Mum Men: How Men are Discouraged to Speak

Earlier this winter, I found myself staring sadly at the Johnnie Walker subway print ad campaign “Say it Without Saying It.” One short message read: “To never having to say ‘I love you, man'” and another: “We only shake hands. We call each other once a month max. I still think you’re adopted. And even though I would rather streak across a packed stadium than tell you this, you deserve it. You’re a great little brother. There, I said it.” Witty and charming, no? Kind of.

But, could the same effect have been achieved without playing on men’s inability to communicate with one another? This campaign confirms, embraces, and celebrates helplessness, passive aggression, and emotional and social underdevelopment. But it masquerades it as self-aware manliness. Brothers are only fodder for jokes or target practice for farts. Verbal and physical affection are saved for special (read: unavoidable) occasions. And now thanks to the negative encouragement of these ads, handing over a bottle of whiskey to a man close to you, is a substitution for any meaningful expression. It also acts as a rubric for seeing how far men need to go before they can wash down their unease.

Why are boys less encouraged to express their thoughts and feelings to themselves or each other? Mattel’s new Sweet Talking Ken Doll may help explain, but in the voice of a kindergartner.  This toy is marketed to girls ages 5 and up as “…the ultimate boyfriend for every occasion. Why? Because this handsome Ken doll says whatever you want him to say! Just press the button on his chest to record your own voice for up to five seconds. Then play it back in a high, normal, or low pitch.” Before these girls start the first grade, they are taught to understand that if they want the “ultimate boyfriend” or any man to speak the things they wish to hear, they will have to feed their unspeaking partners the lines. Boys can resign themselves to act the dummies in their relationships with their (ventriloquist) partners.

These not-so-subtle hints to boys and men from pre-K to adulthood may be the reason why girls exceed boys in language skills. By relegating men to the roles of the non-communicators and encouraging inarticulate self-reflection and self-expression, the media and the culture at large are doing both men and women a discriminative disservice.

4 Comments on “Mum Men: How Men are Discouraged to Speak”

  1. tinalynnjones says:

    I agree that the media and culture do a disservice to both men and women by perpetuating these stereotypes of the Neanderthal male that is out of touch with and unable to articulate his “girly” emotions. The problem is that the culture at large IS the male voice. The male voice dominates all language. So are they self-hating?

    The strong silent type is the mythic American male – the cowboy, the loner, hard and tough and grizzled. We are supposed to believe that they feel their emotions but choose to not show them because it makes them appear vulnerable, less powerful, and diminishes their presence if they do. So I think it’s still all about power and control and dominance.

  2. tinalynnjones says:

    The KEN doll is fascinating. How about the idea that the doll sets up girls for a lifetime of disappointments with their boyfriends? Their boyfriends will never tell them what they want to hear, because the society discourages men from truly speaking and articulating their emotions. And so, even though the girls are programming the KEN dolls to be perfect, the real living breathing boyfriend is being programmed by society to remain speechless.

    What will girls probably learn from this? That they problem is THEM, that their communicative needs and expectations within a relationship are unrealistic. They will be forced to change, not the men.

  3. tinalynnjones says:

    The commercial says it all. Males speak in code to each other, a code that they understand at the exclusion of women.

  4. Virginia says:

    Ooh, I *just* remembered the whole “say it with diamonds” ad campaign and got shivers. It’s incredible how deep this runs in our culture.

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