Problematic Toxic Masculinity Tropes #1: Go Big or Go Home

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If you’ve followed my Problematic Badass Female Tropes series (also here at Writers’ HQ), you’ll recall that the central argument to all those discussions is that those tropes restrict and weaken strong (read: badass) female characters. Each PBFT attempts to distract us with the ‘badass’ element, hoping we won’t notice (or care) about the inherent misogynistic skeleton the character has been constructed with.

To balance things up, this new series will look at seven Problematic Toxic Masculinity tropes, and while its central argument differs somewhat from that of the PBFTs, the two sets of problematic tropes are intricately and innately connected. This series centers around the inherent assumption that males are strong and dominant, focusing on the false labels of strength in male characters, as well as the narrow, restrictive, and damaging definition of what it means to be a ‘real’ man.

Both sets of tropes do similar things; both are examples of problems of gender and power. We will learn as we go through the male counterparts to the PBFTs that both series of Problematic Tropes affect and reflect how media and entertainment express characters of all genders, and have a negative impact on the real people who consume and admire them.

But first, let me tell you a little story about my time in acting school, in college in the early ‘90s. Break out yer popcorn, peeps, we’re gonna talk about The Gender Projects (insert grandiose theme music here):

CU Boulder had a robust BFA acting program back then—renowned nationwide. One of the major assignments in that training program took place in our second year of training, and was administered both by our current acting professor, and also by two professors from the Women’s Studies department. Called The Gender Projects (theme music again), the assignment went thusly: we were divided into small groups to discuss what issue regarding gender we felt was most important to us, and to cobble together a short theatre piece about it. The group the three professors deemed strongest would get the chance to perform their piece at a few events around town.

My group consisted of five people: three men, me, and another woman. As we hashed out ideas in our brainstorming session, we kept landing on body image as the issue that had impacted us the most growing up and also in the present (we were all around 20, 21 years old at this point). So we concocted a piece that mocked all the beauty product ads, and discussed how women are constantly told to lose weight, to diet, to become smaller and smaller until we turn invisible. We also discussed the fact that men are expected to be big, muscular, fit and strong, to take up more and more space, and that anyone smaller than Arnold Schwarzenegger isn’t a real man. We talked about the problematic tropes of the wimpy nerd guy, the nerd girl that gets a makeover in order to have worth, and discussed the health problems of both eating disorders and steroid use. In other words, our piece presented the damaging, unrealistic body image problems of both men and women.

When we sat down with the professors to discuss our performance, we were told that to get an A, we needed to do some rewrites. What rewrites? Well, one of the Women’s Studies professors put it succinctly: “Don’t you think that women’s problems are more serious?”

The five of us (three men, two women, let’s not forget), looked at each other, looked back at the prof, and said, “Well, no. Not this particular issue. Other issues, sure, but we wanted to present the body image issues equally.”

“Well, if you can rewrite it to show that women have it worse, then it’ll be where we want it.”

Our group refused. The women in the group were angry that the balanced presentation was said to be wrong. We didn’t think so—after all, the assignment was to dig deep into our own experiences with gender issues and create the piece from our lives, our hearts, our experiences. Those young men were basically told, to their faces, in so many words, that their real experiences and valid pain were unimportant, even nonexistent.

The group that got the performance award was a group of four women who opened their piece with a song called ‘Oppression’, sung to the tune ‘Tradition’ from Fiddler on the Roof. It was revoltingly facile, an easy male-bashing extravaganza. We got our grade docked for not rewriting to the professors’ bias, and were furious.

I’m still angry, truth be told. Talking with those young men about the pain that they endured attempting to live up to unrealistic standards resonated with me—we realized in those discussions that there’s a lot of unspoken pain that young men go through in an attempt to live up to them (just like women, only the opposite direction; big instead of small), and it stayed with me, even as I moved on to training in fields dominated by men.

And this is where our first Problematic Toxic Masculinity Trope comes in. It’s called Go Big Or Go Home, and it’s all about the fact that in entertainment and popular culture, bigger is always better…

The current rash of immensely popular Marvel superhero movies is probably one of the most widely known of many examples you no doubt can come up with. Look at the difference in buff size between the main male heroes (the good guys) and the others. In particular, look at Thor, physically, vs. Loki. Thor is a big, rippling-muscled, blond god. He’s the hero. Loki is smaller, thin, pale—he’s a tricksy manipulator. He’s clearly not the hero—big blond hammer-head Thor is (we’ll get into the intelligent/nerd stereotypes in Trope #4: The Tale Of The Nerd And The Neckbeard).

Look at The Incredible Hulk. He’s one of the most powerful heroes in Marvel, and, not coincidentally, one of the biggest. But Bruce Banner, his meek human counterpart, is not the hero; The Hulk is. Normal-sized uber-genius Banner has to become huge in order to become a hero. Make no mistake: If he didn’t change into The Hulk, he’d be on the sidelines as a sidekick or as the Mad Scientist stereotype. Similarly, Tony Stark, another pretty normal-sized character, can’t be a hero until he puts on his Iron Man suit, making him bigger and nigh indestructible. Even teenaged Spider-Man gains size and cut muscles when he acquires his superpowers—no longer a skinny kid, suddenly he’s a well-built, jacked, V-shaped specimen of manhood, youth be darned. Captain America undergoes a similar transformation before he can be a hero—where he’s originally a frail young man , unable to pass the fitness exam to join the army, he can’t become a hero until he gets his alteration into a big buff beefcake. Skinny, small, short, or androgynous men aren’t shown as central protagonist heroes. If we’re lucky, these guys are present as sidekicks, best friends, minor characters, etc. but the central heroes are overwhelmingly big.

