Two recent films, Deepwater Horizon with Mark Wahlberg and Sully starring Tom Hanks, represent something of a breath of fresh air, for both movies feature men who are intelligent, virtuous, and quietly heroic. If this strikes you as a banal observation, that just means you haven’t been following much of the popular culture for the past twenty years.
One of the distinctive marks of films and television programs the last couple of decades has been the Homer Simpsonization of men. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big fan of the The Simpsons and laugh at Homer’s antics as much as the next guy. But the father of the Simpson family is stupid, boorish, drunk most of the time, irresponsible, comically incompetent, and childish. In the cartoon world, he is echoed, of course, by Family Guy’s Peter Griffin, who is similarly buffoonish. In both cases, the wives—Marge in The Simpsons and Lois in Family Guy—have the brains, the competence, and the moral responsibility. And in The Simpsons, Homer is imitated by his son Bart, who is sneaky, stupid, and unmotivated, and Marge by daughter Lisa, who is hyper-smart, uber-competent, and morally alert. In one memorable episode, Lisa is worried that she has inherited her father’s terrible qualities but is relieved to discover, by the show’s end, that the “stupid gene” is communicated only to the males in the Simpson line. In another of my favorite Simpsons scenes, Homer is told, at a moment of moral crisis, to consult that “little voice that tells you right from wrong,” and he responds, “You mean Lisa?”
If you think this male-bashing is restricted to cartoons, think again. Ray Romano’s character in Everyone Loves Raymond, Ed O’Neill’s hopeless father in Married With Children, and Ty Burrell's hapless goofball in Modern Family—all are variations on the Homer Simpson theme. Add to all this the presentation of fathers as not just inept, but horrific inGame of Thrones, and the absent, indifferent fathers of Stranger Things.
And I wonder whether you’ve noticed a character that can be found in practically every movie made today? I call her the “all conquering female.” Almost without exception, she is underestimated by men and then proves herself more intelligent, cleverer, more courageous, and more skilled than any man. Whether we’re talking about a romantic comedy, an office drama, or an adventure movie, the all conquering female will almost inevitably show up. And she has to show her worth in a domineering way, that is to say, over and against the men. For her to appear strong, they have to appear weak. For a particularly good case in point, watch the most recent Star Wars film.
Now I perfectly understand the legitimacy of feminist concerns regarding the portrayal of women in the media as consistently demure, retiring, and subservient to men. I grant that, in most of the action/adventure movies that I saw growing up, women would typically twist an ankle or get captured and then require rescuing by the swashbuckling male hero—and I realize how galling this must have been to generations of women. And therefore, a certain correction was undoubtedly in order. But what is problematic now is the Nietzschean quality of the reaction, by which I mean, the insistence that female power has to be asserted over and against males, that there is an either/or, zero-sum conflict between men and women. It is not enough, in a word, to show women as intelligent, savvy, and good; you have to portray men as stupid, witless, and irresponsible. That this savage contrast is having an effect especially on younger men is becoming increasingly apparent.
In the midst of a “you-go-girl” feminist culture, many boys and young men feel adrift, afraid that any expression of their own good qualities will be construed as aggressive or insensitive. If you want concrete proof of this, take a look at the statistics contrasting female and male success at the university level. And you can see the phenomenon in films such as Fight Club and The Intern. In the former, the Brad Pitt character turns to his friend and laments, “we’re thirty-year-old boys;” and in the latter, Robert De Niro’s classic male type tries to whip into shape a number of twenty-something male colleagues who are rumpled, unsure of themselves, without ambition—and of course under the dominance of an all conquering female.
It might be the case that, in regard to money, power, and honor, a zero-sum dynamic obtains, but it decidedly does not obtain in regard to real virtue. The truly courageous person is not threatened by another person’s courage; the truly temperate man is not intimidated by the temperance of someone else; the truly just person is not put off by the justice of a countryman; and authentic love positively rejoices in the love shown by another. And therefore, it should be altogether possible to hold up the virtue of a woman without denying virtue to a man. In point of fact, if we consult the “all conquering female” characters in films and TV, we see that they often exemplify the very worst of the traditional male qualities: aggression, suspicion, hyper-sensitivity, cruelty, etc. This is what happens when a Nietzschean framework has replaced a classical one.
My point is that it is altogether possible—and eminently desirable—to say “you go boy” with as much vigor as “you go girl.” And both the boys and the girls will be better for it.
Bishop Robert Barron is an auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the founder of Word on Fire Catholic Ministries.