I’ve been noticing something interesting for the last couple of months in nerd world, mostly concerning our male characters. In a time when the public is literally begging the Great White Way and the big screens for diversity and range, we may be finally getting something more in terms of how our men are presented to us, and the ever-growing views on masculinity in nerd culture.
Now of course, I am not speaking on pop culture as a whole. Clearly, we have a huge problem going on with some cultural phenomenon in terms of expressing masculinity and their refusal to give the characters due range in expressing vulnerability. A lot of shows still use sexist tropes to further the story for no reason. And of course, it is the overwhelming societal pressures that cause and perpetuate hyper-masculinity, especially in certain communities. But as we saw with Mad Max’s character and the awesome reactions it received, negative and positive, we are headed in a good direction, although it is in a 2 step forward, 5 steps back type of way. Considering that since Tom Hardy is one of our standard issue Action Heroes™, it’s fantastic that he maintains his feminist outlook, amongst other stars. Luckily, the trend keeps appearing in the blockbuster films and series, the ones that influence and are imitated by a great amount of the population.
Big franchises such as Marvel are definitely taking this approach, especially when it comes to men of color. Meg has already brought up how Luke Cage is a victim rather than the threat in Jessica Jones’ arc, but I would like to expand a little more. His remarkably soft interior juxtaposing his platinum exterior is something that I was surprised by, although it is definitely at the expense of Jessica’s plot. He hurts because of Jessica, in and out of a relationship with her. But I do enjoy that we get to see any inner turmoil, due to the original nature of Cage. He could have been majorly stereotypical, starting out as an ex-gangster from Harlem who has, quite frankly, seen some shit, complete with 70s phrasing (sweet Christmas)! He was prime blaxploitation material, and Marvel had justification for it. But he wasn’t, at least not entirely. He is strong, yes, but incredibly gentle and generally prefers to lie low rather than be loud or entertaining.
I appreciate that Jessica Jones addressed Luke’s frustration from losing Reva, and highlighted how multiple people manipulated said turmoil, like Kilgrave and Jessica herself. It’s poignant that one of the more formidable characters, in both society and his powers, was one of the most vulnerable and I loved it.
Naturally, there is anticipation about how he could be used in his own show—and I’m crossing my fingers here, really fucking hard—but I think we’re seeing a positive flip from the Marvel universe about black men not being just intimidating and hard, but relatable and worthy of sympathy. There’s still work to do for Asian men, as Daredevil introduces us to The Hand and features their faction as the only Asian people in New York, apparently. But I digress.
Someone brought up an excellent point on Julia’s recent article about how Luke’s powers can undercut all of this, considering that he is still made to be formidable. But one could really say this about any POC with powers- it’s not specifically the powers that are the problem (unless we’re in the X-verse). Yes, Luke Cage is designed to feel less pain. Yes, it can be interpreted to perpetuate the same stereotype put upon black men (and black people in general; there is a reason the “strong black woman” or “magical negro” tropes exist). But if we continue to go down the path of Luke being this source of softness, I think his personality may subvert the trope well enough to be very effective.
And Malcolm! Can we talk about Malcolm for a minute! How cute is he, and how incredibly dedicated to people? Marvel flipped the hell out of his arc, to give him a ton of depth and further incriminate Kilgrave. I was scared that he would be the unnecessary junkie who perpetuates stereotypes and somehow shucks and jives his way to being funny, even though his situation is painfully grim. But I’m ecstatic that I was proven completely wrong. His role is especially larger in contrast to the Alias comic. In short, Malcolm is very much the cinnamon roll that does not seem to get a lot of credit and acts somewhat as a foil to all of the gritty super-powered people he accidentally got majorly involved with.
Malcolm and Luke are affected by Jessica—and sometimes I do take issue with the fact that their involvement is also mainly attributed to their pain—but Jessica did not ask for Kilgrave’s effect on them, nor did any of the characters. But in this way, they are connected. Malcolm’s and Luke’s actions inherently showcase the warped amount of entitlement that Kilgrave has and thinks he deserves.
