This summer, NPR is running a 10-week series on masculinity in America. It’s called, appropriately, “Men in America.” Audie Cornish, a great host on “All Things Considered,” hosts the series and, luckily, does not want to paint the entire ideal of “manhood,” but instead take “little snapshots.”
It’s a series that comes at a critical time in America’s dialogue about men as a cultural signifier. Masculinity traps many because of its stringent requirements that, because you’re a certain gender, you have to act a a certain way.
Recently, I read an article in The Atlantic that profiled Judy Chu’s new novel, “When Boys Become Boys.” Chu studies young boys from pre-school to first grade. The changes that occur are amazing.
One young man is simply ostracized because he cannot hang out with boys and girls. He chooses no one and cannot rejoin his elementary school social group. Another, who Chu uses as a comparison, is given safe haven by his parents to be with girls — without his guy friends knowing. He turns out just fine and is accepted by everyone.
As we can see, masculinity (and its performative component) arise early on in life and creates tension from the first time we form social groups. There is a set and rigid standard that boys learn from media, friends and older guys. This is one of the historical problems with any social change: People learn from history and are doomed to repeat it.
While I think NPR is doing a public service by profiling men, certain parts of the series make me uncomfortable. For example, it asked one day for people to tweet “what object makes you feel manly.”
Honestly, I couldn’t think of one single thing that I do that makes me “manly.”
It’s that kind of repeated message that gets to men and reinforces the ideal of “masculinity.” If you’re not supporting the program’s call for things like drills or grills, you’re made to feel like a jerk by saying that your favorite quilt makes you feel manly.
In fact, I tweeted about how “#menpr” could be either “fun” or “oppressive,” and a man tracking the tag responded “really?” It’s that kind of interaction that suppresses a healthy debate about the role of media coverage that reinforces a really unhealthy gender norm.
Perhaps my main problem with this program is that it only presents the facts and does not really challenge what I think about masculinity or being a man in America.
That, in essence, should not be the role of media in presenting the masculine constructs we all participate in. NPR should use this as a chance to show what people are doing and how it can be bad for them — not just a cute-sy hashtag.
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