MONSTERS, MUSLIMS AND MUSCLE BOYS: IMAGES OF MEN IN THE MEDIA
DR PETER WEST
THE HOWS AND WISE OF WORKING WITH MEN SYMPOSIUM, UNIVERSITY OF WESTERN SYDNEY 5 JULY 2012
Men are used to living with criticism, often from other men who are sometimes hard on each other. Sometimes from women. Or from well-meaning people in the media. We have been analysed, scrutinized, puzzled over, labeled, you name it. We are too much this and not enough that. We fail in Kindergarten for not being quiet enough and we fail later on because we’re afraid of commitment. The world of book-learning is especially critical of us. When I asked about books on men in one Sydney bookshop the reply was “Oh God, I don’t know. Try under mental illness or self-help”. Men will always be criticized for not being feminist enough. But as Garrison Keillor said, men can never be feminists. Millions have tried and nobody did better than C-plus. Men are often scolded for not paying enough attention to their health. And urged to go more often to the doctor and not be afraid of any sensitive issues involved. All that could be good. But why do we expect men to look after their health, if they are always told that society doesn’t value them? Let’s look at how the media makes up stories about men today, with some glances back at the past. MEN ARE MONSTERS Here are four movie summaries. I took them word for word from the Sydney Morning Herald’s TV Guide, all on one day, early in June, 2012: Knocked Up. An up and coming entertainment journalist’s career is threatened after falling pregnant following a one-night stand with an unemployed, immature slacker. [USA] 2007 Trivial Matters. A collection of seven vignettes revolving around hapless men and their failure to understand the women in their lives . (Hong Kong) 2007 Angel and the Bad Man. After being nursed back to life by a Quaker girl, a man is forced to choose between his newfound love and his old life of crime . [USA] 2009 Proof. The daughter of a mathematician tries to come to grips with the possibility that she may be as unstable as her father. [USA] 2005. The theme is clear: men are monsters. Women are heroes, or victims of men’s stupidity, laziness, mental illness or criminality. MEN ARE FOOLS Take another example. It’s a regular column in the Sun-Herald entitled “All Men Are Liars”. And we had on Sunday 10 June an extended moan from Sam de Brito suggesting men are stupid because they go for a woman’s beauty regardless of the consequences, especially when they have been drinking. This was titled “Shallow Waters of a Man’s Brain”. Or try a familiar item in our Sydney Morning Herald, in which a feminist tells men repeatedly they should thank feminism for helping them be better fathers. It’s a piece of propaganda based on no perceptible research or body of evidence. Feminist writers (male and female) are held up for admiration, while good fatherhood is put down to the work of feminism. Of course, no man could be responsible for being a better father, all by himself. Men are fools, until women come along and correct them. But what if someone argued that women need men? Nobody I know would be game to say so in public. 2
MUSCLE BOYS We could look at images of men from the 1940s to today. There were some images of men shirtless in the jungles. Perhaps they were doing some other work. But they were doing WORK. Men had muscles because they needed to be strong as soldiers, sailors, miners, tradesmen, farmers. Hollywood stars covered up, unless they were Tarzan. Normally, we didn’t see images of stars like Cary Grant, Humphrey Bogart, Ray Milland and so on, without a suit, let alone without a shirt. And they were almost never without a hat. Men worked, and work was what men did. The images reflected that. Sporting heroes as I grew up in the 50s were Don Bradman and Ken Rosewall and the heroes of the St George Rugby League. You never saw them without their appropriate uniform. Today we have had such a revolution in gender roles that’s hard to know where to start. (West, 1996) As I’m arguing in this paper, men are devalued, ridiculed, laughed at, mocked. We have man boobs, we are old, our equipment is faulty. “Why do men have nipples?” asked one journalist. She had her comment ready : ”Another product that doesn’t work”. We are in urgent need of repair. I’m just back from a small heart operation; and a friend asked if there was a warranty for the next 20 years or 20,000 Km. Sadly, not. As I was saying- men are there to be mocked and corrected. Unless , of course, we are young, fresh, muscular and have amazing bodies. In short: we are OK if we look good. The examples are everywhere. But a couple of examples must suffice. “Zyzz” the man who called himself “Zyzz”was a young man close to who grew up in the Eastwood area and dux of his school. He was later a graduate of the University of Western Sydney. He was a skinny kid but found he could gain acceptance and popularity by building up his body. He became