Would John Wayne Approve?

Guys are funny, right? And immature. Definitely immature.

You’d think this if you see nearly any movie with a male protagonist. He’s an overgrown man-child, always there with a quip or an obnoxiously immature pastime that holds him back, while the kick-ass riot grrl rolls her eyes and does all the real work, maybe letting the dude accidentally do something right or lift something heavy.

Maybe it’s be a male character full of power and competence who still has to be funny. Because serious people–adult males, especially–are boring!

Or so hundreds of Hollywood screenwriters would have us believe. Not just screenwriters, but novelists, TV writers, and those in the comic book business.

Jamaul over at Jamual Writes discusses this in a great post called “Always Be Funny.” The new God of War video game, and its strong, silent, and brutal male protagonist got him thinking about the phenomenon:

So, I was just on Twitter talking about the new God of War video game, which I’m watching via YouTube.

I love this damn game. It’s amazing.

But I did notice something about the main character – Kratos.

Dude is uber serious. Never crack jokes. Never smiles.

Even Wired wrote a piece on Kratos – and his appetite for violence, claiming that’s he’s toxic.

I disagree. I think Kratos is just a personality type. Strong, but silent type. A warrior. And that’s the thing with the personality type – they don’t think, they just do. Tough, stoic.

Much like the John Waynes, Clint Eastwoods of the old Westerns, which I love.

These characters don’t talk much, quick to anger, disagreeable, grumpy, strong, leaders, and blaze their own lane.

They’re my favorite type of characters. Which seems to be a relic, nowadays.

The pathetic state of video game journalism aside, imagine a world where a quietly bad-ass character is considered “toxic.” Throw out all your old John Ford westerns and Mickey Spillaine noir thrillers, I guess! Nope, men have to be seen as non-threatening, cute, cuddly teddybears.

I think what Jamual is noticing is that male characters used to have some kind of danger to them, an edge, an element of unpredictability that could erupt at any moment–and here’s the important part–against the bad guys.

Charles Bronson wasn’t mowing down the innocent in Death Wish. Clint Eastwood wasn’t abusing women and children in Dirty Harry. Richard Roundtree wasn’t beating down the righteous in Shaft.

These guys were just bad mofos doing what had to be done. Even Han Solo, grumpy and quippy himself, was competent, and his humor fit the character and his swashbuckling way of life. Which is masculine. Which is why, I think, our cultural elitists in charge of making this stuff need to neuter the men. As Jack Donovan is so fond of saying, strong men acting together are the biggest threat to the nanny state. So the “gang,” if you will, must be broken. Jamual continues:

I hardly ever see those type of characters anymore. When I was growing up, you had characters like Blade, Leonidas from 300, Mel Gibson, greek myth movies, war movies of the 80s.

Those types were all over.

Nowadays, the main characters have to be funny. I call them the “Woody Allen” types.

Male characters, to me, are pushed to be funny. Even the brawny ones.  I saw Thor Ragnarok a while back. And while I liked it a lot – it’s pretty funny – I think it’s kinda weird to have these big, hulking guys cracking jokes.

I was thinking – Would John Wayne approve?

Cause sometimes I like serious. I like my toxic masculinity. I like my grumpiness. My disagreeableness. My beard. It’s what I’m drawn too.

Action, violence, competitiveness.

Girls like talk shows, feel good stuff.

Men like sports, and violence.

There’s nothing wrong with that, you know?

No, there’s nothing wrong with that at all.

“Woody Allen types” is a great line. I call it “Peter Parker Syndrome” myself, after the true identity of Spider-Man.

Peter Parker, if you recall, was a normal, shy, geeky teenager granted powerful abilities, and so when he donned the Spider-Man suit, he gained a newfound confidence. As the comics went on, the wisecracking was mentioned as a coping mechanism for the danger Peter faced as Spidey, in addition to helping distract his foe

Spider-Man, like most of the classic Marvel Comics characters, was partly the brainchild of Stan Lee. Lee was a Jewish man from New York City, so the character had that classic, World War II-era New York Jewish sense of humor, though I think it’s more “New York” humor than “Jewish”; my paternal grandfather, who’d be Mr. Lee’s age were he still alive, was born in the Bronx and had a nearly identical sensibility–hell, he had a nearly identical accent.

The thing is, it works for Spider-Man, because it’s a very character-specific trait: Spider-Man is supposed to be a goofy oddball. But does every male hero have to be like this? Like Jamual says, superhero movies are awash in this quip-a-minute humor that come as quickly as the fists, and it often gets shoehorned where it doesn’t seem to fit.

Humor is good. Humor is fun. Humor–self-deprecating and directed at others–is how men bond with each other and cope with the dangers of the world. It’s how men show affection for each other, how men resolve intra-group tensions without resorting to violence, and how men and women often deal with stressful situations.

But does every Marvel character in these movies need to be a mini-version of Robert Downey, Jr.’s Iron Man?

It’s not just superhero movies of course, or just movies. Movies are just the most prominent example of this. It’s everywhere. Yes, it’s the “men are portrayed as chubby, hapless schlubs” complaint, but this complaint persists because it’s valid and its everywhere.

Notice one thing about Spider-Man: Other characters laugh at him, and very few, if any, female characters find him attractive or desirable. He’s a classic beta, to further overuse an overused classification. He’s a “friend zone” kind of guy, even though he can bend steel and throw cars and spin webs and all of that. Maybe I’m wrong, but do women really go for guys like this? Doesn’t there need to be a little more danger and energy to create that spark?

As a contrast, I just finished reading Edgar Rice Burroughs’ first John Carter novel, A Princess of Mars. It was published over 100 years ago. John Carter is nearly unrecognizable to modern audience. He is a noble, strong killing machine who does the right thing, and does it violently. Maybe a little more humor could’ve made the story more “realistic” in its portrayal of a man in way over his head. But the lack of a “funnyman” protagonist in no way diminishes the narrative. In fact, it enhances it–you can really buy why Dejah Thoris is so viscerally attracted to the bold man of action John Carter.

There’s room in our fiction for dangerous men, violent men, men who aren’t immature and who keep their damn mouths shut. We often see female protagonists in this role now, and while it might have been novel back in the 1980s or whenever, the trope has gotten beyond stale.

If “Representation matters!” as we’re told, where’s the bad-ass butt-kicker young boys can look up to? Oh, right. That’s “toxic” because those young boys might grow up thinking they can kick ass and take names and fight injustice without being a goofy, cuddly teddybear at heart. Keep your dad bod while you’re at it, boys.

Jamual nails it, with a question for us all: Would John Wayne approve?


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