Ode to the lost man

Ode to the lost man

Date: January 1, 1970
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The normalisation of maleness in the media has led to an almost obliviousness of it. This has resulted in conceptions of new roles for men and new constructions of masculinity not being sought or imagined.

I miss the Marlboro man. I miss his swagger, his tight jeans, the self-assured grin on his face, and his dusty cowboy hat. He exists in a world of power, passion – if only for his horses and cigarettes – and protective strength (if you ignore that he was a cancer pimp).
He was the icon of his time: the kind of man surrounded by smells of warm dust, sunlight and testosterone. I miss the rightness, and manliness of him. And, apparently, I’m not the only one. Men miss him too. They miss the man they wished they could be. The man, by smoking his cigarettes, they strove to be. His loss must serve as a sad cautionary tale for all media specialists and producers.
You see, the findings of the recent Gender and Media Audience Study undertaken by Gender Links show that men and women would like to see men in non-traditional roles such as care-givers, parents and home makers. In other words, there is a desire for men to see themselves reflected in more diverse ways in the media. They have watched the same carbon copy archetypes and are no longer convinced that those are the types of man they want or should be.
The study indicates the denormalisation of western entertainment and news media. In a world where the majority of media characters, writers, directors and producers are men and stories mostly focus on situations that highlight the best and most courageous characteristics of men, denormalisation of media is vital for further social evolution of men and women.
The media has a number of roles – sometimes a watchdog of political processes, sometimes a reporter on events or issues, but also, a tool of reflection and guidance.
In essence, TV, radio and the print media, are tools of reflections, validation and choice. But what is being reflected and validated by the media today? Are enough options presented for consumers to have enough choices?
The normalisation of maleness in the media has led to an almost obliviousness of it. This has resulted in conceptions of new roles for men and new constructions of masculinity not being sought or imagined.
The problem then is imagination, or rather, the lack of imagination.
Women have long fought their roles as business women, leaders, passionate and unashamedly sexual sensual creatures. If we are to believe what is presented to us in and through media, the unintentional result of this is that men have almost been emasculated in their media roles.
The media’s focus on conflict – because conflict is interesting and entertaining – has highlighted the conflict between men and women’s desires, instead of showing any negotiation and sharing of power.
It seems that power can not be shared in relationships, but can only exist in one individual. If that is true, then women, through empowerment, are emasculating men. This argument is flawed and shows very little imagination. Real relationships are about negotiation of power, not the transfer from one to another in any given situation.
The media has also left black men with few options outside of perpetual idealisations of abuse and aggression. Whereas I might say I miss the Malboro man, many Africans and African Americans could say they feel the same about Muhammad Ali. They miss his confidence, his strength and power, his charm and wit, and mostly, the courage and foresight he expressed by saying “I’m so pretty” every chance he got.
Seldom do black characters today reflect the complex and intelligent choices made by Ali, and therefore, few come close to reflecting the options he presented. Ali allowed black men to be sexual, but media made them sexualised – aggressively so.
Today, black men in the media are still shown with the most aggressive characteristics and are presented with fewer positive role models than their white counterparts. They are almost always the perpetrators of violence in films and the news, almost always shown to be the causes and instigators of sexual violence.
Of course, social conditions like poverty, unemployment and poor education do lead to an increase in violence, but when you see the solution to your social problems always presented in glamourised violent lifestyles in the media, alternative decisions seem boring, unrealistic and unattainable.
Again, the problem is not that men have been emasculated by women in the media, but instead, the lack of imagination on the part of media producers themselves. By having a normalised male gaze, little effort is made to establish whether or not that gaze is accurate; whether or not that point of view is really reflective of what men want and need.
There is a need to have a fully representative and diverse media. It does not need to be an all or nothing negotiation. Men and women themselves are best placed to demand a media that best serves all its viewers, readers and listeners interests. But this can not be done without an acknowledgement and removal of the messages we have inherited and incorporated. Otherwise, the media will become its own self-fulfilling prophesy. A prophesy without imagination or future.
Christine Davis is the Writing Programme Coordinator at Agenda. This article is part of the Gender Links Opinion and Commentary Service. The Gender and Media Audience Study, undertaken in 13 Southern African countries explored how women and men interact with the news. For more information go to: www.genderlinks.org.za

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