Toxic Masculinity and Emotional Expression in Popular Media – Ryan Boren

I really appreciate the Pop Culture Detective’s videos on masculinity representation in popular media. I created a playlist of my favorites along with a few videos from other folks. I use this playlist as part of our unschooling curriculum.

 Long before he donned the mask of Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker is instructed to wear another mask: a mask of emotional invulnerability.

I want to underscore the message being presented here. Anakin’s feelings of pain and loss are understandable and completely normal. But instead of getting the emotional support he so desperately needs, this child is instead publicly shamed for expressing his feelings of grief and sadness. And that’s because emotional detachment is valued above all else in the Jedi Order. Young Jedi are instructed to sever all close emotional connections to the people they care about. They must learn to hide their feelings from others, to deny their emotional selves, and to always present a stoic exterior to the world.

Author bell hooks describes this emotional-hardening process in a book I highly recommend entitled, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love: “The way we ‘turn boys into men’ is through injury: We sever them from their mothers, research tells us, far too early. We pull them away from their own expressiveness, from their feelings, from sensitivity to others. The very phrase ‘be a man’ means suck it up and keep going. Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity. Disconnection is masculinity.”

Jedi philosophy gets it entirely backwards. Emotional detachment doesn’t prevent men from turning to the Dark Side. Emotional detachment is the cause of men turning to the Dark Side. In the end it’s the Jedi and their philosophy of emotional detachment that’s ultimately responsible for the creation of Darth Vader.

Listening to the teachings of Yoda and Obi-Wan is a guaranteed recipe for creating lonely, angry, broken people.

The glorification of emotional detachment is one of the more pervasive and insidious messages about masculinity in popular media. And it’s something that we as men need to organize a rebellion against.

Jedi philosophy is constructed around an emotional domino theory. Fear => Anger => Hate => Suffering

That formula is incredibly reductive and also not how emotions work. Being afraid is not a slippery slope to all-consuming evil.

According to the Jedi, it’s loving relationships with another person that leads men down the path to evil.

By the end of Episode III, it’s been made abundantly clear that Anakin turns into Darth Vader because he’s unable to suppress his love for the women in his life. Embedded in that plot point is a toxic idea: that emotional intimacy and connection with women represents a loss of control for men.

The framing of relationships with women as something that drains men of their autonomy, their power, or their control is not a new storytelling device.

Though in George Lucas’ version women don’t actively sabotage men. Instead, they serve as the impetus for men’s instability. And that message, that women are the catalyst for men’s loss of control, is part of a deeply sexist worldview. It’s an especially pernicious myth because it fosters resentment toward women and also encourages men to view healthy expressions of emotional intimacy with suspicion.

And the narrative lessons for both protagonists closely mirror hyper masculine socialization in the real world. Men and boys are taught to hide their feelings because, we are told, expressing vulnerability demonstrates weakness and leaves them open to being manipulated or dominated by their rivals.

Luke Skywalker is at his very best when he doesn’t follow the path of the Jedi. The belief that emotional disconnection is an essential step for boys on their journey into manhood is a common one, but following that path leads to a life of loneliness, emotional dysfunction, and anger.

Source: The Case Against The Jedi

“Toxic masculinity,” on the other hand, is a loose term that’s used to refer to a subset of those behaviors which are harmful or destructive. It’s often used as a sort of shorthand to describe behaviors linked to domination, humiliation, and control.

It’s marked by things like emotional detachment and hyper-competitiveness.

It’s also connected to the sexual objectification of women, as well as other predatory sexual behaviors.

It’s also linked very closely with aggression, intimidation and violence.

The modifier “toxic” is used to highlight the fact that these kinds of behaviors carry with them some potentially serious and even deadly consequences.

Much of this type of masculinity is relational, and as such, it is mostly defined in opposition to anything culturally associated with women. Which is why toxic masculinity is driven by this overwhelming fear of emasculation, that is to say the fear of being perceived by others as “feminine” and therefore “unmanly.”

In fact, the term “toxic masculinity” is used very deliberately to try to differentiate the more damaging or destructive male behaviors from more positive male behaviors. When it comes to this term, it’s really important to understand that it’s used to reinforce the fact that there are many types and formulations of masculinity, or as RW Connell puts it, different masculinities.

