The Making of Machismo


Professors Lyn Mikel Brown and Mark Tappan deconstruct media messages sent to boys—and suggest tools for parents

By Ruth Jacobs
Photography by Jason McKibben

Mark Tappan and Lyn Mikel Brown
Professors of Education Lyn Mike Brown and Mark Tappan among boys' toys that emphasize over-the-top power and physical strength, a theme they say is detrimental to boys' development.

It has become well-known dilemma: Women and girls are bombarded by thousands of media messages daily. These messages, often intended to sell products, limit girls and create feelings of inadequacy. Girls are up against a lot.

But what about boys?

With increasing attention paid toward boys´ lagging performance in school, that question became a familiar refrain when Professor of Education Lyn Mikel Brown spoke about her 2006 book, Packaging Girlhood: Rescuing Our Daughters from Marketers´ Schemes.

Boys, too, are bombarded by media messages that perpetuate stereotypes to sell goods. These stereotypes damage boys, albeit in different ways. Brown found that, although people were hungry for critique, what existed was about the obvious—overtly violent video games, for example. Enter Packaging Boyhood: Saving Our Sons from Superheroes, Slackers, and Other Media Stereotypes (St. Martin´s Press, 2009), by Brown, her partner, Professor of Education Mark Tappan, and psychologist Sharon Lamb.

Packaging Boyhood looks at kids´ favorite products and media and pulls out the underlying messages that parents may not notice. The authors find that, much like girls, boys are reduced to stereotypes. Then Brown, Tappan, and Lamb show parents how to teach boys to see critically what´s being fed to them and to encourage boys to be who they are, not who they think they´re supposed to be. “It´s really about helping parents negotiate this incredible onslaught of media messages about what it means to be a boy, what it means to be masculine, and how do they talk to their sons about it when they´re just getting it from everywhere,” Brown said.

Everywhere indeed. Books. Television. Toys. Music. Games. Movies. And it starts early, says Brown: “As soon as they´re watching TV or engaging with media in any way.” Children quickly move from educational television shows like Sesame Street to cartoons that glorify rudeness (“farting dogs” and “stinky boys,” says Brown) and include “bumbling and stupid” parents, especially fathers. The subtle, underlying message, she says, is that parents are irrelevant in boys´ lives. Another theme is the lack of meaningful relationships among boys. Friendships tend to be shallow and are not mutual but involve a strong character and a weaker sidekick. Boys don´t show emotions, don´t communicate well with girls, and if they do they compromise their masculinity—“you´re weak if you show feelings. You´re a girl, you´re a pussy, or whatever,” said Brown. Content for older boys emphasizes being obsessed with girls, power, and, of course, violence.

In fact, the violence comes early. Toys associated with violent, intense, PG-13 movies are marketed to young boys through promotions like McDonald´s Happy Meals, Tappan said. “All the toy tie-ins [are intended] to get boys begging to go to these movies,” said Brown. If the parents give in, the content (which Tappan says is often on the line between PG-13 and R-rated) is potentially harmful. Even toys that once were considered more benign have resorted to the theme. Brown and Tappan point to Legos (destruction) and Nerf (bigger, badder guns). In action figures, physical proportions have become unrealistic. Throughout the media, things that seem harmless may not be. “It´s the constant subtle messages that the boys get over and over that aren´t examined,” said Brown.

Still, not all media are bad, the authors say, and they highlight and analyze positive examples. They like Harry Potter (he´s complex, is reminded that he needs his friends, has older mentors, and wrestles with emotions) even though the book series includes some stereotypes. The Simpsons and other satires and parodies have potential (for older boys) because they´re “smarter.” Some musicians send positive messages, including, perhaps surprisingly, some rappers, like the artist Common. The examples are abundant, and many are listed in the book. The authors emphasize that positive and problematic messages frequently occur in the same place, so it´s especially important for parents and children to learn to deconstruct them.

That is the focus of Tappan´s Boys to Men course at Colby. The course examines masculinity and the transition into manhood and includes individual student research projects focusing on single products. “A number of those analyses kind of sparked our writing and were really helpful and got us thinking about things,” said Tappan. A student with an affinity for World Wrestling Entertainment critically examined its action figures. Another focused on energy drinks, which emphasize power and masculinity.

Brown, Tappan, and Lamb argue that boys are reduced to specific types in the media. Superheroes. Risk-takers. Winners. Powerhouses. “Everything for boys is over the top and huge and bigger and biggest,” said Tappan.

So what´s wrong with winning and being strong? Nothing, necessarily. But sometimes it involves violence or dominance. And what happens when boys can´t measure up? “If you´re not a winner, the number one, you´re a loser in some way,” said Brown. And that´s where money comes in. “One of the techniques that marketers use to sell a product is they raise your anxiety about something that´s wrong with you,” said Tappan. “They raise your anxiety and then they sell you a product that will help you feel like you´ve made it.”

The inability to measure up to stereotypes has also given way to a new stereotype in the media: the slacker. “The superhero-big-guy-winner is so over the top now in boys media that this alternative identity of being a slacker is now giving boys a kind of face-saving opt-out,” said Brown. “So they can be funny sidekick slacker types—Jack Black, Will Farrell … it´s kind of an interesting alternative, but they also get associated with being losers in the sense that they´re not quite smart, they´re not good in school.”

The messages are pervasive, but the authors of Packaging Boyhood offer ways to help boys resist becoming stereotypes. It´s all about communication, the authors say. “Whenever possible sit down, learn how to play those games,” said Brown. “Talk with them, watch their movies. It gets harder and harder as they get older because they have more and more independence, but that´s why we say start young, help them develop some critical thinking … so that by the time they get to an age where they don´t want you around, they at least have your voice in their head.”

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  • On November 13, 2009, Ruth Jacobs wrote:
    Great interview with the authors on WCSH-6 TV: