One of the last truly great philosophers of the 20th Century once said (well, sung) ‘Boys don’t cry…’
With the greatest of respect for Robert Smith of The Cure, he’s wrong. Boys can and should cry and decades of emotional suppression have conditioned us to believe that we’ve failed when we do. We’re taught to choke our emotions down, to express nothing other than brotastic joy, ironic snark or, in some cases, macho anger—and it’s toxic in every way. Believe me, I know, I’m a Brit. If Emotional Suppression were an Olympic event, we’d win every time. And then send a polite note apologising that we didn’t really feel like we should be at the ceremony and there was no need to make a fuss.
It’s even worse in genre TV and cinema, where we encounter so many of the emotional role models that shape us. Far too often “emotion” is portrayed as “angst,” and the closest thing we have to characters expressing their feelings is epic banter. Which is fine in and of itself but you need a little more roughage in your emotional diet.
And now, at last, you’re getting it.
More and more, genre TV shows are giving their male characters something to do other than quip and yell. The most recognized instance of this phenomenon is The Flash, where Detective Joe West has become the crumpled, beating heart of one of the sweetest shows on TV. There’s a lot to say about Joe and his relationships with his kids which I may cover in a separate piece. Likewise, The Librarians has done some brilliant work in this area that I’d to talk about in-depth and at length in the future. For now, though, I’d like to concentrate on two other key examples that demonstrate just how much the emotional depth of male characters in the field has improved in the current crop of SFF shows.
The first is Supergirl and how the show approaches Jimmy Olsen. Jimmy, at least on screen, has been pretty badly served over the years. He’s usually the comic relief or the audience stand-in, asking the obvious questions so we don’t have to. At times he’s even been the substitute damsel for when equally-badly-served versions of Lois were already busy falling off, through, or into things.
The Supergirl take on
Jimmy James changes that completely. Mehcad Brooks plays him as a centred, focused man rather than the shrill boy he’s been at times in the past. He’s the perfect foil for Melissa Benoist’s magnificently nervy take on Kara, too, and the relationship between them is this fascinating push-me-pull-you where they take turns being the calm, focused, strong one.
They also have remarkable emotional honesty, and that’s led to several of the best scenes in the show; James openly tearing up when talking about how his father inspired him to become a photo journalist was a standout. But it’s the boxing scene in “Red Faced” that really brings this into focus. James, working a heavy bag, and Kara, working a CAR, take turns throwing punches and talking about what’s making them angry. The scene speaks directly to the pressures modern Western society puts on women and black men to not express anger—in Kara’s case because it’s not considered “feminine” and in James’s because doing so has a very good chance of putting his life in danger. To see a show, any show, deal with those issues is impressive. To see one deal with them with such honesty and nuance is frankly astounding. The scene also cements the friendship between the two and drives home just how open a book this version of Jimmy is. He knows what pushes his buttons, knows that sometimes he can do something about it, and tries to make his peace with it when he can’t. He’s inspirational without being unattainable, idealistic without being an ideal.
That’s extraordinarily nuanced and clever writing. It’s also a really positive three-stage lesson for male viewers:
- It’s okay to have emotions.
- It’s unhealthy to bottle them up.
- Expressing them in a healthy way will always help.
There’s no grim-faced angst, here—just a decent man trying to work on what’s bothering him and a strong, positive lesson for any man watching trying to do the same.
That’s also true of Limitless, which started over here a few weeks ago. The show cleverly swaps out Bradley Cooper’s charming and just-a-little-ruthless Eddie Morra for Brian Finch (played by Jake McDorman). Brian is an amiable, late-20s drifter who, like Eddie, is given the mysterious wonder drug NZT-48 as a “favor” by a friend. Like Eddie, he’s instrumental in saving a family member’s life but, unlike Eddie, Brian gets noticed by the authorities. The FBI are investigating NZT and thanks to Agent Rebecca Harris, they bring Brian aboard as a consultant.
However, Brian has also been discovered and snatched up by the now-Senator Eddie Morra. Eddie has big plans and he needs a man in the FBI. Which means he needs Brian. Which in turn means Brian is now leading a triple life…
It’s a really fun, smart show and a huge part of that is down to how little Brian is allowed to get away with. That comes to the fore in Episode 3, “The Legend of Marcos Ramos”. The episode’s B-plot sees Brian run into his ex-girlfriend on his way into work. He’s taken his NZT for the day so he’s brilliant and charming and they re-connect. He finds out she’s being evicted, helps her find a solution and save her building, and they pick the relationship back up. Then, after not remotely veiled threats from Senator Morra’s new aide, Brian is forced to break off the relationship to save her life.
So the episode ends with Rebecca finding him alone, crying his eyes out.
It’s a tiny little scene that’s completely unlike the wacky brain japes that define the show and it hits all the harder because of that contrast. Not only does the moment move the plot along but it solves the show’s main problem: Brian’s always the smartest person in the room, but he’s still very much a human being—capable of being wounded and broken, in spite of his enhanced abilities. If anything, this moment gives him a far clearer view of his own damage and the uncomfortable fact that even with NZT, he can’t solve every problem. It gives him a unique vulnerability that influences both character and plot and reveals a downside to the use of NZT that’s far more visceral than the eventual death Eddie has saved him from. This is Brian’s “with great power comes great responsibility” moment.
It’s another example of a male character being completely open with their emotions and becoming all the more likable for that. Brian’s just had to do an awful thing and feels lousy about it. Just like James can’t talk about his dad without getting choked up or Joe West can’t view Barry Allen as anything other than his son.
In all of these cases, these men have done something they’ve not been allowed to do before, for the most part: feel. In feeling, and expressing emotion, they’ve become more nuanced, more relatable and better characters. Instead of having clay feet, we see their shoes are just as worn as ours. Which means when they do something good it’s not only more admirable but more relatable—they’re no longer simply paragons for us to aspire to.
They’re us. Tired, grumpy, frightened, frustrated and doing it anyway. Not just the heroes we need but, at last, the heroes we deserve.
Alasdair Stuart is a freelancer writer, RPG writer and podcaster. He owns Escape Artists, who publish the short fiction podcasts Escape Pod, Pseudopod, Podcastle, Cast of Wonders, and the magazine Mothership Zeta. He blogs enthusiastically about pop culture, cooking and exercise at Alasdairstuart.com, tweets @AlasdairStuart.