Hypermasculinity in television: the case of “MANswers”

In a previous post we discussed the policing of gender roles in television advertisements. We then wrote about how recent advertisements police masculinity by implementing rules concerning masculine behavior and what is deemed manly. In those advertisements some of the catch phrases and key words were: “Man Up”, “Stuff Guys Need” and “It’s Not for Women”. Gender role policing is however not only present in advertisements aimed at selling products, but can also be found in television series and programs. One such example is the television program “MANswers” (a word play on men and answers).

“MANswers” has been aired on Spike TV since 2007 and is currently on its fourth season. On Spike’s website it is stated that: “Spike TV answers all of the burning questions men have been dying to ask, but never found socially acceptable in the comedic late-night series, MANswers”. (Spike TV Website, 2012). On “MANswers” Facebook page the aim of the program is explained: “MANswers is a satire aimed at predominately male audiences with a wide age range, primarily 18–40. Questions of a comical nature are asked and answered which usually relate to women and tips on how to get them to date you, sex-related questions and trivia, and defense mechanisms in deadly & harmful situations, and also firearms. Specialists with Masters and PhD degrees are brought in and give information from which the viewer can learn”.

Just like television advertisements, “MANswers” also has its own catch phrase: “Get ready for the toughest, coolest, most bodaciously sexy stories, the ones only real guys care about. They’re MANswers!” A typical “MANswers” episode is approximately 20 minutes in length. Every episode consists of a number of questions such as “How have guys gotten a happy ending at high-class massage parlors?”, “How can you take a bullet out yourself?”, “Where are America’s most kick-ass whore houses?” and “How much is your semen worth”. Every episode devotes a few minutes to answer each question and these are illustrated and acted out by men and women. Diverse ranges of professionals such as biologists, urologists, anthropologists or wild life experts are utilized for their opinions and advice.  

Even though the program is constructed as a “satire” the occurrence of gender stereotypes and sexism is not comical for women or men and may have social implications and repercussions.

What “MANswers” implies about men:

  • That men only enjoy brief sexual encounters with women, not long-term relationships or deeper connections.
  • That men need to control and hide their emotions rather than being emotionally connected and open.
  • That real men need to be aggressive, tough and ready to fight. Violence is viewed as an integral part of men’s lives.
  • That binge drinking alcohol and using various illegal drugs is the norm.
  • That men’s health is not an important issue.
  • That same-sex friendships are valued more than any other type of relationship.
  • That heterosexuality is the norm to the extent that homosexuality is never even mentioned. “Real guys” are therefore not homosexual.
  • That men are deemed more professional and intelligent than women since the great majority of professionals/experts depicted in “MANswers” are male.

What “MANswers” implies about women:

  • That women are mainly viewed as sex objects and the objects of men’s sexual desire.
  • That women are confined to a few gender role portrayals, especially those that explicitly highlight their bodies and sexuality.
  • That women, in order to be attractive, should be of below average weight.
  • That older women, women above average body weight, and women below average height are not deemed attractive. Derogatory descriptions of such women include the use of words such as “fatty” and “midget hooker.”
  • That women enjoy, approve of and take pride in men’s sexualization of women’s bodies.
  • That physical attractiveness is more important than any other characteristic.

“MANswers” is a rather extreme case in terms of gender stereotyping. At the same time, the views described in “MANswers” must come from somewhere, and are based on gender stereotypes that exist in society. “MANswers” not only encourage certain gender behaviors and expectations, but simultaneously and actively discourage any behavioral side stepping that stray from the expected roles of men and women. This is a complicated and serious issue since the adherence to strict gender roles can negatively affect both women and men.

Here are some of the consequences of the implementation of strict and traditional gender stereotypes:

