Subversive Masculinity–Introduction

Anyone who’s spent more than 30 seconds publicly identifying as a feminist has gotten into a conversation with someone expressing the thought “But what about the men?” The television/media geek version is “There are no good male role models on television, either” (citations to prove this point include Homer Simpson, Al Bundy, and Everybody Loves Raymond in the “doofus husband” category, and the entire male guest cast of such so-called feminist shows as Sex and the City in the “sex-obsessed pigs” category). Many of these statements mistakenly assume that feminists are somehow pleased by these portrayals of men–that ultimately, they show that women are the ones now truly in power in our society. They also conveniently skip over the multitude of examples of perfectly competent men in leadership roles or the array of complex character traits allowed to straight white men in mainstream television and film.

But some of these conversations ultimately lead to a valid point as we dig deeper. It is far from a unique insight to suggest that cultural constructions of masculinity are damaging. Fighting for a radically different understanding of women’s roles in relationships, politics and social situations requires a re-evaluation at some point of where men fit in to that. Yes, patriarchy, while on balance favouring said straight white men, hurts men too, and part of feminism involves dealing with that from both sides. Because seriously, what are we seeing on television in terms of the way men are supposed to be?

This post serves to introduce a series on subversive (hetero) male characters. The kinds of characters I’m looking at here are in a socially privileged position (thus far, all the ones I’ve thought of are white in addition to straight and male) and face a certain level of pressure and expectation because of that. In our patriarchal society, men have to be physically strong, economically successful and emotionally steady. I’m a feminist because I want women to be allowed to be all of those things, as well as nurturing and supportive partners and parents or sensitive and emotionally insightful friends, but I wouldn’t want the former traits to be mandatory any more than I want to be limited to the latter.

I do think men have a more complex array of fictional role models to choose from than women do, and that men are depicted more positively or neutrally overall. But I also think that it’s ultimately the patriarchy establishing norms for masculine behaviour that present a very limited picture of how relationships are allowed to function, and that limitations on relationships means limitations on the extent to which all parties involved are allowed to be satisfied. I’m almost tempted to call my category of subversive (hetero) masculine character the “Anti-Jack” (Bauer). Jack is everything that manhood is supposed to be. And that’s a huge problem. Where, in all of his overwhelmingly heroic masculinity, is there any room for genuine female strength? Where is there any room for Jack to be wrong? Where is there any room for anything but this image to be the ideal toward which all men–and no women–must strive? And where is there any room to fall short of it?

Incorporating flaws, admitting weakness, being allowed to be wrong, drawing in female voices and contributions in ways other than just having to rescue them all the time–that’s the kind of subversive masculinity I’m looking at. That image of masculinity benefits women for obvious reasons, but it also benefits man because he doesn’t have to live up to this perfection, strength and unfailing rightness all the time, and he doesn’t have to deal with the crippling insecurity that results from not being Jack Bauer. The construction of men as having to be aggressive, strong and sexually virile is part of a horrifying pattern of violence against women. The “man as head of the household” and “damsel in distress” images combine as part of a culture that infantalizes and disenfranchises women. But they also pigeonhole men into certain ways of being, they cause anxiety in any man who can’t live up to the standards, and they limit male options for developing deep connections in relation to partners, family and friends. The next few articles are going to evaluate a few characters that actually undermine this particular masculine standard. I’m only looking at heterosexual male characters because queerness can always be “othered” to the point that a depiction of a gay male neither threatens the status of the idealized heroic male nor presents a viable alternative to the straight male who feels he must always live up to that ideal. The search for truly strong female characters is one quest, and seeking that genuinely challenging alternative adds another layer, but, perhaps less-than-surprisingly, many of the best examples appear standing alongside those strong women.

Posts in this Series

  1. Subversive Masculinity–Introduction
  2. Subversive Masculinity–How to Learn to Respect Female Strength (Xander Harris)

Comments

  1. scarlett says

    That’s why, for the most part, I love Brad Chase from Boston Legal (interrupting his fiancee howling in labour to get married nontwirthstanding). I love his crippling insecurities despite having everything a steretyped man would want – looks, intellect, money. It makes him a hell of a lot more interesting character then if he was supremely comfident of himself.

  2. says

    I love Reed from Criminal Minds! A frequent choice for that episodes’ damsel in distress, and pretty rather than buff – which I find very hot. :)

    And even Hotchner’s a bit of a Mom on the show – he tends to look out for his teams emotional needs.

    (this series looks to be fun, fun, fun)

  3. Jennifer Kesler says

    And even Hotchner’s a bit of a Mom on the show – he tends to look out for his teams emotional needs.

