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A distorted image of a man's face on a black background, from the title cover of "Language and Mediated Masculinities: Cultures, Contexts, Constraints" by Robert Lawson, published by Oxford University Press

Exploring language and masculinities in the media landscape

We all engage with different media formats on a daily basis. From watching television shows and movies, to catching up with the news, playing videogames, reading a blogpost from a favourite author, downloading the latest app, or discussing current events with people on social media, the media is an integral (and inescapable) part of our lives. While there is some evidence to suggest rates of use across commercial media platforms is declining, a recent Ofcom report found that over 90% of the British adult population are regular users of the internet and British viewers are still watching over five hours of television per day, even as overall media consumption is now fragmented across smart phones, online platforms, radio stations, television, streaming services, and print. 

Men in the media

What is also clear across a variety of news reportstelevision showssocial media sitescomputer games, and other media formats is that men appear to dominate, both in terms of focus and the number of contributions they make. In the case of televised and printed media, this dominance raises questions of representation, equity, and the shape of contemporary gender relations. In other spaces, such as the manosphere (a loose collection of blogs, websites, Twitter accounts, and Reddit communities dedicated to a variety of men’s issues), this dominance is inflected by a virulent strand of networked misogyny, anti-feminism, and male supremacism. 

This intersection of men and media has been a research focus in academia, public policy work, and the charity sector for some time now. This research highlights how the media sets out cultural scripts of what’s “normal” and “accepted.” Media outputs give audiences exemplars and models they can compare themselves against, offering aspirational goals to strive for or images of self-hood to avoid. The media can also subvert these scripts, pushing gender discourses into new territory, challenging established wisdoms, and destabilising conventional stereotypes. By virtue of their interactivity and sense of community, manosphere spaces bring an added layer of complexity to proceedings, with research suggesting that their technological affordances play a key role in driving online radicalisation. 

And it is clear that the diversity of media influences can have substantial real-world effects. For instance, a recent survey commissioned by BBD Perfect Storm found that 51% of men believe that the media negatively impacts how successful they feel, while a joint UN Women/UNICEF report from 2022 notes “the particular role of news media reporting in perpetuating discriminatory gender norms and stereotypes, and bolstering the social permission structures that normalize this violence.” The arrest of Andrew Tate, the self-proclaimed “king of toxic masculinity,” in December 2022 brought some of these issues into ever clearer focus, with a number of teachers, educators, charity leaders, parents, and counsellors expressing concerns about how Tate’s controversial talking points around consent, respect, dating, gender relations, and women were being parroted by male pupils in school hallways and classrooms up and down the country.  

Exploring the language of men in the media

Given the ubiquity of men in the media, it would seem to be an obvious place to look at how language relates to issues of contemporary masculinities. But while masculinities studies is a well-established field, the empirical analysis of the language used by (and about) men is a relatively new part of language and gender research. In my own work in this area, I explore how language is used by men across a range of media contexts, including fatherhood forums, television comedy shows, newspaper articles, manosphere communities, and alt-right spaces. More specifically, I’m interested in the history of “tough” masculinity in the British press, evaluations of “ideal” masculinity in the manosphere, the role of the media in promoting “positive” masculinities (with specific focus on the comedy show Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and the representation of caring models of fatherhood in online forums.

Why might we want to apply a linguistic lens to men in different media spaces? First and foremost, language is the primary means through which we relate to one another and (dis)align ourselves from other groups and categories. By paying close attention to linguistic practice, we can learn more about contemporary gender dynamics and how language is used to structure these relations. Second, by analysing the kinds of linguistic strategies used in manosphere and alt-right spaces, we can better understand how these strategies become part of a system of persuasion and manipulation to recruit young men to male supremacist ideologies. In the context of the growing threat posed by networked misogyny (captured in the toxic narratives promoted by Tate and other “manfluencers”), challenging these strategies becomes an important pedagogical intervention. Finally, it is clear that some media outputs offer a more positive and healthier configuration of masculinity and we can do a lot to learn about how these outputs use language to disrupt some of the more damaging aspects of masculine behaviour.  

For many people, language is an unremarkable part of everyday life, yet it is through this mundanity that language retains its power to shape society in subtle and indirect ways. The job of a linguist is to bring to light these hidden systems of differentiation and alignment, in order to show how language contributes to ongoing processes of discrimination, bias, and prejudice. The media reflects (and influences) both the good and the bad of who we are and what we stand for and, because of how it sits within a broader system of gender discourses, different media forms are ideal spaces for exploring the contemporary construction of modern-day masculinities (and of gender relations more generally). With the media so deeply integrated into our everyday lives, and substantial concerns being expressed about the problems of networked misogyny, gender representation, online radicalisation, male supremacism, and a whole host of other social ills, we need to use all the tools at our disposal to try to address these problems.

Featured image from the book cover of Language and Mediated Masculinities: Cultures, Contexts, Constraints (OUP 2023)

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