September 4, 2003
Males are increasingly portrayed in the media as either incompetent, repressed or villains. Are they the new victims of gender stereotyping? Andrew Bock reports.
Riding on the back of his fine Arab or Valiant charger, the hard-fighting, tough-talking macho man still saves the day fairly regularly. But in media targeted at women, stereotypes are more likely to depict men as bungling, incompetent, fall guys in the workplace — and in relationships.
Negative images of men are prevalent in advertisements, news, television drama and films. Their effect? Blokes are starting to mobilise with rumblings of complaint.
The Advertising Standards Bureau (ASB), one of the few organisations that measures gripes about stereotypes in the media, reports a steady increase in the percentage of men (now more than one third) complaining and one of their most frequent grumbles is about the way men are portrayed. In the first six months of 2003, 29 per cent of complaints about sexual discrimination in advertising were from men.
A survey conducted for the ASB in 2002, revealed that while 40 per cent of all complainants thought women were portrayed offensively, 23 per cent were offended by the depiction of men. The ads that appalled focus groups — both women and men — were those that showed men as “buffoons” or “idiots”, according to the researcher, Dr Debora Harker.
Paul Rees-Jones, director of strategic planning at George Patterson Bates advertising agency, said advertisements that ridiculed men had been around for 10 to 15 years. Recent examples include the himbo in Diet Coke ads, the idiot in Coon light cheese, and the selfish father and son in a Kraft cheese advertisement. A television advertisement for Just Jeans recently showed a man cowering from a spider until a woman saves him. Rees-Jones said staff had dubbed the genre, “the Homer Syndrome”, in dishonour of the hapless Homer Simpson.
John Marsden, the best selling adolescent fiction writer, and author of the non-fiction books Secret Men’s Business and The Boy You Brought Home, says teenage boys are also among the most maligned group in our society. “They are more maligned than any other age group and gender. The media portrays them as either drug-crazed, illiterate, unemployable, suicidal, failing at school, sex criminals or vandals. So adults tend to treat them more suspiciously and that causes them (unconsciously) to become angry or frustrated or alienated.”
Then there’s the pairing of the bumbling male and the confident woman. While this stereotype is as old as the first approach made by a nervous man to a beautiful woman, it has become much more prevalent in recent years. “There are many shows that portray boys being incompetent or stupid in relation to girls. It’s such a boring, tired old joke about boys. And I think it damages their confidence,” said Marsden.
In The Secret Life of Us, female characters like Claudia Karvan’s Alex, tend to be more forthright in relationships, inevitably morally right, and more organised than the often confused and defensive, sensitive male characters like Evan. “I should feel guilty about feeling guilty,” he declared in a recent episode.
Men prefer to cop jokes and criticisms on the chin but an increasing number are becoming disgruntled if not offended by some stereotypes.
Colin Bailey, 33, says he stopped watching television two years ago “because of all the shows that just show men trying to appease women. Even shows like Malcolm in the Middle, Everybody Loves Raymond and Gilmore Girls. And once you realise that bias is in them, you can’t watch them. It’s as if men don’t make decisions in this society. They’re like boys who do as they’re told.” Bailey said his mates used to chide him until he challenged them to look for the bias.
If programs often portray men as repressed, they equally often show empowered women expecting and asking more from men.
Popular sitcoms like Sex and the City, feature women avidly browsing for men, assessing them over coffee, and, sooner or later, moving on out of disappointment. Unlike the men, the heroines rarely get dumped or criticised by their partners. And the show almost encourages women to play the field with a more detached and critical approach. The men are either rich, “Mr Bigs”, nice, patient, sensitive guys, or else “toxic bachelors” and “himbos” with all manner of bad habits in bed.
Candace Bushnell said of the series spawned by her book: “It changed the way women look at themselves and the way they look at men. I see it as a subtle feminist tool, a stealth bomber, a secret feminist message.”
Another theme is the idea that women have been too self-sacrificing or too servile towards men and not focused enough on their own pleasure. In The Bride Stripped Bare, a diary of an Australian woman’s adultery, currently on best seller lists, author Nikki Gemmell partly justifies her increasing infidelity by asking, “Why are (women) so focused on everyone else’s pleasure at the expense of their own? What happens if they try to live selfishly?” Her presumption is that men do not also sacrifice or repress their desires, and that self sacrifice is not an Anglo Saxon, post-Christian, and even, Australian character flaw.
In a latter day form of witch-hunting, the mere word of a woman, and the possible infidelity of a man, is enough to make headlines, whether for Shane Warne or Bill Clinton. In sitcoms, men are sometimes regaled for not wanting enough sex. In the media, men are charged with wanting too much sex.
Shows like Buffy, Angel, Charmed, and Alias — despite repeating a Hollywood formula of violence against the ugly — have attained feminist approval because they display women’s power over men. There are female villains, and supportive men, but the balance is skewed in favour of female heroines and male villains. “(Female) slayers are rising everywhere,” announced Buffy in the final episode of the last series after she and her sisters, with the help of a few men, fought off a horde of male vampires from hell.
The question is whether images of evil men and (counter) attacking women are having an influence on attitudes and relationships. Are they likely to make women more suspicious of men or to encourage women to attack like Buffy the Vampire Slayer if men appear out of line?
Another issue is whether such images increase male resentment and erode their self-esteem. A theory is that the print media may contain more prejudicial generalisations about men partly because women dominate the writing field about relationships and because in an article, unlike a drama, there is no dialogue and, therefore, less need to paint even half-real male characters.
Dr Kerry Hempenstall, senior lecturer in psychology at RMIT University, asks “when does positive discrimination towards women, lead to negative impacts for men.”
Criticism of female stereotypes and what they implied about men’s attitudes, was an important platform of early feminism. It would be more than ironic if men were criticised for questioning current media stereotypes of men and relationships.
The other option for men, and one they seem to prefer, is to change the channel or turn the page and tune in to the relatively uncontested battles of sport.