Now that Civil War is a few weeks old, I can speak freely about this recent Marvel installment too. I was wondering if we would see a lot of genuine emotional range, or rather a gratuitous amount of man-splaining throughout. And we seemed to get a solid mixture, in my opinion. There was a good amount of vulnerability from Tony, which was refreshing. In the extreme arc, there has definitely been a shift from the overwhelming, over analytical jerk to someone who realizes they have caused great mistakes. Tony has an ever-growing conscience, and justifies this with his agreement with the Sokovia accords. Cap obviously has a particular weakness in regards to Bucky’s safety, which ultimately overshadows the original plot of Civil War in a distracting way.
The highlight for me throughout the movie was Chadwick Boseman’s performance as the Black
Panther, and not just because of the excitement in introducing Wakanda. With T’Challa, I did not see man-splaining/pain, although exoticism is a different story. Traditionally, Hollywood mixed with a healthy dose of exoticism often makes African men even more threatening than American black men on the screen, often portraying them as terrorists or another threatening force (shout-out to Batman v Superman for continuing that).
But this was much less present in Civil War, at least not portraying him as evil. There’s a resounding difference in the way he handles the situation after finally gathering ALL of the information, in comparison to, say, Tony. It is truly a dynamic character with T’Challa: overcome by a tragedy and willing to react with violence, but sensible enough to look at the facts as he discovers them, and to find forgiveness before almost any other character. Does he still kick ass? Yes. But he, like Luke Cage, does not actively do so out of trying to prove himself, show dominance, or the like. It was (slightly justified) vengeance for his father that fueled his fight, and once that feeling dissipated, he used his diplomatic nature to set things as right as he could. Now that’s what I call a multi-faceted, sensitive and pragmatic character.
And let’s not forget Star Wars. Our lovely Poe and Finn, and their actors, are incredible examples of how masculinity is changing in Hollywood, especially in contrast to both the new villain and his father. Although Poe is essentially introduced as another Han (although some say Rey is more similar), he has little to none of the cockiness that I witnessed while watching Harrison Ford. He was more uncertain, a little sarcastic, and very attractive…I mean, calculating. In short, he had all of the tools to be a total douchebag, and he wasn’t! Star Wars portrayed him as a man with top level skill and made him lovable. It’s possible, guys!
And oh god, Finn. What a great coming-of-age start for him. What a comeback from all of the initial backlash. Just—bravo. He’s not perfect or an unstoppable force. He’s a surprisingly good shot, loyal, loving, exceptionally brave, and oftentimes scared throughout the film. He fiercely tries to protect people he barely knows while coming into his own as a separate person, and has a notable amount of respect for both Leia and Rey. I can only hope that they will up his skill and importance throughout the franchise.
Even Broadway is doing its part. Take Leslie Odom, who stars as Aaron Burr in Hamilton, and who I’ve added to my idols list. In a recent article, Odom commented on what being open to the audience actually means to him as a performer and a black man in a role that is supposed to be “villainous”. His comments on this topic directly are as follows:
“As a black actor, I can just tell you that I saw the potential to turn what is expected of us so often on its head,” he said. “We’re oftentimes asked to stop the show, or to make ‘em laugh, but we’re very rarely asked for vulnerability, very rarely asked for complication. And here was a role where he got to do ‘Room Where It Happens’ and he gets to do ‘Dear Theodosia.’ You just don’t find parts like that. You don’t.”
You may be thinking, “Caisey, you’ve spoken about a ton of men of color here. What gives?” Or not. Either way, I’ve noticed something else recently. While there are quite a few white and white adjacent actors that show character depth in positive ways, I’m also seeing another trend: as a true reflection of our current society, there’s a notable display of white men as the villains, or worse, the highly entitled people that do not see themselves as evil or intrusive. They are perpetuating the serial killer vibe, and liking it. Ramsey Sue, Kilgrave, Kylo Ren. Hell, even Cap and Tony can be tossed in, if only because of the effects of their huge egos clashing on multiple occasions. I could write an entire separate essay on how Walter White got away with so much.
There is a correlation that these newer villains are white or white-passing, a trend that could also be attributed to the serial lack of diversity within Hollywood. But as I mentioned above, it may be a flip on the traditional portrayal of POC as villains. These characters reflect a newer perspective of the worst type of masculinity, which used to be our norm.
What I’m saying here is evident to most that would seek out this article: The Manly Male Man type of masculinity is no longer a necessity in Hollywood, and especially in most nerd spheres. That type of thought has considerably damaged and ostracized plenty of people within the community already, men and women alike. It’s good to see multiple facets of our society slowly, but surely fighting back.