As I passed the magazine rack at the Giant grocery store last week, I couldn’t help but notice the large number of bare-chested men with six-pack abs and hairless, bulging pecs on the covers of most of the men’s magazines. I have been spending so much time contemplating how media messages affect girls and women that I had not considered how they affect boys and men. So I started wondering: do these hyper-masculine images affect boys’ and men’s body- and self-esteem in the same way that unrealistic, idealized images of women affect girls and women?
As I searched the Internet and academic databases for information about girls and media literacy, I found dozens and dozens of media literacy programs focused on girls, but when I changed the search for boys and media literacy, I found very little and wondered why. Why is it so common to find media literacy programs specifically for girls and not for boys? Have studies found that boys are not affected by media in the same way as girls, therefore rendering media literacy for boys unnecessary?
Via e-mail I presented these questions to Renee Hobbs, a leading authority on media literacy in the USA, the founder of the Media Education Lab, and a professor at the School of Communication and Theater at Temple University.
Hobbs wrote, “It’s mostly that there is special funding for educational programming to support girls’ development. Also, feminist scholarship has taken an interest in the role of media in girls’ development, career aspirations, etc. Media literacy programs on media violence are often targeted at boys, actually. But there are few funding programs designed to meet the needs of boys, even though they are more likely to have difficulty in school and drop out. This is likely due to our cultural reluctance to address issues related to violent videogame play, violence in sports, representations of hyper-masculinity, and other topics that are not commonly explored by male scholars themselves.”
Few scholars, men or women, have focused media literacy efforts on boys because of, as Hobbs says, “a cultural reluctance” to focus on media violence and hyper-masculinity. Hobbs pointed me in the direction of a video by Jackson Katz, a leading anti-sexist male activist in the USA, entitled “Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis of Masculinity.”
Katz narrates this video and discusses the ways in which media and society perpetuate the myth of manhood’s connection with mental and emotional toughness, violence and aggression. From boys’ action figure toys, to the hip-hop culture, to the sports culture, to violent films and pornography, Katz leads viewers through an array of media images and messages that have allowed violence and sexual aggression to become a cultural norm in the USA.
There is nothing “natural” about masculinity, says Katz. Masculinity is a performance modeled from pop culture. He emphasizes the need for boys to see honest portrayals of male vulnerability in the media so they understand that they don’t have to wear their “tough guise” all the time.
Based on Hobbs’ comments and Katz’s video, I would say there is an equal need for media literacy for boys as there is for girls.