How did we go from ignoring the bad things men do to talking about them all the time? Victoria Medgyesi explores the cultural—and personal—cost of ignoring the obvious.
It took the 14-year old son of a friend to point out the obvious. “I don’t see many good stories about men,” he said, browsing through a newspaper.
“So how does that make you feel?” I asked.
“Not very good,” he replied, as he flipped through pages filled with stories about pedophiliac priests, teenage boys who kill, financial swindlers, sadistic dictators, pimps, homophobic politicians who sleep with men, soldiers who rape, online sexual predators, serial killers, boyfriends who batter, celebrities who cheat, men who kidnap and imprison kids, and fathers who molest, kill, or abandon their families.
Prior to his not-so-innocent remark, I hadn’t thought much about how the daily barrage of negativity affects the way men and boys feel about themselves—and about other men. Neither had I asked how such sensationalized stories affect the way women and girls relate to fathers and sons, friends and lovers, husbands, teachers, colleagues, or to any man or boy they pass on the street. And that’s when it occurred to me. I was so used to mucking around in the “bad man hype” that I couldn’t see the dirt clinging to my boots. I soon discovered I wasn’t alone. So far have the scales tipped in the negative direction that many people laughed when told them I was looking for “good stories about men.”
“Are there any?” was a typical reply. It made sense. After all, the negative news comes at such a furious pace we barely notice when one horrific tale ends and another begins.
Though men clearly do plenty of bad and stupid things, has our global quest for truth and justice caused us to automatically expect the worst from them? Could the non-stop negativity in fact be contributing to the very behaviors we’d like to see eradicated?
The barriers to asking that question—let alone discussing it—are huge.
Cultural inertia is strong impediment to progress. The media clings to the tried and true—even if it’s usually far from the truth. Men are typecast as bad, silly, or incompetent. Who hasn’t laughed at the dumb dad or the dimwit boss featured on television? In advertisements, these guys can be found cluelessly pitchingeverything from frozen pies to detergent. Films and electronic games make the most of male-induced gore. The same is true for news and opinion shows. So, is the stereotype setting the commercial tone—or vice versa? Given the onslaught of negativity, could some men simply be living up to the message?
Maybe you’re thinking, “You’re talking about entertainment. I can tell the difference between that and real life. It doesn’t affect the way I think or feel about men.” Don’t bet on it. While it’s no longer necessary to prove that stereotypes such as “blacks are lazy” and “women are bitches” are harmful, it’s not necessarily the case when it comes to stereotypes about men. Most stand without comment, and we seldom ask why.
Over the past fifty years, we’ve gone from ignoring many of the bad things men do to talking about them all the time. So why aren’t we talking more about how this “shift” affects both genders?
For one thing, many men are in denial. “Nah, stereotypes don’t affect me,” they say, perhaps believing that personal power, education, money, or skin color will protect them from the fallout. Others get it. “Does a fish notice it’s swimming in water?” a male friend told me. “For men, these stereotypes have always been there. We just keep paddling around the deep end trying to survive.”
The truth is, stereotypes respect no one. If one in a group is suspect, all are. The stakes rise when gender stereotyping is paired with additional cultural baggage related to a person’s ethnicity, sexual preference, age, or disability.
So, where does this leave us? How do we change? We know stereotypes are wrong, but—damn it—somebody’s to blame for this all this bad stuff, right? What if we looked at it this way: It’s not because of women, men, religion, parents, feminism, the government, or the media that we’re in this position. It’s because of society’s attraction to violent, titillating, bizarre stories sparked by incident, fueled by myth, and spread by endless repetition.
For things to shift, both sexes need the willingness to see the advantage in moving beyond the stereotype. Doing so could be as simple as telling a few good stories. It’s a small act, but one with extreme personal power. Not stories about men who are always good, but kick-ass stories about men where a moral choice had to be made, and the real-life choice was the right one.
But are we ready to let go of the stereotypical big, bad wolf? In today’s “brand focused” marketplace, are we willing to expand the list of attributes that cling to men to include more competent (and, dare I say it, good) behaviors and strengths?
