You’d think patriarchy would be good for men, but it isn’t. Patriarchy enforces strict standards of masculinity that are impossible to meet. But because masculine traits are glorified, it’s easy to lose sight of how toxic they are to men. As storytellers, we may think we’ve created strong central characters when really we’ve brought destructive stereotypes to life. Here are five signs you’re stuffing your male characters in the “man box.”
1. Male Heroes Have No Relationships
Mad Max: Fury Road does a fantastic job of showing how patriarchy reduces people to objects, from the sex slaves struggling for freedom to the young men throwing their lives away for glory in an invented afterlife. Yet the entire Mad Max series centers around Patriarchy Exhibit A: the lone male hero.
The idea is that real men don’t need other people. Manly men are independent, emotionally scarred, and unable to express their affection. The character of Max started his journey in 1979 with his first movie, wherein he lost his wife and infant son.* In every movie after, he starts alone, connects with new people, then abandons them at the movie’s end. In Fury Road, he cares about Furiosa enough to give her his blood, but he doesn’t stick around to say goodbye or even resupply for his next journey.
Max isn’t alone; a brief glance at recent action movies reveals this trope is incredibly popular. When a male action hero starts a movie with a wife or a team, all of those characters could be headed for the chopping block. Sure, it’s to give the male hero more glory. But unfortunately, there are real-life consequences for glorifying male independence and isolation: men often don’t ask for help when they need it. This pattern spreads the notions that men who depend on others are weak and that men shouldn’t value their relationships or work to maintain them.
How to Fix It
Let your males characters bond with other people and form permanent relationships, whether those relationships are romantic, platonic, parental, or something else. Allow the hero to both support those people and receive support from them in turn, even if it’s just trading supplies. Let your hero express his affection with a smile, a hug, or some kind words.
You can do this without making it front and center or otherwise mangling your plot. Your hero’s allies don’t have to back him in a fight, and he doesn’t have to remain stationary to care for someone. His friend might be too aged to go on adventures but gift him with supplies to help keep him safe. A child he’s fond of might stay with parents but take lessons from him and then gift him with crude figurines. He can use the spoils of his adventures to help the people he cares about.
2. Fathers Are Distant or Judgmental
In the 2012 movie ParaNorman, the boy Norman can see and talk to ghosts. His family doesn’t believe these ghosts are real, so they’re very concerned. His mother channels her concern into being patient, loving, and supportive. His father responds by yelling at him. I mentioned recently how this mother stereotype is harmful to women, but the father stereotype isn’t any better. It spreads the message that men cannot be nurturing people or loving parents.
Stories have a deficit of positive relationships between fathers and their children, and most of the ones we do have are between fathers and daughters. In these cases, the daughter’s warm nature is supposedly making up for her father’s inherent coldness or incompetence in raising children. In father-son relationships, the father almost always falls into one of these stereotypes: admired but absent, distant or neglectful, harsh and judgmental, or an outright enemy. Entire movies like Three Men and a Baby have been written around the premise that men can’t handle infants and don’t know how to raise children.
The real-life results are not good. Men are less likely to get time off to care for newborn or sick children, are less likely to be a child’s primary caregiver, and have a reduced chance of getting custody of children. Men who are the primary caregiver are likely to face discrimination from those who assume they can’t do it well.
How to Fix It
If your story doesn’t center around family, you can still give your adult heroes emotionally supportive fathers. Let your hero call their dad when upset; have the dad offer some comforting words. He can tell them how he knows all of their little quirks and describe how their present difficulties are like the time they skinned their knee when they were five.
When featuring families in your stories, consider making the mother the disciplinarian, and the father the conciliatory figure. Don’t let the father put his kids through trials to “build their character.” Allow fathers to tuck children into bed, read them a story, sing them lullabies, and be all-around dedicated, sensitive dads. You can let the father love his kids and still develop any conflicts your story needs. Maybe the father doesn’t realize his child’s need for privacy or independence. He might interfere in their lives too much because he’s worried about them. Err on the side of making your father character warm and affectionate, even if he’s flawed.
3. Men Are Divided Between Winners and Losers
In a patriarchy, being a man is an never-ending contest to be the strongest, earn the most money, and get the most women. Stories reflect this toxic notion by designating some male characters as “winners”* while others are clearly “losers.”
The stereotypical “loser” has a flabby rather than muscular body, doesn’t possess enough social skills to be attractive to women, and lives in his parents’ basement because he doesn’t have much money. Characters following this stereotype don’t make good villains because they’re incompetent, but popular stories like to villainize them anyway. Buffy the Vampire Slayer has “the Trio,” a group of three villains who scheme in basements and prey on women. The 2010 movie Megamind has Hal, the creepy gamer cameraman who almost destroys the city.
The stereotypical “winner” is buff, popular, and wealthy. He’s sometimes an asshole jock who abuses his power, like Captain Hammer from Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog. Sometimes he’s a role model, like Metroman in Megamind, or the hero of the story, such as Batman or James Bond. Regardless, he’s always portrayed as the subject of admiration and envy.
While it’s standard to show a character’s journey from underdog to leader, some stories frame this as a zero-sum battle of supremacy between a male loser and winner with a woman as the prize. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World, Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog, and Megamind all fall in this category. This pattern sends the message that women are objects who fall in the lap of the person who is the most successful, and men can only become successful by challenging and defeating other men.
By perpetuating these stereotypes, we are telling men that they are not good enough. Being a “real man” becomes something that only a few men can achieve at the cost of taking it from all the others. No matter how often a man works out at the gym, how many women are interested in him, and how much money he has, it won’t be enough because some other guy has it better.
