Models of American
We evolve into the images we carry in our minds.
We become what we see.
Images are powerful realities and image-makers are important people. That's why media consultants have become indispensable members of any presidential candidate's campaign staff. With each passing election, the person who fulfills that function plays an increasingly larger role in developing the candidate's strategy. Many an election loser has blamed his defeat on the fact that, though his opponent was less qualified and held vastly inferior views, he just could not overcome the image of experience and competence that his opponent's campaign so powerfully, albeit inaccurately, managed to project.
In the media-saturated society that America has become, style is often more important than substance. Image can be everything. If you are unconvinced about
the power of image, ask the editor of Seventeen magazine, one recent issue of which contained 203 ads (143 of which were full-page) within its 250 pages! Or ask the president of McDonald's or Nike or Pepsi about the power of product images and why they use athletes to sell their goods. As a former ad agency art director, I have witnessed firsthand how the continued success of the most stable companies hinges upon the image they project.
But the power of images affects more than our voting and spending habits. Images affect our lifestyles as well. What we eat, how we dress, where we travel and more importantly, what we believe and how we behave are all heavily influenced by the images that surround us.
American images of masculinity have been under some rather hostile scrutiny in recent decades. A cloud of uncertainty has settled in. What does it mean to be a man today? After whom does the American male pattern his life? Who are the contemporary icons of masculinity? What are men supposed to look like, be like? In a poll about men conducted by the Yanklevich research group, researcher Ann Clurman noted, "We get better than a third of men, particularly under 35, telling us that they are confused [about what it means to be a man] given all the changes that have taken place."2
In lieu of stable and traditional images of masculinity, modern American culture has fabricated a number of male stereotypes to fill the need for a model of
manhood. Consider a sampling of some of the predominant images of masculinity set before the eyes of American males. They all issue a subtle but powerful call that beckons men to be like them, but each proves to be a woefully inadequate icon of what it means to be a man.
The Tough Guy
In a 1995 Harris Poll asking Americans who was their favorite movie star, the top spot went to a man who hasn't made a movie in quite a while. In fact, he's been dead since 1979! Ahead of Clint Eastwood, Mel Gibson, Denzel Washington, Kevin Costner, and Tom Hanks stands "the Duke."3
In the history of motion pictures, few people have so firmly stamped their image upon the minds of American men as did the late Marion Michael Morrison better known as John Wayne, the film name he took so that he could project a more masculine image. And project it he did. With the benefits of a large, muscular body and a deep, rough voice that carried the tone of someone who was in charge, Wayne was the quintessential man's man. For more than four decades, his career influenced the opinions of millions of men about what it meant to be manly. Though at age sixty-nine he had to don a toupee to do it, Wayne maintained his macho image through his very last film, The Shootist.
John Wayne always stood for principle over personal comfort. He became the hero and protector of
the West, the consummate soldier of World War II, the flesh-and-blood embodiment of the American male who, without flinching, could always suppress any twinge of fear and pain in his relentless war against his opponent.
Most of us who grew up watching Wayne really liked him. He overcame all obstacles. Almost never portrayed as a villain, with his hat tipped even to God, he projected an aura of honesty and integrity that causes even present-day women to wish today's more youthful macho stars could be traded in for this earlier tough guy.
Wayne played characters whose desire for the triumph of good over evil drove them to the brink, to face life bravely, to be prepared to fight and die not only with honor and courage, but above all with pride. For the Wayne model, stubborn pride was an unmitigated virtue. As he said in his film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, "Never apologize, mister. It's a sign of weakness."
Most often portrayed as an independent man who could find life consummately satisfying without ties to family or friends, Wayne sat tall in the saddle alone. For all their positive qualities, the unbending arrogance and aloofness of the men he portrayed projected a tainted model of what it means to be strong and masculine. Although basically "good guys," these images became a foundation for the big bad men in films to come. And come they did, building on some of the worst qualities of the Wayne stereotype!