    The same description was given of Jack O’Neill on Stargate. They tried to make Jack more “the man” in later seasons, but in the early ones, he was in a sense very subversive. And I’ve known men like him.

  4. S. A. Bonasi says

    I’m only looking at heterosexual male characters because queerness can always be “othered” to the point that a depiction of a gay male neither threatens the status of the idealized heroic male nor presents a viable alternative to the straight male who feels he must always live up to that ideal.

    I’m not following here. Can you elaborate?

    The first thing that came to my mind after reading this post is Brokeback Mountain, which is all about undermining the idealized heroic male. Or am I misunderstanding you?

  5. Mecha says

    There is somewhat a tradition, especially in *-of-the-week shows, (ranging from The A-Team to The Equalizer to Buffy to The Pretender) of having a main character which is very do-gooder. Shows a lot of positive emotional qualities which make them empathic to the people they’re helping. They also almost always have an ‘angry’ point (some closer to the surface than others) when they’re doing the requisite beatdown on the *-of-the-week. But the largest part of the episodes can often focus on how nice/innocent and helpful the main character is. It’s an often masculine tradition, but it can range from the masculine (Heist/Job setup type things, A-Team) to feminine (Pretender, some of Buffy.)

    The Pretender made me think of it first in regards to this, because the normal intro sequence sets up the roles of the characters fairly clearly (in voiceover.) The main male antagonist (father figure to main male character) says ‘The Centre wants him alive.’ Main female antagonist replies ‘Preferably.’ Then she adds, ‘He defends the weak and abused.’ The main character then says ‘Life’s a gift.’ The main character is somewhat innocent, very emotional, highly tied to wanting a family life. Would be considered a very feminine ‘sensitive’ man, in those senses. (And the female antagonist would often be considered a masculine woman, although she gets a little stranger on that front towards the end of the series.)

    Parts of me wonder if I should be bothered by the tradition (which is inherently similar to ‘smart white man solves everybody’s problems), but it does seem to have some feminine attributes to it. Depends on which ‘protector’ angle you go with in the show. Masculine protector, or feminine protector.

    Anyway, I should probably stop and leave the series to actually be done. ;)

    -Mecha

  6. Mecha says

    S.A.: I’d interpret it as people thinking, ‘It’s okay if he’s feminine, he’s gay (and I’m not.)’ ‘It’s okay if he wants a family, he’s gay (and I’m not.)’ ‘It’s okay if he doesn’t want to have sex with everything in sight, he’s gay (and I’m not.)’

    An other is allowed to be abnormal by default, and so their abnormalities don’t necessarily challenge the definition of normal. As long as the only feminine men are gay (especially flamingly gay) ones, then mostly straight guys don’t have to see a societally accepted man being more than Wayne/Bauer/Eastwood/Insert Manly Man Here.

    -Mecha

  7. S. A. Bonasi says

    Okay, Mecha, I think I see what you’re saying. I’ve seen masculine queer male characters subvert masculinity by being queer (Tom on Lost comes to mind) and feminine heterosexual male characters can subvert masculinity by being feminine, but I’m not sure if one could create a feminine queer male characters that was subversive without treading a bunch of homophobic stereotypes.

    Have you seen Brokeback Mountain? It takes it in a sorta different direction, where the main [gay] characters – especially Ennis – do everything to follow the guidebook for How Men Should Behave. And the lives of all the characters are crap because Heterosexual is implied (but never said) in the guidebook’s title. On a broader scale, the entire guidebook is too narrow in its definition of masculinity. Like I think the OP is saying, it’s a trap for men because they can’t live up to Jack Bauer and/or Jack Bauer is inherently a bad ideal to begin with.

    BetaCandy,

    I know what you’re saying, but I worry that it’s counter productive to try and subvert white heterosexual masculine ideals by catering to them. i.e. The audience will dismissive subversive queer male characters, so focus on subversive heterosexual male characters…only that reinforces heterosexuality as a innate component of masculinity.

    Especially since in my experience and despite the jokes, Brokeback Mountain was a mainstream success.

  8. sbg says

    Hmmm, I think I have thoughts about the guys on Supernatural and how they work with this idea, but they’re not fully formed yet.

  9. S. A. Bonasi says

    sbg,

    I’ve had the same thoughts, so you’re on to something. Dean’s more typically masculine, and Sam’s more typically feminine, but the show doesn’t make connections of Masculine = Good/Strong & Feminine = Bad/Weak.

  10. sbg says

    the show doesn’t make connections of Masculine = Good/Strong & Feminine = Bad/Weak.

