The Evolution of Toxic Masculinity Portrayal in the Media

The “Real Men Don’t Cry” Stereotype

I remember playing in the cul-de-sac every week with the other neighborhood kids all the way through elementary school — playing manhunt, riding bikes, and playing all kinds of games and activities. One friend in particular — a boy — would hear something to the effect of, “toughen up, kid” from his very own dad almost every time he’d get hurt and cry.

Whether it be from parents, siblings, extended family, teachers, friends, or anyone else, kids are being exposed to the stereotype that “boys don’t cry” from a very young age. Not only is this stereotype perpetuated in their community, but also in the media that boys are exposed to. Does the way in which the media portrays men have a positive or negative effect on the overall conversation around this stereotype?

Outdated Media Portrayal of Men

Older methods previously used by the media to portray men used to frame low emotional intelligence as being “cool.” There has been a long history of toxic masculinity being overly-exaggerated in characters from young adult TV shows and movies:

  • Joey Donner from 10 Things I Hate About You
  • Jason from Mean Girls
  • Logan Reese from Zoey 101
  • Drake from Drake and Josh
  • Elton from Clueless 
  • Zack from the Suite Life of Zack and Cody

These characters were all portrayed as cool for disrespecting women, while characters like Josh and Cody were portrayed as lame and nerdy for being too sensitive. The characters are portrayed as the “cool guys” of their social dynamics, yet what makes them cool is their lack of respect, empathy, and compassion for those around them. There didn’t seem to be much (if any) background on what led to these characteristics in them as far as childhood trauma and conditioning, only that they were this way because they’re the cool guys.

Image Credit: Bastian Riccardi, Unsplash

Modern Media Portrayal of Men

There now seems to be much more depth in the modern portrayal of toxic masculinity in the media. We are no longer simply shown the cool guys who don’t care about anyone but themselves, and are instead given insight into the character’s past so that we can better understand why they are the way they are now. This media portrayal and construction of toxic masculinity is more productive because it is no longer framing toxic masculinity as “being the cool guy.” This depth to the story of a character’s toxic masculinity helps raise awareness through popular shows such as Euphoria and Never Have I Ever.

Character Breakdown: Nate (Euphoria) & Ben (Never Have I Ever)

Both Nate from Euphoria and Ben from Never Have I Ever grew up in homes with emotionally unavailable fathers and eventually developed maladaptive coping strategies. We learn this background information about each character through various flashback & conversational scenes that help us understand why the characters are the way they are.

Nate’s father suppressed his sexuality his entire life, which resulted in him becoming an aggressive alcoholic — and passing these maladaptive coping mechanisms on to Nate. Ben’s father was never around because he was always working, and through various scenes in the show we learn that Ben longs for his father’s love and connection. 

Is the new approach to portraying men in the media helpful?

Both Euphoria and Never Have I Ever incorporate character arcs centering narratives that address stereotypes and social/family dynamics; however, Euphoria is a little more dark and raw in contrast to Never Have I Ever’s more lighthearted approach. Despite having drastically different tones and moods, both shows do a much more thorough job at bringing awareness to the “real men don’t cry” stereotype than older media portrayal of men did. 

Image Credit: Nathan McDine, Unsplash

While the media used to focus heavily on construction that portrays emotionally unavailable men as “cool” in contrast to more sensitive male characters being portrayed as “lame”, I see a recent shift to storyline construction that portrays more depth in what led to the levels of emotional intelligence in male characters — whether low or high. 

This new shift does a better job at representing the true impact that growing up with emotionally unavailable parents can have, especially when paired with boys who are told that they should toughen up and stuff their emotions down their whole lives. Men’s emotions are finally being portrayed more in-depth, which helps destigmatize the whole “real men don’t cry” stereotype. 

Lack of emotional intelligence, maladaptive coping mechanisms, and toxic masculinity are no longer constantly framed as ideal because they make a guy cool. They’re now being framed realistically more often than they used to, which I think is helpful for society’s overall understanding of men’s mental health.