It’s Messed Up How Rambo, G.I.Joe And Others Have Shaped Our Idea Of A ‘Real Man’

Posted on December 1, 2015 in 16 Days Of Activism 2015, Staff Picks

By Shambhavi Saxena

Can pop culture cause violent behaviour in men? In a Time magazine article, James Poniewozik argued that it cannot program or direct people’s behaviour, but pop-culture can influence what’s already there under the surface. “If it’s bloody, it advocates violence. If it has sex, it advocates sex. List the curse words, count the bodies, measure the fluid ounces of blood and you got your answer.”

The relationship between masculinity and violence has been a much-discussed one. Certainly, crime statistics reveal something disturbing about it. According to Indian social justice series Satyamev Jayate, “95% of incidents of violence in India are committed by men.” In the U. S., the number is over 85%, as reported by The Boston Globe. With perhaps a few exceptions, cultures across the globe expect aggressive behaviour in men. And considering that popular culture has such a vast hold over so many people, it must play a role in creating violent masculinities.

Idolizing Violence

Because the gender binary is so tight, boys and men are encouraged to enjoy hyper-masculine expressions of power, and often pop-culture is the perfect production centre. Young boys are reared on Salman Khan, Akshay Kumar, or Rohit Shetty hijinks. In a larger global context, even if young boys are not explicitly told to be like G. I. Joe or Chuck Norris, they are actively told not to take interest in ‘girl things’ – no Barbies, only monster trucks. It’s only in recent times that popular media has begun to treat gender in more nuanced and multidimensional ways, but a lot of us grew up with an action-film genre that is guilty of idolizing violence where the bigger the explosions and the harder the punches, the more heroic or manly the protagonist, and the greater the likelihood of arm-candy. Sigh.

Amitabh-Bachchan-In-DeewarAnger = Man

In the 50s, a play called ‘Look Back in Anger’, by English playwright John Osbourne, gave rise to the figure of the Angry Young Man. This figure was popularized in Indian cinema by Amitabh Bachchan, and was continued by actors like Dharmendra and Sunny Deol. The Angry Young Man figure harboured a lot of disgruntlement with twentieth-century society, and Billy Joel even wrote a song about it, that goes: “He’s proud of the scars and the battles he’s lost, he struggles and bleeds as he hangs on the cross.” But while a lot of that defeatism has been left behind in the last century, the association between being a man and being angry remains. Remember Amrish Puri’s angry father in DDLJ? Anger has in fact been masculinized. Even when expressed by women it has masculine overtones, often seen in portrayals of female cops.


sylvester stallone rockyEarly Exposure

A study published in the early 90s found that seeing televised violent behaviour between the ages of 6 and 10 influenced aggressive behaviour in both male and female subjects. But, given that characters displaying verbally or physically aggressive behaviour are predominantly played by male actors, it is easy to see why more boys than girls identify with these characters. Think about it. How often have you seen women throw some significant punches – and not dainty little slaps, mind you. Uma Thurman and the other warriors in Kill Bill; Hermione Granger’s epic takedown of Draco Malfoy in The Prisoner of Azkaban; Imperator Furiosa in this summer’s blockbuster Mad Max: Fury Road. I tried to come up with a larger list. But maybe I know I’ll be shown-up by the guns-blaring, adrenaline pumping, jugular punching of Rambo, 300, Terminator, V for Vendetta, American Psycho, Hannibal, Rocky, Fight Club – well you get the drift.

Name Calling

“Strong”, “powerful”, “tough”, “muscular”, “athletic”, “in control”, these are the words commonly used by men themselves to define masculinity, which anti-violence educator Jackson Katz examines in the popular documentary ‘Tough Guise: Violence, Media & the Crisis in Masculinity‘ (1999). If men fail to embody each of these attitudes simultaneously, then the terms “wimp”, “chhakka“, and even “aurat” (or “heroine”, in those delightful Snickers ads) are used to shame them and make men conform. Let’s not forget phrases like “man up”, “nut up, and shut up”, “boys don’t cry” and “don’t hit like a girl”. Oh, and who could forget, “mard ko dard nahi hota“. Several of these derogatory terms, while used in real life, are greatly amplified in movie scripts and episode scenes broadcast to billions of people all over the world.

hermione harry potter draco malfoy

It Creates An Hierarchy Within Masculinity

Katz also explains how race and violence intersect when it comes to the construction of masculinity. American films and television shows often portray both black and Latino men as members of violent street gangs, or inhabitants of the seedier parts of town where the crime rates are high. Asian men have a hard time shaking off the image of the violent martial artist or assassin. These representations of non-Caucasian manhood solidify particular images for both minority communities in America, as well as its white-majority. Additionally, pop culture amplifies the idea that a manly masculine man must constantly assert themselves as alpha-male. To do so, they must ‘call out’ defaulters – homosexual men, trans men, men with certain body types, men who are ‘sensitive’ or ‘effeminate’ or have different interests etc. And when you can’t escape what the idiot box tells you (and everyone around you) who you are, you find it difficult to get jobs, to get an education, to live with dignity, or even walk down the street without being violently assaulted by someone trying to assert their own masculinity.

Obviously, the culture of violence, to which men are constantly being recruited, needs to end. We often talk about how violent behaviour in men affects women, but we should also talk about how it affects other men, in this system of hierarchies. “Two-thirds of homicide victims in 2011/12 were men,” reports The Guardian. “Statistically speaking, the victims of men’s violence are other males,” says Katz in the documentary, arguing that both men and women have a stake in these problems.

People will usually prevent their kids from seeing sex on TV or in film, but their attempts are not so rigorous when it comes to scenes depicting violence. This is how we reinforce social taboos about sex, but we don’t reinforce visual content that emphasizes gender equality. Pop culture does influence children and young adults, their choices and the behaviours available to them, and parents, educators, or the average consumers of media need to be aware of this every time we watch, read or listen to something.

Disclaimer: The views presented in this article are the author’s, and do not necessarily represent the views of UNFPA.