This week’s question comes from reader Marco Klaue:
Recently there was a great piece in Newswire about how Fox News’ Steve Doocy claimed that Frozen is supposedly hurting boys’ self-esteem. While I agree with The A.V. Club that that was a preposterous accusation by Doocy, I did start wondering if he doesn’t, after all, have a point about there being a lack of good male role models in movies and television. Sure, there are a lot more men in successful roles, both scripted and unscripted, in front of and behind the camera, than there are women. But role models? I can think of any number of bumbling goofballs, über-macho types, supervillains, and passive cardboard saints, but I have a harder time thinking of men who emulate an actual positive image of masculinity. With the exception of Gregory Peck’s Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, what character would you point to as your masculine ideal?
My wife and I batted around a few good answers to this prompt—which I won’t detail here, because I don’t want to step on anyone else’s response—but the best of them all shared a closed-off nature that I couldn’t square with my own heart-on-sleeve personality. All of them, that is, with the exception of Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Sergeant Terry Jeffords. As portrayed by former football pro Terry Crews, the character could be a caricature of masculine brawniness, what with Crews’ Popeye forearms and bulging trapezii. But in two seasons of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the actor and the show have gifted Sergeant Jeffords with an emotional complexity and a depth of vulnerability. We meet Terry as a new father who’s concerned about what will happen to his twin daughters if he’s taken down in the line of duty; in spite (and maybe even because of) those jitters, he’s also a proven, compassionate leader on the job. His emotional extremes are usually played for laughs, but they also demonstrate that feelings and strength aren’t mutually exclusive properties. And in the existence of alter egos like Scary Terry (“He says what Regular Terry’s thinking”), he shows how to meter those feelings in a way that still works for a wacky sitcom world.
Oh man, there’s no question here: Lloyd Dobler. John Cusack’s kickboxing teen was my model of manhood growing up. One of the many things that makes Say Anything… so great is how definitively it flips the middle finger to expectations of how men are supposed to behave. Lloyd’s best friends are girls; he sets aside his life to fly to England to support his girlfriend; and he never once considers pulling any macho bullshit of the sort that is usually de rigueur in films where a guy stands up to his girlfriend’s father. (Though maybe Dad’s eventual indictment for tax fraud was enough punishment.) Even now, he strikes me as one of the best possible role models a young kid trying to find himself could have, and his speech about not wanting to sell out was more influential to me than a hundred punk albums. (Too bad the concept of “selling out” seems roughly as anachronistic as an eight-track player in this day and age.)
Picking a superhero for this kind of question seems obvious—and the superhero I’m going to pick is probably the most obvious—but I have to go with the star-spangled man with a plan himself, Captain America. I don’t mean just any version of Captain America, either. Not the unstoppable soldier from the regular Marvel comics, and certainly not the “You think this letter on my head stands for France?” asshole of Marvel’s Ultimate line, but Chris Evans’ Captain America from the Avengers movies. He’s just as much of a hero as the comic book Cap, but he’s also a rejection of the macho tough guy stereotype thanks to an old-fashioned innocence that’s more inspiring than it is naive. It all comes down to a scene in the first Captain America movie, when little Steve Rogers is asked if he wants to join the army so he can kill Nazis. He responds that he doesn’t want to kill anyone; he just doesn’t like bullies. As far as principles go, it’s hard to argue with that.
John Singleton’s Boyz N The Hood hasn’t aged well, but Laurence Fishburne’s wise, conscientious father figure is timeless. Jason “Furious” Styles approaches fatherhood deliberately because in a Los Angeles neighborhood plagued by gang violence, he’s constantly reminded of the potential consequences of taking his eye off the ball. He keeps a firm hand with his son Tre (Cuba Gooding Jr.), but remains emotionally accessible, always reminding Tre he’s not being stern for no reason; he just can’t afford to coddle his son as he leads him through a minefield. Tre also knows his father speaks from experience. Furious isn’t the kind of nickname one acquires in church camp, and he wears it as a testament to how far he’s come since his wayward youth. Furious imparts knowledge, maturity, and sound judgment, and he never stops being the adult. In one scene, Tre boasts about a fictitious sexual encounter, expecting a wink and a nudge. Instead, Furious upbraids him for practicing unsafe sex, risking becoming a teenage father the same way Furious did. The moment demonstrates why Furious is such a strong male role model. He owns his youthful indiscretions without glamorizing or overdramatizing them, so he never loses his authority when he’s urging his son to choose a different path.
Coach Eric Taylor was not only a good dad to his own daughter; he was a good dad to every Dillon Panther and East Dillon Lion that stepped onto his field, and continued to be a great one even after they left it. Would Matt Saracen have gone off to achieve his art school dreams without Coach’s faith? No. Would Vince Jordan have escaped the lure of the streets? Nope. Would Tim Riggins have gone to jail? Yes, probably, but it wouldn’t have been for such a good-guy reason. Coach Taylor is also a swoon-worthy husband, leaving his prestigious job so Tami could go kick ass and take names in Philly. There is nary an episode of Friday Night Lights where he doesn’t do something that makes my heart swell. All men should aspire to Coach Taylor heights.
