Women have long criticized Hollywood for failing to create strong female characters. Maybe it’s time for men to speak out too—and tell Hollywood that what we need, as men, is fewer strong male characters.
When I say we need fewer strong male characters, I’m thinking about a particular definition of “strong.” “Strong female character” is often used to mean fully developed, with agency and (as Tasha Robinson wrote recently at the Dissolve) an important role in the plot. But, especially in action films, “strong” also tends to mean—well, strong. If you’re in an action movie and are integral to the plot, then you tend to be a badass with combat skills who fights and wins. You’re a tough guy like Superman or James Bond or Idris Elba in Pacific Rim. You’re a hero.
So why, as a man, would you want to see fewer tough heroic guys fighting the good fight? Feminists have argued, I think correctly, that women want and need heroes. Why shouldn’t guys want them too?
It’s not just that Hollywood kills more men because more men are standing around as cannon fodder. The deaths of women are actually treated differently.
Guys do want them, of course; it’s fun to imagine being Superman or James Bond or ninjas or (my son tells me) Percy Jackson demigods. But there’s also a downside—which becomes clear if you take your eyes off of the Supermans for a second, and glance around at the other male characters in film. These characters—even minor ones—tend also to be defined by their strength and their agency. The almost femaleless world of the original Star Wars films, for example, is populated by anonymous male Imperial Stormtroopers and rebel fighters and barroom bullies with walrus heads, all aggressive and pursuing their goals with violent agency, the way you do in an action movie.
And what happens to many, many of these strong, active male characters? They get killed—by the dozens, by the hundreds, often in deliberately humiliating and jokey ways. In a film like Homefront, most of the male cast seems to exist only to be strong so that Jason Statham can show he’s stronger by inventively beating the tar out of them. In Pacific Rim, a tough guy male character is humiliatingly, graphically devoured as a punch line. Men dying; it’s funny.
One could argue that it’s not male death per se that’s funny, but just death. Action films are built around, well, action and violence. Hollywood tends to cast more men than women, because Hollywood is sexist. So you’ve got men dying. It doesn’t have to do with men in particular; it’s just that men are the default human beings.
I think this is too simplistic, though. It’s not just that Hollywood kills more men because more men are standing around as cannon fodder. The deaths of women are actually treated differently. In the original Star Wars trilogy, for example, just about the only woman who dies is one of Jabba the Hutt’s erotic dancers. The scene is drawn out for maximum ickiness and terror; her death is supposed to demonstrate his disgusting, sexualized sadism. The killing of a woman is figured as particularly heinous—but no such moral obloquy attaches to our heroes when they murder their way through Jabba’s (all male) entourage.
Along the same lines, the Daniel Craig James Bond films have a cheerfully high body count—researchers counted around 250 violent acts in Quantum of Solace. But the films are careful to register the deaths of women as particularly visceral and important. Vesper Lynd’s death by drowning at the end of Casino Royale is a slow, close up tragedy that provides Bond with motivation for another two movies. The death of Strawberry Fields in Quantum of Solace is presented as heinous specifically because she is a non-combatant with a desk job. Guys can be shot for fun; women’s deaths are serious and meaningful—not least because they provide the men with traumatic backstory.
You see a similar calculus in Pacific Rim. With the exception of one woman without a speaking part and the female lead, the heroes who risk their lives in the giant robot Jaegers to fight the sea monsters are men. At the end of the film, the three main male characters all, one by one, sacrifice themselves heroically. But that female lead, Mako Mori, who is supposed to be a fierce fighter with a personal revenge motive against the monsters, isn’t allowed to die for the cause. Instead her partner/boyfriend Raleigh knocks her unconscious and ships her safely out of the ocean deeps in an escape pod. At the Dissolve, Robinson points to this as an example of the way in which even supposedly strong female characters are narratively secondary; Mori becomes a way for Raleigh to heroically self-actualize, rather than a hero in her own right. But being a hero here means, essentially, dying. Raleigh gets to miraculously survive, but two other men are killed, and barely get mourned in the celebratory conclusion. The men are strong, so they die like strong men, and their deaths elicit little more than a shrug.
In his collection Gender Inclusive: Essays on Violence, Men, and Feminist International Relations, genocide scholar Adam Jones argues that this blasé attitude toward the death of men is not just limited to films. Rather, violence against men is downplayed—or ignored, or sidelined—in a wide range of cultural milieu. Jones notes that “domestic violence,” as it is generally used, for example, almost always is seen as a problem for women, even though studies show that women attack men at about the same rate as men attack women. Jones notes that men, because of size and strength disparities, are more likely to do serious harm, so it certainly makes sense to focus on, and even prioritize, domestic violence against women. But violence against men exists, and can be serious and traumatic. It shouldn’t be erased—and much less should it be seen as a joke, as it is often portrayed in comic strips and films like the execrable indie comedy How to Be a Man.
That’s part of the genius of Aliens, a hybrid action movie/slasher, which revels in its increasing body count while using the danger to its female protagonist (and her child ward) to ramp up chills and terror.
Violence against men is also, and especially shamefully, downplayed in discussions of genocide, according to Jones. In Kosovo, for example, genocides by Serbs tended to single out “battle aged” Muslim males, who were separated from women and small children and then executed en masse. But news reports at the time, Jones found, would skip over the deaths of men, to focus on the smaller number of “worthy” victims—women and children. Stories would often focus on the plight of women forced into exile and widowed, without managing to draw the obvious conclusions—that the women were allowed to flee because they were female, and that they were widowed because the Serbs were targeting and killing men specifically. (The supposedly innate reasonableness of violence against men is also used to justify Israeli attacks on Hamas.)
The killing of men is not infrequently a prelude to killing everyone, Jones adds. Genocides often warm up by targeting men, because men are seen as automatically threatening, dangerous, and strong. This appears to have been the case in the Holocaust, where early gendered violence against men was, Jones suggests, a way to ease troops into killing women and children, which many soldiers initially objected to. The same appears to have been true at least to some extent in Rwanda.
Violence against men, then, is sometimes funny, sometimes natural, sometimes reasonable, but never a moral problem in itself. This is why all the Stormtroopers have to be guys, and why action films in general are so dependent on violence against male bodies in particular. Men are strong, they aren’t victims—which means that violence against men isn’t really violence. It’s just one of those things.
In this context, it’s significant that slasher films iconically feature female heroes or “last girls.” Unlike action films, slashers do not want violence to be casual; they want it to be shocking and memorable. Action films look to rack up body counts, so they kill men. Slashers want to emphasize feelings of victimization and terror, so they direct violence against women. That’s part of the genius of Aliens, a hybrid action movie/slasher, which revels in its increasing body count while using the danger to its female protagonist (and her child ward) to ramp up chills and terror. In comparison, Pacific Rim or Priest or Starship Troopers—all with male protagonists—are just FX video-game shoot-’em-ups, with little pretense to horror.
Action films, then, rely on the fact that men’s strength makes them disposable. Women aren’t allowed to be heroes, but male heroism is expected, which means that violence directed against men is treated as a fun part of the plot rather than as a moral problem. I agree that we could use more strong female characters. But I think we could also stand to have more movies that celebrate different kinds of strength, and link character and heroism to something other than inflicting, and suffering, violence.