Enter next Clint Eastwood Mr. "Make-my-day"
himself. He would rise above Wayne's attempt to create the standard macho image. As Eastwood himself confesses:
Everybody knows nobody ever stood in the street and let the heavy draw first. It's me or him. To me that's practical, and that's where I disagree with the Wayne concept . . . I do all the stuff Wayne would never do. I play bigger-than-life characters, but I'll shoot a guy in the back.4
This six-foot-four, leather-tough, sinewy man has squinted through over thirty-five films since 1967 to become, as Newsweek magazine canonized him, "an American icon." Eastwood's machismo even carries over into his view of his trade: "Going with your gut is the Eastwood approach to acting," which, he says, "isn't an intellectual art at all. It's strictly animalistic. It comes out of an animal part of the brain."5
Wayne is long dead, and the rapidly aging Eastwood sometimes portrays more mellow characters in his twilight years. But he has been followed by a string of tough guys like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chuck Norris, Jean Claude Van Damme, and Steven Seagal. Some of these actors are American-born. Others come from abroad. Some are liberal poster boys who seek through their films to be politically correct. Others are conservative Republican stalwarts. Some find a degree of success in other film genres, some are typecast forever. But despite their differences, they have
all deeply mined the same Tough Guy vein.
They all possess rugged good looks and well-conditioned, muscular bodies. And they all play characters who are unstoppable killing machines. A well-equipped division of a third-world army is no match for any one of the newer breed of tough guys. Their fans seem quite willing to overlook any lack of acting talent they may have as long as there are enough explosions and fight scenes to make the body count reach double digits.
In this regard, it is noteworthy how detached from reality, how fantastical, these Tough Guy characters have actually become. Whereas John Wayne battled and overcame gunslingers, cattle rustlers, and desperadoes, the new Tough Guy singlehandedly demolishes terrorist gangs, full-scale armies, killer robots, and legions of space aliens. So incredible have these super-humans become, they have crossed the line from realistic character portrayal into caricature.
Next time you take in a Tough Guy flick, check to see if the "hero" is at all committed to his wife or kids. Or to a regular job or aging parents. Oh, I know his role is fictional and that entertainment is supposed to take us out of our workaday world. Maybe you see that. But I'll tell you, many don't! What is modeled by the Tough Guy is a man for whom women are objects and children bothersome. Mr. Tough is usually single or divorced. Because of his indifference to marriage and fatherhood, the message given by the Tough Guy is: family is at best non-existent, or at worst an
obstacle to the pursuit of more manly matters!
The distance between the movie-screen Tough Guy and the real-life guy who subconsciously wants to be a man continues to widen. The identity-impoverished male moviegoer applauds the movie superhero, only to return home with a greater sense of personal impotence. The Tough Guy has become a model whose feats cannot be imitated and whose laudable attributes of courage and perseverance are, in the end, outweighed by his lack of connectedness to others.
Tough Guys will not balance the tilt of the masculine teeter-totter back to where it belongs. This image of manhood is as void of feeling as it is of fear.
During the 1970s, one of the longest-running and highest-rated television shows featured a proud, big-mouthed, blue-collar, cigar-smoking bigot named Archie Bunker. Slouched in his easy chair, Archie captured a host of faithful fans. All in the Family was a perennial hit. Perfectly on cue, this man could be polite and gracious to any woman except his own wife. In fact, it was important to Archie to "lovingly correct" his wife with a constant stream of verbal contempt. He wanted all who observed them to have no doubt who was in charge.
EDITH: Oh, Archie, I had the most wonderful idea!
ARCHIE: Never mind ideas. When did you ever have an idea? I don't need ideas, I need a beer.6
There he was, a man who gained a sense of personal worth by constantly belittling his family. That's Archie. His world is small, real small. But that doesn't prevent him from having a dogmatic opinion on everything and everybody.
