Readers, Writers, Texts

Money and Muscles: Men in the Mass Media

“The media is not to blame for the troubling status of boys today… but [it] does indeed reinforce society’s notions about manliness and masculinity.”

Boys to Men, 1999 Children Now report.
In this episode from Modern Masculinity, Guardian journalist Iman Amrani speaks to a diverse range of men about the role models and influences on their lives.

In Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity, Jackson Katz and Jeremy Earp argue that the media provide an important perspective on social attitudes – and that while the media are not the cause of violent behaviour in men and boys, they do portray male violence as a normal expression of masculinity.

In 1999, Children Now, a California-based organization that examines the impact of media on children and youth, released a report entitled Boys to Men: Media Messages About Masculinity (see below for full article). The report argues that the media’s portrayal of men tends to reinforce men’s social dominance. The report observes that: the majority of male characters in media are heterosexual; male characters are more often associated with the public sphere of work, rather than the private sphere of the home; non-white male characters are more likely to experience personal problems and are more likely to use physical aggression or violence to solve those problems.

What would you say are the assumed norms of masculinity today? Think about the processes of socialisation and enculturation in terms of our gender identities: how much are we conditioned by the society or culture in which we live? From birth onwards, what messages do we receive about who we are or are supposed to be? Do you feel there is still pressure put on young boys to be a certain way or to conform to some perceived gender norm? Studying the articles and texts in this section will help answer these questions and more:

Reading Challenge

This is a longer and more challenging text, but spending time on this piece, and discussing it with your teacher, will help you master this topic:

Class Activity 1: the making of a man

Flick through this copy of GQ Magazine, from May 2020 (or use a similar text that you may have discovered or been given). Make notes of the ways in which the words and images in the magazine perpetuate certain representations of ‘masculinity’. You may like to consider the following points:

  • Tough exterior – even callousness – hiding emotion;
  • Violence associated with masculinity;
  • Symbols of material success;
  • Individuality, self-reliance, remoteness;
  • Control of, or exposure to, danger;
  • Any other aspects of masculinity you have discovered.

Class Activity 2: Get Comfortable

Music videos can be a rich source of material for researching the ways men (and women) are represented in the mass media. Music videos tend to reinforce stereotypes that men are socially dominant, should reject vulnerability and show themselves as strong, and objectify or sexualise women. Historically, the most popular channel for music videos was MTV, which appealed to a young audience, and was a powerful platform for popular artists to gain exposure to a wide audience. Nowadays music videos are hosted in many locations such as Youtube and Vimeo.

K Camp (or K CAMP) is the musical alias of Kristopher Campbell. Born in Atlanta in 1990, he is an American rapper who came to fame with his debut EP in 2014. The track Comfortable (which you can watch and listen to here) was on this album and released as a single – along with the music video – in 2015 by the record label Interscope. This film was shot in Dominican Republic and produced by Big Fruit. Watch this music video and discuss the type of man K Camp is presenting himself to be.

Discussion Points

After you’ve got your head around the material in this section, pair up, pick a question, spend five minutes thinking and noting down your thoughts – then discuss your ideas with a friend and report back to the class:

  1. The label ‘toxic masculinity’ has gained a lot of traction in the media recently. What do you understand this label to mean? What kind of behaviours are ‘toxic’? Are there any examples of ‘toxic masculine’ behaviour in the media at the moment? How widespread is this phenomenon? Do you think this label is being thrown around a little too much or is it about time men got called to account for their behaviour?
  2. What constitutes a positive male role model? Are there any examples of positive male role models in the media or in your life? What makes this person somebody you look up to?
  3. What are some of the stories the media tells us about being a man and how to be manly? How do they tell these stories?

Learner Portfolio

Watch this TedTalk by Colin Stokes, in which he compares and contrasts two popular movies and considers the hidden messages they contain about gender identity. Then, choose a text you are familiar with. This could be an advert, music video, song, novel, magazine, TV show, computer game, or any other text you know that might be suitable for this exercise. Remind yourself of this text, then create a piece of work called ‘How X Teaches Manhood’, where X is substituted for the name of your text. Think about what format of work you might like to undertake: you could create a presentation, a mind-map or other visual guide, write an article, or write a straightforward reflection. Share your work with your class, then add it to your Learner Portfolio.

Paper 1 Text Type Focus: magazine covers

At the end of your course you will be asked to analyse unseen texts (1 at Standard Level and 2 at Higher Level) in an examination. You will be given a guiding question that will focus your attention on formal or stylistic elements of the text(s), and help you decode the text(s)’ purpose(s). Find below a selection of magazine covers. Use these practice texts to familiarise yourself with the different features of front covers, then add them to your Learner Portfolio; you will want to revise text types thoroughly before your Paper 1 exam. You can find more information – including text type features and sample Paper 1 analysis – by visiting 20/20. Read through one or two of the exemplars, then choose a new paper and have a go at writing your own Paper 1 analysis response:

Key Features of magazine covers
  • Masthead – the name of the magazine. Notice any stylized or graphical features.
  • Tagline – memorable phrase (like a slogan) that readers can associate with a magazine.
  • Headlines – the main stories are usually teased on the front cover.
  • Visuals – normally a staged photo, or perhaps a composite image. Often this will be the main feature of the magazine cover.
  • Pull Quotes – words or phrases from the main articles, designed to tease or intrigue.
  • Buzzwords – magazines strive to be up-to-date and relevant, so may use words that have cultural currency or appeal to a contemporary readership.
  • Puffs / Ears – may contain incentives or secondary information. Called ears if they are in boxes at the top left or top right of the magazine cover.
  • Typography – as words are relatively few, the choice of font or style may be significant.

