What Are Boys Learning from the Super Bowl?

A new documentary premiering at Sundance challenges the exaggerated notions of masculinity that too narrowly define what it means to be a man. By Jennifer Newsom
What Are Boys Learning from the Super Bowl?

It's difficult to imagine a more hypermasculine public ritual than the Super Bowl. Muscular men shoving and slamming against each other, seeking dominance over one another, and being revered and rewarded for violence while scantily clad women dance on the sidelines. Watched by millions, this competition is then interrupted by loud, sexist, and misogynistic commercials that stereotypically depict both men and women.

Notwithstanding all the attention garnered by this event each year, we as a culture spend virtually no time talking about the impact of this bro-fest on actual men and boys, or on our larger culture. Watching football is surely a bonding pastime for millions of Americans -- families and kids included -- but what do kids specifically learn about American values when they witness the glorification of violence, high-stakes competition, and the hypersexualization of women all rolled into one? They learn that violence and domination are cultural norms and that these games and all the celebration surrounding them are more important than any political debate or presidential speech.

As a mother of a young son, I am especially concerned for our young boys who digest all this. Having worked on The Mask You Live In (MASK), a documentary that explores American masculinity premiering at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, I am challenged by this limiting narrative that we increasingly feed our young boys and men about what it is to be "a man" in America.

While conducting research for MASK, we have learned from experts and research studies that there are incredibly high stakes for boys, men, and our larger culture when we ignore the damages of hypermasculine norms. Fewer than half of boys and men who experience things such as depression or anxiety ever confide in someone or seek help. Meanwhile, boys under the age of 17 drink more heavily than any other age group in this country. Also, boys in the U.S. are 30 percent more likely to flunk or drop out of school. Perhaps most troubling, though, is the increasingly frequent news of men and boys being involved in mass shootings.

Our culture is failing our boys, and we must start paying attention.

Though there may or may not be a direct line between bone-crushing hits on the field and bullying at schools or between the objectification of women in commercials and the epidemic of sexual assault on college campuses, I do believe it's our responsibility to investigate how valuing hypermasculinity in such a prominent way -- as we do during the Super Bowl -- might reinforce unhealthy gender norms. That said, there's room for multiple conversations to give our kids even a slight filter with which to consume this overwhelming flurry of gendered images and ideas. Not only should we point things out to our kids while consuming this media, but we should encourage our friends and colleagues to do the same.

So this year during the Super Bowl, consider discussing the damages of the hypermasculinity narrative with your boys (and girls) huddled around the TV. Perhaps even call out the discrepancy between the ideal qualities of a football player or cheerleader and the ideal qualities of a human (hint: physically and/or verbally dominating others is frowned upon in the real world, and not all women dress like that). Finally, if you really want to get involved in changing this stereotypical media culture, consider using our #NotBuyingIt Twitter hashtag during the game to call out the brands using overt sexism to sell.

Our daughters and sons deserve better, but the NFL, with its enormous platform, is failing to give us better. We must step in and challenge the status quo. Failing to do so risks, at the very least, keeping things as they are -- which, as we're increasingly learning, hurts not only our boys but all of us.

This article was originally published in January 2014 and updated in January 2015.

About Jennifer Newsom

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Jennifer Siebel Newsom, Writer, Director, and Producer Newsom wrote, directed, and produced the 2011 Sundance documentary Miss Representation. In response to the film, Newsom launched MissRepresentation.org (now The... Read more
What do you say to your kids about what it means to be a "man?"

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Comments (19)

Kid, 12 years old

This is literally the stupidest piece of rubbish I've ever read. First of all football isn't "violent", boxing is violent, football is rough. You also clearly have not heard that over 100,00 women and girls participate in football. The girl on my best friend's football team is their hardest hitter that broke a opposing players helmet after a tackle. I also think you or showing you have not got a education beyond third grade because you are saying that the Super Bowl has ties to sexual assault and bullying. Get a life
Adult written by ryank1

Let you're kids watch the super bowl, don't listen to these clowns who think shootings are caused by the media.
Adult written by Senser123

I feel that the Boys are learning more Iffy things from The Super Bowl than ever and you know the This is What Boys Are Learning From The Super Bowl print ad? well Common Sense should do one that says This Is What Girls Are Learning From Victoria's Secret. and the girls in it are only showing their abs and the not too sexy V.S bra and underwear line for younger girls is what's being worn beneath the clothes.
Kid, 9 years old

Jennifer means Jenny in dutch. Airan speaks Spanish, English, Dutch and Turkish because school. Airan is 15 years old and can count to 100 in fourty-two minmutes.
Parent written by constructionist