How to Fix It
Avoid the stereotype of the loser male. Instead create characters that are more complex, with both successful and less successful aspects. Maybe your character has no social skills but earns a large paycheck, or lives with his parents but is charismatic. In your story, either of these men could become an annoyance or a good friend, a hero or a villain. Don’t use superficial traits like a character’s outward appearance or money to signal whether your character is worthwhile.
If you have both a protagonist and an antagonist that are male, avoid making their conflict about how “cool” they are or whether they can show each other up. If they are competing for the same woman, their focus should be on strengthening their relationship with her so she’ll want to be with them, not on cutting each other down. Ideological differences, personality clashes, and noble causes are good sources of conflict between men.
4. Male Consent Is Disregarded
Content Notice: sexual assault.
In season 3 of The 100, John Murphy finds himself held captive by a powerful Grounder leader. After putting a chain and collar around his neck, she strips off all of her clothes and states her desire to sleep with him. He declines her aggressive advances, saying that he’s staying faithful to another woman. Then this exchange happens.
Her: Would [your girlfriend] kill you if you ever lied to her, did anything to break her trust, or upset her in even the slightest way?
(She uses the chain to pull him closer.)
Him: (smiling) Oh, the things I do to survive.
This is clearly rape, yet it’s treated in the show like a kinky sex scene. John smiles, and somehow that makes being coerced into sex okay. It’s impossible to imagine this scene would have been written that way if the characters’ genders were reversed.*
And unfortunately, it’s not the only show to dismiss rape of men by female aggressors. In the first season of Orphan Black, the main character steals the identity of a woman who looks just like her. When the woman’s boyfriend comes home and is suspicious of her, she soothes those suspicions with some surprise sex. But just as sex under duress isn’t consensual, neither is sex when you’ve been lied to about which person you’re having sex with. He thought it was his girlfriend; yet when he finds out otherwise, he isn’t upset. Battlestar Gallactica and Buffy the Vampire Slayer pull the same identity trick, again without recognition that the male character was violated.
This dismissive attitude regarding male consent is based on the false notion that men will always consent to sex with a woman who is attractive. In the case of John Murphy from the 100, the writers seemed to think he needed to use his faithfulness to another woman to even put up resistance. The aggressor in this scene was a murderer of children. Why wasn’t that enough to make him reluctant? Her attractiveness doesn’t matter. An erection is not consent; it is an involuntary physical reaction. And men are thinking human beings, not automatons compelled to do as their erections tell them.
This terrible trope encourages people to disregard male victims of sexual abuse and blame them for the assault. It strongly discourages men from reporting what’s happened to them, because even if people believed them, they’d have their “man card” taken away.
How to Fix It
For most stories, the best choice is simply to avoid featuring any form of non-consensual contact, regardless of gender. Sex or foreplay might not be a good time for conflict between characters (unless it’s a contest to see who’s the best in bed). The sexual contact they engage in should be unquestionably enthusiastic on both sides, and they should be sober and fully-informed at the time. This goes for the small stuff, too; avoid unwelcome hugs, stroking, or surprise kisses.
If you feel unsure whether the interaction in a scene is appropriate, you can also picture it with different characters. Start by switching the genders. Then imagine the suitor or pursuer in your scene is very unattractive, repulsive even. Pretend that you are the person on the receiving end, living out your real life. Does the contact still feel acceptable, or does it make you uncomfortable?
5. Feminine Men Are Mocked or Demonized
We have no greater sign of rigid gender roles than how our stories treat men who clearly fall outside the “man box.” The movie The Fifth Element is the perfect showcase of this. The hero is a man named Korben Dallas. Played by Bruce Willis, he’s muscular, violent, and engages in an epic struggle at the movie’s end just to share his feelings. The evil villain is named Jean-Baptiste Emanuel Zorg. He’s thin, emotionally expressive, wears nice clothes, and at one point embraces a cute elephant-like pet. Then there’s the comic relief, Ruby Rhod, who has an elaborate wardrobe too effeminate for Prince. Rhod is excitable, emotional, and acts like a bumbling coward during the action sequences.
While most storytellers wouldn’t make their villains gay because of the message it sends, we have an extensive history of male villains that are subtly packaged as gay. That means many of the traits we now associate with male villains are feminine. Nice clothing, strong emotional expression, good social skills, thin frame, and high voices are all frequently featured. Disney is particularly notorious for gay coding their villains. Even Hux from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is noticeably effeminate.
When not playing villains, feminine men too often become the butt of every joke. In the United States, women have worn pants for almost a hundred years, yet a man wearing a skirt is still considered funny and demeaning. It’s time we stopped policing men’s masculinity and let them be who they want to be.
While gay and trans men feel the brunt of these stereotypes, they affect other men as well. If a man doesn’t live up to the impossible standards of the male heroes in our stories, people will ridicule him for being too effeminate. If he tries too hard, people will mock him for “compensating for something.”
How to Fix It
Unless you’re willing to make an effeminate man the hero of your story (and your story isn’t a comedy), then you should steer clear of effeminate male villains. Make your villains just as stoic and muscular as your heroes. Never use the feminine features or behaviors of male characters to make jokes. A male character should cross-dress because he wants to, not because he’s forced to as a hilarious disguise.
Give feminine men some positive representation. Being feminine isn’t mutually exclusive with all the talents we associate with action heroes. He can love babies and use a sniper rifle to take down enemies. He can wear high heels as he escorts a suitcase of laundered money to an arms dealer willing to support the rebellion.
No matter how privileged a group is, we should avoid stereotypes about them. Just by giving characters the same traits story after story, we are encouraging our audience to make assumptions about real people. Even if those assumptions seem positive, they are ultimately hurtful. They punish both the people who don’t fit and the people who spend time and energy staying inside the box we gave them.
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