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Big Girls AND Boys Cry Too: Finding Positive Depictions of Masculinity in Television

The world has seemed to have grown a little bit dimmer in the last three weeks. And yes, there is a lot of work that needs to be done in our society, in our government, in our treatment and understanding of one another. And with the constant updates of the current media storm, twitter circus, or inappropriate comment made by the 45th President, it has added to this cloud. It is important that we continue to push ahead, lift our voices higher, pound that pavement, storm those voting booths. It is equally important that we acknowledge the progress that we are making, the good that is finding its way. So, let’s talk about the good things surrounding masculinity that are popping up in popular culture which counter the mainstream toxic masculinity. Especially in the last two years, more and more television shows are having their male characters experience situations, show emotion and vulnerability, and try to redefine understandings of what it means to be “a man.”

More and more shows are depicting men dealing with emotional, physical, and mental difficulties in HEALTHY ways, talking with other men about their problems, showing affection to other men, and crying. Each depiction of a complex male, who goes through ALL emotions – not just the typical anger, repression, and lack of engagement -helps to provide a new model for the audience. Commercials have even started to show males in roles which have been typically given to women. The laundry detergent Tide has a commercial which has a dad talking about his daughter’s favorite play cloths.

While it might seem arbitrary for a commercial having a man in it, the fact that it wasn’t him cleaning his sporting cloths, or grease from cars and mechanics, but that it was a man doing domestic duties, and being an active parent. It doesn’t stop there. There are three positive examples that are currently on the airways which depict multiple characters and situations of growth and counter definitions of masculinity. Two are fictional shows and one is reality series.

While reality television is presented as ‘real life’ many things can be scripted and staged yet there is an element that can help to be a mirror in the definitions and understandings that society has. The Animal Planet Channel debut the reality series Wolves and Warriors in September of this year. It follows a non-profit organization in the hills of the Tejon Pass in California which is an animal sanctuary that employs veterans. What makes this series special is that every episode highlights the ordeals and real-life situations that veterans face when they come back from combat and leave the service. It tackles the devastating consequences that both the wolf population and veterans face daily.

What is even more remarkable is the conversations that are taking place during the show, veterans talking about their mental health struggles, their physical struggles, and how through helping animals, they are helping themselves. The show doesn’t shy away from talking about many elements that for many years, veterans have been forced to hide or suppress. Each new episode can be a new opportunity for another veteran to tune in and find solace as well as for the general audience to start to see and hear new ways of dealing with trauma, emotion, and interpersonal relationships.

The next series that holds notable positive depictions of healthy and interactive male characters is, FOX’s 9-1-1. The show follows emergency response teams in Los Angeles. The drama series has not shied away from exploring character experience which have not typically been given to male characters.

Main character Bobby, played by veteran tv actor Peter Krause (who was also in another notable emotionally positive television series Parenthood), has a back story of addiction faced a relapse. In a poignant scene, two characters confronted him which sees Bobby breaking down in tears and asking for help.

The power of this scene can normalize the act of ‘asking’ for help for ALL who are watching the show. The second season has continued the pension for exploring male vulnerability with new character Eddie (played by Ryan Guzman), a Spanish speaking single dad of a disabled son who also is a veteran turned firefighter.

A recent episode has the character Bobby talking with another male character about trauma and vulnerability which leads to more depictions of male tears and hugging. The show is centered around situations around emergency calls but does a decent job depicting the human condition.

The NBC blockbuster hit This is Us premiered in 2016 and became an instant sensation. It is known for its ability to get its audience to cry at almost every episode.

Every episode explores journeys of both males and females throughout multiple time frames in their lives. The second season saw the character Randall, played by actor Sterling K. Brown (who received an Emmy, Golden Globe, and SAG Award for his performance) experiencing an anxiety attack where his brother finds him crying in the corner of his office. More tears and more hugging follows. As well as casually and slowly showing how men experience mental health issues, large emotions, and struggle and push back against definitions of masculinity.

This is Us also has a scene with young Randall being brought into a Black Karate Dojo where is he told that the world might not be favorable to him due to his blackness. The scene also talks about the responsibility and role a positive father should have with their sons.

The show has tackled mixed race adoptions, miscarriages, addictions, domestic abuse, depression, body image and weight, and so much more. The current season airing right now has teased that main character Jack’s background in Vietnam will be explored, and the audience is anticipating scenes which will not shy away from talking about the hard issues that faced Vietnam Vets.

All three shows are providing spaces for men and women to explore what a world would look like when all humans are able to experience the full range of emotion, to deal and heal with trauma, and to be strong and vulnerability at the same time. It has been a solace to tune in week after week to see what new experiences these characters will get to share, it gives me hope that somewhere someone is also watching and realizes and uses those examples as tools to help themselves and those around them. I would love to hear other examples of characters and shows that goes against the grain of toxic masculinity, that pushes against the seemingly impending doom of our nation and offers new paths and hope for our future.


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