"Cowboy Up!": Non-Hegemonic Representations of Masculinity in Children's Television Programming

By Myers, Kristen | The Journal of Men's Studies, Spring 2012 | Go to article overview

"Cowboy Up!": Non-Hegemonic Representations of Masculinity in Children's Television Programming


Myers, Kristen, The Journal of Men's Studies


From 2006-2011, Disney Channel featured a wildly popular show called Hannah Montana, aimed at an audience of pre-adolescent children. The show was about a teenaged girl named Miley (played by Miley Cyrus), who had a secret life as a pop-star named Hannah Montana. She lived with her father, a country singer named Robby Ray (played by Billy Ray Cyrus), and her brother Jackson (Jason Earles). On one episode (Season 2, Episode 22), a teenaged boy named Rico (Moises Arias) asked Robby Ray to teach him to line-dance so that he could impress a girl. When Rico danced, he moved his hips in big, fluid arcs, rather than stiffly shuffling about. He shimmied his shoulders. Robby Ray said, "A good ole boy ain't going to be wanting to do all that kind of stuff. I mean, your girl's wanting a championship line dancer, not the spin cycle on a washing machine!" Although Robby Ray didn't accuse Rico of being gay, he did problematize his feminine motion. To correct the problem, Robby Ray decided that Rico should "get in touch with his inner cowboy." He sat Rico on a deck railing, to pretend to be a cowboy riding a horse. After three hours of riding the deck railing, Rico was in so much pain that he walked bowlegged, like a real cowboy. He danced like one too--awkward, halting, and stiff. Rico was cured of his girly swishing moves--he had "cow-boyed up."

Hannah and other television programs proffer complex messages about masculinity for young American children to consume and perhaps emulate (Baker-Sperry, 2007; Corsaro, 1997). In introducing young children to cultural conceptualizations of masculinity, television series help produce "regional masculinities" (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) that shape the ways that masculinity plays out in actual children's lives. Because they live in "media-rich worlds," (Martin & Kayzak, 2009,317), children easily absorb these messages. Television has an especially great impact on children, who consume it while their identities are being formed (Kelley et al., 1999; McAllister & Giglio, 2005; Baker-Sperry, 2007; and Corsaro, 1997). Television helps construct a rhetorical "frame" (Goffman, 1974; Ridgeway, 2011) that shapes people's perceptions of the world (Kuypers, 2009), despite the fact that the characters are fictional and viewers may never actually meet the actors in the series (Ferris, 2001).

This article focuses on the contradictory versions of masculinity that were presented in four television series aimed at children. On the one hand, these shows featured protagonist boys who were soft-spoken, un-athletic, emotional, and thoughtful--antitheses to the hyper-masculine heroes of years past (Bereska, 2003). Popularizing images of non-traditional masculinity could help shift the patriarchal gender order in a feminist direction (Butler, 1999; Connell, 1987; Renold, 2004; Walsh et al., 2008). On the other hand, these boys were almost always the butt of jokes. They were consistently feminized, with femininity signifying weakness and failure. Traditionally masculine characters often lurked in the background, reminding viewers what a "real man" looked like. Here, I explore the extent to which these programs promote progressive masculinities, or if traditional gender orthodoxy prevails.

MASCULINITIES: THEORY AND PRACTICE

In the popular imagination, masculinity is the polar opposite of femininity (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). In recent years, however, researchers have argued that masculinity and femininity are complexly interconnected social constructions (West & Zimmerman, 1987), and there is not simply one masculinity juxtaposed to one femininity (Connell, 1987). Connell has shown that societies construct multiple masculinities and multiple femininities, with one form of masculinity dominating all others: "hegemonic masculinity." All boys and men are measured by hegemonic masculinity, even though most boys and men will never accomplish it. Connell and Messerschmidt (2005, p. …

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