    Interestingly, though, I find that fandom sometimes does this, depending on which of the two main characters is a person’s favorite. (Personally, I love them BOTH.) I don’t read much fanfic, but when I do it is patently obvious who the favorites are just based on characterization. Dean lovers tend to either ignore Sam completely or make him whiny. Sam lovers tend to make Dean a bit of a jerk. It’s like there’s a disconnect about the multiple facets both of these guys have.

    Anyway.

    What I find wonderful about Sam and Dean is they both transition and absorb more of the other’s qualities the longer they’re together. Dean’s still masculine by the end of S1, but he’s different and softer about it, and Sam too has learned and changed (and he really grew up in S2).

    ALL the guys on that show are undoubtedly strong, but all of them show great vulnerability as well. Seriously, has any main or heavily recurring male character NOT cried? Ash, I suppose, but he’s a caricature if ever there was one.

  11. Jennifer Kesler says

    It’s interesting what you bring up about how the fans divide on them. The last fandom I read fanfic in was SG-1, and it seemed to me that even fans of Daniel often made him too whiny and childlike, as if they considered him un-manly and that’s what they liked about him.

    I considered him and Jack (when characterized properly) two very different presentations of manhood. In fact, now that I think on it, that may be what I loved. They were both, IMO, mature, strong, and disciplined (my definition of adulthood, and therefore “manhood”). But where Jack appeared traditionally butch, he was actually very nurturing and protective in ways we think of as “maternal”. And while Daniel seemed to be Mr. Sensitive, he could be totally oblivious to the needs of others and even more of a hardass than Jack on those rare occasions he was pushed far enough.

  12. Purtek says

    S.A. Bonansi – Mecha addresses what my intent in the post was pretty well, but I do want to say that I think you make a great point and absolutely agree that some gay characters do a really great job of subverting the masculine norms. In some ways, I’m trying to limit my focus, because, as this thread demonstrates, there are a number of characters to say interesting things about, and not enough gets said about them from this angle.

    I do think, though, that it takes a seriously high quality piece of work (like Brokeback Mountain) to really get at masculine stereotypes using gay characters–mostly we just see the Will & Grace model repeating itself.

  13. MaggieCat says

    Dean’s more typically masculine, and Sam’s more typically feminine, but the show doesn’t make connections of Masculine = Good/Strong & Feminine = Bad/Weak.

    Oh, this fits the topic perfectly and I’ve been going into withdrawal about talking about this show! (I’ve gone into self-imposed internet exile to avoid spoilers, since I seem to absorb them by osmosis somehow.)

    Part of the reason I love that show so much is because neither of the male characters fall into an easy categorization. But I’ve always thought that Dean shows far more “typically feminine” traits than Sam does; and he’s rarely given credit for them because of the ‘bad-boy’ image he projects when he’s feeling guarded. (Not that that’s what anyone here doing, I’m speaking in general.)

    Dean seems to have taken on a lot of the roles that their mother probably would have filled had she not been turned into ceiling flambé. He took care of Sam as a child, and unlike John the drill sargent he supported Sam doing what Sam wanted to do. He’s one who constantly steps in and plays peacemaker when John and Sam are at each other’s throats. Dean is the one who stated that his driving motivation for the quest in season 1 is to see his family back together. In the djinn episode in season 2, still all he wants is for his family to be together, willing to give up the close relationship he has with Sam if it means his brother is off at Stanford, happy and safe and getting his dream education- a very maternal role of self-sacrifice.

    And then, of course, there’s the meticulous upkeep of Metallicar, the closest thing that family’s had to home in the last 23 years.

    While Sam is the quieter one who’s less likely to be found in a dive bar, I think underneath he has more of the classically ‘male’ traits. He breaks away from his family, he only comes back because Dean begs him to help look for their father and after that when he’s looking for revenge against the demon that killed his girlfriend. He’s willing to get himself killed, regardless of what that would do to his family, and originally planned to split again as soon as he got his revenge. Yeah, he has the geek traits, but it’s mostly seen as a knack for research that echoes the well-worn pattern of the genius hero who’s more brains than brawn.

    (For the record I don’t align myself with either of the character specific sides of the fandom. One wouldn’t work without the other, so I see no point in playing favorites. Frankly if I had to pick, I’d go with Metallicar. She’s awesome.)

  14. sbg says

    MaggieCat said:

    But I’ve always thought that Dean shows far more “typically feminine” traits than Sam does; and he’s rarely given credit for them because of the ‘bad-boy’ image he projects when he’s feeling guarded.

    They’re both kind of a mix – Dean does do the mothering/caring thing far more overtly than Sam does, but, and especially at first, he is not inclined to let emotions show. I think it’s in that regard that Dean’s seen as the more masculine of the two.

