It’s Sunday evening — family movie night, and you eagerly position yourself in the best seat on the couch while your parents chuckle. Today’s choice is a Disney classic: Beauty and the Beast. You watch as Belle’s dad is called names and ridiculed by the villagers for being “weak” as the rest of the men gather with torches to hunt out the beast.
As Gaston flexes his muscles and does his best to woo Belle with ill-fated demonstrations of his manliness, small seeds of doubt begin to sprout in your mind, and you can’t help but wonder about what you see on the TV. This is the reality that many young boys in America face, as toxic masculinity and perpetuation of male stereotypes continue to run rampant in mainstream film and within social media.
Toxic masculinity is described as manhood defined by sex, status and aggression, according to the Good Men Project. Although society’s standards have certainly evolved, men still face cultural stigma surrounding admitting to weakness or aligning with more traditionally feminine characteristics. The New York Times emphasizes that hegemonic masculinity is the idea that “your status as ‘man’ can be taken away.”
Social media influencers and portrayals of male roles in media play a large role in perpetuating these stereotypes. The “action-adventure” icons of past films heavily associate the idea of masculinity and strength with what it means to be successful and take advantage of being a man.
According to UNESCO, differentiating masculinity particularly including violence against women has “afford[ed] young males across class, race and geographical boundaries a degree of self-respect and ‘security’ within the more socially valued masculine role.”
This sense of identity being rooted within media role models can be extremely detrimental to young boys developing their own ideas of gender expression.
Frederic Chen is a current YouTuber who began in 2014 and has since amassed over 650,000 subscribers at 19-years-old. He is of Chinese descent and works to promote better representation within social media platforms for minorities, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community and Asian-American himself.
Chen realized how important it was to be yourself at a young age.
“I never felt like I belonged in any male stereotypes, I’m not aware of all of them anyways but in my mind, I think of masculine, stoic, Hollywood male archetypes basically,” he said.
Also, intersectionality between various points of his identity made it even more difficult to find role models in media.
“I had Mulan, a cartoon. Let that sink in. Every movie I saw, we had an Asian who couldn’t speak English. The Asian that was a doctor, wore glasses, was incredibly smart,” he said.
Besides negatively impacting gender expression and making it increasingly difficult for adolescent males to seek mental health support, toxic masculinity also raises the question of “could men be better?”
By promoting ideologies of dominance and strength, it excuses many of the toxic behaviors in society including violence, abuse and aggression. The Reporter praises a recent commercial by Gillette that challenges the phrase “boys will be boys,” when a man calls out his friend for nearly harassing a random woman on the street.
Working in the social media industry himself, Chen has undoubtedly had many experiences with perceived male role models among teens. From his perspective, men don’t consciously choose to be toxic because it is glorified in the media or seen as attractive.
“It’s almost programmed because of the way society views them and portrays them in media. I’d rather not blame a man for being toxic, I’d rather blame their parents and general media for allowing men to think their actions are justified,” Chen said.
Although representation and diversity within the media have certainly been improving within the past decade, there is still a long way to go.
“Representation won’t matter if mindsets do not change,” Chen said when asked about his opinion on how to continue making progress.
He adds that people need to accept a broader perspective before the media can paint a new picture of marginalized groups. However, he also warns against the negative portrayal of certain groups and fetishization of feminine boys as fashion and appearance trends begin to shift.
Overall, hegemonic masculinity has exerted its negative effects in almost every facet of society, even down to classic age-old films such as “Beauty and the Beast.” From young boys watching these movies that glamorize “manliness” and “toxic traits,” to the acceptance of these behaviors by society because they are dismissed by generalizations.
Luckily, more influencers like Chen are beginning to rise within the mainstream social media scene of today’s young teenagers.
“I’m Asian American, Gay and lived in the south. I dealt with people everyday ridiculing who I was ever since elementary school, so I couldn’t care less about how media would perceive me. I like to think I’m just a guy on the internet doing things he likes and making a fool of himself,” Chen said.
As social media seeks to evolve past the harmful stereotypes surrounding male gender expression, hopefully, society’s standards will as well. Instead of feeling limited by the “Gaston” he sees in movies, young boys will be able to turn to positive role models within media such as Chen that broaden their idea of who they should be, not as a “man” but their true sense of self.