New Men For A New Age: The Character Quietly Fighting Toxic Masculinity

So last night I watched the Disney movie Moana with my family. I know I’m a bit late to the party but hey, I eventually got to it.

Now, I’m not a fan of Disney as a whole. I think the company is shady, they eat up independent media, and commoditize everything.  But since the 90’s, Disney has been trying to get more with the times as far as empowering female role models goes. We had Pocahontas, and Mulan, and more recently we got Tiana, Merida and Elsa. I don’t think we can really say what the motives of Disney coming out with these new heroines were, if they were truly empowering women because they believe in it, or if they were just producing something that the audience wanted at the time. Either way though, for the last two decades american children have been exposed to stronger more nuanced female characters that broke the traditional box that women, especially previous Disney princesses, were put in. This is a great thing, whether we like it or not, from an early age our self confidence, self image, and dreams are shaped by the media; so having animated heroines that better fit with the expectation for girls to step up and be leaders was a long time coming.  Moana fits with this, she’s a princess who’s story isn’t focused around a man, there’s no romance in her story, it’s just her saving the day and finding out who she is.

I could talk for days about Moana, how they actually gave us a Disney character that isn’t feeding into the white barbie thin image of beauty,  how she’s strong and cooperative and how she has an actual family unit. But I’m not going to. I want to talk about Maui.

Maui is the demigod of the story who Moana seeks out to help her save her island after he stole the heart of Te Fiti. I think we have over looked the importance of this character while appreciating another strong heroine.

Don’t Stop reading, I know that I’m not talking about female role models anymore and I’m paying attention to the men instead, but hear me out, this is just as much about women as it is about men, and an important issue that has been ignored for the most part.

For a while now we’ve been trying to fix the idea of female role models, giving girls someone strong to admire and strive to be similar in spirit to, because representation matters! And no matter how much we tell our daughters and ourselves that we can be anything we want to and that women are no less powerful or important than men, it’s hard to believe that without seeing a woman living up to that. This can also be said about characters of color, non binary genders, sexual orientations, differently abled people and everyone else that we don’t see enough of in the media, but this post can only be so long so I’m just going to talk about masculine and feminine role models for the time being.

But as we have strived to change the way women are represented in the media that is geared towards young people looking for role models, we have neglected to address the need for a change in role models for young men. The most common role model for boys is the typical hero of any story. The chosen one, the lone wolf, the rogue. A solo man who might have a side kick, but for the most part keeps to himself with a few people to back him up. He may lead other people, or he may come in from the outside to save people who didn’t know him.

Look at Simba, he has a few friends that help him along the way, but ultimately it’s him who saves the day, you can’t easily say that any of the others were the heroes of the story, they were sidekicks at most, and more accurately they were just side characters. A handful of superheros have sidekicks, though the big ones right now are Batman, Spiderman, and sometimes Superman. Superman goes it alone, as does Spiderman, Robin was a sidekick and has been largely left out of the recent batman movies. There is an endless list of strong male characters going it alone against the evil that they are facing. And even when there are other supporting male characters, they are rarely the ones that young boys latch onto as their favorite character that they model themselves after.

This is a detrimental character type to hold as a role model though for several reasons. Firstly, we are rarely tasked with something where we have to go at it alone, and seeing hero after hero have to face their demons one on one starts to make young men believe that this is the only way to do things; that they have to do whatever it is by themselves with no one to confide in or help them.

Secondly and most importantly in my mind is that these characters only ever go on their own missions. They are wrapped up in the evils that affect them, their city, their family, their treasures. They rarely, if ever, are called on to help out in a situation that they didn’t discover first and have a personal stake in. The problem with this is that that there are many more important problems in the world than most people will ever have a personal stake in. And none of them are going to be fixed unless people empathize with problems that don’t victimize them personally, and help by standing together in the movement.

Back to Maui. When Moana comes to get his help, his main concern is getting back his hook, not restoring the heart. But he agrees to help Moana get the heart back to where it belongs, even when it is hard for him, and eventually risks him losing the hook that he wanted to save above all else. In addition to this, he is a good overall character, being able to recognize when he hurt someone or did something wrong, and apologizes and tries to make things right. In a world where men have been teased by friends whenever they show any softness or weakness, being able and willing to own up to your mistakes that hurt other people emotionally is kinda a big deal. Maui loves being appreciated by people, it’s why he took  the heart in the first place, which makes his willingness to help out without being the main leader of the journey to restore the heart even more laudable. It shows that you can still be a strong individual who fights their own battles while still being able to see the importance of other people’s missions and standing behind them.

There are a few other cartoons that have male leads that help out others, in Toy Story Woody is helped out by the whole gang, and in the Scooby Doo series, while Fred seems like the leader, they all step up when their skills are better suited in a particular adventure. But while these are better than most in emphasizing team work, they don’t do as well to set up a role model whose worth is in getting behind a movement rather than feeling the need to lead one.

Giving girls better role models is just half of the process, if we tell girls that they can be leaders we need to make sure that there are people willing to follow. Boys and girls need to have role models that can recognize a worthwhile movement and are willing to lend their help to it. In looking at male role models that do this in particular, I’m not saying that boys should be the only ones taught the importance of group effort, but rather I’m saying they need to be given these role models more immediately because they are the ones that have been targeted harder with the loner role models.

Feminism isn’t just about teaching girls to lead. It’s about equality, everyone should know that they can lead, but everyone should know when to follow worthy leaders as well. We’re often told that being “followers” makes us weak, but when there is someone worth following, when their mission is important, following them and helping them is far from weak, it is selfless strength.

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