I’m going to tackle some stereotypes present in modern fiction that I think are dangerous when used irresponsibly. Any entries part of this series will be labeled as “Dangerous Stereotypes.” You can read previous entries in this series, which discuss the Scientist and Bad Boy stereotypes.
Every culture has certain expectations of how people are supposed to behave. Sometimes these social rules apply across the board, but others are gender-specific, and this is reflected in our media. While a lot of scrutiny is given to the short stick that women get instead of proper representation in books, films, and video games, less attention has been paid to the toxic masculinity that pervades so much modern media.
When you picture the hero of a story, especially in science fiction or fantasy, what do you see? Chances are the kind of man that comes to mind is tall, physically fit or imposing, and who can win a fight with style, even if violence isn’t their first choice. Many are handsome, cocky, reckless, often abrasive, and tend to fill the leadership role with a sense of natural ease. They are almost always heterosexual playboys, exuding a charisma that draws women to their bed and encourages other men to either follow their lead or to become their competitor. Some prime examples of this archetype can be found in Captain Kirk from Star Trek, John Carter from the Barsoom novels by Edgar Rice Burroughs, any incarnation of James Bond, the half-demon Inuyasha from the manga by Rumiko Takahashi, and mythic idols like Thor and Robin Hood. Even heroes who start off shy, awkward, nerdy, or reluctant, like Harry Potter and Peter Parker, eventually become independent leaders and warriors thanks to their adventures. Expressions of emotion, empathy, or sensitivity are often shown as weaknesses to be hidden behind a wall of witty banter, arrogance, or stoicism. It is the stereotypical “Alpha Male” who always comes out on top.
Now, I’m not saying that we should never have these kinds of characters, nor that they are all uninteresting, muscle-bound hoodlums. I enjoy much of the media that features this kind of hero, and there is room for some variety in their motivations and the actions that follow. While there are times and stories that require or work best with an Alpha hero, it does severely limit the examples of male behavior to the macho Übermensch. A man who does not fit this rather narrow band of accepted behavior is often ridiculed or ostracized, both in fiction and in real life. How often have we heard a quieter, thoughtful, more sensitive man or boy be labeled a “pansy,” a “chicken,” or a “wimp”? How often have they been told that they should “toughen up” lest they “lose their man-card”?
The thing is, men are not all the same. They don’t have identical interests, abilities, inclinations, or personalities. But rather than celebrating these differences or deviations from the stereotypical hero, they are criticized or regulated to sidekicks for the leading Alpha. Turned into a one-trick pony, they rarely have an opportunity to showcase the many different and viable forms of masculinity open for men to explore. The Alpha gets all the accolades while the Beta becomes the butt of the joke. This can lead men who don’t fit into the stereotype to become depressed, insecure, express misplaced anger, or engage in unnecessarily risky behaviors. Having a single, almost impossible standard like the fictional Alpha male is both unrealistic and dangerous.
It’s rare to find a character that successfully shakes off this toxic depiction of masculinity while remaining the hero of the story. The biggest current mainstream example would be Newt Scamander, the socially awkward but dedicated and passionate hero of the movie Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This entry was actually inspired by a Youtube video about him “The Fantastic Masculinity of Newt Scamander” posted by Pop Culture Detective, and I highly recommend watching it. (Many thanks to David Greenshell for bringing it to my attention!)
Newt is a huge departure from the traditional fantasy hero, with empathy presented as his greatest strength rather than a liability. He doesn’t fight, he doesn’t have a special destiny, and he isn’t really charismatic. He’s just a quiet, gentle, confidant person whose sympathy and compassion encompasses both magical creatures and humans.
I’m wracking my brains trying to think of other male heroes who are of a similar atypical mold, and (while I’m sure there must be more) the only ones that come to mind that are close are Lief from Deltora Quest or Rowan of Rin by Emily Rodda and Bilbo Baggins from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. They have empathy for others and generally survive by their wits and compassion rather than with brute force or special powers. While they try to be strong and do learn to fight to some degree, they often openly admit that they are scared, out of their depth, or need help. It isn’t a perfect parallel, but at least it gives a little more variety to the heroic palate.
As writers and artists, we need to be aware of these pervasive stereotypes about male behavior and try to have characters that express a wider range of strengths, personalities, and inclinations. The idea of the Alpha male being the only ideal excludes so many positive traits that can lead to even more varied and interesting stories! Men need to see that having and expressing emotion is not a weakness. That being sensitive, caring, and nurturing is not emasculating. That having interests or talents that don’t require violence or mastery of martial arts is admirable. That valuing diplomacy and compromise should be lauded, not derided. We need to see fewer Alphas and more Betas.