Body of Work: Liberation Through Photography

Creator, maker and storyteller Ivan Michael Blackstock talks to us about masculinity and embracing his feminine side in this short film that was part of the Masculinities: Liberation Through Photography exhibition at The Barbican Art gallery.

From July – August 2020, the Barbican showcased an exhibition of film and photography exploring how masculinity has been coded, performed, and socially constructed from the 1960s to the present day. The images collected in this exhibition touching on themes such as patriarchy, queer identity, female perceptions of men, hyper-masculine stereotypes, black masculinity and masculine tenderness. Happily, The Barbican created an excellent online exhibition to complement this event, one that you can explore as a Body of Work.

Spend a lesson ‘browsing’ the works by visiting the Barbican’s online exhibition and take a look at this selection of images. You will see photographs of soldiers, cowboys, body builders and more in the exhibition. Do these images of men disrupt the archetype in any way – can you detect vulnerability, sensitivity, fear or other qualities not usually connected to arguably more archetypal qualities of strength and machismo?

Towards Assessment: Individual Oral

Supported by an extract from one non-literary text and one from a literary work, students will offer a prepared response of 10 minutes, followed by 5 minutes of questions by the teacher, to the following prompt: Examine the ways in which the global issue of your choice is presented through the content and form of two of the texts that you have studied. (40 marks)

If you want to, you can discuss the images presented here as a non-literary Body of Work in your Individual Oral exercise. As the curator of the exhibition, the named author would be ‘The Barbican’. Here are suggestions as to how you might use this Body of Work to create a Global Issue. You can use one of these ideas, or develop your own. You should always be mindful of your own ideas and class discussions and follow the direction of your own thoughts, discussions and programme of study when devising your assessment tasks.

  • Field of Inquiry: Culture, Community and Identity
  • Global Issue: Masculinity
  • Rationale:

This exhibition lends itself well to any issue in the study of masculinity, such as stereotypes of men, black masculinity, masculine tenderness, alternative representations of men, and so on. Several images from the exhibition counter prevailing ideas of what it means to be a man, and offer alternatives to the typical ‘money and muscles’ stereotype that populates much of the mass media.

Possible Literary pairs
  • Broken April by Ismail Kadare – Gjorg may be a killer, but he’s not the hyper-masculine cold blooded killer we might expect. That said, neither is Bessian necessarily the media’s idea of a ‘real man.’ Perhaps Mark Ukaccierra is more stereotypically masculine?
  • Pygmalion by George Bernard Shaw – the male characters in Shaw’s play are hardly recognisable in terms of today’s media men. Pickering might be a typical gentleman, but both Higgins and Freddy are interesting case studies. What do they have in common with the images of masculinity exhibited by The Barbican? How do they differ?
  • The World’s Wife by Carol Ann Duffy – while her poems are ostensibly about the interior lives of women, men also feature throughout this work. Discussing how men look through women’s eyes would complement these music videos nicely.
  • The Vegetarian by Han Kang – what role do the men in her life – her husband, father and brother in law – play in Yeong-hye’s disintegration? What kind of ‘men’ are they? Choosing one of these characters to talk about might make for a successful oral activity.
  • Border Town by Shen Congwen – in this novel, men are physically strong, play traditional roles in the community, and some even attain the material success that men in the media seem to crave.
  • The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare – although the term ‘toxic masculinity’ wasn’t around in Shakespeare’s day, some audiences might describe the Christian gang as pretty toxic. Alternatively, take a close look at Act 3 Scene 4, in which Portia describes her plan to disguise herself as a man. What do her words reveal about masculinity in Shakespeare’s day?
  • The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter – the character of the Marquis holds power and influence. He showers his young wife with expensive gifts. People respect and fear him. But Carter also suggests that, underneath his veneer of respectability, he’s quite a pathetic individual. Investigating this character could make a very successful oral activity.
  • Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet – this pairing could be very strong. Mamet’s play puts toxic masculinity, workplace bullying, and contempt on stage for all to see. None of the tenderness of the images from the Barbican exhibition seem to exist in the world of the real estate office.
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel – male and female identity is a major theme of this graphic novel, Alison calls her father a ‘sissy’ and a ‘pansy’, for example. The book offers very interesting ideas in terms of representation which could be discussed alongside the Masculinities exhibition images.

Towards Assessment: HL Essay

Students submit an essay on one non-literary text or a collection of non-literary texts by one same author, or a literary text or work studied during the course. The essay must be 1,200-1,500 words in length. (20 marks).††

If you are an HL student who must write your Higher Level Essay, you could consider using this body of work. Analysing the rhetorical and aesthetic qualities of images is suitable language and literature work, and choosing a small selection of the images in this collection would make for a purposeful study. Here are one or two suggestions to get you started – but always follow your own lines of inquiry should your thoughts and class discussion lead you in a different direction:

  • Analyse the symbolism of the Liberation Through Photography exhibition. How are symbols used to construct particular ideas about masculinity in this text?
  • How, and to what extent, does the Liberation Through Photography exhibition counter mass media stereotyping of men?
  • Explore composition techniques, including colour, framing, lighting and proxemics in the Liberation Through Photography exhibition. How are these visual techniques used to create meaning between individual texts?

Wider Reading

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