Media: Real men don't get a look-in
From absent dads to new lads, the media is behaving very badly towards men. Enough is enough, says Jack O'Sullivan
Monday 28 April 1997
Really? What if I'd written that four out of 10 single women were so unattractive that men couldn't be bothered to sleep with them? Same fact, just a different, equally ridiculous conclusion. There would have been an outcry. Yet the anti-men story, though widely broadcast, provoked no protest.
Another example. Some 80 per cent of children want more time with their dads, according to a survey by the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children, published earlier this month. That sounds good - a similar proportion probably want to eat more ice-cream, drink more Coke, have trips to the zoo. Dads seem to be pretty popular. "This survey presents a reassuring picture of childhood, with most children enjoying close and loving relationships with both parents," said Jim Harding, NSPCC director, and a man who isn't slow to point out family failings.
But that wasn't the headline story. "Are fathers failing?" worried The Times. "Modern fathers are neglecting their children," said the story. New Dads are more myth than reality, said another report.
Sealing the demise of the New Dad was the finding that one in five children could not remember sharing an activity with Dad in the week before the survey. Yet how many children can recall what they did even two days ago? And isn't the real story that despite paternal work pressures, the vast majority of children did remember sharing an activity with Dad that week?
These stories are not isolated instances. They are typical of the way the popular depiction of men has become overwhelmingly negative. The press will publish any story that is a variant on the theme of Men Behaving Badly, any writer whose underlying assumption is that men are useless.
Misandrist imagery is not confined to journalism. Soap operas are full of male figures who are pathetic, aggressive or just plain stupid. Take EastEnders: earlier this month, Bianca (a confident, witty, dominant young woman) married Ricky (a foolish, easily led man, who is constantly under her thumb). At the wedding, Bianca's father didn't turn up, and her mother almost had to take her stepfather Alan's place in giving her away. Ricky's father also nearly didn't make it; he arrived at the last minute, sat at the back and slunk off before the end. All this after the stag and hen night episode, which contrasted the sinister side of the guys in a strip joint, making sordid, misogynist comments, with the women as they had a light-hearted, good-humoured evening with male strippers where it was all just a bit of Carry On-style fun.
And witness the way in which the brothers Phil and Grant Mitchell, having recently become besotted New Dads, were suddenly turned into "absent, feckless fathers", one of them an alcoholic, the other an adulterer. We have become so accustomed to negative imagery that everyone accepts without question these improbable Jekyll and Hyde character changes.
But reflecting reality doesn't seem to be high among the priorities when portraying fathers. The current NatWest television ad shows a family going off by train to the seaside for the day, only to find everything shut. Standing, soaked, on the platform, the wife sees that her husband has dropped his wallet and picks it up. Finding only pounds 10 in it, she declares: "You skinflint, you knew you weren't going to spend anything," implying that the disastrous day was the father's design. It's an ad for cash machines, but the message is clear: fathers are mean-minded bastards.
Male humiliation is a widespread theme in advertising. Remember the 18- 30 holiday ad, where the woman is splashing around in the pool and suddenly the man comes up for air? She pushes his head back under and carries on as before, under the logo: "Diving holidays for 18-30s". The "Ask Before You Take It" series for the Nissan Micra shows a man with half his head shaven for driving his girlfriend's car. In another, she is frying his expensive diving watch in a pan; in a third, she is throwing out his possessions. The current ad for Sainsbury shows a couple with the bloke pretending to be a foodie, while she belittles him because she knows where he bought the ingredients. Meanwhile, the cinema ad for Don't Tell It magazine, picking up on Reservoir Dogs imagery, shows a woman riddling a man with bullets in a bloody scene, just as he is about to reveal the magazine's title.
Men themselves are, of course, directly responsible for their own worst portrayals. The New Laddery of Loaded and other men's magazines takes pride in portraying us equally unrealistically as witless, porn-obsessed, drunken, serial shaggers without a thought in our heads. Sure, it's assertive. And this championing of male sexual desire is a breath of fresh air after that stillborn, asexual being the New Man, who buried his libido amid a heap of feminist-inspired shame. But New Laddery, in slavishly adopting as its own the negative feminist stereotype of men, exposes its own bankruptcy. It has no positive vision for men. The New Lads are just dummies for the feminist ventriloquists.
"The difficulty at the moment," says Joe Tanner, of the ad agency HHCL and Partners, "is that we're terrified of going back to the old-fashioned idea of men as the breadwinner and saviour, all that punching air stuff. But we haven't really figured out what a good guy is like today."
In part, this poverty of fresh male thinking about men explains the general lack of positive images in the media. But the clumsiness of the anti-male propaganda also betrays its origins. For it is chiefly men in powerful positions in journalism, advertising and television who are behind these depictions of pathetic behaviour set against female strength and competence. Having woken up to the fact that women are successful, men in senior jobs seem to think, in their still-male-dominated hierarchies, that a good bit of men-bashing is just the thing to amuse women, gain female readers and attract female consumers.
"It's tokenism," says Trevor Beattie, creative director with the ad agency GGT. "It's all done so crudely, based on the misconception that women hate men. It doesn't offend me. It bores me."
It is also a patronising approach to female success, which, I would like to think, does not fool many women. Most of them recognise the distortions they are being fed. These images don't fit their reality particularly well. (The one place you will rarely find misandrism is in women's magazines.)
As for men, most of us seem prepared to accept without protest this collective rubbishing of our lives. Perhaps the heart of the matter is that we loathe ourselves, and so will passively view our own destruction. But we shouldn't pretend that just laughing all this off is an adequate response.
We are only now realising just how much our daughters can benefit from seeing successful role models of their own sex. And we are just beginning to understand how much our sons can suffer from their absencen
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