When I think of football, I think of the game. When I think of the NFL, it is about creating mismatches, gaining an advantage while exposing a weakness in the foe's game plan. In football there are 22 players and a ball, no cheerleaders, no gang violence, no questionable commercials. I understand Ms. Newsom's point but her point is that a game is turning children into victims. Not hardly. There is no perfect world, no total safety anywhere except in some dreams. Formation of attitudes in young boys is most noted between the age of 4 and 7. They are not ready for organized football until 9. Please don't think that America's parents don't know what is going on, they do. Some sadly put no effort into the development of their child but that is not the fault of a game. Mankind has been judging each other for around 8000+ years, I regret that some of us still haven't gotten better at it.
Parent of a 10, 11, and 17 year old written by Mike Peterson

As a father of boys who play football, with one using that and his 4.0 GPA to get into a college he might not otherwise have gone to, I find this article to be as off base as about any I have read and clearly from someone who is disconnected with the sport and maybe from young men in general. It seems, reading a little on Jennifer's bio, that she is looking for something to explain the many problems in the world. Can't say I see anything written about the positives in life. As someone who has played, coached and have kids pass through football I can tell you that you are way off base and maybe need to actually participate in the growth of young men in the sport before you decide to talk about what you haven't experienced. I am sure the MBA in classroom experience is great but really, maybe get involved before you pass judgement on what you don't really know and have not lived. Football, just like the Army and other things in life, is imperfect and has it downsides. To link football to mass shootings by young men in the same paragraph is honestly pathetic and really speaks to your knowledge and understanding about life events. I am guessing if you looked at the backgrounds of those young men who committed those crimes most, if not all, had little to no experience with the sport. It is the type of environment, with the right coaching and guidance, that can actually keep people like that focused on things other than violence. Friendships, bonding, sense of famliy-these are what you get out of playing the game. As for the sexism, I agree with you there. But that is a result of the world we live in not football. Once again the NFL has its issues but at the end of the day they don't produce the commercials. Maybe the article needs to be about those companies and how Go Daddy is responsible for violence. But you would see the same nonsense on any other major show from the Oscars to the Olympics. You are a producer, maybe your focus should be on the pathetic state of television overall and its horrible influence on boys. The platform you work in and have influence is is much bigger than the NFL will ever be. Football is real life, I have a young son going to college with it. That vision and drive to compete there helped him become a better student, physically healthier and to become a better leader and young man.
Parent of a 1 and 6 year old written by treandk2714

This is a terribly hide bounded view from someone who clearly knows nothing about football. First to one of the many irarating things in this post football is not a violent game. It is a high impact sport the requires lots of preparation and skill. People enjoy football for the same reason they enjoy any other competition, it is interesting and exciting to see people display their talent and hard work in whatever field they chose. Football teaches discipline, teamwork, hard work, dedication and sportsmanship. All values that I would think we would want instilled in our children. Also the commercials were mentioned in this disturbing post. Last time I checked the commercials aired during the super bowl get aired after the super bowl on most channels. Also the only person without clothes on I seen during the superbowl was a David Beckham who is a MAN. Football does not promote hypermascunility it promotes healthy competition. In my personal opinion it is a problem that all competition is being removed from youth sports. Yes the kids are out there to have fun but why are we no longer asking them to strive to be better? And yes they’re football players out there projecting a negative image, just like any other profession (actors, singers, writers, politicians). Maybe a lot of the problems in this country are coming from men be demasculinized rather than being hypermasculine. School shootings and under age drinking could be caused by emotionally under developed boys or men who do not know how to handle their issues and immediately crack under pressure. Last time I checked ‘hypermasculine men’ built this country with 13-hour workdays in rigorous conditions (cowboys, farmers, construction workers, factory workers). There are lots of pre madonnas that play football so really football has nothing to do with hypermasculinity but that is something you would know if you actually spent more than 30 seconds looking at it on TV and did some type of background work. There are things on TV we need to filter for our kids but that has nothing to do with football maybe you should write a post on Hannah Montana or Justin Bieber.
Adult written by DJMac

Appreciate your work on this important issue. Will you keep Common Sense Media posted about completion of the film? Thanks - I just reposted this article on my blog, Raising a Boy http://raisingaboy.wordpress.com
Parent of a 9 year old written by MamaN522

I really appreciate you bring ing this issue up, it is important to reflect on what we are teaching our kids...however, I have found it is so difficult to get people who love football to think about these issues. People get really defensive. Football may be fun to watch and the athleticism is exciting and it is a multi-billion $ industry but it is not real life and that is what kids need to know. I love your #notbuyingit idea and will finally be getting on twitter just to be able to do that:)
Parent of a 1 and 6 year old written by treandk2714

People always get defensive when someone comments negatively on something they have no real knowledge of. If you have never been involved in something more than watching a brief highlight how can you make an educated remark?
Adult written by CSM Screen name...

