White Ribbon campaign makes education key to raising good sons

First published: September 04, 2008

It is tough being a guy these days.

The heady days when men were men are all but gone. Strong, decisive, determined good guys are memories found in old movies, as are the wise, caring fathers portrayed in Ozzie and Harriett or Father Knows Best.

Dr. Jim Macnamara, an Australian scholar and author of Media & Male Identity: The Making and Remaking of Men, found men are overwhelming characterized in news, advertising, television and other media content in increasingly negative ways.

While women have successfully challenged the stereotypes that used to bombard society in the past, women are shown as more heroic, successfully, independent and sexually liberated thanks to television shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sex and the City. Women are even surpassing men as hyper-aggressive in movies like Kill Bill, Laura Croft and Wanted.

Welsh cultural studies academic John Beynon did a three-year study on the image of men in major British newspapers only to find they are presented negatively and as something dangerous to be contained, attacked, denigrated or ridiculed.

Canadian authors Paul Nathanson and Katherine Young, in their 2001 book Spreading Misandry: The Teaching of Contempt for Men in Popular Culture, found that men are looked down on in modern mass media, often dehumanizing them and demonizing them.

“…the worldview of our society has become increasing both gynocentred (focused on the needs and problems of women) and misandric (focused on the evils and inadequacies of men),” the books states.

Men are assailed by a host of images and models that are unreal. Look at any magazine rack to see guys almost anorexic with well-defined muscles. Cosmetic companies market make-up, age-defying skin cream, along with hair colouring to remove unwanted gray.

One only needs to watch Sex and the City to realize how men are being objectified in similar ways to women, where they are little more than sex objects and “handbags” for women’s amusement and pleasure. The term “cougar” has entered popular culture in describing older women preying on young men for sex (known as cubs).

If men are portrayed as villains, aggressors, perverts and philanderers by the mass media, where are boys going to get positive role models to help them grow up to be healthy men?

This task is one of the objectives of the Cobourg Chapter of the White Ribbon Campaign. Through the efforts of Martha and Dik Habermehl, along with Jane and Alasdair Gillespie, a local chapter of this national organization was born.

The White Ribbon Campaign was formed in 1991 to speak out against violence against women. Wearing a ribbon was a symbol of men’s opposition to abuse following the Montreal Massacre in December 1989 where 14 young women were killed.

While it began as mostly a men’s movement, it has grown to include women. It has also broadened its mandate to include opposition to issues like genital mutilation, large-scale killing of baby girls, as well as general sexual assaults and rape.

Locally, the chapter has worked closely with the Memorial Garden Project in Northumberland, honouring victims of sexual and domestic abuse. More recently, more than 200 letters were sent out to raise awareness, along with a display at Northumberland Mall on International Women’s Day in March.

But, the toughest aspect for this organization is educating boys and young men in appropriate gender relations.

As feminists made great strides in debunking stereotypes, men in the 1970s were left with mixed messages. Men were urged to get in touch with their “feminine side”, which was often demonstrated by being more sensitive and emotional. Authors like John Bly, in his book Iron John tried to further advance the notion of a men’s movement, where the author tried to use ancient fairy tales as models for men’s behaviour.

So, what are young men left with then it comes to popular culture. There are the skinny, shirtless boys in baggy pants and floppy arms walking around saying, “Yo” and listening to hip hop music. Then, there are the baseball-capped, mouth-breathing, beer swilling jocks providing a direct contrast. In both cases, men are dominant and aggressive, while women are portrayed as subservient, sexual objects.

None of this is healthy.

If boys and young men are going to grow up to have healthy, happy relationships with women, it must begin with the efforts of organizations like the Cobourg Chapter of the White Ribbon Campaign. Also, educators and parents must be brought into the mix. The task is nearly impossible as the waves of popular culture dominate the landscape with their poor images and damaging messages.

All parties can take a page from the women’s movement and its battle to fight stereotyping. While the struggle continues, it has been successful on many levels. Men must speak out against negative stereotyping in mass media. And, it must demand more balanced role models away from the hyper-aggressive, violent anti-heroes on one side of the specturm or the overly sensitive, wimpy man-boys on the other.

This is a huge task for such a small group. But, it is a vital one. The White Ribbon Campaign must continue to rebuke violence against women, while it hopes to educated a generation of boys and young men. It is no simple task and it deserves our support.

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