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World expert addresses masculinity, violence

April 11, 2008

World expert addresses masculinity, violence

Silence is not golden.

That was the message from Sut Jhally, founder and executive director of the Media Education Foundation. Jhally’s address last Thursday marked the beginning of PLU’s first Men Against Violence Program conference that examined men’s role in ending violence against women.

“The men who commit violence against women are a small percentage of men,” Jhally conceded. “However, the reason the violence goes on is the silence of the rest of us, the silence of the rest of us who consider ourselves the good guys.”

A communication professor at the University of Massachusetts, Jhally is one of the world’s leading scholars on the role advertising and popular culture play in the processes of social control and identity construction. At his talk, he said gender identity does not occur naturally; instead it’s learned from images in the media, from peers and family members, and people simply act out the culturally-accepted role.

“Masculinity is not natural, it’s performed,” he said. “Look at how it’s changed in the last 30 years. There’s been a radical change of what it means to be a man.”

Today, the cultural definition of masculinity is increasingly linked to violence, power and control. This definition of manhood, which he called the “tough guise,” has detrimental effects on both the victims of men’s violence and on the men themselves, he said.

Using clips from documentary films produced by his organization, Jhally illustrated how feature films, music videos, sports, video games and news organizations have narrowed the definition of what it means to be male. The images showed a dramatic increase in the size of men’s bodies, the size of weapons and the portrayal of women as objects.

For example, Batman in 1966’s feature film lacks the muscle definition played up prominently in more recent film releases, like 2005’s “Batman Begins” with Christian Bale. The increased body size extends to action figures: the circumference of G.I. Joe’s biceps has more than doubled since the toy was introduced nearly 40 years ago.

The narrowing of this definition has confined men and boys to a box that denies feelings of vulnerability or insecurity. Using clips from the documentary “Tough Guise: Violence, Media and the Crisis in Masculinity,” he showed how men must put on a fake persona to appear masculine.

“The tough guise is a mask men and boys are encouraged to put on in the performance of masculinity,” Jhally said. “When men put on the tough guise, they are denying part of who they are as a human being.

“We need a healthier, more fun version of manhood for boys,” he said.

To create this version, the mainstream message must change and show a broader definition of masculinity. Additionally, men “must make the tough guise uninhabitable” by speaking out against the current portrayal of masculinity as violent and controlling when they see it in the culture, Jhally explained.

“We have to find the courage to speak to our friends,” he said. “The courage to confront our friends, our family, our father.”

It won’t be easy, Jhally warned. The tough guise is accepted as normal in society, and going against the norm is never easy. But it has been done, he added, pointing to Muhammad Ali.

In his boxing prime, the three-time world heavyweight champion could easily have been called the toughest man in the world. But at the opening ceremony for the 2000 Olympic Games in Atlanta, Ali let his every vulnerability show. Suffering from Parkinson’s disease, an elderly Ali’s hands shook as he lit the Olympic flame in front of a world audience.

“It took real guts to reveal that vulnerability to the global community,” Jhally said.

Titled “He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: Men’s Role in Ending Violence Against Women,” the conference attracted an international pool of approximately 250 registrants, including nearly 100 PLU students. Friday’s workshops and presentations focused on what men can do and highlighted innovative approaches to work for social change.

For more information, visit the Men Against Violence Web site or contact Jonathan Grove, Men Against Violence project coordinator, at ext. 6304 or