Updated: Sep 14, 2021
In my previous articles I’ve explored the representation of women in our culture, what effect it has on people in real life, and how it indirectly can lead to violence against women. When I say ‘inequality’, ‘sexism’ or ‘violence against women’ some people might imagine that these are women’s issues only. In this article I would like to discuss that these are all people’s issues. I would like to start this article by sharing my personal story from when I was a kid. As a school child in primary school, aged 8-10 I would go to a school canteen for lunch. All kids, boys and girls from different classes whose parents paid for lunches would be there, too. We all would get the same meal. However, one time it wouldn’t be the case and that moment imprinted in my memory. I remember we had sausages and mash that day and I also remember that boys would get two sausages and girls only one. I ate my only sausage really quickly so I went to ask the chef for one more. She said no to me. I said to her that boys got two sausages. And she said that boys got two sausages because they are boys, and boys need to be strong, I’m a girl I don’t need two sausages. At the moment I felt a strong sense of unfairness I wasn’t able to describe, and mainly I wasn’t quite able to pinpoint what exactly was wrong about the situation. That moment was the first time I can remember I was introduced to sexism. As an 8-10 year old I didn’t argue with the chef that my parents paid for my lunch the same amount of money as the boys’ parents and therefore I’m entitled to the same portion. I left the canteen feeling really disappointed, confused and like I something important was stripped away from me. The right to equality. Looking back at my experience I’ve realised that on that day I also learned another thing: boys need to be strong and girls don’t. This is not just an individual experience, this is a small example of how our culture works as a whole.
We all were introduced to gender differentiation in an early age of our lives. Parents think of their babies differently before they are even born. They decorate the room differently, buy different clothes and toys, because they assume that little baby boys and baby girls will have completely different interests and likings. Emphasising differences between boys and girls then follows throughout the rest of our lives.
Fig. 1: Toys for girls, Google search Fig. 2: Toys for boys, Google search
Fig. 3: Room design for girls, Google search Fig. 4: Room design for boys, Google search “The notion that there is such a thing as neutral bearing or that parents are not responsible for gender differences – it’s a psychological impossibility.” (Eliot, 2015) In our culture there are certain expectations revolved around behaviour, needs and identity that are associated with gender. There are certain characteristics we rather class as feminine (emotional, emphatetic, soft, etc), and different characteristics we assume to be rather masculine (strong, competitive, in control, etc). In his film The Codes of Gender, Sut Jhally refers to Erving Goffman’s book where Goffman mentioned the term ‘gender display’. Jhally explains that the gender display is a process where we perform the roles expected of us by social convention. In other words, if we are women we will take on roles and behaviour associated with femininity and if we are men we will take on roles and behaviour associated with masculinity. The reality is that the characteristic associated with masculinity and femininity are not natural or biological, they are culturally shaped. “Sex is a biological term – it refers to which chromosomes you have. XX for females, XY for males. But gender is a social construct – it is an expression of masculinity and femininity and both of these are spectrums and they overlap.” (Eliot, 2015) Yet, we learned to treat both sets of characteristics which ‚define‘ what is masculine and what is feminine, as though they are mutually exclusive for each gender. As though those characteristics that ‚define‘ masculinity can’t or shouldn’t be expressed by women and vice versa. Have you ever heard the phrase “Boys don’t cry.”? Or “Man up!”? Or perhaps “Don’t be like a girl!”? And many similar ones. These are phrases that people very often say to little boys. What they don’t realise, however, is what they are teaching them not just about themselves, but also about girls. They are implying that men can’t cry – they can’t express their emotions. That men have to be strong to be real men. And mainly – having a quality that is by social norms classed as feminine is unacceptable for men, and it makes them weak. “The idea of being seen as weak in the eyes of other guys starts in the earliest moments of boyhood. And it follows them all the way throughout their lives, proving to other guys that they are not girls. It makes them feel insecure in their masculinity.” (Kimmel, 2015) So what are the rules of manhood? Thomas Keith in his film The Bro Code explains: "A guy who doesn't like binging alcohol at a party when everyone else is might be labelled the wuss. A guy who doesn't like football, and who rather reads or does anything remotely academic may be called the fag. The boy who doesn't feel like doing something dangerous may be called the pussy. This shows how much women [and gay men] are devalued in our society. These are female/gay insults." (Keith, 2011) What happens is that boys learn to downplay qualities that are associated with girls and women. They begin to learn to suck up their pain as they feel it is expected from them. They are neither encouraged to express their emotions, nor talk about them. “What we have made feminine, boys begin to devalue in themselves, their relational needs and desires. They lose the intimacy of their friendships, so many boys feel lonely and isolated.” (Way, 2015) She goes on: „They really enter into the culture of masculinity when they begin to understand that if you are straight, you have no desire for male intimacy.