The Danger of a Single Story About Gender

Photo from People Magazine

Photo from People Magazine

Gillette recently aired an ad called “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be” which has become hotly contested, particularly among conservative men. The ad positions itself as a response to the #MeToo movement, addressing harassment of women, violence, bullying, and the troublesome excuse, “Boys will be boys.” The video asks, “Is this the best men can be?” and encourages men to hold each other accountable and strive to be better.

The controversy over the ad bewildered me at first. How could such a positive and necessary message be considered offensive to anyone? So I dug into some of the opposition, and what the controversy seems to come down to is masculinity – what is it, and how do we define it socially?

The ad’s controversy over masculinity brings forth the interesting and important question of how our ideas of gender are constructed through cultural representation in the media we consume. Our mental ideas of quintessential maleness and femaleness do not just appear out of nowhere. Rather, they are shaped and molded by the culture we live in, a culture which is saturated with the same narrow depictions of how men and women should look and act.

For women, the pervasive stereotype falls into one of two categories: the Madonna or the Whore. Either a woman is portrayed as perfect, angelic, and incapable of wrong, or she is portrayed as a sexually attractive bitch. (Credit for my awareness of this trope, which is based on the Freudian complex, goes to Hannah Williams (‘19) and the research she has done on how this plays out in literature.) This tired binary is seen over and over throughout music, movies, and television. Once you start looking, it’s hard not to find it everywhere. And this limited rendering of what being a woman looks like shapes our reality of how we see ourselves and others.

For men, the presentation is far more nuanced because men have long held the reigns in  media. However, there are still perceived stereotypes of what society has deemed masculinity to look like. Men should be strong, they should be leaders, they should be brave, and, on a more troubling note, they are often exempt from consequences because, according to toxic notions of masculinity, a positive end result always justifies the means. Particularly in romance films, but also across the board, men are seen as either charming James Bonds or socially inept and awkward “nice guys.”

Recently I watched the popular romance comedy “Hitch”, starring Will Smith and Eva Mendes. For those who haven’t seen it, the film is about a man called “Hitch” (a charming James Bond-type) who has made it his career to help the dweebs and “nice guys” in life win dates with the women they are interested in. The movie, which like most rom-coms is marketed primarily to women, wins its laughs by playing off comfortable male and female stereotypes in an arguably problematic way.

The lead female character, Sara Melas, falls into the Madonna type; she is an unattainable working woman, beautiful, great at her job, and doesn’t need a man because she is perfectly happy with her single life. Her disinterest in dating, however, turns out to be her heroic flaw which Hitch must overcome in order to win the day (and conquer the woman).

There’s a lot in this movie that is problematic (for example, the invasive and borderline creepy way in which Hitch pursues Sara which is played off as cute and romantic), which I don’t have time to break down, but the main point I want to make is the danger in how movies like Hitch (and the entire genre of rom-coms) love to bolster gender stereotypes.

In a time in which the conversations regarding gender norms are shifting, I think it’s important to critically examine how our “guilty pleasure” movies and shows perpetuate narrow and often harmful ideas for how men and women should act, and how we internalize those messages.

A TED Talk from 2009 called “The Danger of a Single Story” recently made another round on the internet. The speaker, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an author from Nigeria, talks about how having just one story about a person, place, or people group is incredibly limiting and can be harmful.

“The problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete," she says, adding that a single story “robs people of dignity."

And yet we use these incomplete portraits of people to form our identities and perceptions of one another. This is especially true when we look at how we perceive and construct gender. By forcing men and women into strict binaries and using media to define those behaviors, we miss the beautifully nuanced fullness of humanity. We end up trapped by the molds we’ve built for ourselves because that is how we see men and women behaving in the things we watch.

It is dangerous to downplay the role media has in shaping us. Media representation is powerful – just take a class with Dr. Weichbrodt and you’ll see what I mean. And the most powerful culture-shaper in our era of Netflix-binging is arguably film and television. As Dr. Weichbrodt loves to tell her students, we need to expand our visual archives, and to that I’ll add, not just our archives of images, but our film and media archives as well.

When all we have is a single story for how men or women should act, that is how men and women inevitably end up acting. And when that single story is inherently problematic, like the idea that men can get away with troubling behavior, or that women are incapable of doing wrong or need men to fulfill their lives, it limits us from the fullness of ourselves and ultimately prevents us from loving each other in the ways that we should.

This is why I loved the Gillette ad; it breaks a message that has been poured into men for decades that masculinity equals violence, ‘scoring’ with women, and elicits no consequences. Rather than being anti-men, as some have claimed, the ad is deeply pro-men. It is supportive of a better, healthier version of masculinity that holds itself accountable to unkind behaviors, empowers women rather than objectifying them, and displays a new story for men and boys who don’t fit into the traditional “tough guy” narrative of masculinity.

I believe that we need new kinds of stories like this for men and new kinds of stories for women in order to present a more honest, holistic picture of gender. We need to expand our media archives to include stereotype-breaking content in order to prevent ourselves from falling into a single-story version of gender. Ultimately, this will allow the beautiful fullness of what masculinity and femininity can be to break the narrow images we have of ourselves and others.