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Tansy Rayner Roberts

Insert Strong Male Protagonist Here

March 4th, 2013 at 9:42

ned-stark-needs-a-hugKate Elliott writes about strength, and writing “strong” characters, and how that ties into our societal preconceptions about the definitions of female vs. male strength. It’s a great post, and I highly recommend it.

There have been many additions in the last year to the conversation about strong female characters in SF/comics/movies and the problematic idea that ‘strong, female’ is so often defined as ‘acts in a traditionally masculine way while having a great rack.’ It’s a good conversation, and I’m thoroughly enjoying it, even though it feels like there isn’t a LOT left to say once you’ve read Kate Beaton’s take on the trope.

Kate raises a really interesting question, though, of the perceived strength of male characters. How far can we get from traditional masculine behaviour before our (male) hero starts to feel, well, not heroic enough? Why is it that so many beloved, ‘romantic’ male lead characters actually behave like arseholes?

What kind of role models are these heroes?

Why did mainstream media latch so enthusiastically on to the idea that Bella sucks as a role model for girls, and yet fail to properly disseminate the critical concept that Edward is a manipulative, patriarchal stalker-dude, and Jacob isn’t a whole lot better?

(Apart from the awesome And Then Buffy Staked Edward t-shirt, of course)

Buffy+-+And+then+Buffy+staked+Edward

While we explore and analyse female roles (and lack of role) in popular culture, I think we also need to pay attention to the fact that a whole lot of our cultural expectations about male characters need some attention. Much of the male heroic behaviour of pop culture, from the 19th century adventure heroes through to everyone Bruce Willis has ever played, is kind of problematic. Not to mention all the romantic heroes who turn out to be uncomfortably ignorant of basic issues of consent (and I’m not talking about Regency romance here, I’m talking about modern romantic comedies).

In short, we’ve been talking a lot about the definition of “strong” as it applies to female characters, but let’s not neglect the menz. Most good fiction requires a nice variety of both.

Doctor4GunPart of the reason that Doctor Who is so popular with the geek community (and a big part of the reason why some male fans are still adamantly protective of the Doctor staying male) is because he is a hero who exists outside so much of the macho bullshit that we see in most science fiction media. He’s allowed to be clever and use words and try to avoid getting people killed. He rarely goes armed (except for when he does), and he wears a nice coat.

Of course, not all male characters can be (or should be) the Doctor, but I rather like the mix of male character types you get in the show – Captain Jack, Mickey, Wilf and Rory (and my personal favourite, Canton) for example, are all complex and layered men who are allowed to have squishy feelings and skills other than (or as well as) killing people effectively. Though I noted that for all their attachment to the Doctor as the ultimate non-traditional male hero, Doctor Who fandom did tend to get a whole lot more supportive of Mickey and Rory once they ‘levelled up’ and started being badasses.

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In our household, our latest obsession is Eureka, which we are coming to far too late but at least in the safe knowledge that it’s finished, we can watch all of it, and it lasted for a whole five seasons (though that’s feeling less awesome now we only have one season left – please don’t mention anything about season 5 in the comments!)

There are many cool things about Eureka, which is set in a town that has ALL THE RESEARCH FUNDING IN THE WORLD and is every bit as much about the awesomeness of scientific discovery and education as it is about all the crazystupid things that happen when mad science goes wrong. It’s like the anti-Doctor Who. Imagine if you lived in the town where everyone from the cafe owner to the postmistress was a PhD, a certified genius, and a little bit more obsessed with quantum theory than a person has any right to be… Imagine if you were the one ordinary person living in a town where everyone else is THE DOCTOR.

eureka-season-31While Eureka does rely a lot on its hero Sheriff Carter, the traditional Everyman cop who manages somehow to solve most of the problems by making people much smarter than him explain scientific concepts in words of one syllable and coming up with well-timed metaphors, it helps a lot that his character falls in love with the town and all the mad science stuff, and like Ben Browder did with Crichton in Farscape, the actor who plays Carter brings in a bemused sense of humour as he falls further and further out of his depth.

It’s not the ‘everyman’ qualities of Carter or Crichton that make them likeable or interesting as characters, it’s the fact that those traditional heroic qualities are often subverted by situations that peel away their male privilege to see what else they’ve got.

(in both cases, they also score major character points for being attracted to and supportive of the intelligent and violent women in their lives, rather than competing or belittling them. Carter in particular is surrounded by women who are vastly more competent than he is in all kinds of areas, up to and including his smart-house who has a better love life than he does, and he admires them for those strengths – I particularly liked his supportive reaction when his deputy, the wonderfully brutal Jo Lupo, was promoted sideways to a far more high status position than his own)

EurekaIn Eureka, intelligence is generally prized above any more traditional gender attributes, and status is measured accordingly. Sheriff Carter, then, is regarded as something of an adorable pet by most of the town, while Henry the scruffy mechanic (and volunteer firefighter and pathologist and wedding chaplain etc.) is so prized for his past career that he wins the mayoral race based on a write-in vote. Criminals are pardoned if their work is deemed more important than their crimes, teenagers can acquire adult privileges regardless of their age, and APPARENTLY sexual harassment is at an all time low. (it’s a fantasy show, ok?)

