Myers, Kristen — “Cowboy Up!”: Non-Hegemonic Representations Of Masculinity In Children’s Television Programming

Myers, Kristen. “‘Cowboy Up!': Non-Hegemonic Representations Of Masculinity In Children’s Television Programming.” Journal Of Men’s Studies 20.2 (2012): 125-143. Web. 2 Mar. 2015.

This article details how media, especially television, take part in writing gender scripts, a key component of heteronormativity. In particular, the article discussed hegemonic masculinity, which includes hyperheterosexuality but excludes women and girls. According to Myers, “Boys reject femininity in order to establish their dominance, and they must continually degrade girls and feminize other boys so as to maintain their status—even as they pursue girls sexually” (128). Part of this degradation includes what the article refers to as “fag talk”—using words like “pussy,” “fag,” and “girl” to mean weak or unmanly. This kind of talk both explicitly and implicitly enforce sexism and homophobic attitudes. (127)

Recent television shows have shown primarily non-hegemonic masculine figures—boys who do not embody the hypermasculine ideal of masculinity. These boys are associated with feminine, or at least, non-masculine traits: some are scholarly, gentle, clean and unaggressive. These males could have the potential to invert expectations for masculinity; however, the article argues, the examples of non-hegemonic masculinity are used as jokes, reinforcing the hegemonic masculine ideal. The article gives several examples of where boys’ behavior is policed by hegemonic males, who are held up as superior. There is an obvious hierarchy, and hegemonic males are at the top. The hegemonic males are fit, good-looking, and successful with girls. In one example, the article quotes the hegemonic character Zack, from Disney show The Suite Life on Deck: “When the lions are out hunting gazelles, they don’t attack the strong healthy ones. Oh no. They attack the weak ones. The ones crying and eating ice cream.” (135) Feminizing boys, or policing their behavior by telling them to “Man up!” is central to the shows’ humor. Incidences of males breaking out of the traditional gender roles are used as comedic fodder—for example, in the Nickelodeon show iCarly, the protagonist’s older brother, Spencer, in one episode has to cross-dress to assist his sister in an endeavor, to disastrous results—whereby the gender binary and gender roles for males are again reinforced (136). Homoeroticism, too, is portrayed as something to be mocked and derided—the shows do not consider it thoughtfully or in a new way. Additionally, the non-hegemonic boys will occasionally cross into hegemonic masculinity in order to take control of a situation. In an episode of Disney’s Hannah Montana, non-hegemonic Oliver takes on a hypermasculine persona to attempt to promote his friend Miley to single men on the beach.

Myers’ article offers a number of opportunities to look at the way American culture uses language to enforce heteronormativity. Particularly disturbing to me was the predatory language used to describe exploiting women by hegemonic masculine figures. Part of the way children learn about culture is through mediathus, in part, they learn language and violence through media. The glorification and perpetuation of the idea that women are to be hunted and outsmarted to their disadvantage through joking discussions between role models on a children’s show is scary. The example given in the article where Zack compares asking a girl out to a lion hunting weak (for women, this means insecure) gazelles is a nearly perfect example of language simultaneously creating and reinforcing violence through the social structure of heteronormative gender roles. It not only creates the idea that men ought to be predatory and domineering, but also that women are inherently weak and susceptible. (When taken to their extreme, such jokes can even imply that women ought to be weak and susceptible in order to be properly feminine.) By presenting this idea in the form of a joke, the show enforces that this behavior is ultimately harmless, to be expected and the natural way of society. Such predatory language forms violent bases for relationships and gender expression from a young age.

The description of “fag talk” was also critical to me in demonstrating how heteronormativity is a violent system, as it stigmatizes both homosexuality and femininity. If our culture finds it acceptable to talk about those who do not fit into masculine gender roles by jeeringly calling them “girls” or “gays,” is it any wonder that those groups are restricted in society? By treating groups such as girls or gay people as the butt of a joke, and as synonymous with weakness, incompetence, or any other trait seen as undesirable, the language used in “fag talk” does violence to those groups by othering and deriding them. It creates expectations that members of the named groups must then overcome or otherwise bypass before they can have the same social treatment as those who are promoted through “fag talk;” namely, hypermasculine men.

I was startled at how explicit some of the messages being sent to children were:before reading Myers’ studies, I expected most cultural messages about masculinity to be implicit and children’s television to be, if not groundbreaking, then at least harmless in their portrayals of masculinity. That I had never questioned what was being idealized through children’s media is evidence of how pervasive and at times invisible heteronormative structures and expectations can be. It is sinister, in my eyes, that these ideas are being indoctrinated through children’s programming, which is a much more direct and targeted means of relaying messages than other cultural structures.  Language functions in a dual way, both creating and reinforcing heteronormative violence. It modifies the way we can conceptualize (and thus, how we can enact) abstractions such as gender expression and romantic and sexual relationships. The current language we use creates a frame of violence for our thinking, through which we then act. Thus, language not only creates the violence, but then is used once the violent structures are in place to reinforce it, through jokes, analogies and sayings.

–Jessica King

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