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Problematic Toxic Masculinity Tropes

If you’ve followed my Problematic Badass Female Tropes series (over at Writers’ HQ, kids), you’ll recall that the central argument to all those discussions was that those tropes restrict and weaken strong (read: badass) female characters. The bait and switch problems of each PBFT was the dangling of the “badass” in front of us to distract us, while assuming that the character’s strength is enough to make us not notice nor care about the inherent misogynistic structures she has been constructed with.

This new series will look at seven Problematic Toxic Masculinity tropes, and its central argument differs somewhat from that of the PBFTs, though of course the two sets of problematic tropes are intricately and innately connected. This series centers around the inherent assumption that males are strong and dominant. Where the PBFTs focus on the bait and switch of the strong female that’s in fact not strong but subservient to males, the PTMTs focus on the false labels of strength in male characters, as well as the narrow, restrictive, and damaging definition of what it means to be a strong man.

Both sets of tropes do similar things; both are examples of problems of gender and power. We will learn as we go through the male counterparts to the PBFTs that both sets of Problematic Tropes affect how media and entertainment express characters of all genders, and that all these problematic trope characters have a negative impact on the real people that consume and admire them.

But first, what does this trendy phrase Toxic Masculinity actually mean? Lately, in the continued wake of the #metoo movement, the phrase Toxic Masculinity is being bandied about by feminists of all stripes, mainly as a way to shut down conversations. I want to start conversations by writing about these tropes, not shut them down, so real quick let me give you, dear intelligent readers, my working definition of what Toxic Masculinity means (at least as far as these discussions go).

In a nutshell: Toxic Masculinity is the harmful view (ingrained in our patriarchal and heteronormative society) that if a man does not dominate, he is not a man. Domination of all things (from one’s own emotions to other people) is the key poison that puts the Toxic in Toxic Masculinity. Also remember: just like the Problematic Badass Female Tropes were, the Problematic Toxic Masculinity Tropes are not examples of what real men in the real world are actually like, but rather are problematic expressions of masculinity in the forms of characters in popular culture, art, and entertainment, and as such are influential to those who consume and attempt to emulate them. I want to point out the problems in these characters so that we can be aware of what the tropes are doing to us even as we continue to enjoy our media.

I will be writing full blog posts discussing these seven tropes, just like I did with the PBFTs, but first (as indeed I did with the PBFTs), here’s the bare basics in a rundown of what you can expect from these new magnificent seven:

1. Go Big or Go Home

As a man, the only choice you have for beauty is to be big and muscular. Thin, short, “feminine” or small men aren’t men, and certainly aren’t desirable. Where women are told by culture to lose more and more weight, diminishing themselves to invisibility, men are told they are nothing unless they take up more and more space, and are physically strong to boot.

2. Grow a Pair (or, Stoicism Ain’t Just For Hellenistics Anymore)

Pop Culture Detective’s excellent video article, “The Case Against the Jedi Order” describes this harmful trope well. Basically, boys are taught at very young ages to man up, grow a pair, boys don’t cry, etc. which means by the time they become men, they are not able to express emotions healthily, or even at all. The Jedi are a prime example of this, as is every Shane that breezes into town, kicks the bad guys’ collective ass, and moves on. The coolest male characters are ones that show no emotion whatsoever, and certainly don’t form deep emotional connections with other humans. Which leads me to:

3. Bond, James Bond

The misogyny and classism of the gentleman’s gentleman will be explored here, with our good friend 007 at the helm of our examples.

4. The Tale Of The Nerd and the Neckbeard

Nerds are sub-males. That’s the gist of this problematic trope. Brain bigger than your biceps? Well you certainly won’t get the girl. And the extreme of this trope is the seed from which incels sprout.

5. Sassy Gay Friend (with his polar opposite companion, the Terrifying Leather Daddy)

This pair of gay male stereotypes are two sides of the same problematic coin. Both sides of this trope speak to the deep seated fear ingrained in men of being seen as feminine, and as we have said in our definition of Toxic Masculinity, a man who does not dominate is not a real man.

6. Violence is Normal

Not only is violence a normal behavior trained in boys since early childhood, it’s encouraged and even necessary in most social situations depicted by culture. Violent domination is the most commonly seen form of domination in our entertainment and arts, in the form of Problematic Masculine characters taking their strength and power by force.

7. Mr. Mom

LOL, men can’t be good parents! The awful trope of the bumbling dad, nothing more than another child for moms to manage, is the trope on this list that angers me personally the most. Look for some heartfelt angry rants in this article, readers.

Well that’s the basic idea! What do you think? Look for this series to start up on Writers’ HQ after the PBFTs are all done. And leave ideas you have in the comments; I may want to include some of them as I get more in depth with these tropes during the writing process.

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Down the Rabbit Hole

The third in my Problematic Badass Female Tropes series is live, lovely lurkers! I call it Down The Rabbit Hole. Have a look-see over at Writers’ HQ.

