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Sex In The Story 5: More Male Mythologies


Thursday
Mar 8, 2012

Hoo-ahhh. Men apparently run the media, film, advertising, and comic-book industries. Men made Disney stop making movies with princess in their titles, even if the princess is from Mars. In science fiction and fantasy, men seem dominant. (Most notable exception: Christian fiction readers?)

I say this not to chest-thump, but because in this series, women face discrimination. Only one column discussed female caricatures. This is my second about male ones.

Intermittent inequalities like that may be inevitable. Men and women are different but equal, whether equal in their rebellion against God (Rom 3:23), or equal in their status as His adopted children (Rom. 8: 15-16).

Thanks for the coffee, yeoman.

Thus, in one era, women may be victims to over-veneration or else stereotyping, such as the infamous gals of the original Star Trek series. (Miniskirts! In space!)

Whereas in another era, people may get sick of it and decide it’s payback time. Now all our TV shows will be very original and stereotype men! (However, the first few Star Trek: The Next Generation episodes actually tried to put men in miniskirts. In space.)

Eventually, no matter which stereotypes each gender receives, either in nonfiction or in fiction, things even out. That’s no cause for stepping back and not rebutting stereotypes, but it’s also reassuring. So long as storytellers are writing about realistic people, with all their potentials, positives, and negatives, and not merely trying to build a new character machine that’s improved on an old model, more stories will have depth.

Still, many readers have personal gripes with caricatured males in fiction, a very diverse assortment of them — from the bumbling sitcom dad, to the evil business industrialist, to the bumbling and evil talk-radio host. On these we cannot now speak in detail. So let’s focus more on tropes with testosterone, or without it, in fantasy and sci-fi:

Stock males

These guys stand around and aren’t very effective. They may be extras, or soldiers, or evil henchmen — has anyone ever employed evil henchwomen, after all? (But oddly enough, my evidently progressive word processor believes henchwomen is a word.)

Perhaps we shouldn’t nitpick on these bulk-ordered blokes, though. Perhaps every story can’t make every single male character into a fleshed-out, four-dimensional human. But if we tried to find a male equivalent to the stock-female character who exists mainly to be eye candy, I think this would be it.

Examples: Video-game mini-bosses; armies recruited from villages; stormtroopers.

Gender-neutrals

Captain Jack Sparrow: (grimacing) “You’re not a eunuch, are you?”

If the speculative thing doesn't work out, I can always turn to the Dark Side.

Without getting into that whole homosexuality issue, this male character is, from what I’ve read, prevalent in other fiction genres. He’s a man who behaves like a woman — or at least doesn’t directly show many characteristics, perhaps less-popular ones, intrinsic to men. He’s the kind of guy who stands on the cover of a prairie romance novel, in the background, looking just as forlorn as the main female character in the foreground. He’s an emotional guy. (Not gay!) Or he might be burying the pain of his past and need to find someone who can help him, perhaps a woman of like mind. (But not gay!)

However, I’ve also seen him in speculative novels. A prime example: The Guy Who Never Notices Women’s Bodies Below Their Necks. I’m not talking about rubbing-our-faces-in-it-to-be-Gritty lust descriptions here; rather, I’m talking about mentions of even Godly attraction, even to one’s own wife. Some speculative novels avoid this like Andorian plague. I’m looking at you, Left Behind series (which I otherwise still like).

This male caricature’s closest match might be the action-hero warrior woman I used to “kick off” (har!) this series. While that is a man in a woman’s body, this is the reverse.

Examples: Buck Williams, from the Left Behind series; that guy from the novel I won’t name who entered a parallel-world version of the Playboy Mansion but was apparently not tempted by what he saw (in fairness, this could have been publisher constraints).

Bad boys

This one could result in a whole column on his own. Conversely, I’m not sure I even need to say much more beyond the label and a few examples. What is it about bad-boy characters that appeals to readers or viewers so much — especially women?

Examples:

  • Tony Stark / Iron Man. Stan Lee was stunned at response to this “bad boy” hero. “Of all the comic books we published at Marvel, we got more fan mail for Iron Man from women, from females, than any other title,” he said. (Source.)
  • Edward Cullen. Need I say more? Insert mocking “squee! he wants to suck my blood but stops himself because he loves me so much; how romantic!” comment.
  • Richard Maxwell. Does anyone remember him? He was one of the less-frequent but most popular characters on the Christian radio drama Adventures in Odyssey, a teen hacker and henchman who eventually repented and sought forgiveness.

Closest feminine equivalent: the wily and seemingly “innocent” villain’s girlfriend, such as Harley Quinn from Batman: The Animated Series (who was herself preceded by vixens from older Batman comics and the 1960s TV series), who sometimes really wants to help the Caped Crusader, but inevitably returns to the villain’s side.

I wonder if some of the appeal of “bad boy” characters is not only a reaction against gender-neutral males, in stories or in reality, but a twisted attempt to imitate the ultimate God-Man Who is both loving and nurturing, and just and wrathful.

Men-children

Though I don’t see these often in speculative stories, I include them here as a caution: there’s a chance that men-children may be in the audience of such stories. Yes, many people exaggerate the stereotype of slackers in their parents’ basements, who play their video games and accomplish little in their non-virtual lives. But they do exist. I’ve met them. I also can’t laugh very hard at the internet comics that either mock or bewail their existence. Yet I wonder: what if such a man-child was pulled into a real fantasy world? (Dibs.)

