The more that I notice instances of males trying to live up to societies portrayal of masculinity, the more I try to understand where this understanding came from. I believe that the answer can be found in popular culture. Many a fight has been started over a threat to ones manhood as dictated by popular culture. This is not a critique of our definition of what constitutes a real man. Rather, it is an attempt to characterize how culture portrays men and masculinity. In order to gain a better understanding of this concept, I have analyzed media that I consume with a different lens.
Author Anthony Easthope wrote that dominant masculinity is characterized by being “tough, masterful, self-possessed, knowing, [and] always in control” (Storey, 2015). During a typical day in my life I am constantly interpellated by things trying to guide me into fitting this profile of what it means to be masculine through television, music, movies, and social media. These cultural mediums portray societies understanding of masculinity as if it is a natural law of the universe, when in reality it was constructed in large part by these very mediums. I recently watched an animated television show titled Archer that showcased a main character who embodies the dominant masculinity perfectly. The main protagonist (or antagonist depending on who you ask) of Archer is the appropriately named Sterling Archer, an arrogant yet talented secret agent. This show is a great example of media that exhibits both Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’ and Messner’s ‘losers’.
Many of the other major characters in Archer are females, all of whom are extremely sexualized in the way they look and act (full disclosure: the parallels to Mulvey’s ‘male gaze’ are somewhat limited by the fact that Archer is animated, but I believe the point still stands). While this may be a caricature of how women are typically presented in spy films, the female characters still function “as erotic object[s] for the characters within the screen story, and as erotic object[s] for the spectator” thanks to the animators decision to aggressively accentuate certain aspects of their bodies (Mulvey, from Storey, 2015). Many of the female characters are in fact quite competent, but at the end of the day they are often there simply as sexual objects that surround Archer while he saves everyone. According to Mulvey, the ‘male gaze’ is used as a way for male spectators to first identify with the hero to satisfy ego formation and then view the heroine to satisfy libido. If a man is looking for this satisfaction from the television, Archer provides it in every single episode.
The perceived threat of being exposed for not measuring up to societies expectations of a masculine man is what media producers use to connect with and please their audience. In “The Male Consumer as Loser: Beer and Liquor Ads in Mega Sports Media Events”, authoer Michael Messner details advertisers portrayal of men in commercials as ‘losers’ in order to calm the male spectators subconscious fear of losing their masculinity. “Masculinity— especially for the lone man—is precarious. Individual men are always on the cusp of being publicly humiliated, either by their own stupidity, by other men, or worse, by a beautiful woman” (Messner, 2005). Archer is not an advertisement, but the character Sterling Archer is a great example of Messner’s ‘loser’ in the sense that he messes up constantly but still ends up on top. Archer is shown to be extremely boorish towards women, combative, self centered, vapid, and unable to make correct decisions, yet almost always finds himself back in safety with his masculinity in tact.
In an auto-ethnographical sense, I see how the coding in our culture affects men my age whenever I go to a bar on campus. My biggest pet peeve is the tough guy attitude that so many of my peers seem to believe is something that needs to exist outside of the media. The incessant need to defend oneself after any perceived slight, no matter how minor, in order to appear masculine has plagued our society for ages. One scene that illustrates this perfectly can be found in Richard Linklater’s classic film Dazed and Confused, when one character named Mike simply observes that marijuana is being smoked at an outdoor party he is attending. The smoker, who is knowingly surrounded by female party goers, refuses to let this minor comment slide and physically confronts and berates Mike in front of everyone.
This scene is seemingly reenacted nightly at our campus bars where guys will fight each other over laughably negligible issues. I mention this because it is so clearly an attempt at settling an affront towards their masculinity, which they feel they must protect at all costs. Popular culture’s portrayal of men has created this feeling of urgency towards maintaining the dominant masculinity and advertisers can use it as a manipulation tool by attempting to placate that desire.
Messner, M and Montez de Oca, J. (2005). “The Male Consumer as Loser: Beer and Liquor Ads in Mega Sports Media Events.” Journal of Women in Culture and Society: University of Chicago Press 879-1909 .
Storey, John. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: An Introduction. 7th ed. New York: Routledge, 2015. Print.