November 23rd 2009
Fathers and Masculinity
All right, I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb here, and pick up on Marie Brennan’s post and Kate Elliott’s post, to write about fathers and how we are portrayed in books and media. Maybe there’s something to be gleaned here as well, as we at SFNovelists explore gender stereotypes and tropes.
I’m a Dad. I am not a superhero. I don’t fight criminals. I’m not a secret agent who, after dropping off the kids at school, goes off to fight terrorists. When something bad happens to my girls, I try to help them through their pain with love and wisdom and sympathy, because those are my tools, my talents. Those are my powers, super or not.
In her post, Marie talks about how often we see men avenging their murdered spouses or lovers. We also see them avenging kids who have been killed, or trying to rescue kids who have been kidnapped, or protecting kids who are in danger (Ransom, Taken). And Kate, in her post, asks why, if women can be portrayed as fierce and strong in defending their young, they can’t be portrayed that way in other, less conventional contexts. I would ask a similar question with respect to men — fathers and husbands in particular. Why does our strength have to manifest itself in violence?
I am reminded of the Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jamie Lee Curtis film True Lies, in which Arnold plays a Dad who pretends to be a business guy of some sort, but really is James Bond incarnate. It’s not enough that he makes a good living and loves his wife and daughter. In fact, he’s actually kind of boring as long as that’s the extent of what he does. He only wins his daughter’s respect and rekindles his failing marriage when it turns out that he’s Kick-Ass-Secret-Agent-Guy. Or take Harrison Ford’s role in Air Force One. He’s President of the United States, for God’s sake. But even that’s not enough. He only comes into his own as a hero when he gives up diplomacy and goes Rambo on the Kazakhstani terrorists.
Let me pause here to be absolutely clear: The type of stereotyping that Marie mentions in her post — the pattern of storytelling that robs women of their agency and reduces them to plot point motivations for male characters — is far more pernicious than what I’m talking about. There are stronger, more varied roles for men in movies and television than there are for women. As the father of daughters, I’m well aware of what’s lacking in the gender images they receive on a daily basis. They’ve read the “Twilight” books. Need I say more?
But I also know that the images of masculinity propagated by Hollywood and, yes, by the publishing industry, are also hopelessly, perhaps dangerously, unrealistic. I’d like to believe that there is more to male strength than knowing how to use an AK-47 or being able to kick the crap out of someone with my bare hands, because I’m not capable of either. I’d like to believe that loving my wife and my kids — knowing how to make them laugh when they’re sad, being able to turn disappointments into learning experiences, understanding when to be strict and when to have fun — makes me a strong, competent man.
On the other hand, I want to sell books, and I realize that while the Dad I just described — the Dad I try to be — may be admirable, he’s not marketable. The men in my books are, to quote The Princess Bride, “Men of action.” They can handle a knife or a sword or a gun. They fight in wars, they beat up bad guys, they wield magics that are every bit as spectacular as any special effect from an Arnold movie. In short, they’re nothing like me at all. They are “heroes”, and somehow that word has become synonymous with “men of violence.”
So where do we as artists draw the line? How do we offer realistic, healthy images of masculine strength while also keeping our books on the shelves? Is there a happy medium between the commercial appeal of “men of action” and the socially responsible, far more realistic portrayal of “men like me”?
What do you think? What kind of men do you write about? How similar are they to the men you know and admire in “real life”?
David B. Coe
David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.
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