When I was a kid, I grew up playing Super Mario Bros on my first ever games console – the NES. I’ve recently rediscovered it with an online emulator as I’ve been trying to show my daughter a little about what Daddy used to do as a child! It was a fun, albeit frustrating game: every time you completed a level, after defeating the final boss you’d get told: “Thank you Mario! But our princess is in another castle!”

It’s funny, looking back, just how dated it seems. I’m not talking about the 80s graphics and audio quality, I’m talking about the whole concept of rescuing a princess. I think it’s highly unlikely today that you’d find a game which had such a stereotypical view of men and women. These days you’re more likely to find strong female characters – in fact, I think it’s almost obligatory to have strong female role models in just about everything. The main aim seems to be to subvert the stereotype – perhaps a princess rescuing a prince.

It’s funny how things have changed so much since the 80s. These days, just for one example, we have the UK Advertising Watchdog banning gender stereotypes, and some schools are experimenting with essentially eradicating the difference between boys and girls. There is also a growing concern about so-called toxic masculinity (as I wrote about recently).

So what’s the problem? I’m wondering if society has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Stereotypes are, after all, there for a reason – there is a reality they are based upon: they don’t simply fall out of the air! Men and women do tend to behave in certain ways – even if they don’t always have to behave like that, or there are plenty of counter examples.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the issue of strength. Strength is traditionally seen as a more masculine thing: men are physically stronger (I saw a study recently which concluded that, on average, Caucasian women had about 1/3 of the upper body strength of men, and Asian women had about 2/3 of the upper body strength of men.) And, simply from observation, I think there is a sense in which men are ‘stronger’ in some senses of personality. (If you want a longer form read on this, you should read Alistair Robert’s blog from a few years ago: Why we should jettison the “Strong Female Character”.)

The Bible does speak a little about these things. One passage which is very ‘un-PC’ is 1 Peter 3:

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers.

1 Peter 3:7

What exactly does Peter mean by ‘the weaker partner’? He doesn’t spell it out – but I think his words do resonate for me as a man who has been married for 12 years now. Even if I can’t describe exactly what that means!

I do think there is a sense, from the Bible, in which men are supposed to use their strength – whatever that may entail (physical or otherwise) in order to protect and care for those who are weaker. The Bible often talks about protection of “the fatherless and the widow” – vulnerable women and children.

I’ve been thinking about this and wondering whether this role has largely disappeared from society, certainly in terms of the way things are portrayed in the media. Are there many strong male characters any more, taking the traditional role of caring for women and children? Do men have positive role models to look up to in this respect?

As I said in my previous post about toxic masculinity – if men don’t have positive role models and examples, if masculinity is not seen in any way to be a positive thing, are we setting ourselves up for a problem? If society doesn’t want to acknowledge some basic facts about men and women, does that give men a licence to abuse because they don’t see anything better? I’m not trying to excuse men from responsibility, but – it strikes me that society may be in the process of shooting itself in the foot (again).

I don’t think there are any easy answers here, but I’d like to suggest a couple of questions to think about. (Answers on a postcard…)

  1. How could we promote a positive vision for masculinity and strength without resorting to ‘rescuing the princess’? Is there a way of portraying masculinity in a modern, positive way without stereotyping?
  2. Friend Zone is about friendship between men and women. How do those understandings of men and women, masculinity and femininity, work themselves out in friendship? Especially when we think about things like strength and weakness?