Wednesday, July 30, 2014

The Lie of Mysterious Masculinity, the Brooding Hero, and Angel

Yesterday and the day before were kind of heavy topics-wise, and tomorrow is promising to be a not super fun topic too, so I thought before we dive into more depressing stuff about our culture, let's take a minute and appreciate a trope that has appeared in a surprising number of shows now: the sexy brooding hunk of a hero who is an all reality a socially inept nutcase who isn't so much majestic and mysterious as deeply bad at interacting with people.

Can we talk about this trope for a minute? Because I love the stuffing out of this trope.

I love it because it puts paid to the idea of the perfect male character. All too often, writers, especially writers of female-driven shows (and this is mostly a television phenomenon) create these perfect male characters, the ultimate receptacle of the female lead's love. These men are tall, built, dreamily handsome, and yet somehow mysterious and complicated. They have a lot of feelings and emotions, sure, but they keep them locked away deep inside, a mystery for the right woman to solve.

You know what I'm talking about. A kajillion romance novels have been written about these guys, and they show up with alarming regularity on television, especially genre television. I mean, doesn't this describe half the male cast of The Vampire Diaries and True Blood? Or what about the most infamous vampire hunk of all, Angel from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel?

Well, see, Angel is actually the one I'm really referring to here when I talk about how much I enjoy this particular trope, about the perfect guy who actually isn't mysterious, he's just a complete dork. Because Angel? Is a complete dork who has no idea how to talk to people. It's great.

For those of you not in the know, Angel is this character (played by David Boreanaz), who appeared in both Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: The Series. He was (is?) a vampire, but he's a super special awesome vampire because a hundred years ago he was cursed with a soul. So he's moral, but also has eternal youth and is super handsome and strong and stuff. 

He's very good at deep emotional conversations. Not.
He fights the good fight, and somewhere along in there he falls in love with Buffy, a vampire slayer. It's doomed romance, complicated by the part where he loses his soul and goes evil and tries to end the world but dies instead then comes back and they decide that maybe they should break up.

So Angel moves to Los Angeles (heh), where he becomes an absolutely terrible private detective (who has no license) investigating supernatural crime and fighting monsters and saving stuff. That's the gist of the character, in a nutshell. But what's important to understand is that in between being a drunken layabout of a human, then a vicious killing machine of a monster, then a heroic but stunted vampire with a soul, Angel never really got around to learning people skills. Like, at all. He's terrible at them.

Sure, when we first meet him in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he seems like this sort of perfect, mysterious guy. He's handsome and helpful but sometimes cryptic and vague. He has this deep and meaningful emotional trauma that he keeps very well hidden inside himself, and our heroine, Buffy, is always trying to draw him out of his shell, to give him that emotional stability that he seems to crave. She wants to solve the mystery that is Angel. It makes for a very juicy love story. But, arguably, not a very realistic one.

Which is why I found it so fascinating when Angel became the lead of his own show (Angel, in case that wasn't clear). Because now we were seeing Angel without the filter of Buffy's romantic interest in him, and what we got was...different. 

Basically, without the Instagram filter of "romantic, mysterious hunk" laid on top of him, we can see Angel for what he really is: a socially inept dork who isn't mysterious, he's just really terrible with people. And that's great. Why? For starters because it's much more true to life and also funnier. But more because it skewers the idea that this man, this sexy brooding hunk who needs to be fixed by the love of a good woman exists. He doesn't exist, he's a myth. A myth that, I would argue, is as damaging to men as a lot of the myths surrounding female characters are to women.

He has a way with words.
The Angel we saw on Buffy was kind of the perfect guy. He was sweet, thoughtful, and generous, but also dark and mysterious and brooding. He was completely into Buffy, to the point that he couldn't even register attraction from anyone else, and he was willing to sacrifice greatly to be with her. He could help out in a fight, but he was always willing to let Buffy take the lead. Sure, he went evil sometimes, but he did it with such panache! And besides, his evil phase just went to show what a dark and complicated guy he was.

In Buffy, whenever the Scoobies wanted answers on something vaguely related to vampires, they would go to Angel, who would give them this cryptic answer that would (eventually) help them solve the case, but would first make them flail around a little bit. He never gave a straight answer, he was always being so. damn. mysterious.

Cut to Angel. All of a sudden we're seeing all of this from Angel's perspective, and it becomes clear that he's not being mysterious. At least, not on purpose. In all actuality, Angel is a ridiculously stunted person, and he just doesn't know how to talk to a human being. So when he gives those cryptic answers? It's not supposed to be cryptic. He just doesn't know how to convey information in a normal fashion. Or when he disappears in a swirl of his coat when he's done talking to you? Not dramatic, he just didn't know how to end the conversation and now he is running away.

Can you see why I like this version better?

And the thing is, Angel's Angel isn't less heroic than Buffy's version. He's not less brave or good at fighting or committed to battling evil. Actually he's moreso. Because in Angel, he's a person. Before he was a cartoon drawing of the perfect boyfriend. But now we see him for who he really is: a goober, but a goober with good intentions.

