"Cowboy up!": non-hegemonic representations of masculinity in children's television programming.
Abstract: Because children consume television as their identities are being formed, it is important to analyze the messages that are communicated to them through television programming. Entire television networks are marketed toward children from a very young age. Many series present male characters that are not hegemonically masculine. Potentially, non-hegemonic male characters could help disrupt the traditional gendered order by providing alternative, pro-feminist role models for young children. However, in my analysis of programming in four television series aimed at elementary school children (ages 5-11), I find that the non-hegemonic males actually helped reinscribe the dominance of hegemonic masculinity, ultimately reinforcing the traditional gendered order. Although children do not passively accept messages from television, these messages do shape larger gendered scripts that inform interactions.

Keywords: hegemonic masculinity, non-hegemonic masculinity, youth, culture, television
Article Type: Report
Subject: Masculinity (Social aspects)
Masculinity (Portrayals)
Television programs for children (Social aspects)
Children (Social aspects)
Author: Myers, Kristen
Pub Date: 03/22/2012
Publication: Name: The Journal of Men's Studies Publisher: Men's Studies Press Audience: Academic Format: Magazine/Journal Subject: Social sciences; Women's issues/gender studies Copyright: COPYRIGHT 2012 Men's Studies Press ISSN: 1060-8265
Issue: Date: Spring, 2012 Source Volume: 20 Source Issue: 2
Topic: Event Code: 290 Public affairs
Product: Product Code: E121920 Children
Geographic: Geographic Scope: United States Geographic Code: 1USA United States
Accession Number: 295058323
Full Text: From 2006-2011, Disney Channel featured a wildly popular show called Hannah Montana, aimed at an audience of pre-adolescent children. The show was about a teenaged girl named Miley (played by Miley Cyrus), who had a secret life as a pop-star named Hannah Montana. She lived with her father, a country singer named Robby Ray (played by Billy Ray Cyrus), and her brother Jackson (Jason Earles). On one episode (Season 2, Episode 22), a teenaged boy named Rico (Moises Arias) asked Robby Ray to teach him to line-dance so that he could impress a girl. When Rico danced, he moved his hips in big, fluid arcs, rather than stiffly shuffling about. He shimmied his shoulders. Robby Ray said, "A good ole boy ain't going to be wanting to do all that kind of stuff. I mean, your girl's wanting a championship line dancer, not the spin cycle on a washing machine!" Although Robby Ray didn't accuse Rico of being gay, he did problematize his feminine motion. To correct the problem, Robby Ray decided that Rico should "get in touch with his inner cowboy." He sat Rico on a deck railing, to pretend to be a cowboy riding a horse. After three hours of riding the deck railing, Rico was in so much pain that he walked bowlegged, like a real cowboy. He danced like one too--awkward, halting, and stiff. Rico was cured of his girly swishing moves--he had "cow-boyed up."

Hannah and other television programs proffer complex messages about masculinity for young American children to consume and perhaps emulate (Baker-Sperry, 2007; Corsaro, 1997). In introducing young children to cultural conceptualizations of masculinity, television series help produce "regional masculinities" (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005) that shape the ways that masculinity plays out in actual children's lives. Because they live in "media-rich worlds," (Martin & Kayzak, 2009,317), children easily absorb these messages. Television has an especially great impact on children, who consume it while their identities are being formed (Kelley et al., 1999; McAllister & Giglio, 2005; Baker-Sperry, 2007; and Corsaro, 1997). Television helps construct a rhetorical "frame" (Goffman, 1974; Ridgeway, 2011) that shapes people's perceptions of the world (Kuypers, 2009), despite the fact that the characters are fictional and viewers may never actually meet the actors in the series (Ferris, 2001).

This article focuses on the contradictory versions of masculinity that were presented in four television series aimed at children. On the one hand, these shows featured protagonist boys who were soft-spoken, un-athletic, emotional, and thoughtful--antitheses to the hyper-masculine heroes of years past (Bereska, 2003). Popularizing images of non-traditional masculinity could help shift the patriarchal gender order in a feminist direction (Butler, 1999; Connell, 1987; Renold, 2004; Walsh et al., 2008). On the other hand, these boys were almost always the butt of jokes. They were consistently feminized, with femininity signifying weakness and failure. Traditionally masculine characters often lurked in the background, reminding viewers what a "real man" looked like. Here, I explore the extent to which these programs promote progressive masculinities, or if traditional gender orthodoxy prevails.


In the popular imagination, masculinity is the polar opposite of femininity (Fausto-Sterling, 2000). In recent years, however, researchers have argued that masculinity and femininity are complexly interconnected social constructions (West & Zimmerman, 1987), and there is not simply one masculinity juxtaposed to one femininity (Connell, 1987). Connell has shown that societies construct multiple masculinities and multiple femininities, with one form of masculinity dominating all others: "hegemonic masculinity." All boys and men are measured by hegemonic masculinity, even though most boys and men will never accomplish it. Connell and Messerschmidt (2005, p. 844) have elaborated on the concept of hegemonic masculinity, explaining that "To sustain a given pattern of hegemony requires the policing of men as well as the exclusion or discrediting of women." Women, girls, men, and boys all engage in this policing. Masculinity is embodied and enacted through displays of strength, athleticism, risk-taking, and heterosexual prowess.

Boys recognize hegemonic masculinity at an early age. For example, Messner (1990) researched elementary-school boys as they learned that playing basketball was not just about having fun with your friends--it was about being evaluated by older, higher status boys and men. Renold's (2007) work on 10 and 11 year old boys showed that even elementary school-aged boys adopted hegemonically masculine personae--what she calls a "hyperheterosexual" identity (see also Haywood, 1996). Boys in her study distanced themselves from femininity by avoiding girls, but they knew that being desired by girls was a good thing. As one girl commented about a hyperheterosexual boy: "Todd likes having girlfriends, but he dislikes girls" (p. 286).

