Reconstructing the Male Image
By Hwaa Irfan
The age of social networking has advanced the chat-room scenarios into a “socially” acceptable form of connecting with other people. For those who have an active live in the real world, this might not lay the ground to a potential problem. However, as we increasingly find ourselves living in a world where diversity in character is as problematic as cultural, religious, and racial identity, along it with are an increasing number of people, both male and female, who are experiencing forms of social anxiety disorder. In the 2nd millennium, instead of becoming a more integrated society that is inclusive of everyone, more and more people are finding themselves estranged from the polemic social norms of the day. In so doing, more and more people find social networking (online), as the way to connect, in fact some it is the only way they can connect, and because of this there are hidden dangers.
In the progress of things, this is not actually new, as since the dawn of media as an industry, the imaginations of artists working for companies eager to sell a product lies at the root of a growing hyperreality. For instance, renowned anthropologist, Margaret Mead noted referring to the 1940s:
“In the advertisements on the billboards, men are now told how they, if they wear the right hat, may be the chosen one, the loved one – a role that used to be reserved for women. The olde certainties of the past are gone, and everywhere there are signs of an attempt to build a new tradition…
“The fashions bear the imprint of this uncertainty; the “new look” of 1947 captured the fleeting image of the mothers of a generation ago…”
As one reads on, one might have a little understanding for Iran’s stance on male grooming (hairstyle), fearing affectations from the West. It is not just about “looking good”, as what we do does eventually affect our reality, especially when the only reference point is media.
Reality is defined as something that actually exists or the quality or state of being actual or true, or in philosophical terms the sum total of all that is real, absolute, and unchangeable.” Matching the philosophical definition to contemporary life, one might easily say well there is nothing absolute or unchangeable about life today. It seemingly keeps changing, but it is only more of the same, the unavoidable reality of the most influential peoples in the world. It is the illusion of change which has entrapped many of us into believing in a hyperreality.
What is Hyperreality?
A most respected Italian author and critic, Umberto Eco in his essay “Travels Through Hyperreality” took a tour through America, liken to that of philosopher G. I Gurdjieff in “Tales of Beezlebub” describing how America simulates reality through art, architecture, culture, the environment and history; finding the ultimate expression of hyperreality in Disney land…
“… where the wild animals don’t have to be coaxed. Disneyland tells us that technology can give us more reality than nature can.”
If it looks real, it is real, and if it is not, it becomes real, because it is better than the life we are living, but what we do not know is that it is not better than the life we have been given. Television itself has offered us worlds which we can look into from the safe comfort of our homes, lacking only in interaction. This is where interactive games, and online social networking has taken off. The irony is that non-verbal communication makes up 55% of our communication, so in basic terms 55% of us in missing when we do communicate online!
As online social networking becomes a common experience, many studies and research have been carried out into the reason, and the way in which people communicate on online social networks, and as a product of media, for the benefit of the media industry, investigations into the nature of online social networking is increasingly frequent.
At the University of California, a definition of hyperreality in Media Studies, which arises out of Umberto Eco’s work is given as:
“The slippage of reality, its elusiveness encountered even in a basic search for a definition, is an element of the hyperreal – a condition in which the distinction between the ‘real’ and the imaginary implodes”.
A copy or a representation of reality serves as a basis on which to build, recreating of itself something that intrinsically has no meaning. The film “Stepford Wives”, the original, is a plain example of what it means to take icons/copies from life and to reconstruct it as real; the end result of which is objectification, and sexual objectification.
The process of objectification begins offline with visual imagery as portrayed by the media. Probably because young people growing up have lost sense of what is “real” due to the bombardment of imagery from media, that this in turn is transferred offline as an unconscious act. The young men of yester-year have all grown up physically, with identities which are clearly a product of hyperreality, and have difficulty in maturing into having healthy marital relations. This is said based on the long experience of counseling online, to find increasingly the number of men who are married to women they love but cannot relate to, but have no problems in having long distance relationships, i.e. internet relationships with women whom they will never meet for real, and even if they do, it ends in disappointment.
