Finally someone has studied and written a book about a phenomenon which few speak of but which is evident to any thinking American—our popular culture routinely belittles and demonizes men and fathers. Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture by Katherine K. Young and Paul Nathanson is a painstaking expose of how men are portrayed negatively in movies and television.
Young and Nathanson break down the depiction of men in modern TV and movies into several categories, including “Laughing at Men,” “Bypassing Men,” “Blaming Men,” “Dehumanizing Men,” and “Demonizing Men.”
Shows like Home Improvement and Men Behaving Badly, for example, laugh at the main male characters and almost always portray them as being wrong and the women in their lives as almost always being right.
These shows and others, such as The Simpsons and The Golden Girls, display several of the common misandrist themes Young and Nathanson’s studies have found: Men are coarse and inferior but they can improve in spite of themselves—by accepting the advice and teaching of women, who are intrinsically wise and civilized; Men can be worthwhile and lovable, but only despite their masculinity and never because of it; Women can mock men and men can mock men but it is generally unacceptable for anyone, male or female, to mock women; When women make misandrist remarks, the audience is to laugh along with them, but when men make misogynistic remarks, the audience is to laugh at them; Women can scrutinize and criticize a man’s behavior, but men cannot scrutinize and criticize a woman’s behavior.
Some shows and movies, such as Murphy Brown, Waiting to Exhale, and How to Make an American Quilt, portray most men as useless, and encourage women to simply bypass them.
Others, such as The Handmaid’s Tale and The Long Walk Home, blame men for social ills. The Long Walk Home, for example, is based upon the modern, utterly fanciful notion that it was only Southern white men, not Southern white women, who were racist against blacks and sought to “keep them in their place.”
Still others, such as Sleeping With the Enemy, A Kiss Before Dying, and Deceived, dehumanize and/or demonize men.
In Deceived, the main female character, Adrienne, falls in love with and marries Jack, a seemingly loving and caring man. After five years of happy marriage, which includes the birth of a daughter, Adrienne discovers that Jack secretly is a murderer and a criminal. In the end, she narrowly escapes with her life. The lesson is a common one—no matter how good even the best of men may seem to be, women are never safe, and men can never be trusted.
Young and Nathanson note that many modern versions of older films or folktales have altered the original plot in order to portray men negatively.
In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, for example, Beauty’s three evil sisters have been eliminated, an obnoxious male chauvinist (Gaston) has been invented, and the Beast has been turned from a kind, undeserving victim into a selfish and deservedly punished cad who can only be redeemed through a woman’s love.
In the modern remake of Cape Fear, Sam, a decent, loving husband and father in the original version (1962), is transformed into a philandering coward and a possible child molester. At the end of the new version, Sam is not united with his wife and his daughter—the two women are united and Sam is despised by both of them. This is another common theme—men can depend on women, but women can and should only depend on each other.
To further illustrate television misandry, the authors randomly selected and examined various weeks of TV Guide blurbs. During the week of January 9-15, 1999, for example, the blurbs alone indicate that viewers can expect to see a man kill his wife (twice), rape a woman, murder a child, stalk a woman (twice), murder or attempt to murder a woman (six times), discriminate against a woman, beat his wife, and murder his classmate.
Women’s advocates once taught American society the valuable lesson that the stereotypes of women that we see in television and movies will, in one form or another, be translated into our larger culture, and thus it is important that women be portrayed fairly. Unfortunately, many of them (and many of the women and men who were influenced by them) forgot their own lesson when it came to negative portrayals of men in popular culture.
Young and Nathanson express hope that the many men and women who are distressed by the cultural belittling men endure can help jar our society’s memory—and its conscience.
Note: during the 1980s and 1990s our media was filled with negative and often damning statements about men that turned out to be false, and studies about gender that turned out to be misleading at best. Later there came to be some understanding in the media, as well as in college journalism classes, that the media had been uncritically reporting and proclaiming things that were at least partially untrue. This negativity definitely had an influence on popular culture. With the rise of the feminist movement, whose demands were largely righteous and whose views were often correct, unfortunately came a lot of negative stereotypes of men. This has receded, to some degree, in recent decades. This column was written in 2001, and accurately reflected the anti-male attitudes in popular culture, including movies and television, at that time.
- Sacks Media Content12/1/01