Older boys participate in the construction and reinforcement of hegemonic masculinity within their own peer groups. Oranksy and Maracek (2009) found that high school boys hid their feelings from their male friends. If a friend expressed emotion, subjects said that they would ignore it or tell him to "just suck it up." By eschewing emotion, a boy avoided "being a girl." Rather than complaining about being teased, the boys were grateful to be distracted from their emotions. Oransky and Maracek write, "By disallowing interactions that would be labeled as girly or gay, boys protected one another's manliness" (p. 232).

Because heterosexuality is a major component of successful masculinity, boys spend a lot of energy addressing it. As Korobov (2005, p. 228) writes, "adolescence is a time when young men in particular begin to routinely practice forms of heteronormative masculinity that may implicitly or explicitly sanction sexism, homophobia, and 'compulsory heterosexuality.'" Pascoe (2005) calls this discourse "fag talk." In Pascoe's study, adolescents used "fag" to mean weak and unmanly. "Fag talk" was central to boys' joking discourse. At the same time, however, "fag talk" was a potent threat--boys could be targeted at any time by anyone. Pascoe writes,

Calling someone "fag" was also a clever way to announce to other boys, "Not it!" Ramlow (2003, p. 108) says that homophobic comments are effective because they ultimately demasculinize men: "Being called a 'faggot,' a 'pussy,' or 'gay,' then, is not always or overtly about the material fact of sexual difference or same-sex relations; it is about the failures of heteronormative masculinity." In name-calling, many boys use "gay" and "girl" interchangeably (Oranksy & Maracek, 2009). Indeed, Epstein (1997) argued that, in primary or elementary school, the worst thing a boy could be called is a girl. As Butler (1999) explains, the "heterosexual matrix" complexly interconnects masculinity and heterosexuality, rejecting femininity.

Taken together, this literature shows that the masculinity, femininity, heteronormativity, and homophobia are intertwined so that markers of one become imbricated as evidence of another. Boys reject femininity in order to establish their dominance, and they must continually degrade girls and feminize other boys so as to maintain their status--even as they pursue girls sexually.

Because of the harmful effects of hegemonic masculinity on boys and girls, some scholars have insisted that we begin to cultivate non-hegemonic masculinities (Pollack, 1998; Kimmel, 2006). Risman and Seale (2010), for example, urge adults to interrupt boyhood as we know it. Butler (1999) theorizes that we could "queer" the gendered order by refusing to conform to hegemonic proscriptions. Despite persuasive literature suggesting that we raise less hegemonic boys, there is little actual research on what it is like to grow up as a non-hegemonic boy, as Renold (2004) points out. Is being a non-hegemonic boy a panacea for patriarchy and its ill effects? Renold found that, instead of subverting the dominant gender order, "othered" boys' management strategies actually reinforced dominant masculinities by treating hegemonic boys as the standard. Rather than embracing their counter-hegemonic potential, these boys longed to be "normal." They adopted the misogynist practices of their bullying classmates, rejecting all things feminine, including girls. Renold says that, ironically, "they appeared not to make the connection between the devaluing of femininity more widely and the subordination of non-hegemonic masculinities" (p. 261). Rather than altering the gender regime, non-hegemonic boys actually helped reinforce the traditional order (see also Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005; Kimmel, 2006; Pascoe, 2003).


Hyperheterosexual hegemonic masculinity is a socio-cultural product. Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) explained that the "geography of masculinity" occurs at three levels: 1) Local level of face-to-face interaction; 2) Regional level of culture or nation-state; and 3) Global or transnational level. Regional-level masculinity is pertinent to this paper:

This article focuses on the production of regional masculinity by American children's television programming, which affects the ways that children conceptualize masculinity in their localized lives.

Feminist television criticism argues that television has the potential to shift the gender order if it provides feminist messages and models for viewers (see Lotz & Ross, 2004; Walsh et al., 2008). When people are presented with diverse possibilities, even in the form of fantasy, they are better able to envision alternative realities (Butler 2004). However, rather than seizing its transformative potential, television programming often "... reinscribes patriarchal constellations and stifles the political aspects of feminism" (Walsh et al., 2008, p. 125). Rather than being feminist, most television programming is postfeminist, which McRobbie (2004) defines as such:

McRobbie uses the term, "feminism taken into account" to indicate when feminism is simultaneously acknowledged and undermined. Ringrose (2007) conceptualizes postfeminism as "part backlash, part cultural diffusion, part repressed anxiety over shifting gender orders" (p. 473). McRobbie sees the media as driving postfeminism in society writ large. She writes that the media, "... a complex array of machinations ... are perniciously effective in regard to the undoing of feminism" (p. 3). She argues, "The media have become the critical site for defining emergent sexual codes of conduct. They pass judgment and establish the rules of play" (p. 7). Children easily absorb "the rules of play" communicated by popular media, because "young children are immersed in media-rich worlds" (Martin & Kayzak, 2009, p. 317). McAllister and Giglio (2005) explain that media have an especially great impact on children, who consume it while their identities are being formed (see also Baker-Sperry, 2007; and Corsaro, 1997). Television media have been shown to impact children's early gendered behavior (Powell & Abels, 2002). Indeed, the media might have a greater impact on children today given the nearly ubiquitous nature of television programming directed at them (McAllister and Giglio 2005). McAllister and Giglio (2005) explain that cable television has produced entire networks--or "kidnets"--aimed at children. Recognized for their buying potential, and for their influence over parents' buying practices, children have become an important audience for advertisers. Children's programming is broadcast 24 hours a day, daily, and the number of adolescent and pre-adolescent' channels grows each year. The two largest kidnets are Disney and Nickelodeon. On March 14,2011, Disney channel ranked as the number one network among tweens for the 16th week in a row, according to Tvbythenumbers.com. Even during the NBA playoffs in spring 2011, Disney ranked as the 3rd most watched network during prime-time, among all viewers. When rating all-day programming between November 2010 and May 2011, Nickelodeon consistently topped the charts at about 2.1 million viewers, with Disney coming in second at 1.6 million. Hannah's final episode garnered a monster 6+ million viewers. Adults and children watch these networks. They also buy t-shirts, dolls, cds, and dvds. These shows are an entire industry (McAllister & Giglio, 2005).

