Stereotyping Men: How it Hurts Us All

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It’s been a year since I survived a near fatal car crash. Fell asleep at the wheel. It’s a miracle that no one was killed. That wasn’t the biggest miracle to come out of it. Let me explain. I’d always had a competitive and distant relationship with the men at the office. They reminded me of my brothers. Always teasing me and giving me hell. Part of it was fun. I liked laughing with the guys about guy stuff. Who’s on top; who’s on the bottom. Part of it was alienating. You know, men can be stupid and I was stupid with them. What I was really the most stupid about was how much they actually cared about me. That’s where the real miracle happened. The guys at the office all came and visited me at the hospital and told me not to worry. They mowed my lawn, bought groceries for my wife and kids, paid my mortgage for the two months I was out of commission and covered my duties at work for me. They even sent me cards and got me a bobble head of Tiger Woods. I nearly chocked on my tears in the hospital when I heard about their caring. And to think I just saw them as guys!

Unfortunately too many of us also just see men as guys. We may fail to see men as human beings with incredible strengths and common failings. We may only see the image of men and not be in touch with their true inner selves and inherent capability. We see men only as stereotypes.

Obviously men play a part in our stereotyping them. Image may be everything for some of them. Men behaving badly may warrant critical judgment. However, what concerns me in this article is not men’s behavior but our behavior toward men — how we shortchange men and ourselves by putting men in a box. Our connections with men — fathers, brothers, uncles, husbands and sons — all suffer from seeing only superficial aspects of them. Even worse, our connections with ourselves also suffers from male stereotyping. We lose out big!

How male stereotyping harms everyone

Clearly there is nothing wrong with self-effacing humor, whether it’s about our own petty failings or the nonsense that some men are up to. Laughing with men about our common humanity is good for us all. When we have tried to be honest with men and our feelings have fallen on deaf ears, humor is a healthy antidote to pain. However, some of us undermine our relationships with me from the get-go. We may secretly pigeonhole men and see only superficial aspects of them. We may laugh at men and not with men.

Stereotyping males begins early and has devastating consequences for young boys and their self-concepts.Some of us use humor and covert judgments as a weapon against men because we are simply angry at men and we don’t know how to deal with our anger straight up. We may act powerless and be helpless around men. We may blame men for making it difficult for us to be honest with them. In reality it is we ourselves who are resisting honesty. It may seem easier to just write men off than have constructive conflict and dialogue with them. However, stereotyping men seals off the wounds we have with them and it weakens the possibility of heartfelt authentic connections with them. It mostly harms ourselves.

Continued stereotyping has even worse consequences. When we see only superficial aspects of men they become like objects to us and we treat ourselves like objects in their presence. Men sense our antipathy towards them and they stay distant from us. Too many of us have a great loneliness in our connections with men due to the inauthenticity of our relationships with them. The very parts of us that need affirmation by men get sealed off forever in us. Our self-confidence may weaken. We all become “desperate housewives” in our connections with men. We make war with them because we are too scared to authentically love them. Stereotyping is our secret weapon in the war against men but it mostly cheats ourselves.

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Some of us, like the man in the example, are not even aware that we are stereotyping men. We believe that men really are the figments of our imagination. Our unexamined assumptions about men and how our fathers, brothers and husbands live within us deeply define us.

Role of the media

Unfortunately men are often portrayed in the media as unresponsive, passive, clueless, incompetent and dependent on their wives. Very few commercials show men being nurturing with their families let alone playing leadership roles in emotional affairs with loved ones. Such depictions occur despite how often men are increasingly playing nurturing roles as fathers and husbands. They reality is that dads today spend twice as much time with children as they did 30 years ago and co-parenting is the family norm these days. Many men are stepping up to the plate in caring for their wives and children. We are a long ways away from “Father Knows Best.”

A 2001 survey of 1,000 adults found that two-thirds of respondents thought that women featured in advertisements were shown as intelligent, assertive and caring while men were portrayed as pathetic and silly. Since most purchasing is done by women, being given preferential status by advertisers is an obvious appeal to the bottom line. Perhaps the anger in advertising toward men also reflects how much these family guys are missed on an emotional level by their families when men overwork. Of course these are the same families that expect men to labor ungodly hours to provide for them in the manner to which they are accustomed.

Stereotyping males begins early and has devastating consequences for young boys and their self-concepts. According to a research survey of 101 G-rated movies between January 1990 and January 2005, boys are typically depicted as dominant, disconnected, dangerous and dumb. Males occur in the movies three times as often as females. They are half as likely as girls to be shown as relational. They are rarely dads, husbands, brothers, or other nurturing male figures. Males are often shown as resorting to violence to solve problems and they are three times as likely to be portrayed as dumb compared to girls. Certainly boys who are entranced by early media watching are absorbing and internalizing all the cultural stereotypes of what it means to be males in this culture. They underperform in school. Such brain development affects boys for life.

Six common myths about men

  1. Men resist new approaches to fatherhood, marriage and other close relationships because they are threatened by change. Actually time with family is the leading request for men at the workplace more so than money or better job status. Men are enjoying increasingly active nurturing roles with family.
  2. Men need sexual gratification and have few needs for emotional intimacy. Although young men are highly motivated by sexual energy, most adult men report that being sexual with a partner brings them emotionally closer to them — their main reason for having sex.
  3. Men do almost nothing to run homes and leave everything, including raising children, to spouses. Indeed women do more than their fair share of housework despite working as much as men outside the home. However men’s, work regarding keeping the cars in order, fixing the roof, repairing things, getting the leaves out of the gutter (stereotypical male work) often goes unnoticed and is assumed. Most of the dangerous work — like checking on burglars and going to war is done by men.
  4. Men think that people who praise them are being manipulative. Men are so infrequently praised, due to being seen as not needing it, that when they are given a pat on the shoulder they wonder what the praiser wants from them.
  5. As men age, they lose their interest in sex. Men have active libidos throughout their lives but are less sexual with age due to fears of aging, partner conflict and misinformation about sex.
  6. Mean aren’t interested in the finer things in life and asking them to read or see films will usually result in noncompliance. Men are often initially scared of the vulnerability that subjective media brings up in themselves. However when their partners insist on relational fairness and get their spouses to try something new, men frequently like what they try.
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Why do we stereotype men?

Let us all have the courage to see men as people who are different from but very much like ourselves.Obviously some men do behave badly when it comes to their family’s well-being. It’s only natural to project antipathy toward men that comes out in the form of stereotyping. However, this explanation doesn’t strike at the heart of the matter. Clearly some women aren’t saints when it comes to loved ones and yet women in general are portrayed as competent when it comes to family life. The heart of the matter is that stereotyping men distracts us from looking at ourselves. It’s much easier to write men off than notice how we are being ingenuine with men, how we expect men to rescue us from life’s struggles and how we have not come to terms with limitations in our relations with men — our fathers, brothers, sons and husbands. The fact is there probably is a lot more we can get from men emotionally. But we may not be ready to receive it. So we create barriers by pigeonholing men.

Getting more personal with men

To break barriers with men the place to start is with yourself. You may not be completely aware of the ways you keep men at arm’s length. Read Daphne Rose Kingma’s The Men We Never Knew and get support from a trusted friend who can help you face some challenging realities while comforting you in your struggles. Often writing a letter to a man you want more from that focuses on your limitations and needs is a good place to start. Clearly you will require help with how far you can go with a particular man and when it is best to accept what will not change. Let us all have the courage to see men as people who are different from but very much like ourselves. Men are scared people much like ourselves.

John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul, MN and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn a commission if you purchase through the links in this article – at no cost to you.

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