“ (Way, 2015) However, they need intimate friendships with their mates just as much as women do. They need to process their pain and find support in other people who they can talk to. These are human needs. But the block that has been built into them doesn’t allow them to fulfil these needs. They don’t have the language to talk about pain and being hurt, but they have the language to talk about being pissed off. The way boys have been programmed and the lack of understanding in the society who views vulnerability in men as a weakness, lead to loneliness and depression. Women are more likely to be diagnosed with depression and to attempt suicide, yet it’s men who are three times more likely to die by suicide. “We would imagine it would be female adolescents who are depressed and suicidal because of the way we define depression – more removed, more quiet, not responding, etc. What boys tend to do when they are depressed is quite the opposite – they are more likely to act out and become aggressive. But most people would see it as though they are bad kids. And what happens? Before they see the other signs of depression – which will come, those young males may become suicidal, but no one has noticed it.” (Pollack, 2015) The statistic from 2017 shows that the UK male suicide rate was 15.5 deaths per 100,000, whilst for females the UK rate was 4.9 deaths per 100,000. The idea of what a real man should be like is further reinforced in media, such as movies, advertisement, magazines, video games and porn. Men in films are often presented as strong, silent and always in control. They engage in high risk activities and in high levels of violence in order to achieve their goals. However, not all male film protagonists are portrayed this way. There are characters who don’t fit into the ‘strong hero’ box, but they reinforce the idea of masculinity in different ways – all they care about is getting drunk and laid.
Fig. 5: Advert for Proteins Fig. 6: Movie Male Superheroes Fig. 7: American Pie “The average boy spends 40 hours a week watching TV, sport, movies. 15 hours a week playing video games and 2 hours watching porn.” (Zimbardo, 2015) When you play a video game you don’t think about the character you are playing as he is somebody else, you think about him as though it is you. If the character dies in the video game, you would say; I died. If the character completes a fight, you would say; I did it. You identify yourself with the character. You don’t experience this sort of identification in any other media on this level because it’s interactive. The main protagonist – often male – is mainly portrayed strong, emotionless and violent. Any sort of grief is underplayed and never discussed.
Fig. 8: God of War Fig. 9: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood Fig. 10: Small boy playing violent 18 certificate rated computer game Grand Theft Auto on Sony Playstation console England UK The majority of boys play video games. Those boys end up idolising the male characters, assuming that they are the true portrayal of masculinity. Youth Violence: A report of the Surgeon General is a research that shows that boys who are exposed to violence in the media are more prone (than girls) to be less sensitive about pain and suffering to others. It leads them to be more fearful of the world around them, and it leads them to engage in behaviours that are aggressive or harmful to others. Speaking of violence, let’s talk porn. Gail Dines explains in her seminar Pornland that nobody in the industry talks about soft core and hardcore porn anymore. That’s because most soft core porn migrated into pop culture. So what we really are left with in the porn industry is hardcore stuff. To demonstrate what I’m talking about let’s have a look at Max Hardcore, who’s the grandfather of hardcore stuff. He says on his website: “I force girls to drink my piss, fist-fuck them, rear their asses, and drill their throats until they puke.” (Harcore in Pornland, 2014) The average age of boys first viewing internet porn is 11.5 and they don’t always go onto porn sites because of a sexual impulse. A lot of the times they simply stumble upon sex websites, because something might pop up in their tab, they use a keyword on Google search that might lead onto a porn site, etc. Porn sites are just a few clicks away and therefore are easily reached by young boys. But what they find is not just sex, but an incredible level of normalised brutality and centred male pleasure.