Nickelodeon has several channels: Nick Jr., Nick, Teennick, Nick at Nite, and Nicktoons. Programming on these channels often overlaps. Similarly, Disney broadcasts on three channels: Disney Channel, Disney XD, and Playhouse Disney. To fill air time, episodes from a single series are rebroadcast five to six times daily, with a single episode often airing twice a day. Thus, the opportunity for children to consume the same program repeatedly is substantial. And, as Crawley, et al (1999) have shown, repeated viewing leads to greater comprehension by child viewers.

Even though children consume a great deal of television on a weekly basis, they do not passively absorb larger cultural messages. Children are actors in their own right, negotiating meanings among themselves (Myers & Raymond, 2010; Thorne, 1993; Van Ausdale & Feagin, 2002), with adults (Baraldi, 2008; DeMol & Buysee, 2008; Ludvigsen & Scott, 2009), and with the media itself (Bragg & Buckingham, 2004; Fingerson, 1999). However, children are affected by and grapple with cultural frames (Myers & Raymond, 2010; Neitzel & Chafel, 2010). Martin and Kayzak (2009) have argued that it is therefore important to understand the messages that are available to the children who consume them.

In this paper, I analyze the content of four television programs on Disney and Nickelodeon that were aimed at young children. What real-life children do with these messages is not addressed in this project. Instead, I explore the contradictory messages about masculinity communicated to children, examining the implications of these messages for children's conceptualization of masculinity at the local level.


To explore these issues, I conducted qualitative textual analysis of the content of four popular children's television programs: Disney's Suite Life on Deck (broadcast from 2008-2011); Hannah Montana (2006-2011); and Wizards of Waverly Place (2007-2011); and Nickelodeon's iCarly (2007-2011). I chose these shows based on focus groups with elementary school girls, aged 5-11 (N = 63) (see Myers & Raymond, 2010). These were their most-watched programs: they quoted them, gushed over characters' exploits, gossiped about their sexual liaisons, and even wore clothes that featured the characters' likenesses. Because these shows informed most of the girls' cultural references, I decided to systematically study them so as to uncover patterns in their content.

These children's shows were not made for girls only. They were watched by millions of viewers of all ages nationwide, as discussed above. Hannah and iCarly were hugely popular shows, rated in the top 10 most viewed cable shows week after week in the summer of 2010, during the period when I coded data. Each series was well-established, in at least its 3rd season, and each season had 25-30 half-hour episodes (about 22 minutes long without commercials).

In selecting episodes to watch and code, I relied heavily on the programming schedules of each network. I did not randomly select episodes, as many were not easily available. I recorded the shows, watched them on Youtube.com, and/or ordered them through cable's "OnDemand." This paper includes systematic analysis of 45 episodes: 13 episodes of Suite Life, 10 episodes of Hannah, 10 episodes of Wizards, and 12 episodes of iCarly. Table 1 describes each program for non-viewers.

To analyze these programs, I first constructed a coding tool, which I used as part of the open coding stage (Glaser & Strauss, 1967; Lofland et al., 2005; Warren & Karner, 2009), when any possible theme might emerge from the data. This coding tool largely emerged from the content of the programming itself. I also included categories similar to Martin and Kayzak's (2009) in their analysis of G-rated movies, including depictions of bodies, kissing, jokes, romance, weddings, dating, and love. The tool evolved as I watched the shows, expanding to include new categories as necessary. It eventually included 72 codes.

I coded each episode in this manner: 1) I watched each episode entirely without taking notes to make sure I caught the physical and verbal content. 2) I watched each episode again, taking copious notes. I stopped each program numerous times to transcribe who said what to whom and under which circumstances. Dialogue was rich, bombarding the viewer with messages about boys, girls, romance, and bodies at a rapid-fire pace. It often took me 10 minutes to get through less than two minutes of one episode. A typical episode took at least an hour and a half to code. 3) I trained a graduate assistant to independently code 25% of the episodes, randomly selected from the total list of episodes included in this study. Our percent agreement was .83, meaning we coded data the same way 83% of the time, a good rate of agreement (Kurasaki, 2000).

During axial coding, the phase during which initial codes are sifted and sorted, abstract concepts began to emerge. I used HyperResearch software to aid in coding, and major patterns began to coalesce. In making sense of these patterns, I moved on to selective coding, whereby the relationships between concepts are theorized. In addition to messages about masculinity, I found a variety of frames being propagated in the programming, including problematic constructions of femininity, sexuality, and race. In this article, I examine the depictions of masculinity only.


I find that these television programs highlighted non-hegemonic masculinities routinely. However, rather than undermining hegemonic masculinity, non-hegemonic characters actually re-valorized hegemonic masculinity (Walsh et al., 2008). I argue that the mutually-reinforcing dynamics suggested by Connell and Messerschmidt (2007) and by Renold (2004)--in which subordinated masculinities unwittingly conspire to recreate a hegemonic gendered order--"frame" masculinity for the audience (Goffman, 1974; Ferris, 2001; Kuypers, 2009) in a traditional manner.

Non-Hegemonic Masculinities

Almost all of the male characters on these shows embodied non-hegemonic masculinities: 14 out of 16 males (88%) listed in Table 1 were non-hegemonic. They were not domineering, competitive, or sexually predatory. Instead, these males were gentle and emotional. Rather than shunning femininity, they often marked themselves in feminine ways. Most were heterosexual failures, although none was overtly gay. I describe them here.

