Features 02/05/01

Movies' seductive lie tells men that to be real, they must be tough
• This installment: Violence and men, with some thoughts by George Gerbner, Jackson Katz and a Roman general named Maximus
Part 2: Violence and women
Part 3: Violence and children

By Marcie Young

EDITOR'S NOTE: Men commit more than 90 percent of violence toward women, children and other men. Leading media analysts, including George Gerbner of the Annenberg School of Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, say it is television programs, movies and the media that are sending men the wrong images about masculinity and violence in the world.

• • •

Three, two, one -- action.

With a nod from the mighty general, thousands of Roman soldiers light arrows on fire and launch flaming balls into a crowd of barbarians. Both groups of men charge forward with silver swords shining. The yells of pain and anger fill the burning forest. Men on horseback fatally stab and slice their enemies, while other men wrestle with fists, arrows and swords on foot. The brown soil turns red as the battle continues. The scene fades into slow motion, and the heroic Roman army wins the war.

In the opening 10 minutes of Gladiator, the 2000 blockbuster hit by DreamWorks, there were more than 40 acts of violence. Throughout the film, there were nearly 200 acts of violence. The film grossed millions of dollars and was at the top of the nation's movie list for weeks.

Although men and women flocked to the movie about Rome's killing matches for entertainment and a good story, Jackson Katz, an anti-violence educator and co-writer of the educational film Tough Guise, said movies such as Gladiator reinforce the idea that men need to be perpetrators. He also said men and boys leave such movies with ideas of how "real men" should look and act.

"Violent masculinity has become a cultural norm," Katz said.

Katz's ideas about violence and the media, however, are just part of the analysis.

George Gerbner, who is also the Bell Atlantic professor of telecommunications at Temple University, said he does not think people violently imitate movies and television. His theory suggests that the more television and movies people watch, the more violent they think the real world is.

"The problem is not violence; the problem is that it is so frequent that it becomes an overkill," Gerbner said.

But when men watch violent television shows and movies, they are more likely to associate male power with hardened bodies and big guns, Katz said. Men will often walk away from a bomb-dropping war movie or a fictional cop show thinking that's the way that "real men" are supposed to look and act, he said. In today's television shows and movies, violence isn't seen as something that has a long-term influence, Katz said. These things, rather, are mediums that show people that it's good to have power and strength over others.

"To control violence is failure," Katz said. Katz said it is movies like Gladiator, The Patriot and other top-rated movies that make today's men feel like they have to be strong, violent and emotionally tough to be considered "real men." Media violence is geared toward men, Katz said, and it is through the images men and boys see on television and at the movies that they begin to form ideas of what men should look like and how they should act.

Violent images are seen over and over again by men in Rambo, Rocky, martial arts movies and Westerns. When men and boys are exposed to these violent images repeatedly, they begin to think that violence is normal and should be part of a man's life, Katz said. Movies with bloody scenes, death and physical confrontation reinforce the idea that violence is part of the way humans interact with each other.

Movies and television are also telling men that violence isn't about good guys winning as much as it is about success, Katz said.

"Whether violence is used for a virtuous cause or by a bad guy . . . violence gets you what you want," Katz said.

Although violent movies and television shows have become expected in society, Gerbner said most people dislike watching violence for entertainment. The reason violence in films and programs continue to grow is because people don't think about what they are watching, he said.

"Television is like a religion," Gerbner said. "It's not selectively viewed -- it's just there."

Even though most people don't enjoy watching death on the screen, Gerbner said violence on television and in the movies is getting worse. In his educational film, The Killing Screens, Gerbner said movies get more violent with every sequel. He used Robocop and Robocop II as examples. In the first film, 32 people were killed. In the second movie, however, the death toll more than doubled to 81.

Katz agreed, but said the increase in violence has to do with how men look at themselves and other men. Violence is encouraged by the physical characteristics of powerful men in the media.

• • •

Three, two, one --- action.

The booming voice overhead makes the scarecrow, the lion, the tin man and Dorothy stand still in terror. The wizard is speaking. He is a man of power, a man of strength, a man to be reckoned with. But when Toto, the little dog, pulls away the curtain to the wizard's control room, a scared man with a small voice stands behind the microphone.

It is this scene from The Wizard of Oz that Katz uses as an example to show the desire many men have for power. Although most movies geared toward men are full of violence and muscle, Katz said those images are not how most men really are. Men put up a front that is based on extreme ideas of masculinity, he said. This is the "tough guise," which emphasizes toughness and physical strength, according to Katz's web page at www.jacksonkatz.com.