a phenomenon, gaining huge attention on Facebook and similar sites. Sadly, he took too many risks and died, apparently of heart failure, in Bangkok at the age of 22 . Most of us will never achieve this kind of Wikipedia write-up: Aziz Sergeyevich Shavershian; (24 March 1989 – 5 August 2011), better known by his Internet handle Zyzz, was a Moscow-born Australian bodybuilder, internet celebrity, personal trainer, model and a part-time stripper who established a cult following after posting multiple videos of himself on YouTube, starting in 2007. According to The Sydney Morning Herald, Shavershian's death was the sixth most searched death-related topic in Australia, during 2011. Prior to his death, Shavershian had posted a video of himself on a social-networking site, which would later come out 18th on Nine News' "Top News Videos of the Year" for 2011. Over the past 12 months (May 2011 - May 2012) Google Insight statistics showed that he was Googled as many times as the current-Prime Minister of Australia, Julia Gillard At the 2012 New Year's Day Field Day festival in Sydney, people dressed up as clones of Shavershian, as a homage. Shavershian's Facebook fan page had a following of 60,000 fans prior to his death. In April 2012, The Daily Telegraph took note that his fan page, which now has over 260,000 fans, still continues to attract a large following, 3
nearly a year after his death.. [End of quotation] That one man would act this way is sad. That thousands would admire and want to imitate him is profoundly disturbing. Let’s look at another example- the NRL.
NRL heroes. Rugby League used to be the province of big ugly fellows covered in mud. They were big and hairy but they won championships. These days they have morphed into some kind of glossy heroes. They are held up as role models, though I’m not sure what they means, who they are models FOR and what behaviours they model. They are paragons of good-looking males and there have been many examples of footballers paraded without shirts to show us what they look like. Once again- it’s the LOOK that matters. Some of these guys can’t walk past a car without checking their reflection. “Do my arms look good today?” In a paper called From Tarzan to the Terminator I gave in the year 2000, I wrote of the Southern Californication of the male body. We could also talk of the invasion of Hollywood ideas into Australian sport and culture. Men might be horrible- but they are OK if they look good. I think that’s a very dangerous drug: I feel OK because somebody else tells me I look good. Luckily, I have people in my life who love me despite the fact that I probably look like an academic who’s fifty. OK, over sixty. But I don’t see the Male Body Beautiful changing any time soon. It will be a long time before we see the Twilight of the Muscle Gods.
MUSLIM MEN One pattern hasn’t been talked about so far. Muslim men are singled out for special attention. On Q and A , on ABC TV, there will be a pile of ordinary people and then suddenly there will be a Muslim. This shows, apparently, that the show is not exclusively white Anglo Saxon Protestant. (Sometimes it will be a Muslim woman, so we get two hits of tolerance in one). In so many US movies, there are people identified as villains. We don’t know exactly where they are from. It might be The Prince of Persia or Jarhead. But as Kam Williams suggested in Upstage Magazine (2007) we get a kind of narrative about real American buddies all bonded safely together in the name of God, Mom and apple pie. But they’re not gay because they have to be buddies united against the ‘rag-head’ peril and anyway some of them are having sex with women so they must be OK, OK? The narrative becomes powerful, and the media fit the facts into the narrative. White guys are the good guys, and they are tough, good-looking, real men. Muslim men cover up in various weird clothes and are not-men. THE “CRONULLA RIOTS”- A CASE STUDY OF MALE MISBEHAVIOUR Some years ago a colleague (then a student) and I wrote about the Cronulla riots. We took pains to set out exactly what had happened. My colleague was there at the time, and he provided a useful eyewitness account. In brief, there was much easy-going
behaviour for most of the day. Police joked with the demonstrators and passed a football around. Later in the day, there was some violence which we condemned as reprehensible and inexcusable. But the media captured the ensuing violence and made it part of their narrative. The Murdoch press and the commercial channels made it part of an ongoing crusade against rampant Muslims encroaching upon Australian territory (the beach) and values (mateship, usually seen by such journalists as tolerant and easy going). Footage of the riots is produced regularly to illustrate- what? Maybe the dangers of having foreigners in Australia. We did warn you! See! On the other hand, the ABC, SBS TV and left wing academics produce the Cronulla riots triumphantly. Here you