    The things you described as male attributes for Sam…I’m not sure I see them as male or as just human – what a child typically does in our society is grow up and move on, male or female. Sam doesn’t have that “hold your family close” almost mother instinct that Dean does (or didn’t, anyway, I think he is getting closer to that now), because he was never anything but the child in their weird family dynamic.

    You have to admit Sam emotes on command and doesn’t appear fazed to cry and/or discuss feelings. ;)

  15. sbg says

    BetaCandy said:

    I considered him and Jack (when characterized properly) two very different presentations of manhood. In fact, now that I think on it, that may be what I loved. They were both, IMO, mature, strong, and disciplined (my definition of adulthood, and therefore “manhood”). But where Jack appeared traditionally butch, he was actually very nurturing and protective in ways we think of as “maternal”. And while Daniel seemed to be Mr. Sensitive, he could be totally oblivious to the needs of others and even more of a hardass than Jack on those rare occasions he was pushed far enough.

    YES.

    I feel a resurgence of Jack/Daniel love. They were SUCH the core of the show, and I don’t think one would have worked without the other to balance. They were both a mix of strong and soft and smart and stupid, and the final recipe for both called for different measurements of each ingredient.

  16. MaggieCat says

    The things you described as male attributes for Sam…I’m not sure I see them as male or as just human – what a child typically does in our society is grow up and move on, male or female.

    Not always. While that is the healthy view of growing up (although the Winchesters are anything but a healthy family unit a lot of the time) they were originally male attributes and discouraged for women, and a lot of media still pushes that view. Men were raised to go out and build a life for themselves, women are supposed to wait around until they have a man… who will presumably be the focal point that determines what they do/where they go with their lives, I guess. Women orbit others (either their husbands or their children) and men are the ones with a force of their own.

    Which is a load of crap, obviously. but I’ve been consistently amazed how many people still buy into it- especially the people who produce television and movies.

  17. sbg says

    Hence the use of the word “typically” and “I’m not sure I see…”

    ;)

    It’s valid that you see those characteristics of Sam as more male than gender neutral, I’m just not totally there with you in using those specific things as evidence of Sam’s masculinity. I’d pick things like his hard-headedness, obsessive nature and need for control (which, incidentally, I rarely see him actually obtain, poor lad), even though those too could be traits for either gender.

  18. MaggieCat says

    Heh. I got that, I was just explaining my reasoning in case it wasn’t clear. Sometimes things make sense in my head but I forget to connect all the dots so they make sense to people who aren’t in my head… you all aren’t all in my head, right? ….Hello?

  19. SunlessNick says

    But I’ve always thought that Dean shows far more “typically feminine” traits

    He took care of Sam as a child, and unlike John the drill sargent he supported Sam doing what Sam wanted to do. He’s one who constantly steps in and plays peacemaker when John and Sam are at each other’s throats.

    And then, of course, there’s the meticulous upkeep of Metallicar, the closest thing that family’s had to home in the last 23 years. - MaggieCat

    That’s a fascinating piece of analysis there. Looking at it that way, it strikes me that the “feminine traits” you ascribe to Dean are the those that are patriarchally viewed as female virtues, while those that Sam has are more often seen as female weaknesses. In which case, is it an internalisation of female=weak to see Sam as the more feminine, or maybe an internalised asumption about the show’s genre (I talked myself into a knot there, so I hope it makes sense).
    Either way, it makes me love all the more their different reactions to Hailey wanting to go rescue her brother from the Wendigo – with Sam thinking they shouldn’t let her go, and even referring to it as babysitting – while it never seemed to cross Dean’s mind that they had a say in it.

    Another series worth mentioning is Buffy. It’s been said that what really qualified it as feminist is not that female characters got to kick-ass and be heroic, but that male characters were given roles and qualities that were stereotypically female, for which they were then respected. Giles, for example, was supposed to be an authority over her – while he tried that some of the time, mostly he realised that compared to magnitude of Buffy’s job and the lives that depended on her, any authority he could exert was a joke – what she needed was someone to support her and make sure she wasn’t alone in it. Another Watcher told him later that he had a father’s love for Buffy – and he did, but the ways it manifested were more often those associated with a mother.

  20. sbg says

    Maggie said:

    Of course I really think the reason that Dean is disinclined to show emotion in front of anyone but Sam is all John’s fault, but I was trying to avoid bringing that up.