The world online provides an opportunity to either be the person one really is without dejection, or to present the person one would like to be, which usually begins without any intent of causing harm. Andra Siibak took research (2010) into online social networking further, by looking at how young men shape their identities and if it bears relation to the gender stereotyping projected by visual media as exampled above by Margaret Mead. Given that currently there are 290000 users on Rate (website), it does warrant investigation to see what part of the population is using as their reference point, their mentor, and the implications involved. The nature of Rate means the push to be liked, to be a part of the in-crowd, to be highly rated! Rate has 2055 communities created by the users themselves, but focuses on one community which he supposes represents the Western ideal, “Damn I’m Beautiful.” The members were aged 15 – 28 years of age, 108 of whom were male. Each member was allowed to display a maximum of 10 photos, which is liken to self advertising. Very few of those photos showed them engaged in any romantic activity, most of the photos displayed them as fully clothed, most of the photos displayed a lack of purposeful activity, and most of the images were voguing:
Referring to their need to have their bodies as “symbolic capital, Siibak commented:
“On the one hand, muscular bodies are needed as a proof in order to secure their position of power in the community. On the other hand, exposing their naked bodies to the female gaze also emphasizes their narcissism and metrosexuality”.
So what does this say about them despite being members of the “Damn I’m Beautiful” online community. Siibak concluded:
“Because of the passivity and narcissism visible on the photos, it could be claimed that the posing techniques of these young men are similar to the techniques of male models in advertisements. All in all, 65 per cent of the sample consisted of photos where men were shifting their gaze away from the camera. Hence, the results of the study nicely illustrate the statement of Mark Simpson (1994: 4) that ‘sexual difference no longer calls the shots, “active” no longer maps onto “masculine,” nor “passive” onto feminine’”.
Although Siibak’s study was based on photos, it echoes the early observations of an anthropologist witnessing the changes in her own community. This is far removed from the past when masculinity was essentially a product of what a man does in the physical world, and the lessons learnt from the challenges he faced which helped to form his self image. Then he had a sense of place in the world, whereas young men today have only the visual media as their guide. They were once expected to:
“… do something more than be good lovers and husbands and fathers, even with all that involved of husbandry and organization and protection against attack. They have been asked to develop and elaborate, each in terms of his own ability, the structure within which children are reared, to build higher towers, or wider roads, to dream new dreams and see new visions, to penetrate further unto the secrets of nature, to learn new ways of making life more human and more rewarding…” Margaret Mead.
Relating to someone who only has a fake image of himself, because he has no idea of himself is a tiresome task for someone who is aware, but for many, including the man himself, the realization is slow to dawn, if at all, that something is not quite right. One can witness regular members of online social networks get excited about their virtual/hyperreal world without ever discovering that the challenges available in the real world, are what defines us, and that we are more than the sum total of any hyperreal world! The more one becomes absorbed in such a world, the less able they are prepared to participate in the real world, and less likely they will ever know the soul that they were born with, and gifted to become! Instead we find that the advances in technology, including the Internet, is in fact increasing the problem of loneliness in reference to the U.K., because they find it difficult to meet new people, and engage meaningfully. In Egypt, there is a growing silent majority who find it difficult to go outside their homes, unable to connect with the world around them, but not of the generation that will use online social networking as a meaningful alternative. These are the hidden victims of a globalized world that sees not what it chooses not to understand, and is ill-placed to bring humanity back to humanity.
In a discussion with a taxi driver who has been driving for 50 years (not his main job), at least so he said, and is doing quite well I asked him with all that he has seen, which is better today or yesterday – his answer was yesterday, meaning 50 years ago because despite all the progress and development it is meaningless without the cooperation and compassion of the past!
CitySocializing. “Why Social Networking is Getting Real.” http://www.sourcewire.com/releases/rel_display.php?relid=58190
Eco, U. Travels in Hyperreality.” Harcourt, Brace Jovanovitch, U.S. 1990.
Mead, M. “Male and Female” Penguin Books, U.S. 1950
Oberly, N. “Theories of Media: Reality, Hyperreality” http://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/realityhyperreality.htm
Siibak, A. Constructing Masculinity on a Social Networking Site http://you.sagepub.com/content/18/4/403
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