Friday, January 21, 2011

Male Stereotypes (and Yes, I Heart Men too)

So, in lieu of the feminist-esque "women rock" type blogs I've been writing lately, a good male friend of mine asked if I hate men. After laughing for several minutes, I replied with an astounding: "NO." In fact, I love men! Men are great! Go Team Men! What I DO hate, however, are stereotypes the media places on women. I do recognize that such stereotypes are placed on men too. It's a two-way street, and I definitely see that. So this blog post is going to be dedicated to the negative ways MEN are stereotyped in the media as well. Cuz I have love for the men too. Got it? Good :)

As some of you might know, I'm a big television, film, video game buff. And throughout many years of sitting on my butt and watching/playing insane amounts of pop culture I've noticed a few trends. Males are generally (and I say generally because this isn't an all-encompassing review of ALL media everywhere - just what I've noticed from the things I see) separated into two categories. There is the Alpha Male and there is the Beta Male figure. Let me break them both down.

The Alpha Male

One of the most prominent male stereotypes in the media is that of the alpha male. Whether a character is the strong silent type, an action hero, a big shot, or an athlete, the ideal of masculinity is the figure of dominance. The Alpha Male is always in control of his own emotions and actions, and often in control of others as well. He is physically strong, or socially powerful. He's often a womanizer, not caring for monogamy. He is in most cases physically attractive and aggressive. The alpha male character is likely to be either violent, or put into violent situations (which he is more than capable of dealing with.)

Gears of War's Marcus Fenix is a perfect example of the Alpha Male. He's a tough, no-nonsense type of guy. And he's got a HUGE peni... er... gun. Enough said.
Characters who possess these Alpha Male traits are found in movies, cartoons, and video games. He-Man, Rambo, and Batman are quintessentially masculine Alpha Males. Popular actors such as: Harrison Ford, Wesley Snipes, Bruce Willis, Clint Eastwood and Arnold Swazenegger have all played many Alpha Male roles. Video games such as Gears of War and Grand Theft Auto allow players to step into the world of a powerful, violent man.

Arnold spend the first 30 years of his life building his superhuman strength.  Every role he has ever played has tough-guy written all over it. Don't think his character in Kindergarten Cop is tough? YOU try to act in a movie when your instinct tells you to murder all the annoying child actors. Look at the manly movies he's in: Running Man, Terminator 1, Terminator 2, Conan the Barbarian, Predator, Total Recall, Commando, etc. In 2006, he broke his right femur (which is the toughest bone you can break.) In almost every way, Arnold is manlier than everyone.
What has inspired this highly stereotypical media portrayal of men? According to the Consortium for Media Literacy, many cultural historians believe the need for the super-male is rooted in anxiety over the loss of male dominance in the 1970's. After the weakness and impotence demonstrated in the Vietnam War, the power of the white male in society, and of the United States in the world, was threatened. Identifying with alpha male traits is a way for North American culture to hold onto the identity of the strong masculine figure. There is a sense of security in believing that everyone, from women and children, to the rest of the world, is dependent on this dominant, muscular being who can clearly protect you and kick any bad-ass beings that come in your way. 

Personally, I think this image and desire of the "super powerful man" can be traced all the way back to the cave man days where the biggest, toughest, bravest man would be the sole provider for the family. Big and tough was needed to kill the animals, build the home, fend off the beasts, etc. Being a so-called Alpha Male was necessary to survive and thrive. This belief is still perpetuated today, even though we can always just mosey along to the nearest grocery store and pick up a big slab of pre-cut meat ourselves. :P

The Beta Male

Another influential trend in the media portrayal of men is the Beta Male. This character is often found as one of the main characters of television sitcoms. Unlike the capable Alpha Male, the Beta Male is more or less incapable of everything. He tends to fall, and rarely tries to be successful. He is fundamentally worthless to society, and manages to survive through luck, or a capable mother, wife, sister, or friend. He is not scared to show his emotions (in some instances he is shown to be comically over-emotional) and often he isn't the brightest bulb on the block. On the other hand, he might be uber smart - a super geek to the thousandth degree. He might often seek reassurance and approval from others. Where Alpha Males tend to get everything (including the girl) the Beta Males either get nothing, or just the left overs. 

The Beta Male is Homer Simpson and Al Bundy. He is Spencer Shay from the kid's sitcom, iCarly, and Raymond from Everybody Loves Raymond. This male stereotype is another version of masculinity; another choice for young men to emulate. 

