A discussion of pop culture messages about masculinity, their impact on boys, and the benefits of introducing more gender balance to boys' lives.
When most people think about gender stereotypes and children, they envision princesses, dolls, and pink clothing. Few consider the warriors, muscle-bound action figures, and T-shirts covered in graffiti and skulls that are assumed to signify masculinity.
The pop culture environment that surrounds boys introduces them to a world where traditionally masculine traits-like toughness, aggression, and stoicism-are highly esteemed and where female influence is all but absent.
The Achilles Effect explores gender bias in the entertainment aimed at primary school boys, focusing on the dominant themes in children's TV shows, toy advertising, movies, and books: gender stereotypes of both sexes, male dominance, negative portrayals of fathers, breaking of the mother/son bond, and the devaluing of femininity. It examines the gender messages sent by pop culture, provides strategies for countering these messages, and encourages discussion of a vitally important issue that is rarely talked about-boys and their often skewed understanding of gender.
The Achilles Effect is a guide for parents, educators, and students who want to learn more about male and female stereotypes, their continued strong presence in kids' pop culture, and their effect on young boys.
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THE ACHILLES EFFECTWhat Pop Culture is Teaching Young Boys about Masculinity
By CRYSTAL SMITH
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2011 Crystal Smith
All right reserved.
Chapter OneWarriors, Wimps, Brats, and Clowns: The Impact of Male Stereotypes on Boys
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I remember my first encounter with gender stereotypes in children's cartoons. The opening scene of an episode of What's New Scooby-Doo showed two boys looking up at a large roller coaster. When one expressed his fear of the ride, the other said to him with disgust, "Don't be a girl."
The character's words hit me like a slap. Having previously limited my son's television viewing to the kind and gentle Bob the Builder and the educational Mighty Machines, I was quite unprepared for this abrupt change in tone. Despite my shock, I maintained my composure, calmly told my son that this program was inappropriate for him, then found something else for him to watch. (Sadly, television had become something of a necessity for my older son since the birth of my younger one, who was rather feisty and difficult to settle at nap time.)
At that time I was not researching or even considering writing a book, which is why I lack a proper citation for the episode, but that scene was an eye-opener for me. I had always thought that gender stereotypes affected only girls and women. With that one sentence, I realized that boys could suffer just as much as girls from the harsh, gender-based judgments of others.
The roller coaster scene became something of a catalyst for me. I began to look more closely at depictions of boys and men in children's popular culture and I discovered that kids' films, television, and books are rife with stereotyped male characters. These characters sustain and reinforce the brand of masculinity that first emerged in ancient hero stories and prevails still—one that assigns value to boys according to their level of manliness. Warriors, being the most stereotypically masculine, are considered the ideal, while more effeminate or soft boys are relegated to the bottom of the heap. These male types are juxtaposed against females, who, presumed to be inherently weaker, provide a baseline of feminine behaviour against which all males are measured.
As will be shown in subsequent chapters, gender stereotypes cast a wide net, affecting portrayals of fathers, mothers, and heroes in pop culture. But they also have an impact on the everyday perceptions boys have of themselves and the women and girls in their lives.
Snips and Snails and Puppy Dog Tails: That's What Boys are Made Of
While writing this book, that old rhyme from my childhood kept coming to mind. And while male characters are not necessarily portrayed as yucky—at least not in the TV shows and films aimed at school-age boys—they tend to come in rather one-dimensional packaging.
Male characters in children's popular culture are arranged in a hierarchy similar to that seen among pack animals like wolves and other dogs: alphas at the top, omegas at the bottom, and betas somewhere in between. In kids' pop culture, the warrior is the alpha, the wimp is the omega, and the bully, clown, and brat characters are betas, albeit closer to the bottom than the top. This hierarchy is not new, but the fact that it still exists, despite changes in gender roles in society, is not encouraging.
These characterizations of males may seem insignificant but they are not. As McGill University's Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young state in their 2001 book Spreading Misandry, "there is nothing trivial about pop culture. It is the folklore, the conventional wisdom, of an urban, industrial society ... Almost all sitcoms—let alone crime shows, soap operas and 'dramedies'—have what are often called 'relevant' plots and subplots, episodes that teach moral or political lessons of some kind."
Nathanson's and Young's comments, made in reference to entertainment for the teen and adult age groups, apply equally to children's entertainment. Lessons of a sort abound in kids' TV and film, and for boys they are not entirely positive. By placing boys in distinct categories and implying that the most stereotypically masculine boys have the most worth, pop culture teaches boys to value traditionally masculine traits, like aggression, over any other characteristics boys might possess.
The warrior (or alpha male) is the most prevalent of the male stereotypes in film and television programming aimed at boys. Superheroes are the most recognizable warrior characters and I will discuss them in detail in a later chapter. Even without them, there are plenty of examples of the warrior—a male character who is defined by stoicism, a quick temper, and a touch of rebelliousness. He usually tries to do the right thing, but often employs violence to overcome challenges and solve problems. He is easy to spot, given his less-than-sunny disposition, his air of toughness, and his independent streak.
