Movies, like everything else, can serve many different purposes at once. Some of them are meant to mirror back our lives in a realistic way. Some are meant to take us away for a couple of hours, as we blot out the harsh reality of our lives and escape into fantasy. The one thing that has never changed since movies were invented is that they are transformative experiences that take us to a different place from the one where we live. There is a reason the big screen has always been a place for gods and goddesses. We “project” our idealized versions of ourselves onto them, live vicariously through them, or just look at them.
It seems like lately, though, there has been a need to get rid of the male hero. Any male hero, of course, but especially the white male hero. At first I thought this was a reaction to Trump – a bad reaction, where whatever he was we had to blot out of our reality. But Trump is mostly gone yet the ideology has somehow remained. Any movie with a male protagonist is a problem from the outset. It’s one of those things that you don’t realize until it isn’t there anymore. Perhaps it was how 2020 went down, where the last people who were going to win any awards were white men. Even movies about white men were frowned upon.
I don’t think we specifically NEED white men. But we do need men. We need male heroes. We need strong tough guys or smart resourceful guys – or just GUYS. It is as fundamental as our need to drink water or eat food and it isn’t something we should do without. It is sort of like removing a female character’s sexuality because that too is somehow not fashionable anymore. Like, why? What would be the point of removing something so essential? It is arguably the most powerful force on the planet – getting rid of it makes the world and especially movies, a less interesting place.
It’s understandable how we got here. I was among the chorus of voices over the past two decades complaining about how Oscar movies, and movies in general, were only about men. It was either the “one special boy” mythology or the sturdy alpha hero who saves the day, like Ben Affleck in Argo. It’s great that this isn’t exclusively what movies are about anymore. But it’s also not going to be great if this becomes some kind of unwritten rule going forward: no more male heroes.
Many prominent voices on the Left seem to be perfectly comfortable with the idea that art should not REFLECT life, comment on life or offer satire or criticism of the human experience, but rather to dictate how people should think, how society should function and what we all should fear. The idea being, we have to “do better” as a society and never be offensive, not to a single person ever for any reason. Our rules are becoming more strict in order to leave no marginalized person behind, to never promote “bad” ideas, to always reach for the perfect America we know we can be.
Of course, some would argue this has always been the case. It’s just a matter of perspective. So many early films, for instance, backed up the idea that the cowboys were the heroes and the Indians were the scary villains. Minds have obviously changed over time. Black characters were often silent and moving around in the background of movies – serving meals, wearing maid uniforms while the prominent white characters played out their daily dramas.
We can go on and on about how culture was directed in an indirect way. It was just considered “normal” to audiences back then because audiences were primarily white. They were films aimed at white audiences about the white experience but looking at them now it is glaringly obvious how clueless Hollywood used to be about promoting stereotypes. Without the recent cultural upheavals maybe we would not have even noticed.
As with all things, a good thing usually goes too far and in our case we’re busily erasing things that we still need. One of those things is most definitely the two fundamentals that still apply: women have sexual power on screen, and we still need male heroes.
I watched a movie last night. It wasn’t bad. But in order to subvert the stereotype of the male action star the director decided to have two women save the day.
It wasn’t so much that it wasn’t good. It was fine. In the post-COVID movie universe I can’t complain about much. Thank you for making it is all I keep telling myself. But it was that to believe the story, or to go with the movie, you’d have to check your common sense and logic at the door. Subverting a genre for fun is can sometimes be electric experience. Charlize Theron in Mad Max: Fury Road is a good example of that. But it has to make sense. If it doesn’t make sense then you’re stuck with someone who made a movie to please Twitter.
There was no good reason why the villains in this film would be so incompetent they could be defeated by not one but two women, and they weren’t even women whose job it is to beat up bad guys. They were women who did ordinary jobs. These bad guys had guns, were supposed to be vicious, ruthless and had already killed a lot of people before the last scene. So to think that they, experts in killing, could be defeated by not one but two women who weren’t experts leaves you with the uncomfortable feeling that you’re being played. All so that the filmmakers can satisfy this need to replace the traditional male hero with females.
Of course, this year there are going to be male heroes a-plenty: like The Tomorrow War with Chris Pratt, Snake Eyes: GI Joe Origins with Henry Golding, The Green Knight with Dev Patel, Free Guy with Ryan Reynolds, Tom Hanks in Bios, Daniel Craig in No Time to Die, and Timothee Chalamet in Dune. The executives who run Hollywood will take some risks but they’re not going to dump their billions just to please Twitter, that’s for sure.
But with films that are reliant upon reviews of the approval of critics, or films that might make it into the awards race – this is where we run into problems. Whatever cultural wave that swept through Hollywood over the past few years has definitely altered perspectives such that it might be the case that films with male heroes might be slightly downgraded, or criticized for that reason. Just for that reason.
I know a lot of people right now are worried about where movies are going in this Brave New World. They’re worried about art. They’re worried about freedom to speak your mind and say up front what it is you actually like for fear of being judged for it. But can you really micromanage something as primal and basic as gods and goddesses on the big screen?
I keep joking on Twitter and Facebook that conservatives – or a new political class – will have to rise up to make daring art again, tell funny jokes again, pierce the monolith of our current state of paralysis, where even the late night comedy hosts are unable to really do what comedy does best – make us laugh about the things we don’t dare talk about, things that scare us. With no way to laugh at them they’re just always looming, as a constant threat – a fuse waiting to be lit by a blue check on Twitter to send someone’s career spiraling.
Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Kimmel and John Oliver – they can’t be funny anymore, which is why they’re now basically functioning as counselors, priests or activists. Their jokes have to be cancel proof. They can’t offend even though there is so much of right now to make fun of. They don’t dare go there.
Saturday Night Live has become one of its own sketches as everyone is too afraid to lampoon the side of the political aisle that is in desperate need of parody. So it’s left to either the conservatives or outsiders on Youtube or on podcasts to say what can’t be said. Controversial, yes. Funny? Yes. Well, at least to me. I feel sure many would just be freaked out and offended – which is why they are on Youtube and not on SNL.
Take, for example, Ryan Long:
Or Awaken with JP:
Why do I keep writing about this? Because I was part of the machine that built it. Now I have to be part of the machine that helps dismantle it, as we keep what is good and discard the rest.
That is how the idea of getting rid of the male hero ties in. If we decide that the male hero is no longer necessary, movies aren’t going to be as good. Not ALL movies, of course, ideally there are many different kinds of movies out there for many different tastes.
We need them because half of the population is still male. We need them because the other half, the females also like watching men. I worry about what will happen if Hollywood decides that male archetypes are no longer needed and thus, what will happen to all of the men wandering around out there? They need icons. They need heroes. We all do. Every kind of person needs representational heroes but only one kind has suddenly become a problem.
Finally, we need heroes because we need antiheroes. Antiheroes are responsible for some of the best films ever made. How can we have them without actual heroes?
It isn’t that heroes are completely gone, or that they ever will be gone. It is just the idea that they SHOULD be gone and if they aren’t gone then there is something wrong with us and with the movies we love. All I’m saying is that there isn’t anything wrong with heroes, male, female or otherwise. We need them. They’re mostly the reason movies exist at all.
They have to be larger than life because life can’t function with icons that big walking around. They have to live forever as separate from us. Bigger, stronger, prettier, smarter, better than we are. It is a screen onto which we project our own fantasies. We need them because we need a way out – even if it’s just for a couple of hours – of the things we struggle with on a daily basis. Big things, little things, complicated people, soul-crushing algorithms, the nightmare of our polarized country, the horrors in other countries. All of that goes away and we need heroes to open the portal out of our own limited mortality into the world of the limitless.