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
- Subversive Masculinity–Introduction
- Subversive Masculinity–How to Learn to Respect Female Strength (Xander Harris)