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Funny, Jock, Smart: The Way American TV Stereotypes Men

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By Vaagisha Das

My friend next door is the life of the party. He is the Chandler Bing of our group. The geek who can be counted upon to chime in with a ‘do you know’ fact is obviously a Ross Geller.

male stereotypes in american tv
Giving specific identifying traits to characters on television has long been a tried and tested method to make them relatable to the viewers- the moment they see a character doing something that reminds them of themselves, the character- and the show- becomes instantaneously likeable. And more likability means more viewership. And more viewership, in turn, leads to pop culture representation increasingly influencing every single aspect of our lives- from the way we talk to the way we see other people. There have been numerous analyses on how media portrays women; well, what about the stereotyping of men, rather, among men- on television?

Men on T.V. are generally shown as being more successful; for example, the men on ‘How I Met Your Mother’, ‘The Big Bang Theory’, ‘Modern Family’, etc., and more ’emotionally stable’ than women – any display of feelings is often ridiculed as being ‘feminine’ – and therefore weak. However, aside from these constant underlying themes, male characters often have a set character frame to them too.

This leads to the most common male trope on T.V. – The Womanizer. The Womanizer is a smooth, charming individual, a huge success with the ladies- but rarely ending up with just one. Think Joey Tribbiani and Charlie Harper. Rather than show multifaceted character traits of these individuals, they are reduced to one character trait that will define their reactions to almost everything- Barney Stinson is the notorious philanderer, and it is to be expected that everything he does would be in pursuant of women – even the way he dresses.

This is very different from the second type, that of The Sensitive One. Generally smart and well adjusted, these individually seem constantly unlucky in one area of their lives – in the case of Ross Geller, Ben from ‘Parks And Recreation’ and Raj from ‘The Big Bang Theory’, to name a few- and it’s not for their lack of feeling. In fact, the problem is that there’s too much of it. These characters are constantly poked fun at by their friends for being either too smart- as in the case of Ross, the “paleontologist who is not a ‘real’ doctor“, or too sensitive – Raj is mock-portrayed as Howard’s ‘wife’. In T.V. world, brawn defines your masculinity, and not brains, so it’s hardly surprising that men have to hide their feelings – and their ‘extra’ smarts and just try to fit in.

An embodiment of this, is the wittily self-deprecating Joker, a very popular character with boys, perhaps because laughter is part of their own “mask of masculinity.” Chandler Bing would never dare give you advice, “would you be interested in a sarcastic comment?

Other than these, there are of course The Strong Jock, of which Booth from ‘Bones’ and Penny’s former boyfriend Zack are prime examples.  The Action Hero, not afraid of violence- ‘badasses’ like Sam and Dean from ‘Supernatural’ fall into this category, and many others, which are mostly self-explanatory. And there’s the honorary mention of the buffoon father figures who can do nothing right without their wives – Raymond tried, with disastrous results, in ‘Everybody Loves Raymond’.

The stereotyping exists for a reason, as it is much easier to introduce a character who fits into a particular mould – it saves time, and the audience can get on with the rest of the story. This is in addition to it being a good hook – once you become intrigued by one trait, you can spend time exploring the rest of the character. Also, this is a sit com, so no wonder things will be hyperbolised. The purpose is to entertain, and larger than life characters are the way to go. But the implications of this kind of nonchalant gender stereotyping can be sometimes dangerous, when heavy television viewers construct their own views and reality based off what they see on television, which is, obviously, very different from real life. People seldom realise that just because T.V. characters can fit in a box, does not mean that our friends do.

It would be unfair, though, to say that things are not changing over time. The shows still use stereotypes, but over time, they pull the curtains back to reveal the grey areas of their character’s personality. Some TV shows have such strong and complex characters that it is almost impossible to find one common trend in all the characters- such as ‘Breaking Bad’ with its high school teacher turned meth dealer protagonist, as well as the myriad of diverse characters in ‘Game Of Thrones’. We see less and less of the ‘typical’ male character. Perhaps the time of the cardboard cut outs is over after all, and instead of following a set template for the characters, the writers will continue to create more three dimensional figures on television.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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