Homer Simpson is the quintessential Beta Male. He is a 'loser with a heart of gold' fumbling through life and surviving on pure luck and the help of others. 

How These Portrayals of Men Influence Society

So, what do these two major stereotypes offer to the development of boys? The Alpha Male sends the message that strength and power is the meaning of masculinity and the answer to life's trials. The Beta Male gives boys another character to grow into - the likable slacker. According to popular culture, then, there are two choices: To be accepted as an uber masculine member of society (by always being in control and in some way powerful), or to not bother trying at all and letting someone else do the work.

There seems to be an over-arching message in popular culture when it comes to how boys should grow up. According to the media, it's often not acceptable to be emotional, compassionate, family-oriented, sensitive, artistic, analytical, or compromising. These are not MANLY traits. If boys want to be the desired Alpha Male, they must throw all emotion out the window. 

And heaven forbid if you are a gay male in the media. You are automatically cast as the Beta Male - no questions asked. While this is certainly a stereotype, the Beta Male gay character is portrayed over and over on television and in films today. 

These male stereotypes are just as bad as the negative stereotypes placed on women in the media. There are, of course, a few instances of wonderful male role models out there. Some Alpha or Beta Males on television and in movies and video games also display noble and even caring characteristics. So how can society emphasize the positive aspects of male characters, while at the same time dissolving the negative messages?

Parents, caretakers, teachers, and influential figures can talk to both young boys and girls about ideas of masculinity. Discuss why a violent, aggressive lifestyle is not going to lead to a healthy, fulfilling life. Talk about respect and working with other people to solve problems. Praise boys for wanting to help and nurture others. Let them know that it is alright to have and express emotions. No male has to be an Alpha Male or a Beta Male to be accepted as a member of a society. In fact, boys can be a mixture of both! There are no need for rigid categories of manhood. Boys are who they are, and they should be proud of that. 

Basically, what this all boils down to is that women AND men are negatively stereotyped in the media. Whether it be impossibly sexualized versions of photoshopped women or bulked up aggressive portrayals of the Alpha Male, these stereotypes exist for both sexes. What is important is that young people realize the ridiculous nature of such media portrayals and begin to accept themselves as they are, despite what the media depicts as the "perfect" person to be.

- Jennie

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Killing us Softly: Women in Advertising

Back in University when I was taking various advertising and media courses, I remember my professor screened a video during lecture called, "Killing us Softly" which deconstructed the way women are portrayed in advertising. I remember absolutely loving the film and I was lucky enough to come across a part of it today on YouTube (isn't YouTube just GREAT?)

Within the film, Jean Kilbourne takes a fresh look at how advertising traffics in distorted and destructive ideals of femininity. The film marshals a range of new print and television advertisements to lay bare a stunning pattern of damaging gender stereotypes - images and messages that too often reinforce unrealistic, and unhealthy, perceptions of beauty, perfection and sexuality. The film challenges a new generation to take advertising seriously, while thinking critically about popular culture and its relationship to sexism, eating disorders, and gender violence. Definitely a must see if you can get your hands on it! For now, here's a great clip:

- Jennie

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Why I Detest Cosmo

When I was a young, naive, teenage girl, I remember my mom would tell me that she'd purchase any magazine I wanted from Shoppers Drug Mart before our annual vacation to the East Coast so I'd have something to read in the car. My immediate response would always be, "I want a Cosmo!" (because all the cool girls my age were reading it.) My mom would hand me the desired magazine and I'd slightly blush as I read some of the cover headlines... things such as: "Our Most SHOCKING Sex Survey!", "Sex Sessions that End in the ER!" and, "How to Make your Man BEG for More!" With such smutty articles inside, it's a wonder my mom bought these trashy mags for me at all!

But she did, and so began my desire to be the BEST woman I could possibly be so that I could hook, snag, and keep the perfect man.

I groan inside when I think about how horribly naive and stupid I was back then. I let these magazines totally brainwash me into believing that I had to act and look a certain way to appeal to the opposite sex. In order to have ANY semblance of self worth I had to follow Cosmo's ridiculous work-out and diet regimens, I had to perform incredible sexual acts in bed, and if all else failed, the last pages of Cosmo always provided advertisements on plastic surgery for a quicker fix to perfection.

