Do We Need a Revolution in Male Characters?

Harry Potter is the most popular character of the last 15 years, but is he really unique?

Erik Kain flagged this post from Otaku Kun on Brave, Pixar’s upcoming movie that will be its first with a female protagonist. While I don’t agree with his analysis of Disney’s offerings—yes, the company has a strong princess franchise, but Pixar in particular has become acclaimed in part for its sensitive, creative stories about men—I think it’s worth unpacking what lies behind this sentiment: “I’d just like to see a movie from Disney/Pixar for once where the main character is a young boy, who follows his heart and defies his own society and culture, and achieves something more than just mere personal happiness, but actually makes a difference.”

I have nothing against stories where boys get to grow, and be empowered, and slay the dragon, and get the girl. But I don’t exactly think we’re lacking in those kinds of narratives. Across generations and countries, the most popular literary and cinematic phenomenon of the last decade and a half is a nice kid named Harry Potter who achieves both personal happiness and major societal change. Christopher Paolini got to live out that narrative both in real life and on the page when he went from self-publishing homeschooler to best-selling author with his Inheritance series before he was 20. The most kid-friendly superhero in movies and cartoons is Spider-Man.

But I am generally sympathetic to the idea that just as we need more expansive roles for women in pop culture, we need more flexible roles for boys and men that allow for a broader range of emotions. And so I asked Tamora Pierce last year about whether we needed different kinds of boys to act as heroes and role models for male and female readers alike (she is one of the authors I think does best creating fully-realized boys and men). “The majority of boys have male heroes. Even if the characters are animals, they’re male. Girl heroes are by far the minority in children’s literature, which is absolutely infuriating to me, because this was the status quo when I started, and the numbers have not changed that much,” she said, explaining why, though she’s working on her first series with a male main character, she’s more concerned about providing innovative stories about women. “It’s not that I have anything against boys. I just see a need for girl heroes.”

And I wonder if the rise of authors like Pierce, and of a vigorous conversation about roles for women and girls more generally, even if it hasn’t gotten us to character parity or all the depictions we’d like, is something that guys would like a male equivalent of. There’s no question that there are clear archetypes of male characters, from Bad Boys to Nice Guys, and forums for discussion of them ranging from the Good Men Project to lots of good feminist writers. But are there authors or filmmakers who folks think are doing a uniquely good job of building particularly innovative male characters? Clearly there’s some unfulfilled hunger out there for something new. And I’d be curious as to what the men in the audience are feeling most engaged by.