And since there are many ways to practice masculinity, we as men, can choose not to engage in the more toxic behaviors, and instead choose to pursue more positive, empathetic, and cooperative forms of masculinity.

Source: What Is Toxic Masculinity?

You’ve probably heard the old adage, “boys don’t cry,” but on Steven Universe everyone cries. Men and boys absolutely cry and their tears are not portrayed as a sign of weakness.

Instead crying is depicted as a perfectly normal and healthy thing for everyone to do.

Incidentally, when I say that crying is healthy, I mean that quite literally, in both the physiological and psychological sense because tears are one of the best ways to relieve stress.

I should also mention that on Steven Universe tears are not limited to expressions of sadness. Instead crying is used to express all kinds of different emotions.

There are tears of pride. Tears of loss. Tears of self-pity. Tears of anger. Tears of joy. Tears of suffering. Tears of fear. Tears of love. Tears of concern. Tears of bravery. Tears of admiration. Tears of embarrassment. Tears of desperation. Tears of mourning. Tears of betrayal. Tears of relief. Tears of confusion. Tears of regret. Tears of determination. And many, many more.

Because tears are so common and so varied, crying is just accepted as a normal response to all kinds of situations. And that normalization then opens up space on the show for it to occasionally poke fun at a character for behaving in a foolish or melodramatic way without poking fun at the act of crying itself.

The open expression of vulnerability is extremely gendered in Western media culture. Being emotional, especially crying, is seen as stereotypically feminine, as “girl stuff.” We’re all familiar with the stereotype that women are “over-emotional” or “irrational” or “too sensitive.” Now of course, that stereotype is complete nonsense. Everyone has these emotions and everyone has these feelings.

We’re taught that young men should bottle up most of their feelings. That anger or aggression may sometimes be permissible for some men in certain situations, but that vulnerability is strictly off limits because it’s been culturally associated with weakness. But on Steven Universe vulnerability is not equated with weakness, instead it’s simply equated with being a human being.

The lesson here is that men and boys don’t need to protect their loved ones from things that might scare them. Men don’t have to weather the storm alone. Instead we can work through life’s struggles together with our friends, our lovers, and our families.

It’s going to take a long time for us to collectively unlearn these harmful notions about detached manhood. But Steven’s open and emotionally expressive version of masculinity, that’s an inspirational example for us all.

Source: Emotional Expression on Steven Universe

In stories set in sci-fi, fantasy, or superhero genres, combat is almost always the mechanism through which young men must prove their worthiness.

This is usually not framed as outright aggression on the hero’s part, but is instead justified as the ability to “fight back.”

There are accompanying characteristics like wit, determination, cleverness or confidence, but learning how to be “tough” and proficient in dealing out violence is consistently framed as a necessary step for boys to complete their journey into manhood.

Rather than being disappointed at not getting an offensive or aggressive skill, Steven wholeheartedly embraces his new defensive superpower.

The show continues its subversion of boy hero tropes when we find out that Steven is a healer.

So, Steven’s a healer and his gem power is centered around shielding others from harm.

Now that’s especially interesting because in many fantasy stories and video games, those are both considered to be secondary or support skills.

Medics and other protective spell casters have often been gendered roles. They’re roles that have been filled by women who stand back and supplement the other warrior classes, who have traditionally been men.

But I’d argue that Steven has another superpower. Something that’s even more important and even more fundamental to his character and to the show’s values as a whole. You see Steven is empathic. You might even say he’s super-empathic.

Empathy is the ability to understand and share the feelings or emotions of another person. But empathy is not just feeling bad for someone else. It’s actually feeling what they feel, and that’s an important distinction. It’s what separates sympathy from empathy.

Essentially Steven is super sensitive to others. He possesses the capacity to vicariously experience other people’s feelings. When someone is hurting, Steven hurts. He feels their pain as if it were his own.

This kind of super-sensitivity is especially rare for boy heroes because, in our culture, emotional intuition is still stereotypically associated with women. And as such media often frames it as overly sensitive “girl stuff.” But on this show, things work very differently.

It’s uncommon to see this kind of empathy on television, especially when expressed for the “bad guys.” While it is true that most “good guys” in media do demonstrate some empathy for their friends, their family, and their allies, those feelings are very rarely extended to their enemies. And it’s almost unheard of in programming aimed at children, which tends, more than most, to break narratives down into simplistic good versus evil, easy to digest lessons.

