boys imitating what they see around them.

We often hear that boys are trouble. As John Marsden says, teenage boys are among the most maligned groups in society. They are called drug addicts, semi-illiterate, hopeless communicators and a leading group among school failures. Young men on the street are depicted as sources of trouble, with endless arguments about how to stop their violence. The sins of a few are visited on all. Young men aren't choosing teaching as a career and the only role models we offer are poor ones.

Do parents want their sons growing up in an atmosphere of such constant criticism of males, as males? Where is the scope for their ideas and ideals? How can we give boys a lead and show them how to make better world, if all they see is a relentless ridiculing of their sex? Boys are after all, bound to turn into men.

So for this Father's Day, I'd like to give males more hope. Let's insist that advertisers present us with more positive images of men as well as of women. For the sake of all our dads. And the sons who will be dads, soon enough.

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Another version of this article was published in The Conversation.



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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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