Dr Stark is more of an alpha male than Carter, not because of his muscles, confidence and suave suits (okay, partly because of that) but because he has all that AND a Nobel Prize.

One of the strengths of Eureka for me (apart from the science and the banter) is the wealth of interesting, complex women who are strong (and flawed) in interesting ways, but the range of male character types and the fact that gender equality is taken as a given in this weird, wonderful town of theirs is just as much a part of the winning formula. All the relationships are basically feminist, the work of women is seen as equal to that of men, and parenting is factored into that too.

And then, coming out of that, I’m reading A Game of Thrones. So, um. A bit of contrast going on there!

It’s a little bewildering to be back in a world with such stark (ha, see what I did there) gender roles laid out by a society. I think I’m coming down on the side of readers who say that the world is sexist but the books themselves are less so – certainly there’s at least 50% fewer brothel references than in the TV series which feels like a far more reasonable balance.

Cersei-and-CatelynThe women of A Game of Thrones (and I’m only at book one so far, no spoilers please) are on the whole more varied and interesting than their society probably wants them to be, and I think that Catelyn and Cersei in particular are fantastic and subversive characters, in that they have their own storylines and power rather than just supporting the plots of the men around them. I’ve read a lot of epic & high fantasy over the years and it’s pretty rare to get the perspectives of the mothers in those stories – especially when written by men. There’s nothing especially subversive or new about Sansa, Arya or Daenerys in genre terms, because there are so very MANY stories about the journeys of women on the verge of adulthood, having to overcome terrible things (they’re interesting, just not new), but I can’t think of many examples other than Marion Zimmer Bradley of the middle-aged women getting to wield such power on the page.

The men, though – oh, those poor men. I actually feel kind of sorry for them, trapped in a world with such a narrow definition of masculinity. I’m certain that like Miles Vorkosigan before him, part of the reason Tyrion Lannister is such a massive fan favourite is because he offers a different narrative, showing how hard it is for a nobleman who isn’t tall and physically strong to navigate a world in where that is the primary way to acquire status. (it’s certainly not because he’s, you know, less horrible than anyone else in this book)

tyrion lannister brothelEven taking Tyrion into account, the men of A Game of Thrones offer a far less varied range of characterisation than the women. The entire book is one big pissing contest – it’s all swords and violence, boasting of sexual exploits, siring bastards, threatening women, throwing their weight around, armour, swords, hunting and staring moodily off walls. Those like Tyrion and Littlefinger who can’t effectively express themselves through grand acts of violence, talk constantly about sex to make up for it.

There are a few attempts to question the defaults of masculinity beyond the Tyrion scenes – young Bran dealing with not being able to walk, for instance, and Jon Snow defending his friend’s ability to serve the Order of Staring Broodily Off Walls despite being rubbish with a sword because SOMEONE has to do the sums and cook the meals.

But honestly. They may be “strong” by medieval standards, but if ever a cast of characters needed a men’s support group, possibly involving drum-beating in the woods, alternative career counselling, and encouragement to talk about their feelings, it’s the fur-wrapped, sword-swinging blokes of A Game of Thrones.

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8 Responses to “Insert Strong Male Protagonist Here”

  1. Terry Frost Says:

    For strong but not macho, I always go back to old westerns. Randolph Scott in the 1950s Budd Boetticher westerns surprised me. Strong, with his own skill sets but when he interacts with women he’s respectful and recognises *their* strengths to an extent that is rare for the era.

  2. Kate Elliott Says:

    I didn’t love Eureka’s scripts over all (too many relied on a fairly predictable plot sequence)–although the time travel season was excellent–but the Spouse and I watched the whole thing for the characters. Specifically, for me, it is the qualities you highlight here that attracted me. Sheriff Carter is a wonderful portrayal of a strong man who isn’t an asshole and who doesn’t need to be an asshole to be strong. I think it is an unusual role (it doesn’t hurt that the actor is easy on the eyes and perfect for the role and that is chemistry with Allison is excellent from the beginning).

    But, as you say, there is a lot to learn from Eureka’s “society” as opposed to the more “default” Hollywood one that I for one have really gotten tired of seeing.

  3. tansyrr Says:

    Thanks, Terry. Westerns are one of my pop culture blind spots, for the most part. Generally speaking I prefer characters whose strength at least partly comes from recognising and accepting the strength of others, and I think that a lot of ‘lone hero’ narratives avoid that, so it’s always nice to hear about the ones that don’t!

