Superheroes Should Be Men

Before people start to yell at me for being backward and sexist, let me start with a fairly obvious claim:  violence against women is bad.  Violence in general is bad of course, but when we say that violence against women is bad we’re not just saying that violence in general is bad.  The “against women” part adds something to the claim.  Violence in general is bad, but violence against women is worse precisely because it’s against women.

Violence is frequently involved in superhero stories.  It isn’t always, of course, but it’s rather the exception when superheroes and supervillains resolve their differences through conversation.  Most of that violence is directed at the superheroes, too.  (A violent superhero beating up a pacifist supervillain would be almost incomprehensible.)  If the superheroic target is a woman, this becomes violence against a woman.

First let me respond to the suggestion that perhaps it isn’t the same sort of violence against a woman that people mean when they say, “violence against women.”  My response:  do we really want to nitpick?  Do we want some violence against women to be more acceptable than other violence against women?  Do we want some husband who beats his wife to get a lighter sentence because he’s able to show that he “doesn’t mean it in that other way.”  If you want those things, I simply can’t understand your position, and you will probably never understand mine.  I suspect that the overwhelming majority of humanity is on my side though.

Second let me respond to the argument that the superheroic woman is superpowered, and thus shouldn’t draw the same response.  Perhaps you mean that in essence she is a superhero, not a woman, and therefore the violence is merely violence against a superhero.  If being a woman isn’t essential to her though, why all the clamor to make sure that some superheroes are women?  If she isn’t a woman, then the other superheroes aren’t men, so there can be no gender disparity.

Perhaps you mean that superpowers alter her in some fundamental way so that we don’t need to see her as a women when she’s the target of violence.  Again, it isn’t clear why there’s such a clamor to make sure some superheroes are women then, since becoming a superhero means becoming less of a woman.  You might suggest that she becomes more of a woman, although then the would still be the target of “violence against women” and you’ve added an odd insult to all the women in the real world:  they are not woman enough to endure violence.  Do we really want to say that?  (Again, if you want to say that, we will probably never understand each other and the world is on my side.)

Perhaps you mean that her superpowers make her somehow equal to the fight, whereas real women are presumably not equal to any fights.  This radically changes the dynamic of superhero stories though, in addition to any insult to feminists.  While everything in superhero fights scales up (often dramatically), the basic situation of a man fighting another man (or group of men) is realistic.  Good men often fight evil men in the real world, too.  The only difference is scale.  I may never get in a fight that threatens a city and has global implications (a la Superman in Man of Steel, which is almost traumatically scaled up), but I may someday have to fight someone else on my own meager level.  That isn’t an unrealistic possibility in and of itself.  (Although it is thankfully unlikely.)  If real women are not equal to any fights (and that’s the source of our conviction that violence against women is especially evil), then any man fighting any woman is objectionable regardless of scale.  Giving a woman unrealistic powers doesn’t make the basic situation more realistic, it only highlights how unrealistic it is for a woman to be in that situation.

Third let me respond to the argument that violence against superheroic women isn’t objectionable because the women involved volunteer for it in some way.  What makes violence against women objectionable though can’t be that women usually don’t choose it.  That would make “violence against women” nothing more than “violence against the unwilling,” but even men can be unwilling.  (For example, I am unwilling.)  What makes violence against women objectionable has to be something either about the fact of womanhood or the choice of the attacker to target a woman.  Both of those would remain even if the woman had superpowers.

With all of those responses in place, consider the most common argument in favor of making some superheroes women:  the need for superheroic women as role models.  Marvel has just announced that Thor will soon be a woman; let’s imagine that I start my daughter reading Thor.  Thor is a pretty violent comic.  Pretty soon Thor is going to get into a fight against some man, perhaps Kurse.  Kurse is unlikely to refrain from punching Thor, since hitting Thor is one of Kurse’s favorite passtimes.

Now, in the real world, if my daughter comes across a man who happens to enjoy hitting her, what I’m going to want her to do is get to safety and get help.  (If you don’t agree with that desire, see my earlier comments about how we will never understand one another.  And stay away from my daughter.)  So, what I want Thor to model for my daughter is running away and getting help.

