Sunday, April 27, 2014

Finding Masculinity - Groundwork

“The thing about a hero, is even when it doesn't look like there's a light at the end of the tunnel, he's going to keep digging, he's going to keep trying to do right and make up for what's gone before, just because that's who he is.” (Emphasis mine)
― Joss Whedon

When it comes to characters in any media, but particularly in games and other nerd media, straight white guys definitely have it made when it comes to characters they can identify with.

"So you get clothes, and I get a skin tight bodysuit?"
A great deal has been written about the absence of women in primary roles. Women are so seldom portrayed as the primary heroes that it becomes a subject of note when they are. The same goes for any hero of color or a character who might not be read as straight. I agree that this is where the bulk of the conversation should be, but there is another side to this paradigm that is discussed less often.

The portrayal of straight white men as the default hero hurts everyone. Yes, it even hurts straight white men too. This isn’t to say that it doesn’t contribute to male privilege. I know that I’m lucky to have a plethora of positive heroic characters that I can easily identify with. Since this privilege is built on a foundation of sand and lacking true substance, however, there is a cost to having masculinity defined as it is in many games and other media.

The criticism of the patriarchy does not have to be limited to its impact on women. The diminished role of women and the constant exaltation of a certain kind of man portrayed in games and nerd media hurts men too. Patriarchal dominance harms society as a whole. Feminism is not about fighting for half the population. It’s fighting for all of it.

Despite the wide variety of characters men can identify with, there are a few tropes that the nerd genres in particular strongly push to define masculinity. These tropes become problematic when they start to strictly define maleness in very specific ways that are neither realistic nor healthy if brought into real life practice. In this post I’m going to cover the stereotype, explain some of the costs of this construction of male identity. This post is my groundwork for going into how some media like Pacific Rim and Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. have presented some interesting angles on the stereotype.

Strong, Self-reliant, and In Command  – Masculinity Defined

"It's a glorious day to be a super man."
When a male-oriented game loads that first cinematic or we see the opening scene of our manly hero in a movie, we can instantly make some baseline assumptions about the man we are watching. After dozens of movies, stories, and years of a reverberating culture informing our expectations we can assume that this hero is almost definitely strong, self-reliant, in command (especially of his feelings.) These are what our culture has accepted as the formula not only for a hero but also a man. Deviation from this template can happen in a heroic story, but it is narratively significant if it does.

"About 98 lbs, sir. Why?"
For example, Captain America starts off his story as a physically weak man and part of his narrative is gaining respect and command – as well as super strength. His initial absence of strength is such a deviation from the template that it becomes the focus of the first act of the movie. Even prior to being blessed by a strength granting serum, it’s emphasized in Captain America: The First Avenger that Steve Rogers always had a personal strength of character. This strength of character is presented as a kind of proxy to stand in for Cap’s lack of physical strength until it’s serum time.

Can you even imagine Han asking Chewbacca or anyone else for help?
 It’s rare to see our male hero ever ask for help, rather than give orders. Asking for help conveys weakness or vulnerability for the male identity. Needing to work alone to protect others is all over comic book heroes. It’s where the whole costume thing comes from after all. Batman, Spider-man, and Superman all make a point of working alone. It’s the source of heartache for our heroes but enduring the solitude is just another attribute that defines masculinity in this construction. There might be side-kicks or team ups, but it’s rare for any of these types of characters to really be in need of someone else.

When Wolverine flips out it's "heroic." When a woman does it, it's "hysterics."
Our male hero is always the general – never the lieutenant. If he is the lieutenant, his general often doesn’t really “get it” so the hero is the moral superior officer anyway.  He is always in control. Even when his emotions get the better of him, a male hero is typically channeling that into something awesome. Wolverine might lose his cool, but it’s always getting lost in the direction some kind of important objective anyway. We rarely see our masculine hero break down in weakness for very long.

"My whole life has been building up to this point when I greet you as you exit your pod, sir.
It was a pleasure to watch you sleep."
Often the male hero of a movie or video game is so in command of everything that goes on around him that he becomes almost like a black hole sucking all the attention and motivation for other characters into himself. In video games, where the player is usually taking the role of the hero, this phenomenon can get especially silly. In Halo, for example, you get the feeling sometimes that NPCs are just waiting for Master Chief to arrive and give them a purpose in life – so much of narrative’s universe is centered on the male hero.

Sure, there are exceptions to the rule, but almost every male hero follows this general template. These aren’t really bad traits for heroes to have . We want to have a hero that is strong. It’s good to have self-reliance and no have to lean on others all the time, and being in command is just part of the wish-fulfillment escapism that goes hand-in-hand with these kinds of stories. These traits are so engrained into our heroes that the template has become too rigid. We are limiting what we think of as a hero.

The Costs of "Masculinity" 

These truly are heroic traits, but because heroes are so predominantly male we often understand them as specifically masculine traits. We expect men, and even young boys, to be strong, self-reliant, and in command even when the situation does not demand heroics. Men come to expect this of themselves in everyday life, despite the fact these traits are usually either unattainable or unsustainable.

Nobody in real life can be heroic in these ways all of the time. To me, real life heroes and the best fictional heroes share in common that they are ordinary people driven to accomplish extraordinary things under circumstances that demand something exceptional. I believe that we all have that strong, self-reliant, in-control hero within us that can come out when the time comes, but it is impossible to draw on that inner power at all times. It’s definitely not healthy to try.

No Bruce! Don't!
There is a cost to letting these traits define men. Everyone will always experience moments when we are weak – physically, morally, or emotionally. We will always be surrounded by others who are stronger than us in one way or another. A wise person accepts vulnerability and seeks out the help of others. This is not weakness so much as it is being human. On a team at work, on a sports field, at school, or in a game, usually a team that can rely and lean on each other can accomplish more than a group of lone-wolf super stars. The heroic masculine identity construction pushes men to do more with less – usually needlessly.

In the workplace men will try to hide or obscure a lack of knowledge or ability until they find themselves in a situation where they can only be fired. This hurts the employer who promoted the man to a position of incompetence and it hurts the man who could have been just as successful as a lieutenant if he had not believed his identity as a man depended on him being a general.

This masculine identity construction takes its toll on mental health too. Men suffer from depression at the same rate as women, but they are less likely to seek help for it at factor of 2 to 1. This is strongly correlated with heroic concepts of masculinity. The heroic male suffers quietly. He believes he should endure pain on his own because he is expected to be strong. In the real world, however, untreated depression steadily gets worse. Our real-life stoic and heroic men become incapable to help those around them, and many turn to the unheroic coping mechanisms including substance abuse and suicide.

On the one hand, dealing with problematic portrayals of a heroic male identity is undoubtedly preferable to dealing with the subservient support role or completely absent role women have forced upon them constantly. At the end of the day, a man is left struggling to fit into an unrealistic, yet positive, construction of masculine identity, while the female heroic identity still struggles to even be visible. Nevertheless, the problematic nature of masculine identity is another damaging element of the gender identity construction in our games and nerd media.

Working towards cooperative identity and monster slaying robots.
We are making progress as a society, but we still have a long way to go. As cracks and fissures appear in patriarchal formulaic story-telling, however, we are seeing a few interesting challenges to both the stereotypical female and male roles shine through. I started this post after noticing some interesting takes on the masculine identity trope in Pacific Rim and an episode of Marvel Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Next post or two I’ll be exploring those twists in more detail. 

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