have it! Australians are racist! Never mind some 200 years of easy going tolerance of others on our beaches. Here was an example of a riot. Australians must all be racist. See ! We have the proof. Well it’s always easy to accuse. Accuse someone of racism, and you throw him/her into a panic for some time. We don’t really need much more to say Australians are racist. There is, of course, evidence to the contrary. Consider this reflection by Brawley and Dixon of Australians’ welcome to black Americans during World War II: Contrary to the argument that white Australia received African Americans in a negative and racially charged manner, there is compelling evidence that African Americans' experiences in wartime Australia reflected more than just the racism long associated with the White Australia Policy. Indeed, those best placed to judge white Australia's response to black Americans-African Americans themselveshave left considerable evidence suggesting that many Australians reacted warmly and positively to their presence. This is not to suggest that white Australians did not express racist sentiments or that they always treated African Americans equally. Admittedly, too, Australians' positive responses to African Americans might have reflected the fact that black Americans were sojourners, who had no intention or opportunity to outlast their welcome. Nevertheless, the warm welcome they received serves to remind us that race relations are always conditioned by specific cultural and social circumstances. It’s a bit too complex, isn’t it! Journalists are not interested in contrary arguments, especially historical ones. They have their narrative and it would be a shame to spoil a good story. So either way, the riots are shown frequently. The images become selffulfilling. They prove how violent and racist Australian men can be. Don’t they? Or they prove that Muslims are trouble. But we knew that already, didn’t we! We were right all the time. There’s much more money to be made reinforcing existing ideas than challenging them. The eyewitness account mentioned earlier told of a number of women involved in the ‘riots’ but that fact is conveniently ignored, too. It needs to be about Australians being violent, and that seems to mean men. In the same way, we have disturbing patterns of bullying footage. Kids have always been bullied and punched. What’s changed is that the images are captured and watched over and over on computers, Facebook, the TV and so on. It gives them a permanence and importance they should not have. BLACK GUYS RULE The world of teenage boys is ruled again by images. Rock stars, Hollywood heroes, parading their muscles – often with their pants halfway down. Why? I asked a guy walking alongside me in Bondi Junction, pants threatening to hit the pavement . “Aren’t you scared your pants will fall down?” I asked. “No”, he said. “Keeping them up is an art form”. Apparently it’s a trend for black guys that started in US jails, where 5
they take away your belt. And it’s spread all over the world. Images rule. Is this all there is for our young men- keeping your pants half up? THE POWER OF STEREOTYPES All of this is consistent with Jim Macnamara’s Ph D thesis, published as Media and Male Identity (Palgrave, 2006). It was based on thousands of examples across all types of media in Australia, USA and the UK. It says that media stereotypes help shape men’s ideas about how they should act. And that men in western societies are faced with a misandric world that devalues, marginalizes and objectifies men and constantly tries to change them. We could spend too much time bemoaning the endless trivializing of men by the media. Silly phrases like metrosexual are invented by an ad agency and parroted by Australian media. If we give a name to something, that means it must exist, apparently. But let’s pick up a couple of our earlier examples. I can’t explain what would make a man like de Brito write in a way that continually belittles his own sex. I suspect that a psychologist would have a great deal to say about it. My training as a historian- let alone common sense- says it is perilous trying to argue from one case to the universal. “I think like this, therefore all men must be the same”. Meh? -as the young guys would say themselves. I think Chloe Angyal, like some other doctrinaire feminists, feels important when she writes her anti-male diatribes, which have more in common with ideology than compassionate writing about fellow human beings. Listen as she writes in a blog about boys: Do you have a gentleman in your life whom you would like to convert to the righteous and noble cause of feminism? Perhaps a young boy whom you would like to indoctrinate good and early? Luckily we’ve had some far better people writing in the media about being a man. Richard Glover in print and on radio has opened up some thoughtful issues. Nightlife on 702 allows people to talk about their issues. We’ve had The Drum and James