All those sexy brooding hunks are attractive and all, but they're not real people. Real people have flaws, and those guys only have flaws that make them seem more tragic and sexily damaged (which is gross and should not be a thing). They fight the good fight, but not because they have a moral obligation or because they chose to or because they have some meaningful reason to do so, they fight the good fight because the plot demands it. They're cardboard cutouts of a romantic fantasy, no more real than all those damsels in distress or those manic pixie dream girls. They're fake. And we don't need them.

He turned into a puppet one time.
Not when there are all these delectable goobers around! Angel is arguably the king of the goobers, but here's a quick roundup of other guys who fit this list: John Sheppard (Stargate: Atlantis), Derek Hale (Teen Wolf), Castiel (Supernatural), Steve McGarrett (Hawaii Five-O), Oliver Queen (Arrow), Batman (sometimes), Tuxedo Mask (Sailor Moon), Duke (She's the Man), and so on. I could keep going. The point is that all of these characters are big attractive men who seem to fit a feminine ideal of what masculinity is, who are mysterious because they don't say much and who are super heroic, but are actually just gigantic dorks.

There's something very comforting about this trope. The idea that that big guy over there in the corner who's not saying much and kind of weirding you out is actually not a scary murderer or some hitman or a potential rapist, but really a kind of inept man lacking the proper socialization skills to ask if he can get past you because you're blocking the vending machine. 

The idea that the brooding hunk you can see sending glances your way is actually just trying to figure out why you look so much like his first grade teacher. The sexy dude staring off into space on the train isn't contemplating the meaning of life or his tragic backstory, he's trying to decide who would win in a fight: a shark or a polar bear with an oxygen tank.

What I'm saying is that I love the idea that everyone is people. Because everyone is people! Okay, that sounds super weird, but you get what I mean. Everyone has the right to be represented fairly and complexly in stories. We all benefit from that. If stories where women are reduced to being perfect girlfriends and wives, whose only conflict arises from their use as bait or character development for the male characters, are harmful to women, then can't we assume that mysterious brooding heroes who exist just for female character development are harmful to men?

I mean, clearly our society has more examples of this for women. Like a lot more. It's more ingrained in our culture to associate female value with male relationship than vice versa. But that doesn't mean we should give mysterious brooding hunks a pass. That doesn't make it okay for stories about women to create harmful stereotypes about men. Sexual objectification, and that's what this is really all about, is harmful to everyone, no matter who is being sexually objectified. Even when, I know, it's an upper-middle-class white guy being objectified. It's still damaging.

He always sings Barry Manilow at karaoke night. Always.
You could argue that the sexy, brooding hunk hero with a mysterious past is actually a male power fantasy, but I don't think it is. In fact I'm pretty sure it's not. Who wants to imagine themselves as emotionally damaged and reliant on another person for healing? That's a weird thing to fantasize about. And it's not a power fantasy if you're imagining that you need someone's love to heal you. I'm sure logically that someone fantasizes about this, but it's not the norm.

No, these are stereotypes created by and for women, and they don't just harm guys who can't live up to them, they harm women who see these brooding hunks as a romantic ideal and refuse to accept substitutes. That's problematic for two reasons: 1, perfect people don't exist, and 2, a lot of the sexy brooding hero traits are also traits belonging to not nice men who will be not nice boyfriends. Better to recognize the fantasy as a fantasy and get to know people for real.

Ultimately, though, I think the real reason I love Angel and his horrific social awkwardness is because it knocks him down a peg. It makes him relatable and real. Who hasn't been trapped in a conversation with someone, utterly pinned, and wished they could just run away instead of politely ending it? Who hasn't wanted to just answer, "Because of reasons!" instead of explaining their thought process?

Who hasn't gotten caught spacing and had to come up with a better answer than "Would astronauts or cavemen win in a fight?" when asked what they're thinking about?

Pretty people are awkward too, sometimes, and it's good to remember that. It reminds us that everyone is human, from the people on our screens to the people around us. And it also is stinking funny.

So have a video of Angel trying his hardest to dance like a normal person (because it's hilarious and I love you), and remember that representation matters. It seriously always matters.


  1. Sure, when we first meet him in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, he seems like this sort of perfect, mysterious guy.

    Not least because they'd not actually decided immediately what his deal was, or even that he was a vampire.

    I'd let Vampire Diaries off of this particular hook, though, inasmuch as we see through the male cast's eyes too quickly for them to fall into that rut. Except for Elijah, but he's not a love interest.

    One of the few things I dislike about Orphan Black is that Cal has a bit too much of this (and a bit too much of the Gary Stu).

    So when he gives those cryptic answers? It's not supposed to be cryptic. He just doesn't know how to convey information in a normal fashion.

    Have you ever seen Babylon 5? This is kind of how I see Kosh.

    1. I've not actually watched much Vampire Diaries, actually. Couldn't get into it long enough to see the characters become more fully developed. And yes, Cal needs some characterization. Stat.

      I have not seen Babylon 5, but it's on my list. I hear wonderful things about it...

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