I write a lot about women in fiction on this blog, to the point where I’ve had friends term it a feminist blog. But if you’ve ever wondered “jeez, Josh, you keep talking about women this and feminism that, what about the men!?”, well, this rant essay is for you.
One of the many things I like about (500) Days of Summer, is Tom. Not that he’s a particularly great guy or anything like that, but that with Tom we have a male protagonist who is allowed to be emotionally vulnerable. Misguided as he is, he’s afforded the latitude to be ecstatic and heartbroken with everything in the middle bearing shades of another. Put colloquially, Tom gets to feel the feels, and the movie doesn’t punish him for it.
See, fiction typically doesn’t give male characters emotional breadth. Think of just about any other romcom; sure, Matthew McConaughey and Patrick Dempsey get sad and have their epiphanies, but do the films explore those feelings to the extent that (500) Days of Summer does?
There’s a tendency in fiction (and it’s a tendency reflected from reality) for being emotional to be seen as feminine, and thus unsightly in a male character. There’s a a reason “man-up” is said to guys who are scared or weepy, and not when someone’s winning. After all, we all know real men don’t cry. There are of course the occasions for manly tears: sacrifice, like the titular soldier crying over what others sacrificed for him at the end of Saving Private Ryan; brotherhood, like Channing Tatum crying at his partner’s funeral in End of Watch; or good old dead loved ones, like Maximus’ breakdown in Gladiator. These are the moments when manly men, pushed over by grief and patriotic duty, cry manly tears. But heartbreak over a breakup? That usually gets us a scene like in That 70s Show, with Eric Foreman lying in bed after breaking up with Donna, his sorrow played for laughs. It’s funny because Eric’s not the manliest of men and here he is trying to enact a form of masculine sadness but is really just pathetic.
Compare that portrayal to (500) Days of Summer when we’re allowed to wallow with Tom while he deals with his breakup. We see the repeated dullness of Tom’s life and how life seems to have lost meaning. There are still some great gags, but we’re laughing with Tom out of commiseration, rather than laughing at him as we do Eric. The film’s commitment to exploring Tom’s feelings, oft accentuated by its stylized editing and use of voice over, means that we are firmly with him here. It’s not ‘manly’ – and it doesn’t have to be – but he’s far from pathetic.
It’s important here to clarify that unmanly tears do not mean emotional breadth. Cooper in Interstellar breaks down and weeps while going through the archived messages from his daughter, but it doesn’t affect him as a character. Cooper’s still gonna do what Cooper is gonna do: space stuff. Interstellar never explores his emotional state, he remains a stalwart explorer.
I cite as many examples as I can because it’s so prevalent else-wise. This is one of those things where the exception proves the rule. Scott Pilgrim is such an offbeat romantic lead, what without his conviction and confidence and all that. Instead Scott Pilgrim vs The World devotes much of its runtime to dealing with Scott’s issues and baggage, affirming that those are important things, even if you’re a guy. But Scott Pilgrim is in many ways a deconstruction, as is (500) Days of Summer. These movies take the romantic comedy and play with it, in the process giving us male characters who are allowed to feel the feels. Starting to see how atypical this is?
Men, of course, feel (Duh). But it goes against typical societal norms to explore or display those feelings, especially if they’re really feel-y. Why? Cuz gender roles and the patriarchy cut both ways. The same force that prescribes women to be passive supporters also insists that men be unfeeling bastions. Aaaand yep, here’s my twist: this is actually another rant essay on feminism. The same criticism that asks “Hey, why can’t we let a woman be the everyman?” is the same one that says “Hey, why do men always have to be unfeeling?”. So yeah, let’s see more Tom Hansens in fiction, though preferably ones who are less awful humans. And that’s what’s about the men.