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.|
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.