This phenomenon isn’t confined to comic book characters either: Vin Diesel, The Rock, Jason Momoa, and the OG big dude heroes, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, are all examples of Go Big Or Go Home. Even relatively normal-sized guys, in non-supernatural roles, have to get big in order to be heroic. Witness the physical difference between Bruce Willis’s character in office comedy Moonlighting, and John McClane, the hero who saves the day in the Die Hard movies. He still brings his Willisian dry & wry wit to both roles, but he also brings quite a bit more biceps to the hero role.

And our pop culture’s big heroes have gotten bigger and bigger through the years, to the point where as of this writing, the hugeness of our pop heroes is quite literally impossible. Look at the difference, for example, between Reeve’s Superman of the late ‘70s-’80s and Cavill’s current one. Look at the Hulk of the early ‘80s TV show, portrayed by Lou Ferrigno (a human, if large, bodybuilder) as compared to the fully CGIed Hulk of the current Marvel universe movies. Where Ferrigno might have been an unrealistic ideal for a young Incredible-Hulk-loving boy to attempt to live up to or emulate, the current one is a literally impossible animated giant.

So why is it a problem that our male protagonists and heroes are all so big? I mean, we are talking about superheroes, aren’t we? They’re meant to be larger than life. Well, yes, but think about the code we’re communicating to boys and young men with Go Big or Go Home. Think about it carefully: what does it mean to be a hero? Does it mean a mighty warrior? Maybe, but a hero is different than a soldier. Someone who fights a righteous fight? Someone who is virtuous, protecting and speaking for those who can’t themselves? Since the ancient Greeks (at least), we’ve had a parallel of heroism with personal beauty, but what does it communicate when the only choice for male beauty portrayed by heroes is bigness? If a hero is virtuous but also has to be brawny, does that mean virtue = size? More importantly, does being small or thin mean a man can’t be virtuous/a hero?

This trope sends the wrong message to men and boys, and that message is: Go Big or Go Home. If you’re thin, small, short, more focused on brains than brawn, you’re girly, gay, or at best are a villain or minor unimportant person. You’re not and can’t be a hero until you get big. And if you can’t? Step aside and let a real man do it. Oh, and let’s not even start on the penis size anxiety / stereotypes / pressurized comedy. Even more unrealistic pressure about real men = big size. Isn’t this why “manspreading” is a thing? Take up more and more space, bro. Why are you crossing your legs?

As my friends and I noticed in our gender project, this trope causes all kinds of damage to men, especially young men. Health issues arise when men try to emulate and imitate the repeated images they’re fed, ad nauseum: injuries from overwhelming workouts, eating disorders, steroid use, and obesity. Where women are exhorted to starve themselves into thinner and thinner unrealistic ideals, men are told the opposite: if you’re small, you’re not a real man. This jacked-up, too-big damaging body image problem, is not about turning men into objects (as the hypersexualizing of female characters are), but about domination, power. We will find, as we go through these seven PTMTs, that domination as an unrealistic restriction of what strength is, will be the center problem. The additional major problem with this is that, unlike many of their female counterparts, men are still taught and trained to suck it up, be a man, not to seek help, or (gods forfend) talk about their feelings or express the pain of this pressure. Men will fall into all of these self-harming habits, but, worse, they often won’t seek help, and suffer alone. We will talk in more detail about this in our second trope (Grow A Pair), but it’s relevant here too.

As we all well know, in real life men are all kinds of sizes and shapes, and all have the potential to be beautiful, and there’s all kinds of heroism. I mean, don’t get me wrong—I think Jason Momoa is smoking hot, but then I also have a lifelong crush on willowy Duran Duran bassist John Taylor. There’s all kinds of masculine beauty, and male heroism comes in all sorts of packages, not just big muscular ones. Witness an acquaintance of mine: living here in Denver: he’s a wildly successful gogo dancer and performer, and owns his own entertainment company, booking gogo and variety events all over the Denver metro area. He’s a powerful, successful, talented man, and he’s about 5’6“, small-boned, and ripped, natch, but certainly isn’t physically big. Thing is, when you are in his presence, he is big. Very. Not in his pecs, but in his personality, and in his significant accomplishments.

The Go Big Or Go Home trope is problematic because it negates or ignores men like my friend, and restricts masculine strength (and physical beauty) to one unrealistic thing only. Our popular culture and entertainment should show and celebrate the diversity of masculine beauty that is real life. And, as I stated more than once throughout the PBFTs, we don’t have to hate the stories we love just because we see and call out the problems within them. What we can do, though, is have our eyes open to what these Tropes are doing, how they affect our social life and culture, and the real men in our lives.

Because, come on. We’re bigger than this.

Stay tuned for my next in the Problematic Toxic Masculinity Tropes series: Grow A Pair.

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