These magazines made me feel terribly insecure and inadequate. How would any guy EVER want to date me if I wasn't a size 4? I had never even kissed a guy before, let alone "make him scream with pleasure" behind closed doors! And the beautifully airbrushed women on the cover (who I was supposed to relate to) had nothing in common with me at all. Was this how I was supposed to look like if I wanted to attract a man? Apparently so.

As a much older (and hopefully wiser) woman, I now see the mind-games and manipulation at work in magazines like these that target themselves towards a demographic of impressionable, insecure young girls. Despite Cosmo's claims that their articles will change your love life, I now see that the brightly coloured (in every hue of pink imaginable) pages did not contain any award winning literature or life changing advice.

The #1 Secret of Confident Chicks, eh? Not likely.
I recently picked up a friend's Cosmo and was appalled by what I found. Of the 247 pages in the October 2009 issue (You know, the one with Megan Fox airbrushed, photo-shopped with her soulless stare on the cover), 140 pages were full page ads, 15 of them before you even get to the table of contents. This means that the magazine is just over 56 percent ads (all beauty products and clothing that will make your supposed drab and dull self appeal more to the bearded sex.) Of the roughly $20 you would pay for a year long subscription, you would be paying about $11.33 for the ads.

Cosmo just made me do math, which is another reason on my long list of why I detest them.

This doesn't even include all the pseudo-ads that look like an article at first, or even the ads that are clearly just promotional. The 'article' "All Night Long" was just a thinly veiled promotion for 12 products you can use to cover up any signs that you just got laid.

Oh, and don't get me started on the sex advice. Most of the "expert" advice in the articles tell young readers "don't bite that" and "don't put a finger in there." The worst part of all this advice is that most of it is given with the reasoning that your man will like and want this, and you must do these things to keep him. Decades of feminism and the strife of hundreds of women just went right down the drain.

"Bad girl sex - 12 moves to show him your really naughty side."

"His girlfriend wish list - Do you have these nine surprising traits?"

"50 sex tricks - Trust us: You'll be the first girl naughty enough to try #43 on him."

The only advice not centered around pleasing a man is the workout advice, and even then it is to tone your body to make him happy. Scour an entire year's worth of Cosmo and you might have enough literature that is legitimate self-empowering to fill a napkin.

And by self-empowering, I mean things like, "Hair that says 'Hire me!'", where you can forget about a well written resume and experience, as long as you have a stylish new bob or the right highlights, you'll be hired in no time!

The sad thing is, every Cosmo magazine is a cookie-cutter version of the next. They all aim to make a girl feel horrible about the way she naturally looks. They claim enhancements are vital if she is to ever go anywhere in life. And if you don't follow these tips? Well, you'll surely become an old spinster in a lonely corner with 12 cats and your grey roots showing for the world to see.

Cosmopolitan covers look painfully airbrushed. Take for instance, Britney Spears on the August 2010 issue. I understand that making Britney Spears look anything less than a mess is no easy task. But in this installment of Photoshop Experiments Gone Bad, I wish Cosmo would have been a tad less liberal with their magic wand.

The August cover features Britney's head and Britney's (airbrushed) body, but as two totally separate entities. It's as if they took half of the image from one shot, and the other half from a different shot, then cut and pasted them together, ransom-note style. In fact, that's pretty much exactly what they did.

How could Cosmo allow this cover to go to print? Unlike other photoshop errs, this one is impossible to miss. Could is be that they are trying to make people notice the hack job they did to poor Britney's neck?

How many times can you count the word "sex" on these covers?
So, yes, the girls on the cover of Cosmo magazine are literally Frankenstein-type versions of their real selves. What gets to me is that many young girls don't realize this. They think that these body types are real - and that's where eating disorders and severe depression steps in.

I'll admit that I have never been a size 4 in my entire life, and I probably never will be. But that's okay with me. As I've grown up I've learned to appreciate my curves, despite what the media and popular culture tell me is "sexy" and "desirable" by men. In fact, the men I've dated have all enjoyed the extra junk in my trunk that I carry around. As one boyfriend once said, "who wants to make love to a skeleton?" 

What these magazines are REALLY saying
It scares me that young girls are exposed to these image in the media today. Coupled with all the superficial television shows and movies out there now, I seriously think there should be classes within the school system at an early age that teach children (both girls and boys) that you don't have to look or act a certain way to be desired. It's okay to be a geek. It's okay to not have your ribs poking out of your chest. It's okay to just be you - whatever shape, size, or colour that you are.

