For a long time critical interest in literature tended to focus on the representations of femininity, but with the passage of time the representations of masculinity and its changing constructions have also gained limelight. Here I shall discuss this in relation to children’s literature and film. Throughout the world there is a long history of belief in male and female differences in which certain qualities are attributed to each. Societal expectations require that men and women strictly abide by the accepted conventions of masculinity and femininity so as to not disturb the dynamics of social functioning of the society.
According to a critic McArthur children’s books have traditionally represented males and females of all ages as gender stereotypes. Men and boys play active initiating roles while women and girls simply follow the male lead or call on males to rescue them from danger. Many of the traditional fairytales were deliberately designed to teach children moral and behavioural lessons. Therefore when children come in contact with these socially constructed forms of literature or film, an ideal of masculinity and femininity is fixed in the their minds. They believe that they have to conform to these set standards and therefore cannot transgress in any way because they shall otherwise be shunned and considered outcasts of society.
Masculinity is acquired and enacted through certain culturally variable roles and rules, which govern behaviour, dress, and subjectivity, so that men are made rather than born. The complex relationship between embodied reality and cultural influence that interact to produce masculinity is uncertain and emphasises the multiplicity, changeability and fluidity of maleness. What is constant is the social position of men in a gendered political category of dominance. Children’s literature as a transmitter of social norms depicts the dominant ways of being male. Children who come in contact with this literature therefore negotiate their identities through the lens of these depictions. For example, books which contain stories of the adventures like the novel The Once and Future King by T.H.White, which depicts the story of King Arthur and his knights, is laden with such stereotypical masculine imagery. Within this novel the images of masculinity such as bravery, physique, strength, and courage are brought forth and valorised. The image of the male is built by depicting him as unbreakable and superior in all aspects, the male is shown as a born leader. They are shown as the saviours who protect the ‘damsel in distress’, go on exciting adventures and bring glory to the land.
Similarly, the children’s adaptations of Greek and Indian mythology also depicts the prototype of the male as dominant, chivalrous, courageous and supreme. The tales of heroes like Zeus, Hercules, Achilles, Perseus, Rama, Laxmana, Yudhisthir, Dushyant, Shiva, Vishnu and numerous others are emblematic of stereotypical masculinity that becomes the benchmark for children who read them. Therefore, they are under the impression that they need to conform their identities and their behaviours to parallel these characters. Their depiction is powerful enough to not only influence the impressionable minds of the children but also the blinkered thinking of the adults as well.
The children’s films also have representations akin to the children’s literature. Most of the Disney productions have conventional depictions of their male protagonists. The Disney price is chivalrous, enigmatic, brave and heroic. He is the one who comes riding on his white horse and saves the princess from the danger. The Disney movies are watched by both boys and girls, hence they influence the thinking of both, wherein the boys feel that they have to live up to these roles and the girls expect boys to be like the males in the movies and therefore judge them according to these unrealistically high standards. Within these movies all the men are attracted to women and there is no space for any the other gender. There are no lesbian, homosexual, bisexual, transgender or queer characters in these movies. In the world of Disney, there is little room for variation and even when there is the characters are not re[presented in a positive light. For example, Kuzco, the emperor from The Emperor’s New Groove is single and has no interest in finding a woman to share his life with. Consequently he is portrayed as a selfish, self-absorbed terror who thinks the world revolves around him. The physical appearance of all Disney men who are male leads also propagated misconceptions because all of them are extremely handsome and possess a chiselled physique. Hercules, Tarzan, Eric, John Smith and the like are examples of such depictions. They are contrasted to the other men like the villains, the comic relief and other supporting male characters which are depicted as either lean, fat or comical.
In the movie Mulan we see a woman who is uncomfortable in her own skin, and who can’t find acceptance until she literally becomes a man. While Mulan is a strong character, she has to ultimately reject her “feminine” side entirely to find both self-affirmation and affirmation from others. Mulan’s heroism against the huns continues to characterize her new “masculine” traits. Again, she takes “crazy” risks to slaughter almost the entirety of the Hun army through an avalanche. This causes her friends to dub her “the bravest of us all”. Once more, this acceptance is entirely through traditionally “male” traits: impulsiveness, rash bravery, and even violence. This is the height of her adoption of masculine traits: there are few things historically more manly than the warrior. Therefore here we see that in order to gain acceptance and recognition the masculine traits are necessary. Mulan gains acclaim because she gives up here feminine identity and takes on the masculine. This all becomes inconsequential once she’s discovered to be a woman, though, proving that even male traits aren’t enough for her to be accepted by society at large; she must literally be a man to earn respect. However, this damaging message is later contradicted when both Mulan’s male friends and the emperor learn to accept her gender. She is honoured in front of the ultimate authority in her country, in spite of her sex. In this way, she is given respect as she is, as a woman. She receives the acceptance from society that she desperately yearns for as a female hero, rather than a fake male one. Therefore we see that society still emblemizes masculinity above all and even if they accept masculine traits in a female it is through some deliberation. But for them to accept feminine traits in a man and depict them in children‘s movies is still far from happening.
It may be inferred that narrow gender roles with strict rules about what either sex can or cannot do restricts development and excludes those who do not conform to the gender stereotype prescribed by their sex. The boundaries between genders are more permeable for girls than boys, as it is more permissible for girls to identify with male characters than for boys to identify with female characters. Boys unable to identify with the stereotypical male character pressed upon them in much of the literature and film for children are presented with limited opportunities for access to a masculine identity suited to them. These questions highlight how the complexity of identity formation and representation is negated when the femininity and masculinity are compared according to their relative worth and not as distinct states in their own right. Therefore exposing children to stories where male characters display behaviour that is non-traditional allows those who do not fit stereotypical masculine identities more agency and diverse opportunities for self-expression. Therefore a change in the representation of masculinity in children’s literature and film can bring about a change in the perception and the reception of masculinity in society.