Dan from the television series Bakugan Battle Brawlers is one. (The show features a group of tween-aged children who engage mythical creatures called Bakugan in battles for supremacy over the forces of evil.) Dan, as described on the show's website, is a leader who is quick to temper, ambitious, and "more street smart than book smart." In other words, Dan is a poster child for stereotypical alpha male behaviour. Dan's appearance underscores the kind of boy he is. Sunglasses rest on top of his head of tousled brown hair. He wears fingerless gloves and a red and black outfit that is equal parts athletic and "street"—a look that suggests action and competitiveness. His speech is peppered with tough talk like "You're going down!"
Shun, another Bakugan brawler, is the stereotypical strong, silent type. His purple and black outfit and ponytailed hair suggest martial arts, a look befitting a loner who approaches the Bakugan game "like a Ninja warrior." As a supposedly more cerebral fighter, Shun is withdrawn and taciturn, unlike the more hotheaded Dan.
As can be assumed from its title, the TV series Power Rangers: RPM has its share of warrior characters as well. Scott, the red Power Ranger, was in the military and seems to be weighed down by a great deal of anger and resentment. Scott has a difficult relationship with his father, which stems from his father's inability to accept and value his son for the man he is. To prove that he is tough and capable, Scott adopts all the hallmarks of the warrior—simmering anger, short temper, and machismo.
Scott frequently butts heads with Dillon, the other warrior in the show. In contrast to military man Scott, Dillon is the loner rebel. Dressed in black leather, gunning it through the desert in his muscle car, Dillon is the wild one who resists being tamed by the rules of the Power Rangers. Eventually he joins the group, but he maintains his reputation as a bit of a loose cannon.
Some programs offer a slightly more progressive take on the warrior. Ben Tennyson of Ben 10: Alien Force is one of the few male leads who comes across as a balanced character. He has a gentler disposition than his counterparts in other action shows and is referred to by his female cousin as sensitive and well-mannered. He gets along well with her and with other girls without appearing soft or overly feminized.
Anakin Skywalker of the film Star Wars: The Clone Wars is another nice-guy warrior. While aggressive in battle and very serious about his role as a Jedi warrior, Anakin, like Ben Tennyson, is a decent young man. He treats others with respect, including his young female apprentice, Ahsoka. He admits when he makes mistakes and he trusts Ahsoka to share in the decision making instead of doing all of the heavy lifting himself.
In the television show based on the Clone Wars film, Anakin becomes a little more stereotypical, appearing to be more of a risk-taker and occasionally more domineering over Ahsoka. The TV program also conveys the true nature of the warrior when Anakin's mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, warns Anakin that emotional attachments are risky for a Jedi. (It turns out that he is speaking from experience, as he was once in love with Duchess Satine Karyne.) This statement makes clear that no matter how kind the Jedi may be—and Obi-Wan and Anakin both seem to be generous in nature—they are warriors first. As such, they must not allow emotion to get in the way of their battle against evil.
Of course, control of emotion has been an essential part of warrior training for centuries. The legendary Spartans of ancient Greece reportedly whipped boys as young as seven and forced them to sleep naked in the winter so they would learn to endure pain and hardship without complaint. (Achilles was similarly trained by his mentor.)
In 1521, Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Art of War that virtuous leadership comes from emotional self-discipline—a military leader must know his limitations and act rationally at all times. Similar self-discipline is required in the commander's subordinates who must follow a hierarchical chain of command and accept their place in that hierarchy without objection. Machiavelli and the military leaders who followed him also believed that in order to work effectively together as a group, soldiers required rigid discipline. There was no room to consider the concerns or needs of individuals within the unit.
Because strong emotional reactions to a tense situation can affect a soldier's ability to make decisions, military training has exploited soldiers' emotions in other ways. To ensure that a soldier's conviction does not waver, military leaders have used techniques like creating a sense of overwhelming pride or patriotism and cultivating a fear or hatred of the enemy to inspire troops. (The latter is also a Machiavellian idea.)
Modern military leaders are beginning to take a different view of emotional issues, at least in some parts of the world. Having seen the impact of ignoring or manipulating the emotions of its troops, the US Army has recently introduced Army Master Resilience Training, which aims to help soldiers avoid troubles like post-traumatic stress. The program "focuses on the five dimensions of strength: emotional, social, spiritual, family, and physical." That the army has acknowledged a need for such training underscores the importance of addressing emotional troubles among soldiers and proves that a strong warrior capable of vanquishing the enemy can still be emotionally open.
The combat role, manifested in children's cartoons as a fight between good and evil, gives rise to what is, perhaps, the most troublesome aspect of the warrior ethos in children's popular culture—the tendency to respond aggressively when threatened or provoked. All warrior characters, even the gentler ones, frequently and willingly participate in intensely violent battles against their enemies.