    Of course it’s John’s fault. I wouldn’t disagree with that. It’s just that I love John anyway, where you don’t so much. ;)

    Nick said:

    That’s a fascinating piece of analysis there. Looking at it that way, it strikes me that the “feminine traits” you ascribe to Dean are the those that are patriarchally viewed as female virtues, while those that Sam has are more often seen as female weaknesses. In which case, is it an internalisation of female=weak to see Sam as the more feminine,

    I think that’s interesting and at least partially true for the way a lot of people probably see Sam and Dean.

  21. MaggieCat says

    In which case, is it an internalisation of female=weak to see Sam as the more feminine, or maybe an internalised asumption about the show’s genre (I talked myself into a knot there, so I hope it makes sense).

    I think I get what you’re saying, and I think it’s a little of both; Sam does have some so-called feminine qualities that are considered virtues, but given the genre they aren’t viewed as that in most situations, so the ‘weaker’ seem to be most of them. He’s the more cautious of the two (YED excepted), he’s the one who cares more about manners and appearances, but given the feel of the show it winds up being called stuffy and uptight. Like sbg said, he appears to be more comfortable showing emotion, although women are often dismissed as being irrational and temperamental for similar behavior.

    (Not that I can’t list plenty of good qualities that Sam has, and the ones above certainly aren’t bad, but topic and trying not to run off on a tangent and all that.)

    but, and especially at first, he is not inclined to let emotions show. I think it’s in that regard that Dean’s seen as the more masculine of the two.

    You have to admit Sam emotes on command and doesn’t appear fazed to cry and/or discuss feelings. ;)

    That’s true. He’s more comfortable overall with showing emotion, but he also seems pretty good at calling up the “appropriate” response when he needs it- Dean’s the one who has more trouble controlling his emotions; less likely to sympathize with many, but more likely to empathize with a few.

    Of course I really think the reason that Dean is disinclined to show emotion in front of anyone but Sam is all John’s fault, but I was trying to avoid bringing that up. ;-)

  22. MaggieCat says

    Of course it’s John’s fault. I wouldn’t disagree with that. It’s just that I love John anyway, where you don’t so much. ;)

    Heh. It would have been hard for me to say without using a lot of expletives, and that just seemed unnecessarily inflammatory.

    Of course you John fans are never to be entirely trusted… ;-)

  23. sbg says

    And I could go on about how if he did what a “good” parent would have done, we likely wouldn’t have had nearly the same, interesting show and characters. ;)

  24. MaggieCat says

    No argument from me there. I don’t hate John as a character, I hate him as a person. Which is actually quite the compliment to all of the actors (and most of the writers) involved- I care enough to really really hate him.

  25. SunlessNick says

    A bit of thread necromancy…

    A possible example of a subversive man – though I’m not sure he quite qualfies for what Purtek was after – is Davis from Tru Calling. (For those unfamiliar with the series, this was about a morgue attendant named Tru, who could receive calls for help from those who had died untimely deaths – when this happened, the last day she’d had rewound, and she had a chance to save them – I was about to say “had to save them,” but she didn’t have to, she chose to).

    Davis was her boss at the morgue, and hits a number of the tropes often given to male characters in female-led series: he’s her boss (so he has some authority over her), he started off knowing more about her than she knew he knew (he knew or suspected about her ability when she took the job at the morgue), and knew something about her ability that she didn’t (that her mother could do it too; it’s implied though not stated in any episode I saw, that Davis had been one of Tru’s mother’s “clients”).

    On the other hand, he remains the sidekick in her mystical job, he is somewhat in awe of the forces she represents by doing what she can do, and looks up to her (but not – and this is important, I think – in the same awestruck pedestal way he views her ability itself, but rather considering her a heroic person, worthy of respect and admiration). Likewise, he doesn’t need to push Tru into saving people (she makes that choice all on her own) – but he’s in a position to be a lot of help, which he is, without consistently saving the day for her – plus emotional support of course (Tru doesn’t spend her time bemoaning her status as a “freak,” but she does take comfort from not being alone in it). And he doesn’t want to sleep with her, a preference that has nothing to do with according her Sacred Virginity.

    The only reason I question Davis’ subversion is his status as a geek/nerd, with a lot of the stereotypes that go with that. So he’s easy to “other.”

  26. says

    The first character that popped in my head here was JD on Scrubs. He’s a brave, successful, reliable, sexually active, almost everything you’d ask from an ideal man stereotype, yet fundamentally different.

    He’s physically weak to a surrealistic amount, he talks about his feelings with an openness and self-assuredness that somehow makes a lot of male viewers ‘envious’.

    Maybe his frequent “gay days” make him an “other”? But if so he’s an “other” that successfully led in an A-lst TV show for eight years, that should be worth some notice.

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