Men and Their Engagements with Stereotypically Feminine Media Products
The following is an excerpt from the paper I will be presenting at the 2014 Central States Communication Association Convention in Minneapolis, Minnesota. This paper presents a new analysis from the data collected for my dissertation on gendered media engagings. With the help of my undergraduate research assistant, Kevin Miller, we were able to conduct this thematic analysis on how the men of the dissertation’s sample perceived gender in relation to their reasons for starting, stopping, and continuing cross-gendered media engagings. This excerpt focuses on the analysis presented in the paper.
In the beginning of the 21st Century, in the United States, it appears more acceptable for women to cross the gendered boundaries than men. While not a completely sanctioned act, such transgression by women may be due to feminist calls for women to be the equal of men in how they are treated (Jacobson, 2005). However, there has not been a similar call for men to be the equal of women: to be the stay-at-home dad, to cry openly, to prefer fashion over sports, and so forth (Harris, 2007; Jhally, 1999). As such, there continues to be higher cultural sanctions against men for gender transgressions, which would also apply to men enjoying media meant for women.
The purpose of this study is to focus on men’s selections and interpretations of cross-gendered media products. The goal is to understand how a man’s perception of gender and what is appropriate for either gender is related to their reasons for engaging with media products they saw as meant for women. The hope is that by understanding how men see gender not as an absolute but as an interpretation during their engagings, we can better understand what leads them to engage with media products the industry has deemed as not for them. The study’s approach considered gender as an interpretive frame that is learned from society and culture and performed by how they engage with gendered media products. Thus, how a person views himself in accordance with what is appropriate gender behavior may impact how gendered media are selected and interpreted.
Interviewing process. As the study’s goal was to understand the processes of media engagings, it was necessary to conduct an interpretive investigation of their actual media engagings. By focusing on specific situations of media engagings, the person’s experiences and evaluations of the gendered media were thoroughly probed for how they made sense of what happened in the situations. Using Dervin’s Sense-Making Methodology (SMM) (Dervin & Foreman-Wernet, 2003), an in-depth interview was constructed that asked people to recall their experiences for four types of gendered media engaging. The interview was constructed as a combination of SMM Life-Line and Micro-Element interviewing protocols (Dervin, 2008). The Life-Line protocol asked interviewees to recall all of their gendered media engagings over the course of their lives. The Micro-Element protocol asked interviewees to recall specific aspects of how they made sense of selected media engagings, such as their questions at the time, their emotions, their ideas, their sense of self, and so forth; these specific aspects are referred to as sense-making instances. SMM provided the interview protocol and template for data collection, but data analysis proceeded with thematic analysis on specific sense-making instances.
The sample consisted of 22 men. Most of the men were undergraduates at a large Midwestern university with five being solicited to participate outside of the university setting but still residing in the Midwest. The majority were Caucasian, with only two self-identifying as Hispanic. Their ages ranged from 19 to 44 years-old at the time of the interviews in 2008. The majority reported that they were single, with four in a relationship and three married at the time of the interview. Participation ranged from being interviewed by the primary investigator — in person, over phone or instant messenger — to interviewing themselves via an in-depth open-ended questionnaire; all methods of participation included the same questions in the same order.
The study involved a 2x2x2 factorial design. The interviewees’ self-proclaimed gender was one factor. Another factor asked them to recall their experiences with media meant for women and those meant for men. The interviewees determined the gendered nature of the media products; the senior author, as primary investigator, did not impose any definitions of what was meant by gendered media, as only examples were offered. The final factor was one of time. Interviewees were additionally asked to recall gendered media products that they engaged with once and only once (Used Only Once), and those that they engaged with repeatedly over some span of time (Used Repeatedly). For analysis purposes, this paper focuses on men’s recollections of cross-gendered media products Used Only Once and Used Repeatedly. All the men had at least one experience for these two types of engaging, resulting in 44 experiences to be analyzed. The generic nature of the media products they discussed in these situations is relayed in Figure 1, which indicates that the vast majority of these genres match with traditional conceptualizations of gendered media, as previously discussed.