The Simpsons’ far-reaching influence on television has been mostly positive, as subsequent sitcoms have been faster and smarter, with deep benches of supporting characters. But one long-term effect hasn’t exactly embiggened the TV landscape: every male sitcom star is Homer Simpson. Michael Scott. Michael Bluth. Frasier Crane. Sterling Archer. Every schlubby bastard married to an impossibly good-looking woman on CBS. They’re all variations on the same self-absorbed jackass who eventually comes around and shows a glimmer of decency. To find a thoughtful, responsible, decent man, you have to go to a female-led show: Parks And Recreation. No, I’m not talking about Ron Swanson. Although his Internet-meme-ready brand of rugged manliness certainly breaks from the Homer archetype, avoiding conversation and burying gold in the backyard isn’t terribly sustainable. Instead, for the most thoroughly decent man in the sitcom world, look to Ben Wyatt, Adam Scott’s high-strung city manager. While the joke is often that Ben is too uptight and responsible, that kind of male is far too rare on TV. Ben is good at his job, patient with his friends’ zany schemes and inexplicable miniature horse love, and is a thoughtful, supportive husband who can put his wife’s happiness first, but also rein in her worst impulses. He’s even nice to Jerry, which by Pawnee standards qualifies him for sainthood.
I’m glad Mike took Park And Recreations’ Ben Wyatt, because my choice is a different Pawnee resident: Chris Pratt’s Andy Dwyer. Parks And Rec is such a good feminist show because it has complex women and men, and while Ron Swanson’s overblown manliness serves to deconstruct how outrageous those markers of “masculinity” are, Andy demonstrates a different kind of confidence: one that rejects taking himself seriously, which is a pretty radical way to show an adult on-screen, if you think about it. (It’s also a marker of “manliness” that Chris Pratt seems singularly capable of breaking down, if pulling off a superhero who’s still a giant goofball in Guardians Of The Galaxy is any indication.) Andy loves kids, is imaginative and playful, supportive of his friends and his wife April’s ambitions, and sometimes fails, like when he didn’t get the police officer job he wanted. He may have started out as a more one-dimensional goof, but by season seven Andy evolved into a responsible and mature adult while still retaining what makes him so great. A big challenge to breaking free from a gender straightjacket is just being able to laugh at yourself and embrace the parts of you that don’t conform to outdated but still strong expectations. Andy can help with that.
Broad City is one of those shows that operates in “Crazy Asshole” territory, a magical realm it shares with It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Seinfeld. In CA shows, even the most lovable characters are kind of awful and self-interested, acting out heightened versions of normal insecurities and flaws. But Broad City has one guy who rises above it all to be that rarest of things in this kind of world: A good dude. That man is Lincoln Rice, DDS, Ilana’s friend and recurring fuckbuddy. As played by the brilliant Hannibal Buress, Lincoln is a rock of calm in the roiling seas of Abbi and Ilana’s manic, pot-fueled madness. Chill in a crisis, financially stable, and concerned for his friends, Lincoln is a perfect guidepost for guys trying to navigate their late 20s and early 30s: emotionally invested without being clingy, enthusiastic without being overbearing, and fantastically reliable. Plus, he loves dogs. I have actually asked myself, “What would Lincoln do?” in tense social situations, and he’s never led me astray.
I like, for starters, how Atticus Finch was disqualified outright, as he should basically be everyone’s default answer. Scouring my brain for an alternative pick, I keep coming back to George Clooney’s screw-up bank robber Jack Foley in Out Of Sight. No one in their right mind would model their own life on the behavior of this repeat offender, who’s spent several years of his adulthood behind bars. But as a paradigm of masculinity, I see lots to emulate: He’s fiercely loyal to his friends; he defends the weak against bullies, even when it might get him killed; he’s funny and unflappable and cool as a cucumber, but also driven by passion and compassion. For a crime-fiction hero, he’s also refreshingly adverse to violence, because being a man doesn’t mean getting off on guns. Finally, and this seems crucial to me, he’s a suave stud but not a chauvinist; Out Of Sight puts Foley and his love interest, Jennifer Lopez’s driven fed Karen Sisco, on equal footing, and part of what makes their romance feel so timeless is his admiration for her. Real men respect women, even (or especially) the ones they’re wooing with their cool lighter tricks.
I loved Ethan Hawke’s character in Boyhood. Sure, he starts out shaky, taking the kids to a seedy bowling alley while swearing and smoking. But just as we watch Mason struggle with the fears, joys, and unpredictability of adolescence and teen life, we also watch Hawke grow into a stable man, no longer an aging hipster with a cool car who can buy his kids off with some toys and burgers. He learns not to kowtow to Mason, and sells the car he promised to Mason to pay for child support and the boy’s future. He teaches hard lessons, such as telling his son to get his own car, and tells him that nothing is owed to us. But he still knows how to have fun, like having a Star Wars-fueled discussion on a hike. In stark contrast to Mason’s mother’s horrible choice in men, his father grows into the role model in Mason’s life, that rarity of middle-aged men who retain their inherent cool while settling into normalcy.
