In a recent series of car commercials, a husband and wife enter a dealership and the sales person asks what kind of car they’re after. “Exciting,” “Sensible,” the husband and wife respectively say at the same time, seeming to contradict one another. The husband looks like a kid in a candy store, but the wife looks annoyed. The saleswoman says that they can have both of these things if they buy the advertised model.
A subsequent commercial in the same line, shows the husband being asked a question by the saleswoman. The husband’s eyes roll up and he sounds out a long, frozen “uhhhh…,” seeming to go into spinning pinwheel mode. The wife says, “That’s ok. I call this my me time!”
This type of characterization isn’t a rare phenomenon on Television. In almost every ad you see, men fall into one of only a couple categories. There is the eternal teenager you typically see in beer commercials, only interested in sex, cars, and alcohol. You’ll see the idiot dad, totally incapable of making any intelligent choices for his family or his own wellbeing. You’ll also meet the manly-man who basically just thinks about sports constantly. There are countless other media versions of these characters, often referred to by the term “mook.”
If we were to be fair, not every male character on TV is like this. Urban men are typically shown as more well-rounded, and there even are a few good dads mostly in car commercials, but the message when a female partner is present is very consistently clear: men are stupid, sex-obsessed, goofy creatures who are good for comedy relief, but need a woman around so they don’t accidentally kill themselves.
It has not always been this way. Women used to be the target of the jokes, the weaker partner in need of guidance. Certainly, no one would suggest that the Ward Cleaver version of reality is something that should be foisted on the public in this day and age. Clearing the air of many years of sexism against women may seem to mean that men should now be the ones in the social doghouse.
But the question one might ask would be, “does this constant characterization of manhood affect society?” It does. It affects the way men see themselves, the point and purpose of manhood, and the women and children in our society as a result.
When I was 4 years old, my mother and I went out to wash the car one Saturday afternoon, a small moppy-head child, a woman in 70’s clothes, and a yellow ’76 Corolla with fake wood paneling on the sides. I had just seen an episode of Sesame Street in which a fireman stood on ladder spraying water. He had the walkie-talkie up to his mouth and was repeating “the fire’s out! The fire’s Out!” I can still hear it in my head.
Guess what I did from the back bumper of my mom’s car while holding the garden hose that day? Yep, you guessed it.
When I was a little older, I tried to re-enact a scene from Superman, and broke a glass vase.
I once made a grappling hook, and tried to climb a tree after watching the A-team. That one hurt, and I landed on dog poop.
A few months ago, I saw the latest James Bond and ran around my house shooting my Nerf gun. I’m not ADHD, and I’m not a child-like goofball. Although, I would never claim to be average, in this sense, I am pretty normal.
Knowing that guys are geared this way, who is surprised when adolescents want to buy Axe Body Spray after seeing a commercial with 4 attractive girls walking in on a guy showering after he uses their product? I don’t wonder what those teenaged boys are thinking.
I hear women complain sometimes that the men in their life act more like teen boys. They want to play video games instead of getting jobs, drink too much and don’t care about the problems they create when they are drunk, and don’t think through their actions. Some of this is more than the complaints of women who are surprised that men aren’t acting like women. Some of it is true.
This is also not something that is new in society (with the exception of the video game part). It is a weakness of manhood to fall prey to these problems, but it is growing worse.
Everyone, men and women, need mentors, and heroes: people to model themselves after. Humans often learn much more by watching people they admire than by simply reading how to books. Youtube is a great example of this. It is easier to watch someone do something while teaching you how to do it, than simply reading a tutorial. Likewise, while Youtube is a great tool for teaching how to change the water pump on an ’08 Sentra, it is far less adequate at teaching a guy how to be an auto mechanic than actually hanging out with an a seasoned professional mechanic while they work together.
Men are particularly, naturally geared that way. We learn better by kinesthetic practice even more significantly than women do. Society has known this for thousands of years. To make a boy into a blacksmith, he spent every day with a master blacksmith. A young knight spent went about daily carrying the knight’s equipment. This process was not by accident.
Now, we have decided to largely abandon that process at least until the young man has reached his 20’s. But that doesn’t mean that the natural process has stopped. The boys still learn by watching and copying the behavior of the men they admire.
I am convinced that this is one of the main reasons for the explosion in the numbers of young men getting tattoos, especially in urban settings. Watch basketball or football for more than ten minutes, and you will see men inked from head to toe. Young men who see sports stars as some of their greatest heroes, especially when fatherless homes have become normative, will copy what they see. Most of them won’t become sports stars themselves, but unfortunately their tattoos will make them largely unemployable. The cycle will continue.
If we are to fix our society, we must break this cycle. Men who are available and successful must make time to mentor young boys who don’t have this at home. Families, particularly urban and poorer one’s without fathers in the home, must highly manage the messages being seen by their boys.
The commercials and programs will change accordingly. The consistent whining about the content of programming and music lyrics won’t help. These things are pure capitalism. I am not defending it, but it is a market, like it or not. If you don’t like the shows on TV, stop watching them. If you don’t like the characterization of a commercial, don’t buy the product. No matter what we do, we can no longer afford to be media abusers, like crack addicts continually returning to the poison that is killing us.
The only reason they show that type of programming is because it works and makes the companies money. When that changes, the media will adjust. The remote control is in your hands. The future of our society is not as easy as a channel to change, but they are undeniably linked. We are not passive observers of media, it is affecting us. The time has come to do something about it.