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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.