Feminine equivalent: Is there one? If there is, should I even say that word on radio?

Examples: Any “man” in a raunchy “comedy” film with a title in big red “funny” letters.

The Übermensch

As more Christian men and women, in particular, wake up to the irritants of feminism-influenced characters, we will likely see more of these in our fiction: the ultimate man, a faith-based superman. He may have flaws, but eventually defeats evil, lives radically, recycles the money he spends on his little girl’s heart medication so he can donate more to world missions — from the cardboard box where he lives — and daily saves the day.

Last week, I quoted from a Christian movie in which a character could be seen as acting like this. But maybe we do need a few stories like this, before things begin to level off?

The Überwomensch would be the ultimate-homemaker or power-girl single woman.

Examples: Some guys from the above-mentioned movie (possibly!); potential future Christian fiction.

Prophesied Heroes™ (part 2)

I must mention this one for this reason: this is probably the most prevalent male caricature in Christian science fiction and fantasy. My definition, from last week:

A poor young man, likely orphaned, who according to ancient prophecy must defeat evil and fulfill Destiny.

For that, we can likely thank John Carter (initials, anyone?); Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy from Narnia; and the Harry Potter series. The first started the modern fantasy/sci-fi genre. The second, though, is more influential for Christians, and particularly inspired the “youth from our world/with humble beginnings who is really a king/queen” idea.

Now I must nitpick my original nitpick. I don’t want to see these characters go away. Why not? Because they’re all based ultimately on Jesus, the real youth from our world, but really another, Who had humble beginnings but was truly the prophesied King. Do I want to see His image scoffed at as only a trope? Or for storytellers to be so “original” that they make heroes out of superior men who never had humble beginnings? No way.

At the same time, in some of the Christian speculative novels I’ve read, even newer ones, I keep finding heroes with whom I can’t identify. I can’t easily come alongside the human hero to see myself — as a longtime Christian and attempting “hero” in this world — as his “brother.” Instead I keep finding another man I want to parent.

When will he come to true faith? Doesn’t he get that this world’s version of God wants him to fulfill prophecy? In a world like this, why wouldn’t he want to go fight and be awesome!

Again, please don’t misunderstand: I don’t want these characters gone. Given the power, I would not institute any affirmative-action program that would lock humble-farmboys-destined-for-greatness out of fiction. I do think, however, we could use some diversity.

Yet I’m convinced this resolution lies not in steroid shots to characters, or extra caffeine in authors, but in authors’ personal growth in Christ — going beyond nonfiction tropes into deeper doctrine magic, applied to real life. That will ultimately make real men in our stories — men who may sometimes do nothing, struggle or have emotional needs, act like “bad boys,” act like children, or make choices and Fulfill their Destinies.

Next week: final series thoughts. What are your thoughts now?

E. Stephen Burnett

E. Stephen Burnett explores biblical truth and fantastic stories as editor of Lorehaven magazine (debuting autumn 2017). He also writes for Christianity Today, Christ and Pop Culture, and Speculative Faith. He and his wife, Lacy, live in the Austin area and serve as members of Southern Hills Baptist Church.

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22 comments on "Sex In The Story 5: More Male Mythologies"

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Bethany A. Jennings
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Ugh, I really dislike the bad boy trope.  I like my male characters to have least a semblance of honor, and typical bad boys are just looking out for themselves (except for perhaps the lovey-dovey types like Edward Cullen, but I have very little respect for those either).  I have a really hard time liking a story where the protagonist is a bad boy.  I just can’t root for them, unless they make a HUGE turnaround at some point in the story and become way more self-sacrificing. I always feel compelled to test my characters against your stereotypes.  😀 I’m… Read more »
Kessie
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This column cracked me up. Thanks for putting so much thought into the topic, Stephen!   Also, you mentioned Richard Maxwell. I grew up listening to Odyssey,  and my main fascination with the character was as a weathervane for an appearance of Dr. Blackgaard. One never appeared without the other.   I do see what you mean about bad boy characters. It’s the whole antihero thing. As a woman, I’ve tried to figure out why people love them so much (especially girls). For one thing, an antihero is usually very deeply developed, giving them that emotional connection to the audience… Read more »
Kaci
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I posted earlier and it got eaten. Let’s see if I remember…   On stock males: The stock female equivalent is usually, ah….yeah. Nevermind.   However, I’ve also seen him in speculative novels. A prime example: The Guy Who Never Notices Women’s Bodies Below Their Necks. I’m not talking about rubbing-our-faces-in-it-to-be-Gritty lust descriptions here; rather, I’m talking about mentions of even Godly attraction, even to one’s own wife. Some speculative novels avoid this like Andorian plague. I’m looking at you, Left Behind series (which I otherwise still like).   I think as far as women writing male characters goes….honestly, we … Read more »
Kaci
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Brief tech-support response: how irritating, Kaci. I’m so sorry.   The original was much shorter, and I got the “wordpress error” message. No worries.   I am not talking about absurd megachurch-shtick “sex sermon” type material, translated for fictional settings, but God-glorifying recognition of human attraction.   All megachurches have this issue? In Iron Man, the story would not be as good as it is without Stark’s behavior — the attack on his convoy, and his change in perspective, would not be as dramatic. Iron Man 2 suffered a bit because they had to “walk back” some of his “conversion.”… Read more »
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