Suite Life's Cody (played by Cole Sprouse) was smart, polite, non-athletic, romantic, clean, goal-oriented, and cautious. Much of the show's humor centered on his being a nerd. Cody's roommate, Woody (Matthew Timmons), was overweight, wore braces, and had a head of bouncy, unkempt curly hair. Food-obsessed and gassy, Woody was the butt of many jokes. Suite Life's Mr. Moseby (Phill Lewis) was one of the few adults on the show. He directed the ship's activities and acting as the students' guardian. Moseby was short, black, and effeminate. His uniform consisted of a blazer with a pocket handkerchief, shorts, and knee socks. One day, Moseby was excited to receive a package: "It's here! My pocket hanky of the month!" He took it out of the box and exclaimed, "Oooo! Stripes!" (Season 1, Episode 19). The kids teased him about his diminutive size and his failure with women.

On Hannah, Miley's older brother, Jackson, was short, lazy, and an academic failure. He had trouble getting dates. Jackson and his father, Robby Ray--also a non-hegemonic character--had a close relationship. For example, Robby Ray insisted that Jackson register at the local community college (S3, E14). Jackson resisted, telling his father, "Just accept that I'm a slacker." Robby Ray said, "Son, it's totally natural to be scared to go to college." Jackson protested that he was not scared, but he quickly began sputtering, "I'm completely terrified." Robby Ray put his arm around him and said, "It's ok son."

Robby Ray was a widower, raising the children alone. Although he was a "good ole boy," he was also non-hegemonic: he wore pink and spent a lot of time on his hair. Robby Ray took great pride in his housework. In the same episode discussed above, Jackson pulled a towel from the laundry basket and held it to his face, saying "That [towel] smells great! Are you doing something different?" Robby Ray grinned and said, "I started adding fabric softener halfway through the rinse cycle. It's made all the difference in the world." Both men valued what is traditionally considered "women's work."

On iCarly, Carly's (played by Miranda Cosgrove) older brother, Spencer (Jerry Trainor), was her legal guardian. Spencer was a sculptor who worked at home. He was impulsive, playful, and clownish. For example, Spencer ordered a personalized credit card with a bunny hologram on it (S2, E12). He proudly showed the kids how the bunny changed when you moved it: "Happy bunny. Sad bunny. My bunny has conflicting emotions." iCarly's Freddy (Nathan Kress) was Carly's neighbor and the producer of the iCarly webshow. Freddy lived alone with his over-protective mother, who infantilized him. She followed him around with ointment and anti-bacterial spray, rubbing and spraying him whenever he stood still. Freddy had "Galaxy War" sheets on his bed, like a little boy. He was a "techy," unathletic, smart, and cautious. Their classmate, Gibby (Noah Munck), was doughy and quiet. He removed his shirt frequently, for no apparent reason--in the middle of the halls at school, at restaurants, parties, etc. His flabby body was a source of humor. Sam (Jennette McCurdy)--a girl--beat him up and stole his lunches regularly. Gibby vomited when he was scared or in trouble. The kids treated Gibby as a cute pet.

On Wizards, Alex's (played by Selena Gomez) older brother, Justin (David Henrie), was the most successful wizard in the family. He was studious, obedient, and risk-averse. For example, Justin refused to sing in the shower because he thought it was dangerous: "singing leads to dancing and dancing leads to slipping." A consummate "geek," he was a member of quiz bowl, the alien language club, chess club, and the Captain Jim Bob Sherwood Space Farmer fan club. He was openly emotional. On one episode, the "wizards" reunited their friend with his birth parents (S2, E18). Touched, Justin said, "I promised myself I wouldn't cry, I promised myself I wouldn't cry.... I'm not afraid of my emotions."

All of these males possessed at least some of the characteristics of non-hegemonic masculinity. In other words, all of them were feminized in some way. Nevertheless, they did not make up a cohesive trope of non-hegemonic masculinity. Some (like Robby Ray, Cody, and Justin) were heterosexually successful, smart, body-conscious, and ambitious, while others (like Woody and Jackson) were lazy, dirty, and heterosexual failures. Clearly, however, none of them was hegemonically masculine. These shows promoted non-hegemonic protagonists, who were adored by viewers. On the surface, one might assume that these masculinities could undermine gender orthodoxy, given the huge audience who consumes them. If so, the gender order could be transformed (Butler, 1999; Lotz & Ross, 2004). In the next section, however, we see that non-hegemonic masculinity was a comedic tool rather than a transformative archetype.

Hegemonic Masculinity

On these programs, characters co-constructed hegemonic masculinity at the expense of non-hegemonic characters. They constructed hierarchies, emphasized ideal masculine bodies, and celebrated hyperheterosexuality. Although few of the male characters actually achieved hegemonic status, they all were affected by it. As Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) posited, the non-hegemonic characters served a larger purpose: reinforcing hegemonic masculinity and the traditional gendered order.


Renold (2007) argued that hyperheterosexuality is an important marker of hegemonic masculinity, even among children. Some of the boys on these shows were hyperheterosexual, and others aspired to be. For example, when the Suite Life ship docked in Greece, the students went to a museum (S1, E7). Cody watched helplessly while Bailey (played by Debby Ryan), his crush, flirted with their tour guide: "Look at her, drooling over him like he's some kind of Greek Adonis." The tour guide introduced himself to everyone: "Hello, my name is Adonis." Cody groaned, and said to his twin, Zack, "This guy might mess up my 6 month plan to win Bailey. This month, we have to get to at least hand-holding." Zack (Dylan Sprouse) told Cody, "Dude, while you're working on your 6 month plan, this guy is just working it." Sure enough, Bailey went to the roof with Adonis to "see the view," leaving Cody crushed. Cody wanted to be a smooth operator like Adonis, but he lacked hyperheterosexual seduction skills.

