I like to think that there will come a time when Conservatives can no longer surprise me. Alas, that time seems yet to arrive.
Conservative MP Nick Fletcher was the one to give the latest bizarre statement during a Parliament debate last week. Fletcher argued that there is a lack of good role models for young boys, citing rising crime rates as a result of this. This could have been an interesting point to make about toxic masculinity, unfortunately, what little rationality and sense his statement had, crumbles when Fletcher cites the reasons behind this issue … Jodie Whittaker playing the Doctor. Or, if you want his complete statement, “In recent years, we have seen Doctor Who, the Ghostbusters, Luke Skywalker, and The Equalizer all replaced by women, and men are left with the Krays and Tommy Shelby. Is it any wonder that so many young men are committing crimes?”
If you heard a loud slapping sound on the evening of November 19th, don’t worry – it was just the entire country clapping their foreheads in utter disbelief.
Perhaps one of the most frustrating things about Fletcher’s statement is that there is a genuine conversation to be had about toxic masculinity in the media. Portrayals of male characters in action, sci-fi, and beyond can be damaging; from pushing unrealistic chiseled abs to perpetuating dangerous stereotypes about how “boys don’t cry” to glorifying men treating women as objects (the Bond franchise is known for being particularly bad at this).
Film and TV have far more influence than we think, and the way it normalises misogynistic ideas shouldn’t be underestimated. Nor should we assume girls are the only ones affected. These issues I’ve mentioned barely scratch the surface of the bigger picture. There is room for a serious, nuanced conversation surrounding portrayals of men in media and the way this shapes young boys’ lives and self-image. Fletcher had the chance to discuss these issues. Instead, he decided women finally getting to be at the forefront is the real issue.
His claim is one that is very hard to take seriously. For one, role models do not have a one-to-one relationship with gender. If a fifteen-year-old me can admire Matt Smith’s Eleventh Doctor, then there is no reason why young boys cannot do so with Jodie Whittaker’s Thirteenth. Or with Daisy Ridley’s Rey, or Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel.
In fact, many young boys do find role models in these characters. While seeing yourself represented is incredibly important, your role models don’t have to be ones that look exactly like you. Nick Fletcher either doesn’t know this because he is a white man who has spent his entire life watching other white men in films, or he does know this, but personal bias outweighs anything else.
There is also the fact that these franchises that have been “taken over” by women are not lacking in role models for young men. For instance, the Whittaker era of Doctor Who has the funny, brave, and resilient Ryan, and Ryan’s charming and instantly likable step-grandad Graham O’Brien.
Ryan’s arc about learning to live with dyspraxia is one that I found particularly moving. As was watching them slowly grow from an uncomfortable, tense pairing to a family unit forged by genuine care and affection. This is a dynamic we don’t often see between two men, and one that is wholly welcome.
The new Star Wars films have Finn, a former Stormtrooper who courageously chose to follow his conscience rather than fight for the First Order, and Poe, a dashing and heroic pilot for the Resistance. Both have the action scenes to get your stereotypical 10-year-old boy’s blood pumping. But they also stand for courage, loyalty, and doing what’s right in the face of a dire threat. These are values that we might need more of today. It’s not surprising that audiences of all genders loved these characters. Perhaps Nick Fletcher was too busy focusing on the female protagonist to acknowledge any of the men present.
Unfortunately, we can’t really say the same for the reversal. It is depressingly common for male-dominated stories to lack compelling, interesting female characters. Instead, writers often give us either wide-eyed love interests or one-dimensional tokens. Or if we’re lucky, both.
And last but not least, the media landscape is definitely not lacking in male protagonists currently. While we’ve certainly made progress in terms of gender representation (although said representation is still primarily white, straight, and cis), men still have the lion’s share. While you could argue that Eleven is the main character of Stranger Things, the cast is still primarily male.
The Witcher, which became lockdown sensation, has Henry Cavill’s Geralt of Rivera as its protagonist. While Rey may be the face of Star Wars movies, Pedro Pascal’s Din Djarin leads the hugely popular The Mandolorian. Of the four Marvel series released on Disney+ this year, three (Loki, Hawkeye, and Falcon and the Winter Soldier) have men in the lead roles.
And speaking of Marvel, 2021 saw three Marvel films released, two of which star men in the lead roles; Shang Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings and Spiderman: No Way Home. Their rivals, DC, don’t appear to be doing much better, with yet another Batman remake set to come in 2022. And this barely begins to cover it completely. So I have to ask; where exactly is the gaping hole left by this lack of male role models? Because I know I can’t see it.
I could point out how this argument falls apart logistically; how masculinity and crime was still an issue back when David Tennant was the Doctor and the Ghostbusters were all men. But I won’t. That would imply that Nick Fletcher, or any man who makes these kinds of claims, have their claims rooted in any logic. And the hard truth is … they don’t. Their “logic” stems from the fragility of white male privilege and a facet of it that doesn’t usually get considered.
How could Nick Fletcher understand the rush I felt seeing Jodie Whittaker holding a TARDIS key? Or seeing Captain Marvel taking to the skies. How can he know what it meant to see myself front and centre, as the hero rather than the sidekick? Put simply, he can’t. Because he is a straight cis white man and so has known that rush his entire life.
Fletcher’s reaction, while deeply frustrating and downright misogynistic, is unfortunately natural for people in his position; they see any other group get a fraction of what they have, and the perceived threat to their power sets alarm bells ringing. And then they dress it up as “concern” for people’s welfare because, well, who lies better than Conservatives?