For each specific type of engaging – Used Only Once and Used Repeatedly — the interview protocol was structured to elicit various sense-making instances of their cross-gendered media engagings (see Senior Author, 2008). First, the interviewee discussed why they saw the media product as being directed to one gender and not the other. This question measured the interpreting of the media product as meant for men or meant for women. After getting this interpretation, the next series of questions focused on: what led to the engaging, what led them to use this product only once or repeatedly, and how they saw the issue of gender appropriateness relating to their previous answers. The first two questions measured the selecting of the media product, while the third question measured the perception of gender in their reasons for engaging with the media product.
Coding process. The analysis focuses on answers to specific sense-making instances: their reasons for starting the engaging (Why Started), their reasons for stopping (Why Stopped) or continuing (Why Continued) the engaging, and how they saw issues of gender appropriateness relating to those reasons (How Saw Gender). To find patterns in what men were saying as their reasons and perceptions of gender, and to link those two sense-making instances to one another, a thematic analysis was conducted. In iterative turns through the interviews, the primary investigator located themes in their reasons and their views on gender appropriateness. Codes were produced to represent these inductively identified themes, and the codes were used to develop a codebook that was given to the research assistant, who is the second author on this paper. The junior author, an undergraduate research assistant, coded those interview answers in two passes, and the primary investigator followed with a third coding pass. After each pass, the two coders discussed the resulting codes, until all coded responses were agreed upon.
The first set of codes reflects the themes in the men’s answers to what led them to start engaging with the cross-gendered media product. These themes were developed by considering their answers in both types of engagings, allowing for a comparison of their answers whether the media product was engaged with only once or repeatedly. Certain themes indicate more of a voluntary nature to the start of the engaging, such as Satisfying, Seeking and Being Surrounded. Others indicate the start of the engaging being more coincidental, such as Stumbled into it. The final subset appears to be indications of having the engaging, in some way, forced upon them by those they were with, such as Brought to It and Being with Another. The distinction is in the extent to which the engaging was completely the choice of the man, or if it was partially due to the situation he was in. The frequency of these themes across the two types of engagings is illustrated in Figure 2.
After asking the men to discuss what led to the start of the engaging, they were asked to discuss what led to stopping the engaging in the Used Only Once type, or to continuing the engaging in the Used Repeatedly type. During the grounded coding of these responses, it appeared that the reasons given to the Why Stopped and Why Continued questions had thematically similar answers, allowing for the creation of a codebook with similar codes yet different valences. While codes for the Why Stopped answers may be seen as a negative, those for the Why Continued may be seen as a positive. In the Used Only Once engagings, these reasons could be seen as hindrances, as obstacles to their further engaging with the media product. Whereas in the Used Repeatedly engagings, the reasons were more seen as helps, or facilitators to further their engaging with the media product. These codes’ frequency of occurrence is in Figure 3.
The final sense-making instance analyzed was how they saw gender appropriateness in relation to these reasons for starting, stopping and continuing. These themes are meant to illustrate how men were considering what was more or less appropriate for one gender compared to the other. This coding scheme was developed for and applied to both types of engagings, for Why Started, Why Stopped, and Why Continued. Figure 4 illustrates the frequency with which these themes occurred with the three sense-making instances.
In the following results sections, these codes are presented for how they relate to one another across the sense-making instances. For the Used Only Once type of engaging, the thematic analysis illustrates the links between the reasons the men gave for starting and stopping their cross-gendered media engagings, and how those reasons related to how they interpreted what is appropriate for a gendered individual. For the Used Repeatedly type of engaging, these thematic analysis demonstrates the links between the reasons given for starting and continuing such engagings, and how those reasons relate to issues of gender appropriateness. All of the men’s recollections from the interviews are reported using pseudonyms and pertinent demographic information from the time of the interviews to illustrate their reasons and interpretations of their cross-gendered media engagings.
Engaging with Cross-Gendered Media Products Only Once
Sam, a single 22 year-old Caucasian, discussed the self-help, fashion magazine Cosmopolitan for this type of engaging. While partly something that just happened, he took advantage of the situation due to a particular goal.
Well, I was just sitting there, and I was, well, I might as well just take a look. I wasn’t in a relationship but getting into college it’s like, hey, you’re trying to make yourself as appealing to women as possible, and you want to see what they think and what articles would apply to them. And I was more looking at, as far as, like, the dating and relationship and how to be a nice attractive guy, and I ended up looking at more of the like how to please yourself type deal and started thinking it could come in handy in certain situations.