Zack--Cody's opposite--was a hyperheterosexual predator. Non-hegemonic boys studied Zack's techniques. Zack told Woody, "There is nothing, nothing better in this world than an unhappy hot girl." On one episode, he and Woody posed as janitors to scope out new girls as they arrived on the ship (S2, E13). Woody pointed out one girl he thought was pretty. Zack showed him that the girl had a lock on her luggage: "That means she's suspicious and cautious. I'm looking for naive and vulnerable." Woody grinned, "There's so much to learn from you!" Zack said, "Now focus. These girls are only here for a week." Woody tried again: "How about that one: cute, blonde, nice legs, and carrying a text book--repressed book worm badly in need of a good time!" The "girl" whom Woody was talking about turned around, and Zack exclaimed, "That's Co@!" This scene secured Zack's superiority above both Woody--who failed his hyperheterosexual training--and Cody--who looked like a cute girl from the back.

Zack was surrounded by lesser boys, whom he mentored in the art of scoring. For example, Zack concocted a scheme to meet gullible girls, a fake beauty pageant:

Zack: "All the girls will fill out an application and send in a photo, which makes it easy to weed out the ones not worth pursuing. Then we just cancel the whole thing and they'll never know we were involved."

Woody: "Come on--no girl's stupid enough to fall for that."

London (played by Brenda Song) walked by, saw the sign, and exclaimed: "Ooo! A beauty contest! And I'm beauty-ful!"

The boys grinned at each other.

Zack wanted to "weed out" girls who were ugly and/or cautious. Dumb girls were easier to manipulate. For example, a pretty blonde girl named Capri (Brittany Ross) carried her pageant application to Zack and said, "Excuse me, I don't understand Question 4. What is your ick?" Zack said: "That's IQ." Capri said, "Ohhhhh!." Zack grinned at Woody: "This is gonna be awesome!"

Zack used the language of predator versus prey as he coached Woody in hyperheterosexuality. On another episode (S 1, E 19), Zack explained:

Woody grinned and said, "I worship this man." Hyperheterosexual bad-boy characters, like Zack, sat at the top of the hierarchy, reminding non-hegemonic boys how much they had to learn. They teased "others" about their failures with women. For example, when Mr. Moseby learned about the fake pageant, he chastised the boys. Zack said, "It's ok! We've canceled it." Moseby said, "It's too late. Now I have a bunch of disappointed girls on my hands." Zack smirked: "Oh come, it can't be the first time." Woody and Marcus laughed. Zack's hyperhetersexuality entitled him to ridicule his elders and his peers with impunity.

Cowboy-Up: "Fag Talk" and Feminization

Hegemonic masculinity is not easily attainable--indeed, most males will never accomplish it. But it serves as a ready-made tool that can be used by anyone to police a male's masculinity. Questioning a male's manhood serves a similar purpose to Pascoe's "fag talk:" it is a disciplinary mechanism to regulate boys' doing gender. Of course, characters on these G-rated children's' shows did not actually call each other "fags." Instead, they feminized each other, which paralleled "fag talk." One way that characters on the series indicted someone's masculinity was to tell him to "man up." For example, on Hannah, Robby Ray nagged Jackson for sleeping until 2 pm: "It's time for you to cowboy up and act like a man." On Wizards, Justin announced that he was going to perform the "Thin Man" spell (S2, E3). Alex laughed: "Great! It's a spell that will make Justin thin and a man." Everyone laughed, including their father. On iCarly, Sam called Freddy, Spencer and Carly "a bunch of prancies" when they criticized her. On Suite Life, Marcus complained that Woody got him a cranberry hat instead of a magenta hat, to wear while judging the beauty pageant. Woody said, "You are such a diva! Other divas look at you and say, 'Wow, what a diva!'" Feminizing boys was a central part of these shows' humor, and it functioned like "fag talk."

On one episode of Suite Life, Woody arm-wrestled a female classmate (S2, E21). She slammed his arm down so hard that he fell out of his desk. He laid on the floor in a daze. Victorious, she raised her fists and yelled, "In your face! Eighty-three pounds of pure power!" Cody said, "Dude, you just got beat by a girl who can fit in a keyhole." Their teacher asked Woody what he was doing on the floor. Zack said, "Looking for his pride." Woody called out, "Can't find it! Oo, but I found a piece of gum!" He peeled the gum from beneath his desk and popped into his mouth, grinning goofily at the on-- lookers. Woody's repeated failings at masculinity provided dependable comic fodder for this series.

Like Oranksy and Marecek's (2009) subjects, some of the boys actually seemed to appreciate being policed. As described earlier, Rico asked Robby Ray to police and correct his fluid dance style. In another example, on Suite Life, Cody recreated a country fair to cheer up Bailey, who was homesick (S1, E19). Bailey's ex-boyfriend, Moose (played by Hutch Dano), came to visit during the fair. Moose--a hegemonic character, as implied by his name--beat Cody at every single game, including arm-wrestling, bobbing for corncobs, and "even something cerebral, like chess." Cody confided in Zack that he was worried Moose would win Bailey too. Zack sneered, "If the next competition is whining like a girl, you're gonna win by a mile!" Cody said, "Ok slightly harsh, but I guess I needed to hear that. I'm going to show Bailey that I'm ten times the man that Moose is. Right after I floss." He flossed his teeth and said, "Ow. Floss burn!" The audience laughed.

Gender Crossing: Boys in Drag

On the shows, a common comedic ploy involved dressing male characters in women's clothing. Sometimes boys would just appear in women's clothes momentarily. For example, on Suite Life, Cody tripped and fell into a rack of clothes in a boutique (S2, E5). When he stood back up, he wore a pink feather boa. He immediately took it off, but not before the audience laughed. On another episode, Woody opened a package from his morn to find a muumuu, which she accidentally sent to him instead of his sister (S 1, E19). Zack saw him holding it up and quipped, "Nice dress Woody. Really brings out your eyes." Neither incident was central to the story line. They were just gratuitous episodes of unintentional gender crossing.