Fig. 11: Selfie 1, Google search Fig. 12: Selfie 2, Google search Some people might be thinking: but this is just a fantasy, it’s not real. Bad news – this is very real. Pornography is sex education for most people. There is an unbelievable shame around sexuality – healthy a natural sexuality – so sex is still a taboo topic which is not discussed enough with children and young teenagers. There is no proper sex education, so the only sex education kids have these days can be found in pop culture and porn. “If you are a teenager who has no sexual experience, this becomes the social norm. And the assumption is that this is what is right to do, this is what women want and this is how you are supposed to perform.” (Zimbardi, 2015)
Gail Dines in her seminar Pornland cites what she had found on a porn site Gag Me And Then Fuck Me: “Do you really know what we say to things like romance and foreplay? We say fuck off! We take gorgeous young bitches and do what every man would REALLY like to do. We make them gag till their make-up starts running, and then they get all other holes sore. Anything brutal involving a cock and orifice. And then we give them the sticky bath.” Dines explains that this is actually very clever. Because it shapes young men’s ideas of what masculinity and sexuality is. Those young boys who search for porn on the internet think they might find boobs or a naked woman, they don’t expect to find this. She points out the phrase do what every man would REALLY like to do: “If you are a real man, we are telling you what you would like to do. If you are man enough, you will watch this. They are pulling them in. I don’t know any 12 years old boy who would say; no, I’m not a man enough.” (Dines, 2014) Young boys get taught not to see humanity in girls. So the more they dehumanise them, the better and hotter sex is – for men. In the documentary The Mask You Live In the statistics say that exposure to pornography increases sexual aggression by 22% and also increases the acceptance of rape myths (that women desire sexual violence) by 31%. I found more statistics. They are from 2019: Approximately 85,000 women (aged 16 - 59) experience rape, attempted rape or sexual assault by penetration in England and Wales alone every year. Two women a week are killed by a current or former partner in England and Wales alone. In the year ending March 2019, 1.6 million women experienced domestic abuse. “I call what we do to little boys and men ‘The great set-up’. We raise boys to become men whose very identity is based on rejecting the feminine, and then we are surprised when they don’t see women as fully human. So we set them up to grow into men who disrespect women at a fundamental level, and then we wonder why we have the culture that we have.” (Heldman, 2015) At the beginning of this article I said that “inequality”, “sexism” and “violence against women” are everyone’s issues. Why? In my opinion the pressure on young men to be strong, in control, hardy, emotionless, etc, and the link between that and a large amount of men committing suicide or turning violent, comes from the same culture that cultivates inequality and sexism. In fact, it is the indirect result of inequality and sexism. Violence against women is mostly male violence. And male violence doesn’t explode on women only. A statistic from March 2021 says that of the 758 recorded homicides in Great Britain in 2019/20, 551 of the victims were male and 207 of the victims were female. Although the majority of homicide victims are men, they are also responsible for far more homicides than females are, with around 9 out of 10 homicide suspects being male in England and Wales between 2010/11 and 2019/20. Violence against men is a male violence, this is something that men and women have in common, we both are the victims of male violence. The Crime Survey for England and Wales (CSEW) estimated that one in five adults experienced at least one form of child abuse (8.5 million people). This is not just little girls, this is also little boys. Men are almost always the perpetrators. In the documentary The Mask You Live In the statistics say that abused and neglected children are nine times more likely to be involved in crime. This sounds like a vicious cycle to me. “Boys are trained to externalize their pain. When something bad happens to them they need to do something bad to somebody else.” (Katz, 2015) A statistic from 2021 says that 93% of killers in England and Wales are men. “The men who commit violence there are our sons, brothers, boyfriends, etc. They are saying something about us as a culture… The same system that produces men who abuse women, produces men who abuse other men.” (Katz, 2015, 2013) Some people when they hear “gender equality” act like it’s a swearing word, as if it’s anti-male. But it is not. This is not women against men. To me gender equality means; women and men together against a faulty system that cultivates harmful and toxic attitudes and stereotypes. There are other issues in our culture that revolve around men, too. Children in the UK are more likely to live with their mothers than fathers. In fact, one in three children lives without their dad. Do you know how long paternity leave is in the UK? Two weeks. Maternity leave? One year. Is that fair? Absolutely not. In her TED talk Why gender equality is not just about women, Caroline Strachan said that: “Women don’t just become mothers. People become parents.” And as I already mentioned, men commit suicide three times more often than women, and also happen to be victims of domestic violence. All of these issues come from the same gender stereotypes that cultivate inequality that feminists are fighting against. They are created by our culture and further reinforced by individuals – parents, friends, schools, etc. So gender equality really is something that men should be interested in, too, because it would help creating a better world for all of us. Unfortunately, men don’t really challenge other men. A lot of men might agree with the principles of gender equality but will remain silent, because they don’t want to lose their status in their peer culture. Women and men need men to act out, because men can be heard saying things better than women. Sad but true. In his TED talk Why Gender Equality Is Good for Everyone — Men Included, Michael Kimmel said that privilege is invisible to those who have it. What else can we do? In the documentary The Mask You Live In the professionals suggested to help boys return to what they already know – empathy, sympathy, being caring, having intimate friendships – these are all human characteristics and needs. They suggest letting boys process grief and letting them cry, so they can develop their emotions. Let’s become more critical about the media around us. Let’s stop supporting stuff that disrespects women and normalises violence against them. Think twice when you watch porn – I would like people to bear in mind that anti-porn isn’t anti-sex, it is anti-sexism. Let’s encourage good media. Ever heard of Bechdel test? This is a measure of representation of women in fiction. It asks whether the women represented in the work talk about something else than a man. It is very common for a lot of movies and video games, etc. that women are often depicted as a mere decoration or they simply exist to only serve the male’s protagonist purpose. And when there is a scene that happens to focus on the women, they can’t help themselves but talk about men. However, bear in mind that this doesn’t measure and guarantee the quality of the film or video game. But it’s a good step forward in going a different direction that supports better representation of women in media. From films I liked Brave, Erin Brockovich, Dirty Dancing, She-Devil. From video games; Life is Strange 1, A Plague Tale: Innocence, Alien Isolation, Horizon Zero Dawn. And many others.