Archie is a sometimes funny, but always harmful, American male role model. He dominates his domestic world and keeps it at arm's length through a constant stream of caustic verbiage. Inwardly he is a frightened little boy who has crawled into a dream world as a protection against imagined enemies of his masculinity, which end up including his wife, daughter, and son-in-law. He is also desperately trying to hold on to some tradition which for him is just a memory.
It seems beyond understanding why any man on TV or in real life would want to be like Archie Bunker. The Archie Bunker character is not a hero in the usual sense, but rather an anti-hero someone who is looked up to in spite of his lack of virtue or other redeeming qualities. So while few men consciously set out to emulate him, we all know numerous men who are flesh-and-blood incarnations of Archie. It is precisely because the character is such a humorously accurate reflection of so many American men that Archie became so well known.
When CBS newsman Mike Wallace interviewed Carroll O'Connor, the actor who played Archie, at the height of his career, the conversation included this interchange:
WALLACE: What you're saying to me is that there are a lot of relationships in the United States that are very much like Archie and Edith?
O'CONNOR: That's what the mail tells us, yes. Occasionally some mail says the viewers don't believe something that Archie does or something Edith says. But by and large, it's "Boy, that's it! You've got it. The next-door neighbors; that's Uncle Harry; that's Aunt Flossie."7
Another observer had it right when he said, "Archie Bunker, like it or not, is a role model, an example of an authority figure in the home. He and other foolish male characters too numerous to mention have distorted the image of husbands and fathers."8
The lecherous Al Bundy of Married With Children has projected a more current and a much sicker display of all the negative attributes of Archie. But the show's long run on the boob tube has demonstrated that millions of Americans identify with this kind of a man. From Archie to Al, these characters are all great pretenders. They sound secure to the point of obnoxiousness, but in reality they are very fearful men and very insecure in their masculinity. Their tyrannical leadership style on the domestic front hides the fact that they haven't a clue about what it means to be a good husband or father.
The World-Class Wimp
The comic section has been a favorite standard feature of newspapers everywhere for the better part of
a century. What do you suppose is the most widely read and longest-running comic of all time? It's not Calvin & Hobbes, Garfield, or Doonesbury. It's not even the long-standing Dennis the Menace or the venerable Peanuts. It is the comic strip Blondie. And the major male character of the strip, the ever-fortyish Dagwood Bumstead, is a reflection of another prevalent type of masculinity in our culture. Dagwood, to put it bluntly, is a wimp.
So many men fit the overly-submissive-male category that comic strip creator Chick Young decided to make daily entertainment of it. The strip he developed back in 1932 is still one of the most popular and well-read features in the comic section. In The World Encyclopedia of Comics, author Maurice Horn says, "Blondie became a devoted wife and affectionate companion, as well as the actual head of the Bumstead household. While losing none of her charm she acquired solid virtues of pluck and levelheadedness, and often has to rescue Dagwood from the many jams he gets himself into."9
Like the fathers in many other entertainment series, Dagwood is regularly the butt of jokes. So inept is he, a Temple University professor describes him as "a well-meaning idiot who is constantly outwitted by his children, his wife and even his dog."10
As with Archie Bunker, no one wants to be a Dagwood Bumstead. But also as with Archie, it is because Dagwood is such an accurate portrayal of so many men that he has become an American fixture.
Dagwood may be a distasteful rendering of American masculinity, but he has been, and continues to be, an example of modern manhood nonetheless.
Again, it's only the comics. Men need to be able to laugh at themselves. But have we as a culture given in to the characterization of the father as the hapless male that no one takes seriously? Is Dagwood not really more of a tragic figure than a comic one? I ask because the father, more than any other male, is singled out for special ridicule. As long ago as 1979, one media critic observed, "Strong men on television are either bachelors, widowers, or divorced, and the married men with children are portrayed as somewhat ridiculous, incompetent, and confused. Nobody could hate or fear the poor devils a humane person could only pity them."11 Maybe TV hasn't changed as much as we thought!