Other times, drag was integral to the plot line. For example, on iCarly, the kids asked Spencer to help them solve a problem, and they needed him to wear a disguise (S2, E12). Carly asked Spencer, "What size dress do you wear?" Without missing a beat, Spencer replied, "10, why?" His quick response implied that Spencer wore dresses frequently. Spencer dressed as an old woman and went out to try to help the kids. While he was out, an old man mistook Spencer for a woman, asking "Hey, you come alone?" Spencer dismissed him, but the old man persisted: "Hey baby. Let's go get some chicken pot pie!" Spencer said, "I don't care for pot pie. Run along." Someone recognized Spencer, who protested, "I'm just a busty old woman!" The old man reappeared, leering, "You're not too old for me!" He grabbed hold of Spencer. Spencer angrily removed his wig, revealing his gender. Shocked, the old man ran for the police. Spencer replaced his wig, but the old man returned, dragging the police behind him saying, "That's the one. That's the man lady." Spencer said, "No, I'm a simple old lady." He was escorted from the building.

On Hannah, Jackson avoided his chores by flirting with a girl on the beach (S2, E27). When he saw his father looking for him, Jackson tried to hide from him. He borrowed the girl's sunglasses and hat:

Girl: "What are you doing?"

Jackson: "Having fun, being my own man." He raised his voice a couple of octaves and said, "Let's talk like girls! Oh those are nice shoes where'd you get 'em, they're so cute!"

Robby Ray: "Excuse me, ladies?"

Jackson: "Not interested! Taken!"

Robby Ray: "Uh, Jacksina, can I have a word with you?"

Jackson, in his own voice: "Hey Rob-o! [To the girl:] That's my roommate. Probably needs to borrow some money. Why don't you wait over there, I don't want to embarrass him [to Robby Ray:] like he's embarrassing me!"

Robby Ray: "Oh yeah, said the guy in the floppy sunflower hat with the girly glasses!"

Taylor and Rupp (2003) argued that the spectacle of drag challenges the binary conceptualization of men and women as polar opposites. Drag operates outside of masculinity and femininity, "troubling" gender and sexuality by undermining people's perceptions of what is natural. In this way, drag is a form of social protest. On these television shows, drag did call attention to the gender binary, but not so as to undermine the naturalness of gender. Drag was not counter-hegemonic, but a comedic tool for ultimately re-inscribing the binary. Drag made a spectacle out of crossers not to celebrate them, but to punish them. Spencer's women's clothes put him in the position of being objectified by a strange man. Amusing because it bent heterogendered boundaries, this incident also communicated that even old women must fend off unwanted advances by men in public, and that men can be sexually predatory at any age. The scene changed once Spencer took off his wig, and the old man called the police. Spencer was no longer desirable, but became a threatening "man lady." Spencer was escorted away, and the message communicated was that crossing is deviant if not illegal. Equilibrium was restored, and the binary was re-naturalized.


Occasionally, homoerotic elements appeared in plot-lines. These included bawdy phrases or propositions, and physical intimacy among male characters. For example, Spencer's encounter with the leering old man did not end when he was escorted from the building. Back at home, Spencer answered his door to find the man standing there. The man said, "Look, why don't you just put the wig back on and we can start over?" Spencer slammed the door in his face. This moment transformed from being merely sexist to being homoerotic. The man knew Spencer was a man, followed him home, and proposed that Spencer "put the wig back on" to consummate the fantasy that he had concocted.

On Suite Life, Cody and Moose's country-fair competition was tinged with homoeroticism (S1, E19). As already mentioned, one of the contests was bobbing for corn cobs. The boys went under water and came out with cobs--sometimes two at a time--sticking lengthwise from their mouths. The sight of the phalluses protruding from their mouths was borderline pornographic, underscored by their bawdy dialogue: Zack told Cody, "You really want to impress Bailey. Get in there and bob for a cob." Cody nodded and said to Moose: "You better kiss your kernels goodbye, pal, because you're going down." Moose said, "We both are going down. That's how you pick up the corn." Here, Cody likened Moose's testicles to corn kernels, underscoring the impression that the cobs were meant to represent phalluses. And the boys' use of the phrase "going down"--which often refers to oral sex--further punctuated the homoerotic undertones of the interchange. Later, Cody lost to Moose in chess and said, "Well, kiss my bishop!" Again, because of the phallic shape of the bishop and the larger context of their competition, this comment renewed the homoerotic tension between Moose--the strong, hegemonic boy--and Cody--the non-hegemonic, feminized boy.

Homoeroticism also manifested as physical intimacy between males. Intimacy was more than sporty physical contact between tough guys. It breached the normative, expected level of touching in a homophobic culture. Intimate moments were remarkable and remarked upon by other characters. For example, on Suite Life, Cody was guest lecturing in a home economics class, due to his culinary expertise (S2, E4). Woody was the only male student in the class. Note that Woody's very name is slang for an erection. Cody told the students to gather around to feel his muscles move as he whisked, teaching them the proper technique. The girls flocked around him, massaging him, oo-ing and ah-ing over his flexing arms. Woody joined the group and touched Cody's tricep. Woody grinned lasciviously into the camera and said, "Impressive!" Cody whipped around and said, "Woody!" Woody let go, looked down, and mumbled, "Sorry Mr. Martin." Everyone in the class clearly enjoyed touching Cody's arm. Yet only Woody's pleasure was sanctioned.

In a bizarre incident on iCarly, Spencer hired a surly old cowboy, Bucky, to teach him to ride a mechanical bull (S3, E5). Bucky insisted that the only way Spencer would learn to ride the bull was to learn to act like the bull:

Bucky: "Get down on your hands and knees."

Spencer: "I'm sorry?"

Bucky: "GET DOWN!"

Spencer got on all fours.

Bucky: "Now when I climb on you, I want you to try to throw me off."

Spencer, rising up: "I don't think this is a good idea."

Bucky forced him back down: "Do you want to learn to ride that tin can or don't ya?"