Hero’s Journey / Villain’s Journey: I

Hero’s Journey/Villain’s Journey :

 

Part I

When I was very young and first learned about story formulae, it distressed me, as I was worried very much about originality at the time. But once I grew into my writership and my voice and became more and more well read, I realized that formulae like Campbell’s Hero’s Journey function as skeletons, a strong (and yes, necessarily same) structure that a storyteller can then hang original flesh and clothing on top of. See Kirby Ferguson’s Everything Is A Remix episode wherein he talks about the materials George Lucas used to build the bird’s nest that is Star Wars, and you’ll have a new appreciation for the recycled, and a new view of what it means to be “original.”

The Hero’s Journey

Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, laid out the basic structure for all story, something he called the Monomyth. The original Journey consists of 17 different phases or stages the hero goes through, from the Call to the Apotheosis to the Magical Flight, and so on. Many writers have shortened this formula down to a more manageable three stages: The Call, Road Of Trials, and Return. Personally, I prefer an 8-stage version a teacher concocted from the original 17, in that with the 8 stages, we get the detail of the Journey more specifically than the very simplified 3-step version, but it is much easier to swallow (and more versatile) than the full 17. And I have taught my writing students this 8-stage version in my own Jenn way for many years (part Campbell’s words, part pop culture/my own. And ain’t that just so postmodern of me?).

(Only thing better is my 3 Rules for Protagonists, based on Stanislavsky’s acting “Method.” And it is better. But this piece of writing is specifically about the hero’s and villain’s Journey, so I digress…)

Anyway. This is my take:

8-step version Hero’s Journey

1. call to adventure

Our hero (oh, and, side note: I eschew use of the word “heroine,” as it is merely the diminutive form of the noun. I don’t use the word “actress” for the same reason. The feminine should not be diminutive. A person is a hero or an actor, no matter what gender they express) gets whisked away on the adventure. The snug norm of regular life is disrupted, and it’s time to embark upon the unknown. Very often, the hero resists the Call (or even outright refuses it), but no matter if they do, they end up running after those dwarves without a pocket-handkerchief, or taking the red pill, or falling down the rabbit hole regardless.

2. Threshold

This is the gateway to the Magical Realm. In old stories (and often In new fantasies), this is where the hero enters the Forest. Usually there’s some kind of terrifying guardian at this gate, and the hero must use their own bravery and wit (and often, help and/or gifts from a wise mentor or fairy godperson) in order to get through. The doorway to nirvana is guarded by two fearsome swordsmen, for example, and the way back to the Garden of Eden is flanked by terrible (also sword-wielding) seraphim. But crossing the threshold is only the first challenge for the hero…

3. Jedi trials

Once the hero is in the Other Realm, away from the normal world as we know it, they’re immediately in mortal, life-changing danger. They must undergo a series of challenges in order to move on, each one tougher and more dangerous than the one before. And each test makes the hero stronger, and teaches them more. This stage is the one where our hero may meet other characters like the Temptress/Goddess and the Trickster, and may or may not lose their magical guide here. The first Star Wars movie follows this precisely, as once Luke crosses through the threshold (Mos Eisely spaceport; you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy), he meets Leia, Han, Chewie, and loses Obi-Wan. Sorry, did you need a spoiler alert?

4. Abyss

This is the worst, darkest, direst of the Jedi Trials. This is the most difficult test the hero goes through, the one where they almost give up, or nearly perish. If our hero is in a video game, this is where they must fight the Boss Monster, and it’s uncertain whether or not they’ll succeed.

lastcrusadegrail

“You chose…wisely.”

5. A-ha moment

This is the moment when the hero puts their hands on the Holy Grail. When they attain their objective, or realize it’s not attainable. Indiana Jones literally did this in the third movie of that trilogy (yes, the Indiana Jones franchise is only a trilogy lalalalala I can’t hear you what are you saying about a crystal skull)….

6. Transformation

Sometimes this happens right with the a-ha moment, or the a-ha moment happens because of this. This stage is where the hero changes irrevocably—no longer are they the hapless teenager, scared little girl, or impatient farmboy. That abyss was the straw that broke the hero’s back and transformed them into an actual hero.

7. Atonement w/father

Often if the hero is female, this stage is an atonement with the mother figure instead, but just as often it’s a father figure regardless of heroic gender. Even more usually, the father figure is the highest god, The Father, as it were. The Norse and Greek myths were all about this stage, though usually the atonement comes in the form of punishment in those tales.

8. Return w/boon

The hero must return with all the wisdom and superpowers and whatever else they’ve gained along their journey, to bring the boon of their new heroship to benefit the community. This return is often where you’ll find the stage called Magical Flight, where the hero continues to have help in order to cross back over the threshold into the regular world. Now the hero is what Campbell called Master of Two Worlds, able to exist both in the enchanted realm and the world of workaday reality.

 

Stay tuned for Part II, where I will introduce and discuss the concept of the Villain’s Journey.

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