David Frost, the British TV commentator, once said:
There's a curious double standard operating in America. In certain areas women have established an absolute stronghold . . . and men think that surrender is the only road to acclaim. But the letters I receive from women all around America are pleading for more male leadership. They feel that they've gotten too much dominance over their men, and that their men are mice, and they wish they'd get out and lead them a bit more. "I don't want my man to keep surrendering," these women say.
"But now," writes one woman observer, "male surrender has become a conditioned reflex in the USA."12
Do symbolic characters that live in comic strips and on TV and movie screens really relate to our behavior? If not, why would a comic strip such as Blondie, which constantly portrays a bumbling man, be one of the favorites of the last half-century? Why do men put up with this portrayal of the father as an incompetent wimp? Because many men in America have given in to the wimp syndrome. Most of the millions of people who read this strip daily are men!13 Too many men have bought the image of themselves which is embodied in this comic strip and carried it to even greater lengths in current television sitcoms.
Let me offer a personal example of how fictional characters can affect the behavior of those who see or read about them. My friend and I, as first-graders, were great fans of Captain Marvel, a superhero of the forties. One of the Marvel comic books made an offer we couldn't refuse. For one dollar we could send away for a cape and a magic ring like Captain Marvel's. The most exciting bonus to come with this special offer was the "secret word" that would presumably enable us to do what Captain Marvel did. To us, that meant we would have the ability to fly!
Each day we anticipated the arrival of our special package. Finally, it came. We quickly tore open our new treasure and draped the capes over our backs. With rings adjusted to our small fingers, we planted the secret word inside our minds.
Having planned our strategy in advance, we swiftly climbed to the roof of a large two-story barn. Standing at the edge with arms held straight out in front of us, we surveyed our flight pattern and the location for touchdown. We rubbed our rings and said the magic word: "SHAZZAM!" Then we took a deep breath and leaped. It was childlike faith in the promise of fantasy. Fortunately, about a foot of soft manure had accumulated in the old chicken pen below. Cut and badly bruised, we cried tears of pain and disillusionment as we ran home to two puzzled mothers.
We had believed a lie.
The Athlete Almighty
The sign said it all. Over 50,000 people jammed into a downtown San Francisco plaza for a farewell rally in honor of retiring professional football quarterback, Joe Montana. One man held aloft a homemade sign which so captured the sentiment of the crowd that it was featured on the front page of northern California's largest newspaper the next day. The sign consisted of but three brief words: "JOE IS GOD."14
"I'm extremely unimpressed with celebrities in general, and I used to run into them almost every day when I lived in Los Angeles," said San Francisco native Gary Penders, who runs U.S. Berkeley's summer school. "But you know what I would do if I ever met Joe Montana? I would fall to my knees and lay my forehead on the ground at his feet."15
I'm confident Mr. Penders was speaking in hyperbole
and that the sign-toting fan did not really believe that Joe Montana is deity. But these comments serve to demonstrate the high esteem in which our culture holds top-flight athletes. A look at the posters on most any fourteen-year-old boy's bedroom wall will bear that out, as will the incredible salaries we are willing to pay to young men who are proficient at hitting a baseball, throwing a football, or slam-dunking a basketball. (I recently calculated that, at my present salary, I'd have to work 234 years to equal one season's reported salary of the left-fielder for the San Francisco Giants.)
The sense of honor we feel and the goofy behavior we sometimes exhibit in his physical presence tell of the awe in which we hold the Athlete Almighty. "I've seen otherwise rational people," writes sports columnist Glenn Dickey, "go ga-ga over a reserve infielder at public gatherings."16 Dickey makes this observation after relating how a judge, while conducting a hearing to determine the amount of alimony San Francisco Giants outfielder Barry Bonds was to pay to his former wife, asked Bonds for his autograph.
