Cultural critics often lament the lack of strong female characters, but rarely turn their gaze to ask whether male heroes are actually as empowered as we think they are. For all their bravado and bluster, most classic male heroes are not allowed much emotional latitude. Superheroes like Batman and Superman have secret identities that can never be exposed, and modern anti-heroes like Don Draper and Walter White have covert pasts, which they keep closely guarded. In our culture vulnerability is risky, something the hero has to be selective about sharing with the outside world. Confession is viewed as feminine, yielding, emasculating. At best, male confession is seen as adolescent, the mark of moody emo bands like Bright Eyes and boyish rappers like Eminem. Jesse Pinkman may be beloved on Breaking Bad, but he still looks like a kid. Walter White is the icon of the modern adult man, who creates (and destroys) what he will in order to make his own destiny.
Female heroes who possess agency often revel in the best of both gendered worlds— they are rewarded for their strength and humanity in equal measure. Women take great pride in characters like Katniss, but feel less sure of what to do with characters like Peeta, serving the role of “movie girlfriend”—selfless and often pushed to the side. If the roles of women lack diversity of experience, the roles of men in today’s cultural landscape do as well. For every dumb airhead, we have a dickish bro. For every manic pixie dream girl, we have a silent heartthrob (a Jordan Catalano) staring vacantly into space while strumming his guitar.
The male perspective, the supposedly default perspective, is still one that is actively constructed, while it receives far less critical examination than femininity does.
In reality, the masculine mystique is as incomplete and impenetrable as the feminine one. Boys and men are shaped by social expectations as much as women are. The reason that certain sexualized images are popularized has less to do with universal male desire than with the cultural acceptability of certain portrayals of male desire, ones that boys are just as acculturated to accept as girls are. The body types that men are allowed to find attractive on TV are limited to the thin and young and while 2013’s 50 Shades of Grey culture has bolstered the social acceptability of the female sexual submission and male dominance narrative, portrayals of any myriad number of kinks and taboos, especially those that involve a portrayal of male vulnerability, are still few and far between.There are massive discourses on how to talk about female desire in periodicals from The Atlantic and The New York Times. Many of these discussions are cursory, assumption-laden and incomplete, but at least they exist. Male desire, in contrast, is assumed to be unanimous and well understood, the product of a world of boob and dick jokes, where getting off feels like a game which only one person can possibly win. Men are consistently portrayed as emotionally simplistic, wanting nothing more than beer, sex and a partner who will allow them to get away with acting like a goofy child.
Outside of comedy shows, everything in pop culture right now is a proverbial battlefield. Our heroes are alphas through and through. We are taught to read Tony Stark’s swagger as sexy, just as we interpret Don Draper’s sense of entitlement as charming and seductive. In 2013 we admire the ability to weild a weapon and make a tough decision, but we rarely see tenderness as being life affirming or empowering. Our heroes generally go into battle with teeth clenched and talons sprung.
I’m fascinated by images of aggression, and sometimes I fear that this kind of semiotics of agency is inescapable. I’d like to pretend my fascination with horror movies and UFC fighting is merely anthropological, but I’d be lying if I didn’t say the other reason I am drawn to violence is that there is something aggressive inside me too. I can’t listen to Kanye without identifying with something primitive and raw in his sexually charged rage. What does it mean when a woman identifies with a man singing about “bitches” as objectified property? I know he’s not singing about me, but he is singing about the idea of me. Sometimes it feels like a kind of Stockholm syndrome—as if my resolve not to consume sexist material just gave way after years of losing a war which I might never win. But then I see myself in the mirror and I see that part of me seduced by the idea of climbing over other people to get to the top. The part that is pure id: wild, unadulterated want.
If our stories don’t change, we don’t change. The things we want are all culturally constructed, sure, but the ubiquity of gender roles taps into something that is more complex than current culture. These are core archetypes, as natural to us as breathing or sleeping. The breadth of the human experience is wide, but our world gets smaller when we reduce complex human feelings and experiences to prescribed gender roles.
Of course, mainstream pop culture has never been about freedom. Media, even at its best, is always about indoctrination. For all the alpha male bravado we see raging against the establishment, the alpha male is still just an animal swaddled in bravado trapped in a slightly bigger cage.
Arielle Bernstein is
a writer living in Washington, DC. She teaches writing at American
University and also freelances. Her work has been published in The
Millions, The Rumpus, St. Petersburg Review and The Ilanot Review. She
has been listed three times as a finalist in Glimmer Train short story
contests. She is currently writing her first book. She is Associate
Book Reviews Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.