Spencer: "I'm not sure any more!"

Spencer tried to throw Bucky off.

Bucky: "Come on boy! You can do better than that!"

Spencer: "I don't know! This is so new to me!"

This scene felt more like a sexual assault than homoerotic, as Bucky forced Spencer into unwanted, unequal physical intimacy. It embodied the masculine hierarchy, with a hegemonic male mounted upon a non-hegemonic male. Spencer was clearly bothered by the experience. When he ran into Carly at the smoothie shop, she said, "What are you doing here? I thought you had a bull riding lesson." Spencer said, "I did. And my teacher put his butt on me. I never want to think about him or that stupid bull ever again. That thing's an instrument of torture." He felt victimized and gave away his mechanical bull.

By allowing male characters to interact in intimate ways, these shows flirted with homoeroticism, which is definitely counter-hegemonic in a homophobic culture. These shows had the opportunity to introduce viewers to alternative ways for boys to interact, beyond competition and violence. Yet, for the most part, homoerotic moments were not presented as serious possibilities. They were humorous, disruptive, and in Spencer's case, harmful. Thus, homoeroticism was a tool for underscoring homophobia and competition among males.

Mask-ulinity Play

As mentioned above, the literature on non-hegemonic boys shows that, rather than undermining the hegemonic gendered order, non-hegemonic boys actually reinforce hegemony by valorizing hegemonic masculinity themselves (Pascoe, 2003; Renold, 2004). Non-hegemonic characters on these shows did the same thing: they temporarily crossed into hegemonic territory, and then crossed back (see also Thorne, 1993). Occasionally, these otherwise non-hegemonic males donned a "mask" of masculinity (Pollack, 1998), and asserted themselves over others in hegemonic, domineering ways.

Boys crossed to take charge of a situation. On Hannah, Oliver (played by Mitchell Musso) transformed from Lilly's (Emily Osment) compliant, "whipped" boyfriend to pimp in a matter of seconds (S3, E15). Sitting on the beach, Oliver and Lilly told Miley that they wanted her to have a boyfriend, instead of being lonely. Miley insisted that she did not need a boyfriend. Lilly gave Oliver a knowing look, and he said, "I'm on it." Oliver stood up and announced to the people on the beach: "Yo! Single dudes! Listen up! I got a perfectly good girl here, good height-to-weight ratio, not hard to look at. Let's start the bidding at uh ..." Miley tackled him. From the ground, Oliver said, "Got a temperament issue, but the right guy could tame her." She grabbed him by the nose. He said, "You're blowing the sales pitch." In the guise of friendship, Oliver turned Miley into a piece of meat.

On one episode of iCarly, Gibby transformed from passive heterosexual failure to hyperheterosexual brute. The friends were surprised to hear that Gibby had a girlfriend, but they were shocked when they met her: Tasha (Emily Ratajkowski) was a tall, beautiful brunette. Freddy stared at her, mouth agape, and said, "Why can't I have one of those?" Gibby, usually demonstrative and goofy, began speaking in monotonal monosyllables, grunting orders at Tasha. In a series of misunderstandings, Gibby thought he saw Freddy kiss Tasha. He flew into a jealous rage, broke up with Tasha and promised retribution. Gibby kicked a beanbag chair across the room and told him Freddy would "beat him down." Gibby told Freddy to "bring a mop for your blood!" Sam intervened before Gibby and Freddy actually fought, clearing up the misunderstanding. Gibby apologized but remained aloof: he shook hands with Freddy, and said, "Bros?" Freddy agreed, "Bros." Tasha whined, "What about me?" Gibby nodded and said, "You're back in." She squealed, "Oh thank you!" In this episode, Gibby acted like a completely different boy than in any other episode. He intimidated and impressed his peers. Hegemonic masculinity was an effective, temporary tool for him to manage a particular situation.

Nevel (played by Reed Alexander), a recurring guest character on iCarly (featured in 7 episodes), was simultaneously feminine and domineering. On one episode, Nevel re fused to help Carly solve a problem unless she agreed to kiss him (S2, E12). He said, "A kiss, a kiss is what I seek. Upon your lips, not on your cheek." Carly snarled, "Nobody likes a rhymer." Nevel wanted Carly to kiss him because he wanted to control her, not because he was hyperheterosexual. To his surprise, she agreed. He said, "Bring your sweet lips. Get ready for a real kiss from a real man." Then he turned and yelled, "Mother! Run a bath!" Unlike the other boys who transformed temporarily, Nevel's feminine markers did not fade as he enacted hegemonic masculinity. He straddled both realms simultaneously.

Carly and Nevel agreed to meet in an alley behind her apartment building. Nevel brought big, thuggish men to stand at each entrance to the alley, preventing Carly from escaping. He said, "You look wonderful in low light." He prepared to kiss her: "First, this:" applying lip balm with his pinky. Carly outsmarted him and avoided the kiss. Infuriated, Nevel waved his fist and yelled, "I declare that you'll rue this day! You'll rue it!" Nevel was unable to conquer Carly, and his enactment of hegemonic masculinity failed as well.


These television shows offered a variety of masculinities for audiences of children and adults. Hegemonic boy characters did exist--and girl characters found them irresistible. But most (88%) male characters tended toward a non-hegemonic, even feminized masculinity: they were sensitive, non-athletic, and unsuccessful with girls. Casual viewers might conclude that these shows have rewritten male characters in a way that undermines the traditional gender order, allowing for a broader, more feminist conceptualization of masculinity. Given the popularity of these shows, these counter-hegemonic masculinities could help alter gendered expectations among a group of young people, who might become more tolerant of non-conformists (Butler, 1999).