Charles Barkley, perennial all-star forward of the Phoenix Suns basketball team, notes, "All you ever hear is we run a thousand yards and we dunk . . . . But you make straight A's in the same school year, they don't even know you're there. And that's sad."17
The Athlete Almighty gets special attention off the field as well as on. Take the O.J. Simpson double-murder trial please! If Simpson had been a software engineer, an educator, or a physician, the whole affair
would probably have had a day or two of local coverage at the most. You would not have read a word about it in New York or Boston. In the nine months the trial lasted, thousands of other murders were committed around the country. But America was fixated on this one murder trial because the accused was a sports superstar. The winners of a recent poll to determine the top twenty most admired athletes, by the way, included O.J. Simpson, Tonya Harding, and Mike Tyson.18
The athlete model of American masculinity is so revered it has become to some an idol of sorts, in whom major character flaws are routinely overlooked. When the son of one high-profile athlete tells of his relationship with his famous dad, he says, "I never hugged or kissed my dad. If I did, he'd think I was a sissy. My relationship with him is more player-manager. I wish he'd made time for me when I was growing up. If he'd been around, I'd be a lot like him now. But he wasn't, so I'm not. I don't see him much now . . . . Even if I wanted to call him, I don't have his telephone number. I have to call his agent and he tells my dad I want to talk to him. We don't get in touch unless my dad wants to."19
This young man's sister gets more to the point when she bluntly says, "My father is the world's worst father."20
The comments are those of Pete Rose, Jr., and his sister, Fawn. Major league baseball's all-time career hit leader, Pete Rose, fell from public favor amidst gambling allegations. But his failure as a father was not a
factor in the tarnishing of his image. The message seems clear. It's okay to strike out as a dad; just don't bring the shame of compulsive gambling on the game.
Perhaps nowhere is our willingness to ignore major character flaws in our sports celebrities so great as when it comes to the Athlete Almighty's obsession with winning. Professional football's Miami Dolphins head coach, Jimmy Johnson, is quite frank about his obsession. "I've prepared my entire life, forty-eight years, twenty-four hours a day, three hundred sixty-five days a year for sixteen Sundays. Everybody out there in the world judges whether I'm a successful human being based on how I do on those Sundays. If we lose I'm a complete bum, a worthless human being . . . . Everything I do and I mean everything winning has to come first."21
According to biographer Peter King, "Jimmy Johnson divorced his wife, Linda Kay, after taking the Cowboys job because they'd grown apart, and because he didn't want family stuff getting in the way of the biggest job of his life."22
"I'm a selfish person, very selfish," Johnson admits. "I have to do this to satisfy myself. I wouldn't be happy doing anything else."23
If Jimmy Johnson were an accountant or a carpenter, his comments would make most people think he's got some pretty messed-up ideas about life's priorities and values. But because he was, at the time, the head coach of a two-time Super Bowl champion team, his obsession with winning is commonly recast in more
admirable terms like "dedication" and "commitment."
While there are arguably some positive character traits (courage, stamina, cooperative effort, etc.) that can be learned from involvement in athletic pursuits, we make a big mistake in making a person's athletic prowess the dominant criterion for his worthiness as a role model. Fortunately, there are professional athletes who recognize the unfitness of such glorification. One of them is all-star baseball player Bobby Bonilla.
"I have a real problem with the whole notion that baseball players are role models," Bonilla says. "Your role models are really the people who are at home." Motioning to his father, he added, "Growing up, I knew this was the man who was responsible for me. Not Julius Erving. Not Craig Nettles. Not Willie Randolph. Not Chris Chambliss. Not Eddie Murray. So why are parents pushing athletes to be better role models, instead of looking at their own selves?"24
The NBA's perennial all-star forward from the Phoenix Suns, Charles Barkley, puts it this way: "I am not a role model. I am paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court. Parents should be role models. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids."25
Unfortunately, millions of American men don't see what Bonilla and Barkley see so clearly. Dressed in overpriced shirts, hats, and coats that bear the logo of their favorite team, they gather without fail around the television, where they cheer "their" team on with the
fervency of a religious revival. Guys who can't quote Scripture or remember their own wedding anniversaries gain stature with their peers as they quote the most obscure sports statistics. Notice how they begin to speak of the players, men they have never met, as if they were the closest of friends. The outcome of a single game can make them ecstatic for days or utter grumps for a week. And through it all they feel more like men. But it's fantasy, an escape from real life and an attempt to find someone bigger with whom they can identify.