Sam was recalling a time when he looked through the magazine with the idea that doing so could possibly help him learn how to attract a women. He had seen it lying around, and thus had Stumbled into It, but in deciding to pick it up he was Seeking it out to determine if there was any useful information in it to be had. As someone new to college, and thus the college dating scene, he was looking to gain insight that could benefit him. It was perhaps this reason, the utility sought from the magazine, that led him to not consider gender appropriateness as part of why he started the engaging.
Not really, because I wasn’t really paying attention to the larger context of the magazine. I was more just looking at stuff that would be beneficial to me trying to become more attractive to a woman.
For Sam, there was No Connection to Gender in his reason for starting the engaging. However, the issue of gender appropriateness did factor in his reason for stopping the engaging. After a while, the magazine had No New Information for him.
Well, because I read it and most of the stuff about relationships and dating and, you know, just being able to hold a conversation were things that I’d already gathered. You know, how to please a woman in bed type of deal was something that was good information. I don’t need to read it again and again.
Once the magazine stopped being useful to Sam, he had no reason to keep reading it. At the same time it seems, according to his recollection, that he became aware of the inappropriateness of his engaging with it.
I guess it was kind of like, a light turned on. Because most guys don’t do this, and I started to realize…I don’t know, maybe a guy is supposed to be more of a prick and that he’s supposed to impose himself on a girl, whereas a girl is never really supposed to approach a guy.
Sam’s seeing the magazine as no longer useful appears to have been linked to his thoughts over how men and women are supposed to be, as he Discussed Stereotypes about dating behaviors by indicating what he thought is Appropriate for Men. His saying “a light turned on” gives some indication that these thoughts about gender appropriateness may indeed have been partially influential in his no longer finding the magazine useful.
Like Sam, Barclay, also a single 22 year-old Caucasian, did not see a connection to gender when discussing why he started watching the 1990s sitcom Golden Girls, but he did discuss of number of gender appropriate issues in his reason for stopping the engaging. Barclay recalled having started watching the series because of his mother, who was watching the series and thus controlling the television.
I was just kinda…like when I work late I always want to get up later than my mother does. She’s waking up usually before the sun’s out. Especially on weekends, I’ll get up pretty late. Oh, about 8 or 9:00, most of the time. Especially if I’m home during school quarters, and have homework and stuff, I’ll kinda go off and do homework. … It kinda happened on me. I certainly don’t watch it by myself.
Barclay’s initial encounter with the Golden Girls was recounted as due to his mother’s watching the series, meaning that, for Barclay, he was Brought to It. He even tried to indicate that watching the show would not have been his choice when he said he would “certainly” not watch it by himself. While this assertion might seem to be an indication of seeing gender in his reason, it was not really mentioned here.
I’d have to say no. Old women talking much about relationships. It’s three old ladies talking to each other and men bashing once in a while. Basically what it is.
At least at this point, Barclay saw No Connection to Gender, or, at least, no connection that was strongly related to why he started watching the series. This would change upon discussing why he stopped engaging with the series.
I can’t relate to it. I certainly don’t want other guys to catch me doing it. Lifetime network actually says it in some of their promos, it’s for women. I kinda take that to heart. And my mom doesn’t like that either, so.
Barclay mentioned a number of reasons: he thought that Self Cannot Relate, as was mentioned first; he was worried about what other men would think, and thus he was Seeking Relationships with Men; and he mentioned the way the series and the network it was on was meant for women, indicating that he Saw Gender Differences. The concern over wanting to maintain his relationships with his friends became the focus for how he saw gender appropriateness as an issue in his reasons.
I guess so, but not actually by my parents, more by the other guys at school, that men really shouldn’t be watching Lifetime. Us guys shouldn’t be watching Golden Girls, or admitting to it. I have a feeling some might, but none of us would ever admit to it to each other. I think it says that men have to be hard, tough, macho. It’s kinda related to that.
Barclay appeared to have been very concerned with how his friends would have reacted should they learn what he was watching, as watching Golden Girls was seen as Inappropriate for Men. When further questioned about why that is, Barclay went on and Discussed Stereotypes of how men are supposed to be, as he learned of it from his society and upbringing.