Since I got in late and some people rather eerily scooped my top choices (for the record: Lloyd Dobler and Coach Eric Taylor), I’ll give my bronze medal for admirable male role modeling to Rupert Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. While it’s true that I’m less dapper and tweedy (they don’t make Red Sox game jerseys in tweed), I’ve always taken solace in the non-clothing-related qualities I’d like to think Giles and I share. As a former teacher (at an unorthodox school that functioned as a haven for outsiders), Giles’ befuddled but completely loyal devotion to his oddball charge (and her oddball friends) strikes a big chord. Plus, despite being routinely trounced by bads both big and medium-sized throughout the series, Giles never gave up—once he regained consciousness. But the quality that most resonates with me about Buffy’s once-rulebound Watcher is his gradual willingness to stand up to any individual or organization that threatened the collection of heroic oddballs he came to love—the Watchers’ Council, Principal Snyder, and even Buffy herself if he thought the greater good called for it. In Anthony Stewart Head’s performance, Giles made the tough calls every time with deceptive strength and unwavering resolution, even when he had to do the unthinkable to protect Buffy, Willow, Xander, Dawn, Oz, and, secondarily, the world. While it may make people look at me funny, the Giles moment I most admire is when he kills the helpless but eternally dangerous Ben (who’s the vessel for a mad, murderous god named Glory). After Buffy leaves the bloodied mortal in his care, Giles soothes the guy’s bewilderment that Buffy didn’t kill him when she had the chance with the the chillingly sympathetic speech, “No, she couldn’t. Never. And, sooner or later, Glory will reemerge and make Buffy pay for that mercy. And the world with her. Buffy even knows that, and still she couldn’t take a human life. She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.” And then, mournfully but resolutely, Giles smothers Ben. The young can be heroes—Giles protects their innocence so they can be.
As a general rule, I aspire to be more like Tom Hanks. He just seems like a good guy. And out of all his various film roles, the character I most look up to is Joe Banks from Joe Versus The Volcano. While Joe starts the movie in a depressive, claustrophobic funk, a terminal diagnosis (watch out for “brain clouds”) gives him a new lease on life, encouraging him to strike out on his own for the first time in years. That’s inspiring in itself, but what makes the character so admirable is the way his new outlook inspires him to embrace the world with unflagging optimism and patience. He’s open-minded, eager to try new things, and more interested in other people than himself, and while I’m not sure I’m any of those things, I sure wish I could be. In my best self, I’m Joe Banks, standing over an open volcano, unafraid of whatever comes next; or else looking up at the moon, overcome by awe at the beauty of everything.
As much as I’m uncomfortable with the very concept of masculinity—I really don’t like the notion of tying particular traits, good or bad, to any one gender—I’m prepared to admire those who live up to the best of those cultural ideals while largely sidestepping and occasionally acknowledging the worst of them. And I can think of no better example of that than Hank Hill, particularly from about the fourth season of King Of The Hill onward. He’s a resolutely decent if profoundly limited man, always trying to live up to the lofty standards he believes were set by his generally fraudulent role models. He frequently errs, particularly in his faltering attempts to understand his goofball son, but when Hank gets it right, he really gets it right. And if I’ve learned anything in this life, it’s that there’s no finer example of old-school American manliness than selling propane and propane accessories.
I can’t muster a better answer than Lloyd Dobler or Captain America, so I’ll allow my response to verge slightly into more old-fashioned fantasy: part of me would love to be like (or really, have been like) Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Brendan from Rian Johnson’s teen-detective masterpiece Brick. As a noir hero, he’s far from flawless by design—there are certainly sweeter and kinder teenage boys in cinema, and Brendan is driven first by a sorta-obsession with his ex-girlfriend, then by an offshoot of obsession when he decides he needs to figure out what happened to her. But I love the way he uses a lot of traditionally/stereotypically masculine qualities (often seen in the older movies Brick is riffing on) in scrappy, almost admirable ways, whether flaunting authority by shooting hard-boiled quips at the principal or triumphing in a physical altercation through a stubborn ability to take punches. Brendan can be difficult, but he’s never really a dick—which is pretty impressive considering he’s both a teenager and a noir detective.
I wracked my brain to come up with a good answer to this before finally asking myself, “Who’s the first male TV character that I can remember looking up to?” The first one that came to mind seems like as reasonable a response to this question as any: Roy Hinkley, Jr., otherwise known as The Professor on Gilligan’s Island. Setting aside for a moment the oft-recited riffs about how he was capable of building a radio out of a coconut but couldn’t turn a couple of palm trees into a boat, he was still the guy that all of the other castaways looked up to, the one whose opinion mattered most to them. And—perhaps most importantly—he was attractive to members of the opposite sex. Granted, it was a rarity for him to ever attempt to bust a move on either of the island’s available women—it just wasn’t that kind of show—but while the rest of the world had to treat the question “Ginger or Mary Ann: which one would you rather?” as a hypothetical scenario, The Professor could’ve made it a reality. If that’s not someone that a young man should look up to, I just don’t know who is.