Instead Thor pulls out her hammer and fights.  What is my daughter supposed to learn from that?  That it’s okay for her to get hit in some situations, perhaps as long as she hits back?  That’s not helpful.  That she might be able to handle the situation differently if she can be something other than a woman, or if she can be more of a woman (or less of a woman)?  That’s not helpful.  That it’s certainly nice not to be weaker than attackers?  That’s not helpful.

What virtue is she supposed to imitate?  Bravery?  I’m fine with her being a coward if it gets her away from the violence.  Endurance?  I don’t want her to wait and see how much violence she can endure.  Hope that she can eventually overcome?  HOPE IS WHAT GETS WOMEN AWAY FROM VIOLENCE!!!  (If you ever tell an abused woman to just have hope that she can overcome….  you are a sick monster.  Give her hope that she can escape abuse.)  I don’t want her to take a beating while she watches for a chance to win the fight; I want her out of the fight.

(That last illustrates a crucial distinction.  My wife is a fourth-degree black belt; she can defend herself.  I have no particular problems with women learning self defense; I actually think that’s a good idea.  Superhero stories aren’t just about superheroes defending themselves though.  Batman doesn’t just know martial arts for self-defense, for example.)

At least with respect to violence, superheroic women inspire all the wrong sorts of behaviors.  Violence is a significant part of superhero stories however.  Even worse because of this, things we ought never want to see come packaged with material intended to entertain us.  We want to read a story or see a movie about people saving the planet, but for half of it we’re watching some woman getting beaten up for the sake of dramatic tension.

I think it’s great and positive for superhero stories to include important, complex, and powerful women.  I’m not advocating a return to some sort of world in which women are nothing more than McGuffins, characters that are only included because the superhero has to be rescuing somebody.  I don’t think women should be background objects, attractive but useless.  I just think that when it comes to the action part of superheroics, when it comes to getting in the fights that need to happen, it’s better to leave that fighting to men.

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Why I Think the New Star Wars Movie Will Be Terrible

There are a lot of obstacles to making a good Star Wars movie, which Mr. Lucas himself discovered when he tried to return to the franchise after 15 years only to produce three of the worst bad-but-successful movies ever (until the recent Transformers films).

The original trilogy has become culturally iconic, setting a standard that is unreasonably high.  Their story is largely self-contained, meaning that any new movie has to begin with a lot of world-building and can’t simply happen in the universe people already adore.  Their scope is mythic–probably by accident–which is an arduously difficult original intention and even harder to recreate.  (Myths don’t naturally beget sequels, even modern ones like the Lord of the Rings.)  I could go on.

The single biggest obstacle though is J. J. Abrams.  Judging from his past work anyway, he’s simply unfit for the attempt.

Just to be clear, I’m sure his new Star Wars movie will be exciting.  I’m sure it will make a lot of money and launch a financially successful franchise.  (As Michael Bay’s work frequently exemplifies though, that’s more an indictment of audiences than any statement about the movies.)  I’m even relatively confident that it will be better than Mr. Lucas’ prequels.

But it will also be vapid, forgettable if not regrettable, over-rated, and degrading.  Mr. Abrams has not merely proven himself to be incapable of creating iconic myth; he actively undermines the elements that would make that sort of enterprise possible.  He has shown that his interests are exclusively–in the sense of destroying alternatives–focused on showiness over substance, on excitement over engagement, on intrigue over insight.  Sound and fury, signifying nothing.

Of course, if all you want is an exciting movie involving spaceships and explosions in which some people fight with laser swords, none of that matters.  But then, if he added some laser swords to the recent Star Trek, you would have the same thing.

Actually Star Trek is a good place to start, because Mr. Abrams explicitly described his endeavor with the Star Trek movies as trying to make them more like Star Wars.  The result indicates how he sees Star Wars, and I think that ought to be disappointing for fans of either classic Science Fiction franchise.

He gutted a series filled with complex relationships, piercing social commentary, and some truly remarkable vision–a series he apparently found boring–and developed instead a group of empty caricatures who pursue half-heartedly disguised macguffins along a roller-coaster of gratuitous and incomprehensible action sequences.  About the only thing that remains is that both vaguely happen in or near space.  I suppose a lot of the names are the same, too.