Engaging with Cross-Gendered Media Products Repeatedly
Oliver, a single 44 year-old Caucasian, recalled his use of the cookbook The Joy of Cooking as the cross-gender media product he had engaged with repeatedly. The first time he used the cookbook, it was out of necessity, as an injury his mother sustained led to his needing to develop new skills.
My mother threw her back out, and it was Thanksgiving, she’d thrown her back out. She was so stiff, that when she dropped her keys all she could do was stare at the keys, I had to pick them up for her. When she got home, we already had a turkey we were going to cook, and I said, “You know what, let me do it.” She was upset, she couldn’t do it, I said let me do it. She kinda got this look of horror on her face, because at that time all I could do was cook hamburgers. I saw the book and figured I’d just look in the book, and follow everything that they suggested, which is what I did. And it turned out good.
Oliver recalled a Seeking reason: he was met with the requirements of the situation, which led him to need to find a way to solve a problem. He turned to the cookbook as the potential solution. As with Sam, perhaps the utility sought in the media product offset the interpretation of the reason as relating to gender appropriateness.
Not at the time, no. To me it was more like a tool. Not that this was meant for men or women, just for someone who wants to cook.
Oliver saw the beginning of his engaging with The Joy of Cooking as being Not Gender, About Humanity; that anyone who wants to cook can find the book useful in achieving that goal. Unlike Sam, Oliver found the cookbook to be continually useful to him, providing New Information as he sought to learn how to cook other dishes, which led to his continuing to engage with it.
To help myself, because if I want to learn to cook something right, it gives you the basics. That’s where it’s most helpful. Instead of winging it or watching a TV show that I have to rewind all the time. At least I can just look at the words and rely on that.
At yet, even the continuing utility of the media product could not completely outweigh the interpretation – even if just in hindsight – that this was a media product more meant for women.
I don’t know – it made me look, like hindsight being 20/20, what used to be thought of what a woman should be or do. That’s the only thing that crossed my mind. I don’t know if it’s appropriateness but more like what … I’m drawing a blank on the right word.
In thinking back over his use of The Joy is Cooking, Oliver could Discuss Stereotypes, especially those that associate women as being in charge of the household’s cooking. However, his saying “what used to be” indicates that it is more a reflection on American society and culture, and less about endorsement of those stereotypes. Since the social and cultural stereotypes exist, this perhaps is what led him to label the cookbook as a media meant for women.
Elliot, a married 31 year-old Caucasian, recalled repeatedly watching a number of makeover reality shows with his wife. Like Barclay, Elliot indicated that the first time, he was Brought to It due to his wife’s control over the television: “I’m sure I was sitting down to watch TV with my wife and that’s where the remote ended up.” Elliot indicated that his wife was the one deciding what they would watch, and that it was her choice to watch these particular shows. He did not indicate that it was something forced on him, unlike Barclay, who appeared more concerned with the ramifications of the engaging than Elliot. Additionally, while Elliot saw Genders Different in how he viewed gender appropriateness relating to why he started watching the shows, this interpretation did not rise to the level of stereotypes or norms of appropriate behavior.
No, the show has both a male and female host, so I suppose in that way, it shows the way that the issues concern…I don’t know quite how to put it. How male clothes also can be put together…not something that is an exclusively male concern, at least among the professionals in the field. I guess the fact that the contestants are primarily – I think exclusively female suggests that men don’t need, don’t have the same need or appreciate or warrant or what have you, the same treatment. So I guess that would be a question of what’s appropriate for men versus women. Other than that I would say, not really.
Such a lack of concern over gender was also seen in his reason for continuing to watch the shows. Elliot recalled many reasons for not stopping that included finding the product useful to him in different but related ways.
It’s popular with other members of the household, but I find it engaging enough to watch, as opposed to ignore. If the host of the show were to, you know, get their own talk show or host the Tonight Show or whatever, I wouldn’t tune in on their strengths. It’s not that I feel I’m being particularly well entertained in that regard. But the show works, and the pleasure of the grateful recipient of the makeover, and her just moving through that arc, and plus the ability to again expand my knowledge about women’s wear, that pertains to me as a gift-giver to my wife, and the father of a daughter, I suppose that has some benefit.