Magazines like Cosmo just make me laugh today, but I do realize some people take these mags and the messages within them seriously. That's just not cool. I hope more empowering images of women of all sorts will soon grace the cover of magazines and be the new role models for impressionable young females. If not, I seriously worry for the women of the future. 

- Jennie

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

A B C D Environment?: How Nature is Portrayed in Children's Films

Children often form their thoughts and beliefs regarding the natural environment at a very young age, primarily through the viewing of films geared towards them.
However, as more and more children acquire video games, computers, and even cell phones, rather than bicycles, fishing poles and roller blades, their interaction with the natural environment and the outdoors becomes increasingly scarce, resulting in higher levels of childhood obesity and lower levels of environmental enthusiasm.

Over the last few years, I've noticed that, aside from several exceptions, environmental issues have become less and less discussed within children’s entertainment, while ideals of consumerism and materialism are increasingly promoted.

Still, there exist some films that promote environmentally friendly messages to the children who watch them.

“One of my favourite movies is Bambi,” said a cousin of mine, six-year-old Megan Swim. “Hunters and people who burn the forest aren’t good.”

Megan isn’t the only one who enjoyed the messages of the popular Disney film, Bambi (1942). Many environmentalists and animal-rights activists credit the movie with awaking their concern for the environment.
Who DIDN'T cry when poor Bambi's mom was shot? :(
Bambi, Walt Disney’s animated classic, is set in a lush forest in which nature is constantly unfolding. The main protagonist of this film, a young deer named Bambi, befriends a variety of forest dwelling animals, including a rabbit named Thumper and a skunk named Flower. Bambi’s life in the forest appears blissful, until one fateful morning when he and his mother are spending an afternoon in a nearby meadow and, much to Bambi’s dismay, his mother is shot and killed by a hunter. From this point on in the movie, it is made clear to children that the villains are human hunters – the epitome of evil as they spray the woods with gunfire, killing many of Bambi’s friends. The hunters (who are never really seen and only heard loudly as boisterous satanic shadows) further cause destruction and chaos within Bambi’s life as they burn down a large section of the forest, displacing the animals and destroying their homes.

More recently, several popular children’s films (from Disney as well as other corporations) continue to promote environmental messages within their plots. For example, Twentieth Century Fox’s FernGully: The Last Rainforest (1992) teaches children the repercussions associated with the destruction of the rainforest. In a similar vein, within Disney’s Pocahontas (1995), the daughters of a Native American tribe chief attempts to stop the greedy white men who have come to exploit and colonize the land and steal its gold. Throughout the film Pocahontas urges the American men (particular the love interest of the film – John Smith), to recognize the importance of nature and everything that resides in it. Her message now echoes in the hearts of children everywhere through the hit song “The Colors of the Wind”, which keeps reminding them that the mountains, trees, and everything in nature is filled with spiritual life and linked in a never-ending circle.    
Pocahontas showed all viewers just how precious nature can be
In 2005, Over the Hedge illustrated to children what happens to the animals left behind after their homes have been clear-cutted to make way for new developments. TV Guide called this movie about creatures that wake from hibernation to find their forest half gone, "A sly satire of American 'enough is never enough' consumerism and blind progress at the expense of the environment." This message may go over a young child's head, yet they do understand what happened to these poor animals was bad, and that perhaps forests and the unique animals living within them are worth protecting.
How could someone not feel for these poor animals who lost their home?
Also, in one of my personal favourite movies, Wall-E (2008), Disney managed to paint the picture of an apocalyptic future dominated by endless landscapes of  garbage and completely devoid of life (save a lovable cockroach) and make it entertaining. Despite the  fact the Pixar downplayed the environmental message in the media it is clear that the last robot on earth, though mute, does indeed have a message that many children can easily understand.
Little Wall-E literally had to take care of all the dirty trash left behind by humans
Among the other movies on my six-year-old cousin's “favourite movies of all time” list, include Finding Nemo (2003) and The Little Mermaid (1989).

While these animated films may not address environmental themes so directly, they do generate empathy toward nature and wildlife.

“I like the animals in Nemo and The Little Mermaid,” said my cousin. “I didn’t want them to get hurt.”

As an advocate for all things green, as well as a lover of animals, I echo the feelings of six-year-old Megan Swim. It pleases me that there are films out there that teach young children the importance of living a green lifestyle, as well as sympathy towards animals who often suffer the brunt of selfish human behaviour. I’m hoping this trend continues in the future, with many more films that warn the future generation of the consequences of not taking care of the natural environment. 

- Jennie