    Kate: thanks for the RT on Twitter!

    The interesting thing about Carter is that while it’s clear that his character growth STARTED at the point he arrives in Eureka (particularly as regards his commitment to parenting and to a work-life balance for the sake of his daughter), his attraction to very smart women predates that. His first wife was also a doctor and an academic – though it seems as if he did not always respect that as much as he should have done, (and that character was treated appallingly) it’s still an interesting data point.

    The town as a community is pretty adorable, particularly from season 2 onwards (the first season had a much more creepy tone to it). And yes, it was all about the characters for me – I rarely watch for plot! Though I DO love that much as the solution to many Fringe mysteries is “Walter dunnit in the 70′s”, the solution to so many Eureka mysteries is “one of your friends dunnit, in the name of science.”

    Also I am reminded of Nancy Kress being interviewed and talking about how the trouble with science fiction is that in order to create conflict in narrative, you often end up writing stories about the scientific achievement going wrong and that creates an anti-science tone if you’re not careful. Eureka did brilliantly at packing so much science (often loopy science but still) into the stories that even when half of it went boom, we got the positive stories as well as the negative.

    PLUS I adore the almost incidental aspect of all those incredibly educated children being given so many resources and so much encouragement to be smart, without the usual high school narratives. And lots of fit scientists because you don’t have to CHOOSE between being sporty or smart. Oh, so much to love. *cuddles show*

  4. Holly Says:

    I’m feeling the need to dubiously quote Gloria Steinem: “We’ve begun to raise daughters more like sons… but few have the courage to raise our sons more like our daughters.”

    I think, though, that this quote does reach to the heart of your final point in that, to a certain extent, our understanding of what it is to be female is finally beginning to expand. We are increasingly able to combine feminine and masculine traits in a female character, if in occasionally worrisome ways, but as you’ve shown, we must hunt to find male characters with perceived feminine traits.

    In fact, it sometimes seems to me that what it means to be feminine is expanding at the same rate that what it means to be masculine is contracting, at least in the popular media. However, while the feminine might be expanding, its position in the male gaze does not seem to be shifting. Is that because of the contraction of the masculine?

    All that said, I haven’t had my coffee yet, so I may be rambling. Either way, I enjoyed your post. Thanks again Tansy!
    (Thank goodness for shows like Eureka and Dr Who. <3 )

  5. tansyrr Says:

    I think it’s never been more important than it is now to demonstrate that feminism can help men too, just as the patriarchy can hurt men too. Providing a wider range of male role models in pop culture can make a big difference, as can discussing different types of strength across all gender types.

    It’s something I’m very aware of because I’m raising two daughters at the same time and very close to a friend who is raising three sons. The messages they are getting from the media can be just as damaging, but in different ways.

  6. Holly Says:

    Precisely! This is one of the reasons the feminist men in my life are so important to me. They are such important role models. And are still sadly so few.

  7. benpeek Says:

    the men of a song of ice and fire undergo a lot of changes as the books progress. to avoid spoilers, i’ll spare you any details, but it’s perhaps arguable that none undergo the transformations that the men do. it’s hard to say with any definate sureness until martin is done, of course.

    however, one of the disappointments of the book to film translation is how stripped back the female characterisation becomes. an early scene as an example is when bran is crippled. in the novel, he overhears the brother and sister plotting to kill the king, while in the TV show, he oversees them involved in incest, and the implications of the two is vastly different, and drawn from how the show wants to portray its characters.

  8. Faith Says:

    Stories that say ‘gender roles? What gender roles?’ are wonderful. They are like breathing proper quantities of oxygen after being stuck for too long in the stuffy caves of stereotype. (The Creature Court series is like that, incidentally, Velody forever.) Strong feminist characters of either sex are the best. Unfortunately some people interpret that as trashing anyone who doesn’t meet their standard. It irritates me enormously how the internet seems to have sort of latched on to Bella Swan from ‘Twilight’ as someone Everybody Should Hate. I don’t hate her – I think she’s an awkward seventeen year old girl with self-esteem issues who matures into a superhero type vampire mum. In ‘Breaking Dawn’ she specifically rejoices that she doesn’t need saving any more, that she’s finally on an equal footing with Edward. Sure, there are definitely big problems with an imbalance of power in these books (oh, I wanted Bella to lose her temper more often! Shout, Bella, shout!) but millions of girls and women liked Twilight for a reason and mocking them is, well, really not good. That it’s done very often by people talking about female strength depresses me. I am NOT saying you’re one of them, in case that’s misinterpreted, but I’ve seen it a lot elsewhere.

    Strength is respect and tolerance, really. And knowing how to be nice.

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