Men categorize themselves by setting stereotypes for men. When men think about what a "real man" should be, many visualize someone over 6 feet tall. They see bulging muscles, which represent power and emotional strength. A man who is physically strong would never be emotionally weak, Katz said of the ideas men have about masculinity. But these ideas are based upon images men see on television and in the movies, he said, and because they are based on fictional characters, they are not "real men."

Nathan Scott, a 21-year-old midshipman at the United States Naval Academy, agreed with the physical characteristics of what a "real man" should be. Scott, who is about 5 feet, 7 inches tall, said society thinks a "real man" needs to be at least 6 feet tall, muscular and physically strong.

Greg Phillips, also a 21-year-old at the Naval Academy, said a "real man" cannot be overweight and must not have a high-pitched voice.

"The deeper the voice, the better," Phillips said.

Scott also said "real men" don't cry over physical pain. He did say, however, that a "real man" is comfortable with who he is, and as a result can cry over emotional pain.

"He can't cry over physical pain. He has to hold it in -- that's a real man," Scott said.

Although Katz said many men want to be like the fictional strong and powerful men they see in the media, he also said it is unlikely that people act violently based only on these images. Gerbner, however, said violence on television and in the movies is not the biggest problem.

Most people who watch lots of television think the world is a scary place. And according to Gerbner's research, this insecurity is should be a major concern. The theory, called the "Mean World Syndrome," increases insecurity, Gerbner said.

"The situation is that people feel more insecure, not the need to be violent," Gerbner said.

Michael Walker, a 22-year-old student at Utah State University, said he watches about five or six hours of television a week. Although he said he doesn't think the movies and television programs he watches influence the way he acts, he did say he feels safe from violence in most situations. He also said, however, that the world is not as safe as most people think it is.

"My personal world has never been [imposed] upon," Walker said. "But I do think you need to be more cautious these days."

Relating his ideas to Gerbner's, Katz suggests that people who watch lots of television feel like they need to be perpetrators to prevent becoming a victim.

"In a given situation, you might act violently because if you don't act first, you might be the victim," Katz said.

But according to Katz, this is a problem that can be solved if men begin thinking about what they can do to change the way other men think about violence and masculinity.

• • • 

Three, two, one -- action.

Sitting in a small office, a twenty-something man talks with his court appointed therapist. As in their other meetings the young man sits back in a chair of golden thread. The therapist opens a cream-colored folder full of photographs and information about the young man's life. The young man had been beaten by his drunken father as a child and raised in poverty. Ever since he has been lashing out violently against the world. The therapist tells the young man, "It's not your fault." Over and over again, the therapist says this. The young man gets angry and pushes his therapist friend. Still the older man continues, "It's not your fault. It's not your fault." The young man, someone who has depended on his strength and ability to fight his entire life, begins to cry. His sobs become uncontrollable as he falls into the arms of his therapist.

In the Academy Award-winning movie Good Will Hunting, co-writer Matt Damon plays the part of Will, the angry young man who depends on his physical strength. This movie, however, shows that even the toughest of men have emotional sides, Katz said in Tough Guise. Will, the main character, keeps everyone in his life away from his emotions, Katz said, because that is what a "real man" is supposed to do. In the end of the film, however, Will cries. He cries and he cries, yet his tears are not seen as a weakness, Katz said.

It is through movies such as Good Will Hunting, The Full Monty and Boyz n' the Hood that men are seeing "authentic versions of the male experience, achieving emotional, thematic and aesthetic power," Katz said. Movies like these also show how hiding behind the false images of masculinity end in tragedy, both physically and emotionally, Katz said. In addition, Katz said men need to find the courage to speak out against violence.

"Men need to confront each other and say, 'This isn't OK,'" he said.

Men can do this by breaking the silence, even if they are "good men" already, Katz said. (Most men don't think the problem is theirs because they don't rape, kill or physically fight others.)

"The roots of violence are closely connected to manhood," Katz said. "Those of us who are not abusive -- if we don't play our part, we're part of the structural problem."

Even some of the most "manly" men are beginning to show their emotional sides.

Mark McGwire, professional baseball player and world record holder for home runs, is helping put the masculinity myth to rest, Katz said. McGwire cried on national television when he announced he would be giving money away to abused children. McGwire, Katz said, is someone who many men see as a "real man." His biceps are huge, his neck is wide, his stomach is like a washboard and his legs mimic superman -- steel. Seeing such a tough-looking man cry tells men that having emotions and showing them doesn't mean being a wimp.

"It's just about being honest," Katz said.


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