A critical part of Steven’s super-empathy is that it’s always actionable. The actionable part is key. Not only does he feel for others, he also does something about it.

Source: The Subversive Boyhood of Steven Universe

The Big Bang Theory provides a perfect lens through which to deconstruct a popular media trope I like to call the Adorkable Misogynist. Adorkable Misogynists are male characters whose geeky version of masculinity is framed as comically pathetic yet still endearing. Their status as nerdy “nice guys” then lets them off the hook for a wide range of creepy, entitled, and sexist behaviors.

So how does the Big Bang Theory keep us, as the audience, sympathetic to men who behave is such reprehensible ways? Well it’s done by leaning heavily on a combination of ironic humor and a popular writer’s trick known as lampshading.

Most of the jokes on Big Bang Theory, such as they are, revolve around the following ironic hook: Since geeky guys don’t fit into the macho mold of what we expect sexism or male entitlement to look like, it’s funny to watch them engaging in that type of behavior. Notice the target of the joke is not the misogynist behavior, instead it’s makes fun of men who are not traditionally “masculine” enough to believably pull it off.

And this is where ironic lampshading comes in, which is when media makers deliberately call attention to a dissonant or overly clichéd aspect of their own production. Rather than writing different punchlines the writers attempt to duck any criticism by pointing out the sexism inherent in their own jokes themselves.

The technique of making something super obvious to viewers meant to let us know that the writers are self-aware and to make us feel like we’re all in on the joke. Most comedy writers know that retrograde style bigotry is no longer acceptable on primetime television, but they still want to use sexist, racist and homophobic jokes as an easy way to get cheap laughs. Ironic lampshading provides a clever way for them to keep getting away with it.

The problem with this comedic device is that, by itself, it doesn’t critique or challenge sexism homophobia or racism. It’s simply acknowledges it in a humorous way. Acknowledging bigotry is not the same as critiquing bigotry, especially when the punchlines end up making light of serious social issues like sexual harassment.

So while it’s true that the message of The Big Bang Theory isn’t “sexism is super cool,” I’d argue the implications are much more troubling, because the show’s message is more akin to “sexism is mostly harmless,” and especially when that sexism is coming from geeky guys.

Adorkable misogyny is presented as just another socially awkward personality quirk. As something that’s perhaps deserving of an eye-roll, or an exasperated look or maybe some lighthearted chiding but never something to be taken seriously or seriously challenged.

At it’s core the Adorkable Misogynist is built around the old axiom that “boys will be boys.” And by that phrase really means is, “boys will be sexist” or “boys will be creepy stalkers who sexually harass women” as the case may be.

On the very rare occasions when one of the geeks are called out for his sexism, the audience is are meant feel bad for him because his feelings got hurt. On television men’s feelings and bruised egos are nearly always depicted as more important than women’s comfort or safety.

The adorkable misogyny of the four main characters on the Big Bang Theory is tolerated. It’s tolerated by their peers, by their girlfriends, and by their employers.

The trope downplays the sexism of men who don’t fit into the macho stereotype by framing it as pathetic, as non-threatening, as not that big of a deal. Of course the reality is that sexist is a big deal, as practically any women involved in geek subcultures will tell you. There is sadly no shortage of real life examples of men involved in nerdy hobbies and professions who behave exactly like the guys on the The Big Bang Theory. And it’s not harmless. And it’s not adorkable.

And it’s harmful in all the ways The Big Bang Theory tells us it’s not. It’s damaging to women, it’s damaging to their sense of safety, to their well-being, and to their careers.

Source: The Adorkable Misogyny of The Big Bang Theory

 The way we ‘turn boys into men’ is through injury: We sever them from their mothers, research tells us, far too early. We pull them away from their own expressiveness, from their feelings, from sensitivity to others. The very phrase ‘be a man’ means suck it up and keep going. Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity. Disconnection is masculinity.

Anger often hides depression and profound sorrow. Depression often masks the inability to grieve. Males are not given the emotional space to grieve. … Males are still being taught to keep it in and, worse, to deny that they feel like crying.

Unable to cope with the loss of emotional connection, boys internalize the pain and mask it with indifference or rage.

Source: The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks | Goodreads

More transcripts:

Source: Toxic Masculinity and Emotional Expression in Popular Media – Ryan Boren

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