Masculine Roles in Media Throughout the Last 30 Years
Male characters in media and entertainment have altered, leaving audiences with varying feelings
March 23, 2023
While I was originally tasked with writing an in-depth review of “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre,” starring the established Jason Statham, Aubrey Plaza and Hugh Grant, I found myself leaving the film feeling dissatisfied with no lingering thoughts about the movie. I tried to write notes on the movie while watching, but there was really no substance to it. Plaza carried the entire thing in my opinion, but such things are expected from someone who’s given great performances time after time. Statham on the other hand really seemed to give nothing, but after some thought, I think I’ve realized why.
As somebody who doesn’t actively watch action movies, it’s been a while since I’d seen one. I mostly wanted to watch the movie because of Aubrey Plaza, but in order to write a good review, I had to pay attention to the film’s plot, acting, characters, development, set and dialogue, among other things. The plot followed a group of agents, with Statham’s character, Orson Fortune, as the head of the group. The agents were tasked with finding out what was stolen from a laboratory and retrieving it, which they did. The plot was subpar at best with no twists or turns. While the action sequences were captivating to watch, there was nothing standout about them, and the writing could be outright cringy at some points, giving Marvel movie dialogue a run for their money. But I think the thing that lacked the most was the main character himself.
There was no personality, depth or backstory to Orson Fortune. He was simply a tough, witty, hardcore fighter agent that the audience is supposed to love, but I feel like it’s nearly impossible for the audience to develop a bond with him. Plaza’s character, Sarah Fidel, was the classic bombshell hacker character who served as comedic relief, but at least her character was actually likable. Maybe it’s just my bias toward Aubrey Plaza, but if her character died at the end of the movie, I would’ve actually been upset, whereas with Orson, I wouldn’t have cared at all. After I left the theater, I really had to think about why Orson was such a boring protagonist.
Again, as someone who rarely watches action movies, I had to think back in time a little bit, from the start of the 2000s to present day. There are so many action movies that star people like Daniel Craig and Vin Diesel as main characters. In other words, most action movies have a male protagonist that is typically considered “masculine” in a very traditional sense. But if you think back even further, to the ‘80s and ‘90s, we had male protagonists that were scrappy underdog characters. Lots of them started off as losers with special skills who, through lots of training montages, were able to overcome and defeat the enemy. Popular characters like Daniel LaRusso from the “Karate Kid” movies or Rocky Balboa from the “Rocky” series were the “little guys” who, against the odds, won their respective fights. During their time, it’s safe to assume that the characters were considered masculine, despite being wildly different from characters that are considered masculine now. That raises the question if masculinity has been changed over time.
In order to properly answer that question, we have to first define masculinity. Masculinity, put simply, is having traits that are typically associated with men. Those traits include strong resolve, set morals, leadership, independence, courage, aggression, dominance, and wits. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, there was an extremely heavy emphasis on strong resolve, wits and courage. The characters that were weaker needed those things in order to overcome their, oftentimes, more powerful enemy. While there were plenty of those loser characters, that’s not to say that there weren’t hardcore powerhouse protagonists sprinkled in, like John McClane from the “Die Hard” series, but they were a lot less frequent. The turn of the century was when those dominant characters started to emerge a lot more. People wanted to see their heroes lose a lot less and start to absolutely obliterate their competition. People wanted to see winners.
During that time, specifically the mid-2000s to early 2010s, people like Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson started to be featured way more often in media. In Johnson’s case, his muscular build, deep voice, sharper features, accompanied by his background as a well-known wrestler and generally funny dialogue was enough to skyrocket him to even greater fame and get him featured in about every big action movie in the last ten years. All the aforementioned masculine traits were emphasized during this time period, which hasn’t made a good impact on current media. By basically “maxing” all of the masculine trait “stats,” any characters that don’t exhibit every single trait to their greatest extent are now criticized. There are countless amounts of, mostly fragile men, who have complained about some of the more recent men portrayed in movies and TV. Complaints about current characters on TV being too “feminine,” when in reality, there’s a de-emphasis of certain characteristics and emphasis on others. There’s a new era of masculinity portrayed in media, which I like to call “protector characters.”
Protector characters place a strong emphasis on courage, strong resolve, set morals, leadership and wits. They’re tasked with taking care of someone, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be an absolute machine when it comes to danger. They can be scared themselves and still protect their loved ones, making them more complex than the previous powerhouse characters. The concept of the protector characters isn’t entirely new, but it’s become more popular within the last few years. For example, HBO’s newest show, “The Last Of Us,” follows Joel Miller in an apocalyptic world and his bond with Ellie, a girl who’s immune to zombies. While the show is an adaptation of Naughty Dog’s 2013 game of the same name, the story is important and compelling enough that it attracts old and new audiences alike. In the show, Joel does everything in his power to protect Ellie at all times, at first out of obligation, but later out of a father-like love.
Another great example of a reluctant guardian turned parent figure is Vander from Netflix’s 2021 “Arcane,” which is an adaptation of another popular video game, “League of Legends.” In the show, there’s a battle that occurs where two girls, Vi and Powder, are orphaned, and Vander, the local barkeeper, takes the two in. He raises them like daughters and shields them from harm while teaching them to protect themselves.
Both of the aforementioned characters, while incredibly masculine, have traits that make them more complex. For example, Joel’s character, who’s 56, struggles with being older, which, in turn, makes him scared that he won’t be able to protect Ellie, which he opens up about in an emotional scene in the series. With Vander, he’s the city peacekeeper, and his pacifism can be seen as a sign of weakness, which is called out during the show. These traits don’t make the characters weak or emotional, it just makes them more real, and gives audiences a new layer to inspect and analyze.
Watching “Operation Fortune: Ruse de Guerre,” it was hard to place my finger on why I had no interest in Orson’s character, but after thinking on it, I can simply say that his character is starting to get outdated. People are starting to want to see more protector characters. While powerhouses are fun to watch, they’re nearly impossible to get attached to most of the time, and attachment is something a lot of people are starting to crave when it comes to masculine characters. Lots of protector characters end up dying or going their separate ways with the person they were protecting, but for the time they’re onscreen, they accomplish the task of not only making other characters feel safe, but the audience as well.
When thinking back to Orson, the era of characters he fits in is over. For example, Owen Grady from the Jurassic series was another overpowered character, along with the majority of characters that The Rock plays. While entertaining, they’re losing the “it factor” that kept their characters popular for so long. No one is changing or redefining masculinity. Instead, different traits are being emphasized or de-emphasized, making for more complex male characters that the audience can connect with.