Doing so requires a belief in this fundamental truth: Though men aren’t saints, nor are they universally sinners. Like women, they aren’t necessary good at everything they do, but neither are they bad on every critical level. And though men and women don’t necessarily feel negatively toward the men in their everyday lives, they still to varying degrees fear and make fun of men in general. Sometimes they don’t know why, or even that they’re doing it.
Which brings me back to the day my young friend pointed out how much “bad stuff” he saw in the paper. As I sat there taking in the enormity of his comment, I knew I could let the moment pass, or I could give him something to hold on to. And so I told him a story from my own life:
Many years ago, a man saved my life at great risk to his own. He didn’t have to, he just did. I was headed south from Mexico City toward the Guatemalan border when the rickety bus we were riding in came to a shuddering stop in the middle of the night. The bus was hours behind schedule to begin with now here we were—stuck in the middle of a tropical jungle. Any kind of help, I was told, wouldn’t come before dawn.
Most of the passengers were farmers traveling with crates of chickens and baskets filled with goods from the market. (Someone even brought a goat.) On a better day, I would have thought it high adventure. But that day, I was sick and my fever was beginning to spike. All I wanted was to get to my destination—a small fishing village on the coast.
The truth is, I probably shouldn’t have been on that bus at all. When I told some locals I met along the way where I was going, they tried to convince me this “milk run” was a bad idea. There were banditos along the way, and they said the market for American women wasn’t just a rumor. It was reality. Besides, they argued, there were more direct routes, and more reliable buses. “No matter what happens, don’t leave the bus until you get where you’re going,” they yelled as I waved goodbye. Even so, when the bus stalled, all that registered as an immediate danger were the blood-sucking bugs.
During the early hours of the trip, I’d spent time talking to a music student from the Universidad in Mexico City. He had thick, black hair that fell to the middle of his back, something you didn’t see much on local boys. He was headed home to visit his family, and he told me breakdowns on this route were nothing new. “You can come with me or you can stay here by yourself,” he said as he stepped off the bus and headed—along with everyone else—up a narrow path that cut through the tangled growth. A few minutes later, we came to a clearing with a small shed at the far perimeter.
I was traveling light, with just a small daypack and a bedroll. “You sleep against the shed,” the student said. He rolled his blanket out beside mine and we settled in. Sick and feverish, the roaring in my ears intensified with the sounds of the night. I had no idea how much time passed before I felt his body pressing down on mine, felt the heavy mass of his hair as it covered my face, felt the sweat from his body seep into mine. I wanted to throw him off—fight back—but I willed myself not to move. Surrounded as I was by strangers who had no reason to come to my aid, to be raped or killed seemed the obvious outcome. I asked only that my fear render me unconscious and keep me there until dawn—or until whatever was going to happen, happened.
The next thing I knew the sun was up. I sat up and looked around, and it was not a peaceful scene. Scattered about were the remains of the baskets. Some of the chickens, now free of their crates, pecked at the dirt in search of a meal. God knows what happened to the goat. Most of the farmers had moved their blankets into the shade. The student lay on his beside me, his eyes on mine.
Only then did I look down. My clothes hadn’t been touched. I had not been raped. I was alive. I was still on my blanket on that small piece of dirt in front of the rough wooden shed in some unknown—but very beautiful—spot the jungle.
“I was worried they would find you and take you and kill me for hiding you,” the student said quietly. “I was scared.” The banditos had come; banditos with machetes looking to replenish their supplies and whatever else they could find.
Slowly, I also came to realize this young man saved my life. He did so with his body and his veil of long hair; in his act of spontaneous bravery, he had risked his own life. He didn’t have to do it. He just did. Another bus arrived a few hours later, and we went on our way.
“Wow, that was something,” my young friend said when I’d finished the story. He was clearly impressed.
“You see,” I told him, “men do good things. It’s as simple as that.
Have a good story about men? Dare to tell it.