Some TV producers attempt to couch the violence by having their main characters fight by proxy. In Bakugan Battle Brawlers, Dan, Shun, and the others call upon mythical creatures known as Bakugan to lead the fight against the dark forces they face. Similarly, the human characters in the cartoon series Chaotic and Pokemon use non-humans to wage their battles. Ben 10: Alien Force sees the character of Ben transform himself into any one of ten alien superheroes, making it appear less like he is directly involved in the fighting. Other programs do not spare the humans: the Power Rangers, the Hot Wheels Battle Force 5 team, and the Jedi all fight directly, using various high-tech vehicles and weapons.
Whether they are involved directly or peripherally, the protracted and often graphic fight scenes involving these characters make aggression and a desire for dominance appear to be essential or even praiseworthy male traits.
The pro-violence message sent to boys through these programs is also communicated through popular toys and the marketing that surrounds them.
Advertising for toys like Hot Wheels and Matchbox cars, Transformers, and Nerf guns all emphasize aggression and competition. Even toys that were once gender-neutral, like Lego, have gotten into the game. The Lego website shows a stark gender divide, with many of the so-called boys' toys being designed to vanquish some kind of enemy. Their Bionicles line, aimed at eight-year-olds but played with by children younger than the recommended age, is particularly disconcerting. Among the main characters are the Skrall, who are described as follows on the site:
arrogant, vicious, brutal, fear nothing and care about even less. They are just waiting for the opportunity to start taking whatever they want, whenever they want it. They are incredibly skilled fighters, with or without weapons. What they may lack in technique they make up for with sheer bludgeoning power and strength.
While not a word one might expect to see in a description of a toy, bludgeoning is just one of many violent terms used in the advertising for boys' toys. Others on this list include: arsenal, battle, blast, dangerous, deadly, fierce, firepower, force, hothead, power, savage, scorching, and, of course, warrior. The use of martial language, also common in sports broadcasts, is intentional and serves to underscore the commonly held notion that boys should be tough, defiant, and always ready to fight.
Violent messages and images also appear in the clothing marketed to boys. Parents browsing the racks at their local department store might be surprised to find among the toddler clothes a T-shirt with a Transformer-like robot shooting orange lasers from its eyes. Skulls are another common motif, appearing in clothing for boys aged one to twelve at mainstream retailers like Zellers, The Children's Place, and H&M. To add to the overall effect, many of the designs look like they were spray painted and text is often written in a graffiti-styled font. Fashions like these dovetail perfectly with the messages delivered by toy advertising, telling boys that fighting and toughness are cool.
All of these influences—the hero characters that dominate children's movies and TV, the toys, the fashions, and the book series that are spun off from shows like Clone Wars, Bakugan Battle Brawlers and Ben 10: Alien Force—reinforce the warrior discourse that Ellen Jordan discussed in her 1995 study "Fighting Boys and Fantasy Play."
Jordan wrote that children become aware of the distinction between boy and girl as toddlers, but gender really begins to matter to them during the early school-age years. During this time they are "actively looking for guidance on what is gender-appropriate behaviour." Turning to pop culture, young boys come face-to-face with the image of the warrior, an idea that has a "powerful hold" on their imaginations and a strong influence on their perception of masculinity.
This idea of masculinity, as defined by popular male characters like Dan and Anakin, tells boys that for men, anger is a legitimate response to being wronged and negotiation is not an option. It also introduces them to the idea that men should speak softly and carry a big stick— that is, spend less time discussing their feelings or frustrations and more time threatening and intimidating their "enemies."
As Jordan postulates in her study, any man who does not act the warrior part is positioned as his subordinate—the "weakling" or "coward." Current popular culture serves up many characters to fill that role.
In the Bakugan universe, there is Marucho, who contrasts sharply with Dan and Shun in both character and appearance. Although he is only one year younger than the other two, he dresses in a childish blue and white sailor suit. In a later version of the show, subtitled Gundalian Invaders, he sports a new but still babyish outfit of short overalls. The other characters recognize and respect his brilliance, but because he is smart, he is depicted as less warrior-like than Dan or Shun: he wears glasses, has a high voice, and is significantly smaller than all of the other brawlers, including the females.
Excerpted from THE ACHILLES EFFECT by CRYSTAL SMITH Copyright © 2011 by Crystal Smith. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Boys Will Be Boys....................9
Chapter 1: Warriors, Wimps, Brats, and Clowns: The Impact of Male Stereotypes on Boys....................21
Chapter 2: Distant and Disappointed Dads: Pop Culture Lessons About Fatherhood....................43
Chapter 3: Separating Boys from their Mothers' Influence....................57
Chapter 4: Male Dominance and Lack of Female Heroes....................69
Chapter 5: Modern Day Warriors: Superheroes and Sports Stars....................85
Chapter 6: Language and Communication....................109
Chapter 7: What We Can Do About the Achilles Effect....................125
Chapter 8: Recommended Resources....................143