By Mary Ellen Holden

The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media at Mount Saint Mary University hosts See Jane Salons, exclusive members-only events, regularly to share the latest intersectional and gender-based research. On June 23rd, we unveiled a new report on the representation of masculinity in boys’ television. Our invitation-only event featured introductions and related insights from Institute Founder and Chair Geena Davis and Actor and Kering Foundation Board Director Salma Hayek Pinault along with President & CEO of Promundo, Gary Barker and three leading male advocates/feminists, Justin Baldoni, Wade Davis, and Joshua Rush.

Each of these inspirational thought leaders are working tirelessly to build a gender equitable world for boys and girls alike. They are committed to breaking the cycle of violence inherent in traditional white, male, heterosexual privilege that is often reinforced through television programming. At the event and in this article, they share their expertise with us and provide constructive rethinking on how we can create positive change for everyone.

The Institute has long recognized that media images make an important imprint on all children from a young age. Our goal is simple. Make it normal for our youngest children to see a wide range of inclusive and complex characters so that girls and boys will grow up to empathize with and care more about each other. As Institute Founder, Chair, and Academy Award-winning actor Geena Davis says, “Onscreen media is one of the only sectors of society that can make systemic change absolutely overnight. So, for all of you creating your next show or messaging or content, take another pass. Challenge stereotypes and tropes of how you may be describing your characters, their activities, and how they treat one another. Boys can be nurses, and girls can be race car drivers.”

To date, most research on gender representation in children’s television has focused on girls and women, as female characters have been historically underrepresented and shown in negative, stereotypical ways. With progress in the women’s space (please reference the Institute’s See Jane 2020 TV Report), we realized that the critical social issue around toxic masculinity is also of great importance. Media representation can impact the beliefs and behaviors of boys and men off-screen as it relates to women and themselves. Let’s show men having a full range of emotions and not focusing on anger or violence or self-injurious behaviors. Healthy portrayals of masculinity can improve their mental and physical health and happiness.

During our See Jane Salon, Salma Hayek Pinault, Actor and Kering Foundation Board Director, commented that she and Geena were advocates for women’s empowerment before it was cool to talk about it. She observed that about two years ago, as women started to act and become more empowered, men became confused. She said, “Confusion is a beautiful opportunity. It is a fantastic door for change, re-education, and reinventing ourselves. We strive not to just mimic society but to use the entertainment industry to inspire the watchers to create a better society.”

To that end, the Institute collaborated with Promundo, and Kering Foundation on a groundbreaking research study entitled “If He Sees It, Will He Be It.” This report examines messages about masculinity in popular television programming among boys ages seven – 13, drawing from a dataset of 3,056 characters from 447 episodes.

The findings were eye-opening. For example, on a positive note, we found that there is surprisingly good representation when it comes to leads that are women or who are people of color. But, zero leads have disabilities or are shown as LGBTQ, which means that boys are only being exposed to certain stories, which sends the message that only certain lives matter. These findings fuel homophobia and push boys towards the stereotypical “Man Box.”

Our report also found that toxic masculinity is alive and well on television shows targeting this impressionable audience. For example, male characters are more likely to commit a violent act, model high-risk behaviors to prove their manhood, express no emotion other than anger, and are less likely to be depicted as a competent, satisfied “hands-on” parent. They are also less likely than female characters to express empathy or happiness.

“While television has proven to be part of the problem, it can also be part of the solution if we were to present healthy and connected stories of manhood,” said Gary Barker, President, and CEO of Promundo. He continued, “When I saw the Geena Davis Institute’s slogan “If She Can See It, She Can Be It,” I thought, what about ‘he,’ what about men? We know about the bullying, pressures to conform to the stoic, traditional definition of ‘real men,’ – but, if we want to create a gender-equal, nonviolent future, we need men to model vulnerability, connection, and respectful relationships on- and off-screen. We need a version of the Institute’s slogan to break the [Man] Box. There have been studies questioning the scripts women live on- and off-screen, but manhood has never been questioned in the same way. It’s all stereotyped and toxic – we need to unpack that in the way that we have done so well for girls.”

Our report provides tips for parents and content creators. Parents can bolster their children’s exposure to positive masculine norms by aiming to find media and television shows that challenge gender stereotypes and identify positive role models, call out harmful depictions of manhood, maintain an open dialogue, and actively reach out to boys with non-judgmental honesty. Parents can help to prepare boys to navigate the media landscape by facilitating a continuous conversation about the programming they like and consume.

Content creators can commit to more inclusive and diverse storytelling in the ways discussed above and below. The time is now to reshape masculinity, and we all have a role to play. Let’s create a gender-equal and connected future by modeling respectful relationships on-and off-screen.

Excerpts (below) from our panelists shine a light on the importance of this research and replacing toxic masculinity with a healthier foundation.

Justin Baldoni (Actor, Director, Producer, Entrepreneur, and Changemaker): “There is no manual or book on what it means to be a father, and this is what it means to be a man. If you can’t see it, you can’t be it, men learn by modeling. The importance for me as a father is to try to model a behavior for my son, so he can emulate that as he grows. Which starts with being vulnerable, showing emotions, and being present. The work starts in the mirror. We live in a culture where we try to change our world before we try to change ourselves.

What are we creating content around? What are we putting into boys and men’s heads? That women are weak. I don’t think we can start to approach the conversation around masculinity until we can fix the issues of how we see the women in our lives. Not as doctors or lawyers or people in positions of power. Not as the strong independent women who raised us. We’re seeing them as weak and being taught that and it’s ingrained in us so unless we start to change that we can’t begin to address men being in touch “

Joshua Rush (Actor/Political Activist)
“When people see themselves visibly in the media not as a punchline, as a means to an end, or a tokenized character they see themselves. And that is so incredibly important. If He Sees It, Will He Be It? If my generation sees becoming a leader, sees the problems that they’re facing and knows how to ask the right questions to change the world around them, then they’ll be it! Young people are coming to the realization that putting padding on chains only makes them more comfortable, when what is necessary is to break them. Kids are making change, demanding that chains are broken. And demanding that their leaders listen to them.”

Wade Davis (Former NFL Player and Vice President of Inclusion Strategy, Product for Netflix):
“There are too many young men and boys who don’t question what does it mean to be a man, what does it mean to be a woman, to be white, to be black? When kids learn to ask these types of questions you learn more about yourself. As a gay man I used to say I came out, but one day I realized I never came out I was always present. What I did was invite the world in.

Questioning allows kids to live in a world where they have become who they want to be, instead of who they think they should be. When you do the work to undo any system of oppression, you benefit too. The first role of anyone who wants to be an ally, is to interrogate how.”

For more information about this report, please go to Please become a member of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media so you can be at the forefront of societal change through exclusive access to our research, salons, symposiums, screenings, training initiatives, and other networking opportunities.