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Talking it out: The ah-ha moment
It took the 14-year old son of a friend to point out the obvious. âI donât see many good stories about men,â he said, as he browsed through a newspaper.
âSo how does that make you feel?â I asked.
âNot very good,â he replied, as he continued looking at pages filled with stories about pedophiliac priests, child porn addicts, strangers who kidnap, teenage boys who kill, suicide-bombers, sadistic dictators, soldiers who rape, online sexual predators, serial killers, boyfriends who batter, and fathers who molest, kill, or abandon their familiesâand thatâs just for starters.
Prior to that not-so-innocent remark, I hadnât thought much about how the daily barrage of negativity affects the way men and boys feel about themselvesâand about other men.
Neither had I asked how such sensationalized stories affect the way women and girls relate to fathers and sons, friends and lovers, husbands, teachers, colleagues, or to any man or boy they pass on the street. And thatâs when it occurred to me. I was so used to mucking around in the âbad manâ stereotype, I no longer noticed the dirt clinging to my boots. As I soon discovered, I wasnât alone. So far have the scales tipped in the negative direction that many people laughed when told I was thinking about writing a book that featured âgood stories about men.â
âAre there any?â was often the immediate reaction. It made sense. After all, the negative news comes at such a furious pace we barely notice when one horrific tale ends and another begins.
Economically, thereâs many a reason to hang-on to the typecasting of men. Who hasnât laughed at the dumb dad, the not-a-clue bachelor, and the boorish boss on television sitcoms and online videos? In ads and commercials, those same ditsy guys can be found cluelessly pitching everything from frozen dinners to laundry detergent. As for films and electronic games, many a plotline makes the most of male-induced gore. As for news and opinion programming, many thrive on the male horrific. At some point, I began to ask if the stereotype was setting the commercial toneâor vice versa. Given the onslaught of message, could some men simply be living up to the bad, stupid message?
Are you thinking, âThatâs just entertainment. I can tell the difference between fiction and real lifeâ? Donât bet on it, not with the bad-man stereotype coming at us from every direction. While itâs no longer necessary to prove that stereotypes such as black people are lazy, Irish are drunks, girls are bad at sports, and women are bitches are harmful (or at the very least politically incorrect), itâs not necessarily so in the case of men. Could the result of our silence on this imbalance be worse than we think? Could the negative stereotyping of men be over-selling fear and even encouraging behaviors weâd like to see end?
Historically, weâve gone from never speaking about the bad things some men do to talking about it all the time. Why arenât we talking about how this switch in focus might affect both genders of all ages? Because itâs one hot potato.
Denial on the part of some men doesnât do much to move the conversation ahead either. âNah, stereotypes donât affect me,â some say, perhaps in the belief that personal fortitude, education, money, power, or color of skin will protect them from the fallout. Others feel just the opposite. âDoes a fish notice itâs swimming in water?â says one friend. âFor men, these stereotypes have always been there. We just keep paddling around the deep end trying to survive.â
But stereotypes respect no one. If one person in a group is suspect, all are. When it comes to men, add gender perception to other stereotypes attached to a manâs ethnicity, sexual preference, or age and the stakes rise.
So where does this leave us? How to change?
We know stereotypes are wrong, butâdamn itâ somebodyâs to blame for this all this bad stuff, right? Consider looking at it this way: Itâs not the fault of women, men, religion, parents, feminism, the government, or the media that weâre in this positionâitâs the whole of societyâs attraction to the kind of violent, titillating, bizarre stories sparked by incident, fueled by stereotype, and spread by endless repetition.
For things to shift, both sexes need to be willing to see the advantage in moving beyond the negative stereotype. Doing so could be as simple as telling a few good stories. Itâs a small act, but one with extreme personal power.
Not stories about men who are always good, but stories about men in which a moral choice had to be made, and the real-life choice was the right one. In the best of all worlds, each story would have an element of kick-ass action. After all, weâre not going to be weaned from the hard stuff by tales of a thwarted purse snatching when weâre regularly exposed to a violent lineup.
But are weâwomen and men alikeâready to let go of the stereotypical big, bad wolf? In the parlance of todayâs âbrand focusedâ marketplace, are we willing to expand the list of attributes that cling to men to include more competent (and dare I say it, good) behaviors and strengths?
Doing so requires a belief in this fundamental philosophy: While men arenât saints, neither are they universally sinners. Like women, they arenât necessary good at everything they do, but neither are they bad on every critical level. And while both men and women donât necessarily feel negatively towards the men in their everyday lives, they still to varying degrees fear and make fun of menâand sometimes they donât know why, or even that theyâre doing it.
Which brings me back to the day my young friend pointed out how much âbad stuffâ he saw in the paper. As I sat there taking in the enormity of his comment, I knew I could let the moment pass, or I could give him something different to hold on to.
And so I told him a story from my own life, the story of an adventure that took place years ago in the tropical, bandito-infested jungles of Mexico. There, a man saved my life at great risk to his own. He didnât have to, he didnât know me, he just did. âYou see,â I said, âmen do good things.â
âWow, that was something,â said my young friend with a big smile.
Whatâs your story? Tell it.