Fig. 13: Men in media, 2012 Fig. 14: Women in media, 2007-2012 Fig. 15: Male Armor vs Female Armor As I already mentioned in my previous article, I believe that sex and gender education revolved around mutual respect would really help. Regardless of where the education is coming from – parents, schools, other institutions like charities/other centres, campaigns, spreading awareness as an individual, etc. My final question is: Where are these attitudes and expectations revolved around genders coming from? They have been here for thousands of years. The majority of the societies around the world are patriarchal. However, that doesn’t make patriarchy biological, natural, and it doesn’t mean that it became the norm because it‘s better for the society.This is something I would like to explore in depth some other time. Bibliography: Text: This article was largely referencing the documentary The Mask You Live In, 2015 https://thoughtmaybe.com/the-mask-you-live-in/ Pornland, 2014 https://thoughtmaybe.com/pornland/ The Bro Code, 2011 https://thoughtmaybe.com/the-bro-code/ Jackson Katz: Violence against women—it's a men's issue https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ElJxUVJ8blw&ab_channel=TED Caroline Strachan: Why gender equality is not just about women https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a4WuurpnSbc&ab_channel=TEDxTalks Michael Kimmel: Why Gender Equality Is Good for Everyone — Men Included https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7n9IOH0NvyY&ab_channel=TED Suicide rate statistics in the UK: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/birthsdeathsandmarriages/deaths/bulletins/suicidesintheunitedkingdom/2017registrations https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190313-why-more-men-kill-themselves-than-women Youth Violence: A report of the Surgeon General https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK44293/ More UK statistics: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/articles/domesticabusevictimcharacteristicsenglandandwales/yearendingmarch2019 https://rapecrisis.org.uk/get-informed/about-sexual-violence/statistics-sexual-violence/ https://www.statista.com/statistics/1221306/homicides-in-britain-by-gender/ https://www.refuge.org.uk/our-work/forms-of-violence-and-abuse/domestic-violence/domestic-violence-the-facts/ https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/crimeandjustice/bulletins/childabuseinenglandandwales/january2020 https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/women-murders-men-ons-sarah-everard-b1815779.html https://www.fathers-4-justice.org/about-f4j/fact-sheet/ Paternity leave https://timetastic.co.uk/blog/a-guide-to-paternity-leave-in-the-uk/ Maternity leave https://www.gov.uk/employers-maternity-pay-leave
Figures: Fig. 1: Toys for girls, Google search Fig. 2: Toys for boys, Google search Fig. 3: Room design for girls, Google search Fig. 4: Room design for boys, Google search Fig. 5: Advert for Proteins https://cz.pinterest.com/pin/551761391826295400/ Fig. 6: Movie Male Superheroes https://griid.org/2013/02/12/normalizing-male-dominance-gender-representation-in-2012-films/ Fig. 7: American Pie https://www.meme-arsenal.com/en/create/meme/832081 Fig. 8: God of War https://levelskip.com/misc/Toughest-Male-Protagonists-in-Video-Games Fig. 9: Assassin's Creed: Brotherhood https://www.comingsoon.net/movies/news/597496-exploring-the-treatment-of-women-in-video-games Fig. 10: Small boy playing violent 18 certificate rated computer game Grand Theft Auto on Sony Playstation console England UK https://www.topitworld.com/small-boy-playing-violent-18-certificate-rated-computer-game-grand-theft-auto-on-sony-playstation-console-england-uk/ Fig. 11: Selfie 1, Google search Fig. 12: Selfie 2, Google search https://papersculpture.eu/pregnant/id10818-max-hardcore-porn-movie.php Fig. 13: Men in media, 2012 https://www.forbes.com/sites/meghancasserly/2012/11/14/are-men-the-latest-victims-of-media-misrepresentation/?sh=5f5145c62caf Fig. 14: Women in media, 2007-2012 https://fashionindustrybroadcast.com/2015/04/30/the-end-of-the-strong-woman-2/ Fig. 15: Male Armor vs Female Armor: https://www.buzzfeed.com/simrinsingh/sexist-video-game-moments