This week I happened to watch ‘The Nutty Professor’ (the original 1963 Jerry Lewis one, not the Eddie Murphy one) and, at least for me, the film was really about masculinities. The lead character (a short, geeky, socially-awkward professor with crooked teeth) spends the whole film trying to attain a certain type of hegemonic masculinity, which comes in the form of his alter ego, Buddy Love (a confident, handsome, charismatic, unapologetically sexist crooner who is adored by men and women alike). The film ends with the professor realising that it’s actually just best to be happy with who you are and he is rewarded with social acceptance (and, of course, he gets the girl). I came out of the film straining to think whether I had seen any more recent films that similarly explored the tensions that guys face in trying to figure out how to be a “real man” and, even more so, films that concluded with the message that it’s okay for men to be physically weak, bumbling and not traditionally attractive. Unable to spring any such films to mind, I began wondering where the positive self-esteem messaging is for men and boys.
For women and girls, on the other hand, this has been an inspiring and empowering week in terms of the pieces that were doing the social media rounds.
First there were Carol Rossetti’s beautiful images of women just being themselves, no matter what society tells them. Hairy women, disabled women, lesbian women, large women, women who’ve had abortions, tomboys – they all grace the papers of Rossetti’s images with defiance and pride. The Brazilian graphic designer says of her art pieces, “It has always bothered me, the world’s attempts to control women’s bodies, behaviour and identities. It’s a kind of oppression so deeply entangled in our culture that most people don’t even see it’s there, and how cruel it can be.”
Then there was the Always ‘Like a Girl’ video that questions why running/throwing/fighting/etc ‘like a girl’ is an insult (side question: is this also a common insult in other languages or just in English?). The video transitions to an uplifting girl power message in which one young girl of about age 6 answers the question, “What does it mean to ‘run like a girl’?” with: “It means to run as fast as you can.” Aimed at the issue of teenage girls’ self-esteem, the video attempts to reclaim the phrase ‘like a girl’ to being a positive thing. A young woman in the video says,
I kick like a girl and I swim like a girl and I walk like a girl and I wake up in the morning like a girl because I am a girl. And that is not something that should be ashamed of.
No doubt very carefully edited and scripted (and, let’s not forget that it is an ad from a company that is trying to make money), at least the video is making an attempt to challenge gender norms. Sadly, the misogynistic undercurrent in many of the comments suggest that we’re still quite a while away from any kind of gender equity.
Interestingly, though, on both the pages of Carol Rossetti’s illustrations and the Like a Girl video, some male commenters posed similar questions to the one I had after watching ‘The Nutty Professor.’ One said, “Wonder how long I will be waiting to see ’18 Empowering illustrations to remind everyone who is really in charge of MEN’s bodies’ ?????” The comment on the Always video was a lot more angry and defensive but, nonetheless, expressed the same type of deep frustration with the socially-prescribed expectations of masculinity:
Yeah, and no one gives a fuck that young boys are always told to “man up” and be strong and athletic and hate art and emotions and that they have to grow up to be ripped and strong and have a huge penis and be in control of everything and provide for their families and grow lots of body hair and kill the damn spiders even if you’re secretly afraid of them. Go away, you delusional, one-sided feminist propagandists. Always just wants to profit off of your ignorance.
There’s a whole lot going on there.
This reminded me of the conversation I came across last week about the need for a ‘boy power’ movement to expand and diversify the ways available to guys to ‘be a man.’ The closest that anything came to that idea this week were the photos from the UK paper, The Sun, of regular guys reenacting underwear ads. While the photos were originally meant half as a joke, they have been very well-received, especially by female commenters. But, apart from reasserting that men don’t have to be models in order for women to find them attractive, this campaign doesn’t really go anywhere in the direction of challenging deeply-entrenched harmful gender roles and asserting a diverse and nuanced view of masculinity. It won’t help the self-esteem of guys with small penises or guys who are afraid of spiders. In order to make that kind of change, guys need to start speaking out for themselves and for each other.
Meanwhile, in Colombia, the national football team’s star player, James Rodríguez, commented after the team lost to Brazil on Friday’s World Cup match that, “Men also cry.” It’s not much, really, compared to the types of empowering messages that are out there for women and girls right now. Yet, having such a high-profile role model breach the topic of gender stereotypes that are restrictive for men, is an opening and an opportunity for other men to come in and expand the conversation.
So, come on guys – why wait?