What's so bad about portraying men as 'bumbling and irresponsible'?


A lot has been said about the unrealistic portrayal of men's bodies in the media. We all agree that toned pecks and six-packs are not the norm and that we'd love to see a wider and more accurate representation of body types. However, we seem to be inexplicably comfortable with the portrayal of men as bumbling, irresponsible idiots.

From big-budget movies to TV adverts, the irresponsible man is never out of sight. Take the movie, Knocked Up, for example. Seth Rogen's character is a manchild with no sense of responsibility before he bumps into Katherine Heigl. And then there's Dumb and Dumber, the American Pie series and pretty much every movie starring Adam Sandler. I'm surprised "irresponsible men" is not considered a film genre.

Despite the fact that men have always played an active role at home, the portrayal of men as incompetent in the home continues to be norm. The woman is the career-driven, super woman that does everything and "plays mum and dad" while the man is no more than an incompetent errand boy.

Interestingly, this comedic representation of men, especially when it comes to parenting, is most likely to get women angry than anything else. According to Richard Huntington of Saatchi & Saatchi, "the suggestion that dads are clowns, or worse sideshows, in the parenting department is [a] faux pas that marketers make. Sixty per cent of women say their partner is just as involved in parenting as they are – and there is no difference between the opinions of mothers who work and those who do not, so it is important not to isolate fathers but to communicate to the ‘parenting unit’.

Some people might say it's just a bit of harmless fun but studies around the topic suggests something different. Many psychologists have explored the impact of what we see on how we behave. Particularly, Albert Bandura and his Bobo doll studies which found that children imitate the violent behaviour they see in a short film. Are children the only ones influenced by what they see on film? Hardly. Since his early studies of decades ago,  Bandura has enjoyed a very successful career creating soap operas designed to influence the behaviour of entire cultures. An example of  this was the popular soap opera Hum Log, designed to influence Indian people to use contraception and support women’s rights.

According to Dr John Barry, Chartered Psychologist and co-founder of the Male Psychology Network, "With this understanding of the power of television, it’s easy to imagine the impact of men being portrayed in the media as idiots. Firstly, everyone –  men and women – will be more likely to see men as idiots.  Secondly, and more perniciously, men and boys are likely to internalise  this ‘model’ of themselves, and behave in a way that reflects this  negative stereotype of men."


A report from the UK's Advertising Standards Agency (ASA) also found that gender stereotypes in adverts “can lead to mental, physical and social harm which can limit the potential of groups and individuals”.

These unrealistic portrayals of men can have a negative effect on lifestyle choices. When market intelligence firm Mintel looked into the effects of 'hunkvertising' - the objectification of men in advertising - it found that men we more likely to rank being in good shape above maintaining a close group of friends, getting married, having a relationship or being promoted at work.

For many years, women were subjected to unfair and inaccurate portrayals in the media and next to nothing was done about it. Thankfully, there is more of a desire in society to right this wrong today. But unfortunately, the tolerance for unfair and inaccurate portrayals of men is alive and well.

Doing away with unfair and demeaning representations of men is not just about jumping on the latest bandwagon or following the latest trend. It's about doing justice to men and the work they do. There's a long way to go and some work to be done to right the wrongs but doing so will ensure movies and adverts that more of us can relate to and take us closer seeing the fair and just society we all want.

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