Two scenes from the first movie that stand out to me–the monster chasing Kirk across the ice and Scotty stuck in the pipe–are good illustrations, not least because they happen near each other.  Neither serves any story purpose; they’re not even connected to the rest of the story and could be removed without creating any sort of continuity problems.  Their only function is to maintain excitement.  In the middle of the movie where the plot is supposed to be advancing and the characters developing, neither plot nor characters are sufficient.  In Mr. Abrams’ Star Trek, there needs to be an action sequence every couple of minutes, even if it’s entirely random and entirely irrelevant.  Otherwise, I suppose, people might think about what they’re seeing.

Therein lies the difference.  Actual Star Trek wanted people to think about what they were seeing.

Star Trek Into Darkness is arguably worse, in part because it rips off not just the best Star Trek movie ever, but one of the best movies in general ever made.  Star Trek II is an incredibly artful treatment of human frailty and human strength.  There’s this point of emotional crisis at the end, when Kirk–old, tired, and alone–runs through the battered corridors of the ship, fearing but knowing that he’s going to see one of his best friends die.  Then the movie lets that death hang in the air, because that death is the point.  It’s the fulfillment of both strength (friendship and self-sacrifice) and frailty (mortality and vulnerability).  And it’s entirely transformative, because Kirk (the frail), who has spent the entire movie trying (and failing) to be strong, finally understands strength.  It’s brilliant; I’m not explaining it well.

Star Trek Into Darkness shakes things up a bit, and has Spock–young, vital, stoic–run through the ship to witness the death of a man whom he has heretofore not even considered much of a friend.  Fortunately, the movie then goes on to make the emotional crisis a fist-fight between supermen on top of what appears to be a garbage scow.  And then the death is undone by convenient tribble-magic, because that’s better.

No amount of derision is sufficient.

Either way, that sort of incoherent, inconsistent, unrelatable, empty, inhuman movie apparently represents what J. J. Abrams thinks of Star Wars.  If that’s what he produces from excellent source material, I shutter to think what he creates on his own.

No Sense Putting It Off

The evidence is actually pretty clear.  Kids are significantly (and unfairly) disadvantaged (to use a euphemistic word for “hurt”) when they don’t have positive, consistent, reliable, present fathers.  The absence of fathers causes confusion, distress, distorted relationships, and large-scale societal breakdown, in addition to such a wide variety of other effects as to be staggering.

Non-partisan groups and even those partisan groups who are normally inclined to disagree with each other, all agree about this.  The research is overwhelming trending toward sickening.  It’s important to be clear too, that the research specifically discusses the involvement of a male parent, rather than a merely androgynous second parent, a void which could be filled by either sex.

Presumably something similar could be said about the necessity of a female parent, but discounting those women who neglect/abuse/murder their children, women are less inclined to be deadbeats.  That is to say, it’s significantly less likely that children would grow up without mothers, so there isn’t as much evidence for the negative impacts of not having a mother.  Thankfully, I think every person on the planet is willing to grant that mothers are important.  No one wants to find out what would happen without them.

Unfortunately, as I’ve already said, we as a society are almost eager to find out what will happen if we eliminate fathers.  We may say otherwise, but our actions betray us.

I digress.  Back to the overwhelming evidence that children need fathers, combined with the assumption I think we’ll all happily grant, that children need mothers.  Even more research suggests the rather obvious fact that children are best served when their fathers and mothers have a healthy relationship with each other.  In fact, once you add the weight of research about the damaging effects of divorce, it’s pretty clear that children’s best hope is to have mothers and fathers who have a consistent and reliably healthy relationship with each other over the course of the child’s entire development.

There’s not really anything shocking about any of this.  I mean, it’s shocking that we’ve let the problem get to the point that we have, but it isn’t shocking that the problem exists, and nobody significantly disagrees about its causes.

What’s more shocking is what we do about it.

