We’ve all heard the phrase be a man. But what does that even mean? And how do we help each other to shape and understand that? While men have traditionally been in a position of dominance, they are not exempt from harmful gender stereotypes and social conditioning. Representing a broader range of male experiences is vital if we are to move towards a more inclusive future – and brands and image-makers have a key role to play in challenging outdated notions of gender.
Focus on the experience, not just the subject
Being more representative isn’t just about calling out myths and narrow views of masculinity – it’s about reflecting a wider spectrum of the male experience in general. Rather than focusing solely on dispelling stereotypes, ad campaigns and design projects can drive positive change by presenting a broader view of what a man can be, express and feel.
Men have the right to feel
Feelings aren’t feminine or masculine – they are human. Yet all too often, we are subjected to gendered portrayals of emotion. Anger and aggression have been described as masculine emotions, while fear and insecurity have typically been viewed as feminine traits – creating a culture in which many men (and women) have felt unable to express themselves.
This doesn’t mean campaigns can’t reflect emotions that have traditionally been associated with a particular gender, but it’s important to show people of all genders expressing a wide range of experiences, from grief to joy, excitement and fear.
Promoting body confidence
It’s not just women who are subjected to unrealistic body ideals. Images in media and popular culture have perpetuated the myth that men should have huge appetites and muscular physiques – a stereotype that has become even more pervasive with the rise of social media and personal trainers-turned-influencers, prompting some men to build up muscle and gain weight to the detriment of their mental and physical health.
In campaigns promoting body positivity, don’t forget to bring men to the fold: make sure that your images celebrate a range of bodies and reflect the belief that beauty is inherent in everyone, no matter what their shape or size.
Friendship and male bonding
Everyone needs emotional support from time to time – whether it’s from a friend, a partner or a relative. Yet stereotypes have taught many men that looking to friends in the dark times is a sign of weakness, and that “real men” should be able to deal with problems on their own.
The belief that women like to talk about their feelings with friends, while men prefer comfortable silence is one that is reinforced in TV, film, adverts and even greetings cards, but it’s time to challenge this. Let’s show more images of men enjoying each other’s company, building meaningful male bonds and helping each other through hard times.
Parenthood: not just a job for mums
Gender stereotypes remain particularly pervasive in narratives around parenthood (see Eliza William’s recent piece for CR’s Humour issue). Images that show men taking on parental duties can help challenge outdated ideas around care-giving, and empower families to choose a structure that works for them. With the number of men taking paternal leave falling for the first time in five years in the UK, it’s time we had more images that show raising children isn’t just a job for mums – and that men are perfectly capable of changing nappies.
Men can be creative too
The outdated belief that women prefer creative or expressive pursuits while men prefer practical tasks has had a pervasive influence on children growing up – leading to a gender imbalance in subjects that have been viewed as traditionally male or female. In the UK, fewer girls than boys study STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects at high school, while girls have tended to outnumber boys in creative or artistic subjects (though this gender imbalance appears to be reversed in adulthood, with more men reaching Creative Director level than women in the creative industries).
But art isn’t a gendered past-time, and engaging in artistic or creative pursuits doesn’t exclude someone from enjoying athletics, sciences or anything else. Showing more images of men engaging in artistic hobbies or tasks can support a wider view of masculinity and encourage more creative voices.
Gender equality is a complex issue – one that can’t be solved through photographs alone – but as creators of media, we have the ability to help drive positive change and empower all genders. Not just men and women but non-binary individuals, too. Men, like women, have been, and continue to be subjected to a limiting expression of gender identity. Not all men face the same pressures and challenges, but all men experience insecurities, fears, hopes and dreams and by presenting a broader view of the male experience from infancy to adulthood, we can positively influence media and global culture.
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