We’ve got a problem. A men problem.
Alright, we’ve got a bunch of those, but this jumped-up cis-hetero wannabe-essayist is only here to talk about one specific men-problem:
There are too many men-writers – hoping for progressive street-cred – creating “cynical / disaffected / intelligent” male protagonists with negative character traits in order to criticize those same traits through ‘irony.’
Our media is oversaturated with what-I-like-to-call ‘irony-criticism.’ I’m speaking, of course, of this nasty habit men-writers have picked up over the years by which they characterize all their protagonists as obnoxious / misogynistic / ignorant / misanthropic assholes in an effort to draw a thoughtful, critical eye via irony. Blame postmodernism, I guess, because if Pynchon and going way-back John Dos Passos didn’t start doing this a hundred years ago, closeted Pinkerton-agent Justin Roiland and – uh, who the fuck wrote Scott Pilgrim? Whatever – wouldn’t be making millions off of doing it now. But it’s 2017 and there are at least five shows and countless more movies made every year that exhibit this same problem. Make no mistake, despite the (possibly) well-intended impetus behind it, this is a problem.
Mayhaps men-writers legitimately create these characters in an effort to criticize the worst aspects of nerd-culture. Maybe they truly believe developing men in their stories who exhibit the worst traits of the supposedly ‘enlightened’ caste is the best way to convince other dudes on the internet that it’s actually horrible and unhealthy to go through life with a barb on your tongue and doubt on your mind. Maybe it is indeed cynical of me to assume men only write these atrocious protagonists to prove that they’re “woke” enough to understand treating women poorly and not having emotions is bad. However, even if their intent is less ignoble than that, such logic is inherently flawed. Plus, we’ve still got too many of these bastards running around.
Obviously I’m speaking first-and-foremost of Rick from Rick and Morty, who also stands as the nerd-messiah of the moment, but he’s just the tip of this irony-criticism iceberg. Let’s run through a list:
Bojack. (Never seen the show, but obviously Bojack is this kind of guy, I only need to hear his fucking voice to know this is his character to a tee. Rampant ennui, a general faux-intellectual cynicism towards life, an over-reliance on philosophy and 10th grade shower-thoughts – basically the worst kind of Richard Linklater imaginable.)*
Kaz Kaan. (Bummed about this one, even though I still love Neo Yokio.)
DC protagonists on CW shows. (Haven’t seen any of these either but tell me Oliver Queen isn’t like this, I dare you.)
Casey Affleck (Both IRL and in Manchester By the Sea, it seems like one of these fuckers is obligated to win an Oscar every year.)
Zach Braff. (Again, kind-of just in anything he does or writes.)
Sherlock Holmes. (Just the Cummy-one.)
Dr. Strange. (Just the Cummy-one.)
The Cummy One.
V (for Vendetta).
Bradley Cooper. (Pretty much any role in any movie he’s done since 2009; Burnt, Aloha, Limitless, etc…)
The Ir0n(ic) Man.
Tyrion / Jaime Lannister.
*If you would like a more all-encompassing way to qualify these characters, imagine the Knuckles-the-Echidna version of Richard Linklater’s Sonic. Kind of the same-ish personality as the latter, but heightened to such a ludicrous extent it should be impossible not to see it as parody. Keyword: Should.
Two things should stand out about all these characters: 1) They’re all straight-ish (‘cept Sherlock) white men, save for Kaz Kaan who’s only black because animated black people are easier for white people to tolerate than living, breathing black people & 2) They’ve all been historically written by or outright created by men.
Real quick, here’s an antithetical list of characters, male and female, created by women and/or people of color*:
Alana & Abby – Broad City
Samantha White – Dear White People
… or, if you’d prefer –
Gabe Mitchelll – Dear White People
Offred – The Handmaid’s Tale
… or, if you’d prefer –
Nick – The Handmaid’s Tale
Rachel – Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Rafael – Jane the Virgin
Sylvere – I Love Dick
*Notice a distinct lack of film characters on this list – not only is this because women content-creators are so poorly represented in Hollywood, but also, because their characters and stories are so marginalized, I CAN’T FUCKING EVEN THINK OF ANY OFF THE TOP OF MY HEAD, WHEREAS THE MASSIVE LIST OF SMUG MEN ABOVE COULD HAVE BEEN EVEN LONGER IF I HAD WANTED.
What does this mean?
Well, it most obviously means white men have a relative monopoly in pop-culture. It also means a lot of men ‘in the industry’ believe that creating protagonists that are misogynistic / full-of-ennui / apathetic / smart-aleck or just generally shitty is either A) more interesting than writing decent feminist allies into their stories or B) somehow better for the story, which really boils right back down to a belief in A) when you think about it.
This foul phenomena also hints at a serious lack of creativity in modern screenwriting. Carl Jung called the emergence of an inner feminine personality in the male unconscious the anima. Ever since time immemorial, writers have sought to imbue their mantagonists with some kind of character-arc by having them, symbolically or otherwise, connect more deeply with their anima. Put more simply, a whole bunch of stories throughout all of time are about men getting in touch with their feminine side. Want an example of this done literally? Tootsie (1982). An example of this done figuratively? The Breakfast Club (1985), or A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
Stories focusing on the anima are not necessarily a bad thing – Tootsie is a phenomenal film, and when these “finding-anima” plots are done well, they are extremely effective at eliciting emotion from audiences, even if the formula is a bit cheap and easy. The problem arises when postmodern writers, in the wake of Derrida’s deconstructivism Duchamp’s piss-pots and what-have-you, push this trope to the absolute extreme and frame all their stories around an absolute shit-spewer of a ‘smart guy’ slowly redeeming himself by reconnecting with the concept of emotion. It may be done in the name of satire and irony, but it’s still done, and it’s done ad nauseam.