Although the potential for reconceptualizing gender existed--through the use of nonhegemonic protagonists, drag, and homoeroticism--these incidents were largely comedic, rather than serious challenges to the gender order. Systematic analysis of the portrayal of masculinity on these programs reveals a leger de main: non-hegemonic boys were not heroic, but clowns, serving as foils for hegemonic masculinity. Comedy centered on the ways that these boys failed at masculinity. Humor was used throughout the programs, disguising hegemonic messages as benign. Walsh et al (2008, p. 132) write, "As the male protagonists remain likable characters, sexism is reduced to only a momentary digression, easily laughed off, as opposed to part of a systemic repressive ideology."

Pascoe (2003) and Renold (2004) argue that non-hegemonic boys participate in the hierarchy by approximating hegemonic masculinity, by donning the mask of hegemonic masculinity (Pollack 1998). In these shows, boys' masculinity-play suggests that hegemonic masculinity is a resource for all boys, a "patriarchal dividend" (Connell, 1995) regardless of where they fall in the hierarchy. They can use hegemonic masculinity to correct power imbalances--particularly over girls, as seen in these examples--and secure their relative status, even if they are lower status males. Hegemonic boy characters used non-hegemonic males to underscore their own dominance (Connell & Messerschmidt, 2005). Even though most characters were not hegemonic, hegemonic masculinity was a resource to be deployed by anyone at any time, to regulate a boy's gender enactment.

Rather than truly celebrating non-hegemonic masculinity, hegemonic masculinity remained the standard. There were consequences for challenging the gendered binary. Characters who flirted with non-hegemonic masculinities were policed--sometimes literally--for their transgressions. In post-feminist fashion (McRobbie, 2004; Ringrose, 2007; Walsh et al., 2004), the masculine hierarchy was highlighted, reinscribing a hierarchy in which hegemonic boys ruled over girls and boys of lesser status. Because hegemonic masculinity is an especially damaging incarnation of gender, these findings are troubling.

The effects of this gender frame (Ridgeway, 2011) are widespread due to the massive audience who consume these messages daily. The television programs are part of the regional construction of masculinity that reflects the larger American culture. If Connell and Messerschmidt (2005) are correct in their supposition that people's local, face-to-face interactions are shaped by culture, then everyday children will police each other in ways that they see on television (see also Corsaro, 1997). My own research reveals that children invoke these images and use them to police each other (Myers & Raymond, 2010). By valorizing hegemonic masculinity, children's' television programming missed an opportunity to transform and expand--in a positive light--cultural representations of boyhood and masculinity. Rather than contributing a feminist portrayal of gender, these shows could be characterized a "postfeminist" (McRobbie, 2004). These negative cultural meanings propagated by television have real-life consequences for everyday young people, limiting their imaginations (Butler, 2004) to "patriarchal constellations" (Walsh et al., 2008, p. 125).


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Department of Sociology, NIU--Northern Illinois University.

The author likes to thank the editor and the anonymous reviewers for their helpful feedback on this manuscript; Sarah Hanson, for help with assessing inter-coder reliability; and Kirk Miller and Diane Rodgers, for their support in this research project.

Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Kristen Myers, Department of Sociology, NIU, DeKalb, IL 60115. Email: kmyers@niu.edu

DOI: 10.3149/jms.2002.125
Fag talk and fag imitations serve as a discourse with which boys
   discipline themselves and each other through joking
   relationships.... The fluidity of the fag identity is what makes
   the specter of the fag such a powerful disciplinary mechanism. (p.

Hegemonic masculinity at the regional level is symbolically
   represented through the interplay of specific local masculine
   practices that have regional significance, such as those
   constructed by feature film actors, professional athletes, and
   politicians. The exact content of these practices varies over time
   and across societies. Yet regional hegemonic masculinity shapes a
   society-wide sense of masculine reality and, therefore, operates in
   the cultural domain as on-hand material to be actualized, altered,
   or challenged through practice in a range of different local
   circumstances. A regional hegemonic masculinity, then, provides a
   cultural framework that may be materialized in daily practices and
   interactions. (pp. 849-850)

My argument is that "postfeminism" actively draws on and invokes
   feminism as that which can be taken into account in order to
   suggest that equality is achieved, in order to install a whole
   repertoire of meanings which emphasize that it is no longer needed,
   a spent force. (p. 4)

When the lions are out hunting gazelles, they don't attack the
   strong healthy ones. Oh no. They attack the weak ones. The ones
   crying and eating ice cream.

Table 1
Description of Television Programs Analyzed

Program          Premise               characters   Gender  Race

Hannah Montana   TN native, Miley,        Miley     Girl    White
(Disney)         moves with her        Robbie Ray   Man     White
                 family to LA, where     Jackson    Boy     White
                 she lives a double
                 life: she's secretly    Oliver     Boy     White
                 a pop-star (Hannah       Lilly     Girl    White
                 Montana).               Rico *     Boy     Latino

Suite Life       In this sequel to       Zack *     Boy     White
on Deck          The Suite Life of        Cody      Boy     White
(Disney)         Zack and Cody, twins    London     Girl    Asian
                 Zack and Cody go to      Tipton
                 high school on a         Woody     Boy     White
                 cruise ship.            Bailey     Girl    White
                                         Marcus     Boy     Black
                                       Mr. Moseby   Man     Black

Wizards of       A family of wizards      Alex      Girl    Latina
Waverly          live on Waverly         Justin     Boy     Latino
Place (Disney)   Place, in NYC. The        Max      Boy     Latino
                 kids learn to be
                 wizards from their      Theresa    Woman   Latina
                 father, and they         Jerry     Man     White
                 interact with           Harper     Girl    White
                 magical creatures
                 from the wizarding

iCarly           Carly lives with her     Carly     Girl    White
(Nickelodeon)    brother, Spencer,       Spencer    Man     White
                 in an apartment in        Sam      Girl    White
                 Seattle. Carly and
                 her best friend,        Freddy     Boy     White
                 Sam, star in a        Mrs. Benson  Woman   White
                 weekly web show,         Gibby     Boy     White
                 iCarly, with friend,
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