Elliot’s reasons for watching the shows include: Appreciating Product, when discussing enjoying the narrative arcs of the women; New Information, such as learning what the women of his family might like; and Seeking Relationship with Women, which related to New Information, as a way to maintain those relationships. The personal enjoyment for and perceived utility of the shows might have helped him overlook any concern of gender appropriateness in his continual engaging with them.
No, it’s not about appropriateness. I just don’t think there’s enough pleasure or interest to it for men to…that would make a guy care. It’s about motivation more than appropriateness.
Elliot did not see continuing to watch these makeover reality shows as something that only men or only women should be allowed to do; the matter for him was not about appropriateness and social norms, but more about the content perhaps not offering something for men, and thus men not choosing to engage with it. For Elliot, his continuing to watch the shows was Not Gender, About Choice.
Connections Between Sense-Making Instances
The previous analysis sections feature qualitative examples of the men’s reasons for engaging with their gendered media products and how they saw gender appropriateness. From these examples, the connections between sense-making instances start to reveal potential commonalities about the impact of seeing gender when engaging with a media product not meant for one’s own gender. Another way to illustrate these commonalities is by charting the frequency with which the How Saw Gender codes occurred in relation to the Why Started, Why Stopped, and Why Continued codes. To clarify these connections, the How Saw Gender codes were combined to represent two abstractions: Interpreted Gender Relevant (the first six codes) and Interpreted Gender Irrelevant (the last three codes). This abstraction allows for the frequency charts to demonstrate the connections in a more succinct manner. Figure 5 shows how frequently these abstracted themes for the How Saw Gender codes related to the reasons for why they started their engagings, while Figure 6 shows the frequency of these abstracted themes for why they stopped or continued their engagings.
These frequency analyses illustrate some patterns in how men saw gender appropriateness in relation to their reasons for the engagings. Seeing issues of gender appropriateness appeared to be common in the reasons the men gave for starting the engagings, whether it would be an only once or repeatedly type of engaging. The only time there was no mention of seeing gender was when they discussed Seeking out the media product in the Used Repeatedly engagings. It may be that the perceived utility of the media product meant they offset or downplayed the issue of whether or not they should be engaging with it. Additionally, the ratio of Interpreted Gender Relevant to Interpreted Gender Irrelevant was apparently reduced when the men in the Used Repeatedly engagings reported starting due to Being with Another and Stumbled Into It; here gender may be downplayed because gender was already on display in the heterosexual nature of the relationships in the former, and because the beginning of the engaging was seen as something that just happened in the latter. The ratio seemed to increase in the Used Only Once reasons of Being with Another and Satisfying, and in the Used Repeatedly reason of Being Surrounded. All of these results could be due to the initiation of the engaging due to the women in the men’s lives, and their gendered nature would be transferred to the nature of the media product and thus the engaging.
As for the men’s reasons for stopping or continuing their engagings, they apparently Interpreted Gender Relevant more often when they were discussing how they could relate to the content of the media product or how they were focusing on their relationships to other gendered individuals in their lives. Thus, whether it was the Used Only Once or Used Repeatedly type of engaging, if the men said they were stopping or continuing because of the men or women in their lives, they seemed to see gender associated with these reasons. If they saw that they could not relate or could not gain anything new from the engaging, then issues of gender appropriateness were not offset or downplayed. However, when the men saw their reasons being more about what they did or did not like or prefer about the media product, then they appeared to be more likely to see gender as irrelevant to why they stopped or continued the engaging.
Overall, all of these men, at some level, were struggling with issues of gender appropriateness and how they should engage with something deemed to be stereotypically feminine. Thus, there were many times when their reasons for engaging were related to interpretations of gender and gender appropriateness that align with social and cultural gender norms. However, there is some indication that the perception of utility of the gendered media product and the focus on personal affinities for the gendered media product may help offset, downplay or otherwise reduce the concern over being appropriate given these gender norms. When the focus was more on themselves, on their personal affinity and situated needs, the men may have been able to overlook or ignore the social and cultural conventions.
Thus, the less men saw engaging with the media product meant for women as being about other gendered individuals in their lives, and the more they saw the engaging as being about themselves, then the less they were concerned about issues of gender appropriateness in their reasons for engaging with the cross-gendered media product. This conclusion could usefully draw on the concept of priming, social schemata, and schema theory (Fiske & Taylor, 1991). Perhaps the conclusion to draw from these connections between the reasons for engaging and the interpretations of gender appropriateness is that we tend to only think about gender when we are primed to do so. Unless something happens to have us think about gender, that particular mode of thinking, or socially informed schemata, may not be activated, and we may relate to the media product based on some other schemata, such as any based on personal affinity or situated needs.