An Identity Crisis
There can be no doubt the modern American male is suffering from an identity crisis of monumental proportions. False icons of masculinity have arisen to fill the vacuum created by his loss of his sense of manhood.
The image of the Tough Guy calls men to unobtainable heights of strength and courage, while it strips them of all human sensitivity. It is an icon of a warrior without a soul.
The image of Archie Bunker beckons men to mask their fearful ignorance with a facade of macho verbiage. It is an icon of a living lie.
The image of the wimp pleads with men to surrender. It begs them to give in, to avoid conflict at any cost. It is the icon of a coward.
The image of the Athlete Almighty invites men to live vicariously through the symbolic achievements of others. It is a model of fantasy.
These are not the only phony icons of masculinity, of course. There is the Gender Blender, who invites men to trade their masculinity for the identity of unisex. There is the comedian, who hides his true self behind an endless stream of jokes and pranks. And there is the little tycoon, who falsely equates masculinity with financial security and insulates himself from family and friends in a manipulative world of wheeling and dealing. But each of these images is just as inappropriate a model of manhood as those we have discussed. Following them has not helped the American male.
As we men have flocked after these inadequate images of manhood, we have done great harm, not only to ourselves, but also to those around us.
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1. Jerry Mander, Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television (New York: Quill, 1978), p. 239.
2. Ann Clurman on NBC broadcast: "Of Macho & Men," NBC Summer Showcase Series, June 1989.
3. Parade Magazine, Oct. 29, 1995, p. 2.
4. Joan Mellen, Big Bad Wolves (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), p. vii.
5. David Ansen, "An American Icon," Newsweek, July 22, 1985, p. 50.
6. Diane O'Connor and Dick O'Connor, How to Make Your Man More Sensitive (New York: Dutton, 1975), p. 3.
7. Mike Wallace, "Carrol O'Connor answers the tough questions about 'Archie Bunker,' " Good Housekeeping, October, 1974, p. 200.
8. Edwin Louis Cole, Maximized Manhood (Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1984), p. 127.
9. Maurice Horn, The World Encyclopedia of Comics (New York: Chelsea House, 1976), pp. 118-19.
10. Brenton, American Male, p. 142.
11. Marshal Hamilton, Father's Influence on Children (Chicago: Nelson Hall, 1979), citing LeMaster.
12. Natalie Gittelson, Dominus (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978), p. 23.
13. David Manning White and Robert H. Abel, The Funnies (London: Collier-Macmillan, 1963), p. 180.
14. Edward Epstein, "50,000 See Montana Pass into Retirement," San Francisco Chronicle, April 19, 1995, p. A1.
15. Ibid., p. A9.
16. Glen Dickey, "The Latest S.F. Trend is Boycotting Giants Games," San Francisco Chronicle, June 20, 1995, p. D3.
17. Charles Barkley, as quoted in U.S. News & World Report, Jan. 23, 1995.
18. As quoted in Youthworker Update, Vol. 10, No. 1, Sept., 1995, p. 4.
19. Pat Jordan, "War of the Roses," Gentleman's Quarterly, April, 1989, Vol. 59, No. 4, p. 274.
21. Peter King, Inside the Helmet, as quoted in article "I Will Not Be a Loser," USA Weekend, August 8, 1993, p. 5.
22. Ibid., p. 4.
23. Ibid., p. 5.
24. Laurence R. Stains, "Father's Way," in USA Weekend, June 17-19, 1994, p. 4.
25. Robert Snyder, "Say It Ain't So Joe," The Word, Vol. 40, No. 2, February, 1996, p. 18.
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