  • Jokes containing sexist information or sexist undertones can contribute to male dominance and to the maintenance of patriarchal ideologies which award men power over women. Some implications of the use of sexist language and sexist jokes are the subordination of women through language and the maintenance of a “binary system” between men and women which views women as inherently different and men as more valuable (Bemiller and Zimmer Schneider, 2010).
  • Greater emphasis is placed on women’s appearance. Women in media are expected to be young (Signorelli, 1989) and attractive (Barriga, Shapiro and Jhaveri, 2009) above anything else. Women are also more likely to appear as “sex objects” (behaving in ways to personify sexual enticement) when compared to men (Lin, 1998).
  • Women are also more likely to be depicted as physically “fit”, “skinny” and “slender” (whereas men are more often “full-figured” or “chunky”), while wearing less clothes than men  (Lin, 1998). In a study of situation comedies, Fouts and Burggraf (2000) found that 76% of the female central characters were below average weight, compared to the remaining 24% of the females who were portrayed as average or above average weight. Heavier females received more negative comments from male characters in the programs. The thinner the female character, the more positive comments she received by males (Fouts and Burggraf, 1999).
  • Women who view television advertisements deemed as sexist judge their own body size as larger while at the same time preferring a thinner body size in comparison to women who view non-sexist advertisements (Lavine, Sweeney and Wagner, 1999).
  • In a comparison of subjects exposed to sexist (primed) or non-sexist (control group) advertisement material, Rudman and Borgida (1995) found that “compared to controls, primed subjects (1) selected more sexist and inappropriate questions to ask of the target during a job interview, (2) sat closer to her, (3) rated her as more friendly, and (4) judged her as significantly less competent” (p. 511-512).
  • Traditionally, research on sexism and stereotypes of women in media have found that women are often portrayed in stereotypical female settings (McArthur and Resko, 1975). Such stereotypical and sexist depictions impact not only perceptions of the female in question but of other women as well.
  • Participants who viewed women performing stereotypical gender tasks were more likely to agree with stereotypical statements about women in neutral settings, compared to participants who viewed women in non-stereotypical advertisements (Lafky, Steinmaus and Berkowitz, 1996).
  • When focus is placed on a woman’s appearance, other perceptions of her are affected. For example, objectified women are often seen as less competent and less “fully human” (Heflick and Goldberg, 2009). Loughnan et al. (2010) concluded that objectified women were often denied moral status and “mind”.
  • Masculinity is based on the approval of other men and is reinforced in relations between men. This causes women to be viewed as “currency” used by men in order to improve their status or rank within a “homosocial” context. Part of becoming a man and experiencing manhood is based on the denial and “flight” from women and femininity (Kimmel, 2005).
  • “Homosocial” influences on men’s heterosexual relations can lead to ritualized sexual humiliation of women as a source of men’s collective amusement. It can also result in name calling of women, and exaggeration of women’s sexual behavior (Flood, 2008).
  • Men who have previously watched sexist advertisement material are more likely to act inappropriately towards female subjects and judge them as significantly less competent (Rudman and Borgida, 1995).
  • When men adhere or conform to hegemonic or stereotypical ideals of masculinity they might suffer consequences since: “The promise of public status and masculine privilege comes with a price tag: Often, men pay with poor health, shorter lives, emotionally shallow relationships, and less time spent with loved ones” (Messner, 1997 p. 6).
  • Men who are found to enforce and believe in traditional gender norms show less health promoting behavior (Mahalik, Burns and Syzdek, 2007). Stereotypical ideals of masculinity also lead to risky behavior such as higher consumptions of alcohol (Peralta, 2007), higher levels of drug abuse, accidents, homicide, suicide and occupational injury (Connell, 2005). 

“MANswers” is only one example of adherence to strict gender roles (often based on and mitigated through the belief in underlying evolutionary differences between men and women that dictate assumptions concerning gender). As noted above, men and women are influenced by stereotypical media depictions of gender. These influences spill over to the way that we act, socialize and view each other. We cannot state for certain just how strong the influences of gender stereotypes in media are and to what extent they change and affect people. But, what we do know is that they affect us in various ways, and that this is true for both children as well as adults. On a daily basis, we are bombarded with messages on how to act, what to eat, what to wear, and how to look, displayed through sassy advertisements, thirty-second commercials, depicted on flashy, huge billboards and in magazines aimed at fulfilling the needs of certain audiences and age groups. As adults, we have the cognitive ability to grapple with the notions of gender stereotypes in a more effective way than most children. At the same time, children are aware and greatly affected by the gendered behavior and gender roles enacted around them. As part of growing up, children quickly learn the ways of gender, especially so through play and the policing of others (McGuffey and Rich, 1999).

What if these media depictions left more room for women and men to take on their daily activities without rules and restrictions, without battling stereotypes and feelings of not fitting in or not living up to standards of hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity? Would the way we interact with each other be different? Would we be more accepting and approving of various lifestyles? Would we notice a shift in how we perceive gender roles and how we relate to those who do not fit the predetermined mould of the “right way” to enact gender? Would we do our children justice by letting them be who they want to be without suffering the consequences of teasing and bullying? These are questions to consider as various forms of advertisements and propaganda become even more common and pronounced in our lives.

Hennie Weiss is currently pursuing a Master’s degree in Sociology. Elin Weiss has a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies. Their interests include feminism, gender stereotypes, the sexualization of women and the portrayal of women and men in media.


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