Valentine to balance out the not-so-good . Why do these patterns and media narratives matter? We are all trying to raise boys. We want boys to be healthy, to respect themselves and other people. We want them to be smart, achieving, compassionate people. And we want them to survive. Hardly a month goes by that I don’t hear about a young male who’s damaged his health with drugs, or risky behaviour. Some go all the way and suicide. Australia has the third highest rate of suicide among 16 to 25 year olds in the world. And we have hidden high suicide rates among older men that are usually put down to misadventure or illness. BOYS’ VOICES In a project I did at one Sydney school in the Eastern suburbs, I conducted a focus group using pictures of men in different situations. Masculinity in the boys’ eyes could be summed up as: - be tough - be physically strong - be successful - be wealthy - go partying - be selfish
This was a more sophisticated version of the expected male view: i.e. of the need for a tough male with an admired body (West, 2000). Some boys spoken to had a quiet idealism and a streak of generosity and selflessness, well worth noticing. In these boys’ eyes, there was a fairly wide span of behaviour which men could take part in. It didn’t seem to be iron-clad. A second focus group wanted pastoral care to be less like school. When asked what that meant, there was a chorus of answers: too much sitting, too much writing, monotonous, repetitive. Teachers stand and talk to us all day. “Come in, sit down, listen to me”. It’s Death by Powerpoint, said one wit. We must make sure that notions of education include boys’ ideas. And their idea that being a male means to be active.
CONCLUSION We’ve had some fun today mocking simplistic conceptions of men. But raising boys is too important to leave to those who want to mislead or indoctrinate them. And this is a great time to think of the young males in our lives. I want to speak to mothers most of all, for they do such important work raising compassionate, thoughtful boys. I want to talk to dads of all shapes and kinds. They are really important people who help shape a boy’s values and habits. And of course I want to encourage boys themselves to live healthier, more meaningful lives. Let’s not give up in despair, but work with the better journalists and radio presentersto avoid doctrinaire approaches and work together to raise boys in more thoughtful ways. Teachers, childcare workers, people from all religious groups, social workers – as well as journalists- all have a part to play. Let’s encourage boys to become men who want to love and be loved, who want to care for their own health and that of the people in their lives. Then we will have men we can all feel proud of who will work alongside women to create a better, more tolerant and compassionate world. And we will have boys who survive. ………………………………………………………………… Dr Peter West is a part-time lecturer at University of Technology, Sydney and gives workshops on educating boys. He was former Head of the Research Group on Men and Families, University of Western Sydney. His website is www.boyslearning.com.au REFERENCES Angyal, Chloe, (2012) “Thank Feminism….”, Sydney Morning Herald, 9 June. Barclay, Ryan and West, Peter (2006) “Racism or Patriotism? An Eyewitness Account of the Cronulla Demonstration of 11 December, 2005”. People and Place, 14 (1) 7585. Brawley, Sean and Dixon, Chris, (2002) “Jim Crow Down Under? African American Encounters with White Australia, 1942-45”. Pacific Historical Review, 71 (4), 607632
De Brito, Sam (2012) “Shallow Waters of a Man’s Brain”, Sun Herald, 10 June http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/what-swims-in-the-shallowwaters-of-a-mans-brain-20120609-202mf. Macnamara, Jim (2006) Media and Male Identity: The Making and Remaking of Men. Formerly PhD thesis, University of Western Sydney. Palgrave: London. Rookwood, Dan, “Who is the Modern Man?”, http://www.gq.com.au/life/heq/who+is+the+modern+manr,18257 The Guide, with Sydney Morning Herald, Sydney Morning Herald, 8 June West, Peter (1996) Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today. Sydney: Finch. West, Peter (2000) “From Tarzan to the Terminator: Boys, Men and Body Image”. Paper presented to the Australian Institute for Family Studies, July 2000. http://www.aifs.gov.au/conferences/aifs7/west.html West, Peter, (2010) “ How Can We Make Sure the Pastoral Care Program is Effective? Evaluating the Pastoral Care Program at Harbour City School. Paper given at The King’s School , National Conference on Boys’ Education. West, Peter (2011) “Bullying Goes Viral without a Solution”, http://www.smh.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/bullying-goes-viral-without-asolution-20110317-1byw3.html Williams, Kam (2007) Review of Jarhead in Upstage Magazine. www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1152567-jarhead/ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aziz_Shavershian