The notion of ‘male’ vs. ‘female’ has been boiled down in this age of self-reflexive genre-skewering to ‘smart’ vs. ‘weepy,’ which… I mean yeah, does that sound okay to you?! Is it good that so many writers associate their bad-men with hyper-intellect and their good-women with vulnerability and emotion? Is that a notion we want to encourage now, in the year-of-our-Lord 2017? This so-called ‘positive stereotype’ (read: “men are bad because they can’t feel and they think too much; women are good because they are emotionally balanced”) has been beaten to death in our pop-culture narratives. It’s a song old as rhyme and we’ve heard it sung a thousand times better before. Yet men-writers ‘in the industry’ have convinced themselves that this is the only story: a new master narrative for the 21st century.
These sorts of characters betray the very ideals their creators (hopefully) seek to espouse. If the Justin Roilands and Ryan Goslings of the world truly aim to expose the fundamental flaws in the self-serving male intellect by drafting pontificating or stoic men with chips on their shoulders and cynicism in their souls, they’re hopelessly self-defeating. Recent Szechuan-sauce riots and super-fandoms online reveal that men do not take the hint. Men do not understand when you criticize them with ‘irony.’ Men do not understand that Rick Sanchez and Sherlock and even Scott Pilgrim are supposed to be ironic caricatures of what they believe a ‘smart, useful, nerdy & enlightened & kinda-good-guy’ is supposed to be. Men don’t get it when you try to be smart when you call us stupid. Some of us do, it’s true, and it’s for these people that these shows are ostensibly made, but these fables are quickly growing stale.
When women writers began writing more character development into Rick Sanchez, i.e. when they had him start listening to and caring more about the women in his life and just generally acting more empathetic, the fanbase rioted online. Those fucks don’t even want the fucking redemption part of the redemption story! Why?! Because men don’t care to identify with a character discovering his anima when the base-level unconscious man is so much cooler to us.
Rick Sanchez? Oh man, dude, Rick is so cool, he’s a pickle and he doesn’t believe in anything and he’s a smart-guy, why would they fuck it up by making him listen to women?!
The Driver? So cool that he doesn’t speak and fights people with a hammer my dude, that’s what’s up.
The Iron Man? So sick that he makes sorta-meta jokes about movies and is rich, I love it.
Men are no longer even interested in the development of these shitheads into decent people, as we are in Dustin Hoffman’s character in Tootsie and Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. This is because we have been so inundated with cool-smart-guys in all aspects of popular culture that we would rather sit rapt and fellate ourselves to the sight of yet-another intelligent, disaffected dude wax philosophical about matters far too complicated and brutal for women and dumb people. We just think that’s the only way to be.
More proof, you cry?! Fight Club, written by a gay man as a scathing critique of hyper-masculinity and fascism, was twisted into an anthem for disenfranchised office-bros everywhere. Office Space (1999); same shit. Catcher in the Rye; perhaps the mac-daddy. Oh lord, don’t get me started on Alexander Supertramp, that’s a true story and motherfuckers still think he’s some kind of hero, no thanks to Sean Penn. These are decades old! We should have seen the signs!!
The latent issue here is that men-writers don’t give two-shits about exploring allyship on screen. Regardless of whether these problematic protagonists are too smart or too emotionless or just too fucking cool, they sure-as-shit are not feminists. This is deliberate. Men-writers think allies are boring, they think allies are one-dimensional, they think there is no arc to be had with an ally. Why? Because men-writers believe that becoming an ally is the absolute be-all end-all ideal for a man.
Men, in our infinite capacity to expect the bare minimum of ourselves before jacking off in the shower at the end of the day, have decreed that becoming a good feminist ally is such an unattainable goal that it might as well be the real-life equivalent of Frodo destroying the ring. There are no allies in our (i.e. men’s) favorite stories because the men who write them think that allies are the absolute apotheosis of character, and they believe the only possible interesting story is one in which a shit-heel wisecracking bastard-man slowly grinds his way towards the nirvana of not treating women like garbage. And once he gets there? Story’s over, that’s it, nothing left to see here folks.
Men-writers believe that becoming an ally is the absolute be-all end-all ideal for a man.
We should expect more of men-writers. When Ezra Koenig writes an anime, we should expect a character who starts off as an ally, not one who serves as a satirical linchpin for misogyny and disaffection in high-society. We shouldn’t worship Jaime Lannister for deciding to no longer rape his sister. We shouldn’t think Sherlock is cool for mastering induction at the expense of having healthy relationships.
I’d like to end on a positive note, mostly because I’ve got a vein pulsing on my forehead. Gravity Falls is a fantastic show about 13-year-old twins in which the brother, Dipper, is immediately characterized as unfailingly supportive of his sister Mabel. He also happens to be very smart. When he fucks up and slips into smart-guy Rick Sanchez territory, it’s a huge problem, and is usually resolved by episode’s end. He’s an ally through and through, throughout the series. And guess what?! He still has an arc! He’s an interesting character to watch! He has fantastic character development across three seasons, and it has nothing to do with learning to respect women or having emotions! He’s got those in spades already! Wow-wee!
Gravity Falls is written by and created by Alex Hirsch. A man. Men can do better. It’s not impossible. We just have to be willing to call ourselves out when we don’t. Because we don’t. Often.