Why the new “American hero” is anything but.
It hit me Sunday night.
I was watching the pilot for Ray Donovan, Showtime’s new pseudo-gangster drama (no, he’s not a capo, he’s a Hollywood “fixer,” breaking limbs and blurring moral lines to get celebrities out of trouble). Ray, who just wrecked some dude’s radius by shoving it down a pool pocket, was about to go get it on with a lithe former child star, who likes yoga and smoothies, because this is California, don’t forget! Before that though, there was brooding to do, steely gaze set out over the dashboard, the seedy parts of Ventura Boulevard not quite as dark and messy as the shadows in Ray’s soul—or something like that. Dude’s got daddy issues, a whelping, long-suffering wife and the occasional jones for cocaine.
He’s a loner. He’s a bruiser. He’s our hero.
And all I could think was Wasn’t this the plot of the Sopranos? Or a Guy Ritchie movie? Wait, is this like something Clive Owen turned down?
You can tell me I’m being reductive, and it probably didn’t help that I watched Ray right after the season premiere of Dexter, it-boy of cable conflicted leads. But I realized, as I rifled through a mental rolodex of stoic ice men, dark-past sufferers and Byronic bullies, that this character is now an archetype, a role not just common, but dominant, one I would argue personifies the majority of leading men in dramas today.
Put simply, there are no good men leading on screen anymore.
It’s not news that the American viewing audience has long favored grit and “realism” in their dramatic leads.
For one, look at the timeless Superman v. Batman debate. The Dark Knight is the cooler choice, the more compelling one, because he’s imperfect, flawed, and thus more human. And that, more than anything is what we want now—leads who are just like us.
I’m not saying the Batman isn’t a good man, but his popularity does signal a larger trend. Idealized golden boys are out—the aw-shucks Mickey Rooneys of old, the moral, proclaiming defenders on Bonanza and the Lone Ranger, James Stewart’s steadfast righteousness. We all picture ourselves a bit of a loner, someone more like the Marlon Brando perhaps, growling from the door frame, unsure and more than often grappling for something we just can’t catch. Men we can empathize with, men we have seen on the street, in the living room, in the mirror—those are who we want to see up in celluloid.
The thing is he’s no longer the loner, an underrepresented voice in a sea of morality tales and formulaic adventures. And he’s also no longer just conflicted—he’s violent, reclusive, deluded, addicted, immoral. He’s the norm—the Don Draper, the Walter White, the Tony Soprano, the Daniel Plainview, the Stringer Bell, the Michael Corleone, the insert-violent-cable-drama-lead here. Our outsider has become our leader, our cliche, even worse, our stereotype for what men are deep down. The most critically-lauded dramas of the last few decades often feature these kind of men, because, it’s suggested, if you’re too good, too moral, you’re one-dimensional and flat. You aren’t real.
But here’s the thing—are they real? Is this what the real masculine struggle is, to not be violent and immoral? So many of these figures are male that it’s suggested that only males can be this way, this capable to hurt the ones closest to them. The pendulum has swung so far past any semblance of a middle ground, any hook onto what an everyday man is, that our “realism” isn’t anywhere close to it.
And I guess that’s really the problem—this quest for “realism”, this mantra that good art can’t be about what’s good. And worse than that, that being good isn’t real, or is somehow is easier than being bad. Real struggle is what these men go through, we think, doing bad things to help their families, themselves!
When compared to the outdated (and not entirely realistic either) strong, articulate males driven by either good “American” values (love for family, ambition etc.) or a more intangible moral code (honor, dignity, helping the weak), these men have more grit, they don’t take that easy “obvious” route, and we’re supposed to acknowledge and maybe excuse their struggle. True, many of these conflicted characters have incorporated some of these goals into their personas, but the thematic stress is put on their failings, their traumas, their mistakes. And those mistakes are so often inflicted on family and friends that it’s suggested inflicting pain on those closest to them is the only way men learn from their failures.
When we watch these men, when we pick and choose the pieces of them that we find forgivable in light of the rest of their “accomplishments,” we’re assigning value to certain crimes over others—spousal abuse comes in somewhere below rape, if he only hit her that one time she was mouthing off. And oh, he loves his kids, that’s why he’s a gangster, he has to provide for them!
We begin to equate violence with passion, brooding disengagement for somber internal life, the protecting and providing done elsewhere more important than the time spent with children or wives. This is normal, we think, if not exactly ok. We’re becoming apologists without even realizing it.
Here’s the thing. When I look back over the shows and films that I love, the ones that have walloped my insides, it’s these kinds of men that are often staring back at me from the screen. Don Draper falling asleep on Peggy’s lap, Michael Corleone realizing his brother’s betrayals—it’s these brief glimpses of humanity that remind me we can sift through the deluge of extravagant pain and violence to catch a sliver of something to relate to, to teach us who we are.
I’m not saying we should get rid of these ice men, these figures who in their failings become their own kind of after-school-special for the Grand Theft Auto generation.
But I am saying we should be alarmed that they are the chief representatives of what men are on TV, on screen. More precisely, I’m saying we should question ourselves when we hold them up as bastions of the modern man, whose struggles and behaviors are somehow indicative of what a real man is.
A real real man—not a good one or a bad one. Huh, now that’s something I’d like to see.
Photo: AP, Suzanne Tenner