In modern times, in reaction to the rise and struggles of feminism, there has been a concurrent rise and struggle over the definition of masculinity. The concern with the “crisis of masculinity” in Western societies and cultures is emblematic of the reactionary approach taken to the empowerment of women. As men struggle with what they “should be,” the struggle manifests in what they “should do.” If the struggles result in anti-women sentiments of Western men, then this includes views on anything feminine, and toward any men seen as acting or consorting with anything feminine. The pressure to not be seen as doing anything feminine was definitely felt by a number of men in this study. If men in general cannot be comfortable confronting the stereotypes associated with cross-gendered media engagings, then how can we expect them to be comfortable in other stereotypically feminine spheres of life, such as being the primary child-care provider or the secondary income earner? If they cannot be comfortable with something so seemingly trivial as engaging with a media product meant for women, then how can we expect them to be comfortable when crossing the gendered line in more serious matters?
While there does appear to be a pattern of men being less concerned – or at least portraying themselves as such – about gender for personal reasons, there was also a high amount of being in such situations only because of their relationship with women. It is possible that the men’s engagings were due more to the women they were with than to their own personal affection for the media product, similar to the finding from Harris et al’s (2004) study on dating couples and romantic films. Our goal should be for men to feel as comfortable engaging with media products meant for women as we want women to feel engaging with media products meant for men – so that men will seek them out on their own, and not via a situation involving women. There is some indication in this study of that possibility, if the men can find value in the product or in the process. It may take being introduced to such media products in situations when they already feel comfortable, such as with people they respect and for whom they have affection. However, if they do not see value, then they may transfer the usefulness of such engagings to those they are with, rather than to the media product. It may be that they need to see value in engaging with the media product to help them become generally more comfortable with media meant for women.
Such transference may be most likely to occur with heterosexual men seeking to create or maintain a relationship with a romantic partner; it would be necessary to see if homosexual men make the same transferences. Indeed, homosexual men may be less likely to feel constrained by the need to maintain certain interpretive and performative behaviors that align with notions of traditional masculinity, and thus may be less likely to be affected by the “crisis of masculinity.” Their reactions to these gendered media products could be different from those discussed in this study; even how much importance men ascribe to adhering to such hegemonic notions of masculinity could impact their engaging with these gendered media products. The men in this study were not asked to identify their sexual orientation, which is a limitation in need of address. Further research should consider these factors when understanding the connections between the reasons for engaging and the interpretations of gender appropriateness.
Further analysis of the interviews could also help to show whether or not what was found in this particular aspect of the situation was common throughout the situation. That is, did the reasons men gave for their engagings, and how they interpreted gender appropriateness related to those reasons, relate to the other sense-making instances that were involved in the situation, such as questions they had, emotions they felt, their sense of self, conclusions they drew, and so forth. If gender continues to be overcome, downplayed, or ignored when the men are discussing all aspects of the engaging, then this theorization would be strengthened. If not, then their interpretation of gender may be more complexly interwoven with their actions than accounted for by this analysis.
Additionally, women’s cross-gendered media engagings should be studied to see if they were also reporting a similar phenomenon of personal affinity and situated need, and thus downplaying the role of gender. However, this phenomenon might be less seen with women because they might have less of a concern about appearing against the norm than men do. From the original analysis of these interviews (Senior Author, 2008), no woman ever indicated fearing the same types of social ramifications that the men did; indeed, that finding was the impetus for this analysis. Women may be more willing to continue to talk about gender, even in the cross-gendered media engagings, because they have more social allowance to do so. Men, on the other hand, may be downplaying it in order to cope with the portrayal of themselves as repeatedly returning to something others may think they should not be returning to; the additional analysis discussed above may help us clarify this matter.
Posted on December 23, 2013, in Audience/Reception Studies, Gender Studies and tagged Cosmopolitan, cross-gendered media engagings, femininity, gender, gendered media engagings, Golden Girls, masculinity, Media products, Media use, reality shows, Sense-making, Sense-Making Methodology, The Joy of Cooking. Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.