A silver lining in the Super Bowl commerical line-up: Goldie Blox (engineering toys for girls) won Intuit's contest and will become the first small business to have a commercial air during the Super Bowl. Check it out! http://money.cnn.com/2014/01/30/smallbusiness/super-bowl-ad-intuit-goldi...
Adult written by CarlosCoyote

I have been becoming disenchanted with football of late, due to the amazing number of serious injuries accumulating on ever team, at every position. Many of the best players are side-lined for lengthy portions of the season. I used to watch football, when I was young, and I don't remember this cascade of serious injuries even though, there were fewer rules to supposedly "protect" the players at that time. What's the point in watching the best athletes, if a sizable percentage of them are not even playing? All physical competitions involve some risk of injury, but this has become ridiculous, and more and more resembles gladiatorial competitions, than sport. As a fan of the game, I find this very disappointing. As for the "Playgirls" bobbing up and down on the sidelines, I find it very archaic and a sad statement on the lack of evolution in American womanhood. There are a large number of female fans and their children at these games, and for them to accept this display, as "normal" at such a public event, is very revealing of their subjugation to 'macho' male values, way beyond high school.
Adult written by Teacher-coach-f...

While you have a point about providing a filter through which our children might view this game with its scantily clad cheerleaders (agreed; what is the point?) and millionaires, you cross the line and become yourself the stereotypical yin to your so-called misogynistic yang. Your characterization of football is disappointingly myopic and narrow minded as it is clear you have made no attempt to explore it's redeeming qualities. As a classroom teacher of 15 years, coach of 4 different sports for boys and girls, and father of a boy and girl, I have seen no sport do a better job of teaching delayed gratification, selflessness, sacrifice, toughness, and perseverance than football. Your characterization is so superficial and impulsive it practically de-legitimizes what would have been an otherwise valid article. You can do better. You have cheapened a well respected media venue and cast it as a stereotype just as you have stereotyped football. Read "season of life" or research Joe Ehrman to see what football is really about.
Adult written by Candice H

I think it's important to discuss that this is *part* of masculinity and femininity, but it is narrow minded to exclude football and cheerleaders from the idea of what it is to be men and women. Personally, I love watching football. I think there is tremendous athleticism and intelligence being played out on the field, and I think it brings up a lot of issues that are great for talking with kids about. Saying that, "they learn that violence and domination are cultural norms and that these games and all the celebration surrounding them are more important than any political debate or presidential speech" is ridiculous. This is a great argument for entertainment media's content and glorification of celebrities - things that exist in our general culture. Football is played *on the field*, which is a clear delineation of what is acceptable and where, just like the dojo. What I am loving about this year is that more women are football fans - that women also feel comfortable enjoying something "masculine" and that hopefully more girls will be interested in and encouraged to play football. I'm more concerned with the cheer leading, but that's lumped in with the general idea of the acceptable physical attributes of women are given air time in the media and "on stage". Football is fun, and most football star players are great role models, showing generosity and caring in their off-field lives, which I think is a perfect message for children to learn - especially boys.
Parent of a 8 year old written by alimcollins

Great blog post. I will keep these ideas in mind as we gather to watch the Super Bowl with family and friends. I have been thinking (and blogging) about these themes since seeing a great [email protected] presentation given by Caroline Heldman on YouTube where she presents a seven different criteria for identifying sexual objectification in the media. I adapted her list in order to make the language more "kid friendly" and have already started the conversation with my twin 8-year-old girls (who have been very receptive!) If you want to view this list and see Heldman's video, you can check it out at this link: http://www.sfpsmom.com/2014/01/the-conversation-we-need-to-have-with.htm...
Parent written by Mom4Equality

I definitely agree with this article, which is why I have never really got into watching the Superbowl. The whole, outwardly sexist display is just too disgusting for me to support as a consumer. However, I understand that it is tradition for many Americans, so if you must watch, at least have these conversations- that these men are doing this "for their job". A job that requires them to win a game by violently hitting each other, be as big as they can physically be and because of the sponsors and marketers, requires them to yuck it up for the camera by hitting each other hard, taking risks and humiliating their opponents thus causing controversy. That in fact, most of these men (except for the football players always in trouble with the law) do not go around hitting and tackling people and acting all hyper masculine in everyday life when they are at home, at church, etc. It is all for show and does not define what a man is supposed to be.
Adult written by JEDI micah

I have to agree on Common Sense with this subject. Boys and men in this country can be quite affected by what they see through media (in this case, sports). It can mislead them into thinking of having the "right muscular body", being violent through words and actions, and also how they view women. As a man, it can be affective on me at some times. So what I do is I think of what I just saw, and question if such fantasies are really not necessary. That is what all men should do in this country, if we want to make our culture safer for our children, women, and all of us!
Adult written by Teacher-coach-f...

Whether our children view it as a barely realistic bar for body and performance, or an inspiration to do their very best is all in how we help them see it, not a problem with the event itself. Should they play out of shape and grow potbellies so we can all feel better about ourselves?