Let me put this bluntly.  All the evidence clearly indicates that children are hurt if they don’t grow up in a committedly monogamous heterosexual family, and that society follows them into distress.  We respond by ignoring that entirely and hoping for the best.  Of course there are situations where the ideal isn’t possible; I’m not trying to criticize people if their situation is imperfect.  I’m criticizing all of us for accepting the lie that the ideal isn’t necessary or helpful.

The results are in:  denial isn’t working.  We have too many contradictory commitments.

We want men to be fathers, but we don’t want to offend women by suggesting that men are in any way capable of doing or being something which they (women) cannot do or be.  In fact we want to avoid any suggestion that there’s a difference between them sufficient to perhaps treat them differently. We certainly don’t want to suggest that the women who are mothers might in any way need the men who are fathers.

The collapse of fatherhood is exactly the product of those second commitments though.  To be blunt again, for a hundred years feminists have said that they don’t need men, that they can do anything men can do, that there is nothing special or unique about being a man.  Should we be surprised that so many men have listened?  That so many men have left women to fend for themselves, have left women to do what men ought to do, have stopped believing that they have anything special to offer.

We want children to see healthy relationship between their mothers and fathers, but we don’t want to believe that men and women might both have unique and important contributions to relationships. We want children to have families, but we don’t want to offend anyone by suggesting that they curtail their sexual impulses until they’re in some way committed to their partner.

I could go on, but I’m out of time again.  It’s pretty clear which of the contradictory commitments we favor.  The question remains: how long will we keep trying to preserve the helpful things our commitments won’t allow?  How long will we delude ourselves into thinking that maybe we can preserve social institutions which we’ve entirely gutted, like fatherhood and family?  How long until we accept that all of our supposed liberations are in fact the problem we face?

Fatherhood In A Vacuum

My wife showed an amusing video to me today.  It started with a large man doing a rather girly cheerleader routine.  At the end the camera pans back and we see that the man is helping his daughter learn to lead cheers.  It was produced by an organization created to support “responsible fatherhood,” which is certainly an interesting way to put it.

I for one am glad that people are taking an interest in encouraging men to be fathers to their children, but I would be even gladder if they stopped undermining fatherhood by every other one of their efforts.  Right now they are destroying the foundation and first floor of the house, and are trying to encourage the second floor to stay aloft.  It simply will not happen that way.

Fatherhood is an extension of manhood.  You have to be a good man before you can be a good father, although that relationship is not necessarily chronological in a strict since.  It may be that struggling to become a good father will help one become a good man, but you cannot simultaneously be a good father and a bad man.

So what does it mean to be a good man or a bad man?  I suspect that when first reading that, many people read “bad man” as “criminal,” but that isn’t what I mean.  I don’t mean bad in the sense of “breaks the law,” I mean bad in the sense of “doesn’t meet the standard.”  The real question is this:  what does it mean to be a man?

And that is precisely the question that our society not only avoids, but actively discourages.  We don’t want to seem like we’re being unfair to anyone, so we don’t want to say that there might be anything called “manhood” which would in any way exclude anyone, including women.  Mostly, we reduce manhood to what is unavoidable and obvious: biology.  And then of course we downplay even that.  We don’t even want to admit that biological differences are that important.

It shouldn’t surprise us that our culture is so obsessed with sex.  The biological relationship between people is the only one we’re prepared to talk about at all.  We can’t talk about relationships between men and women as anything but relationships between male and female, because we’re uncomfortable suggesting that there might be such things as manhood and womanhood.  We don’t want there to be qualities that distinguish us, because that might be unfair.  Of course we can’t deny that we have distinct sexual organs, though, so suddenly that’s all we have left to talk about.

Now curiously, generations of male humans, raised to believe that the only definition of manhood allowed to them was biological, became fathers in a purely biological sense.  But of course they became biological fathers often, as that’s a natural consequence of relating to human females primarily through sex, and they had no other means of relating.

Unfortunately, children are a hindrance to sex, so purely biological fathers resent them (at best) or hate them (at worst), and in any case have little cause to stay with them.  This is especially true when they can fulfill their purely biological desires more effectively by leaving those children and their mother, and pursuing a relationship with some other unencumbered human female.

So in short, defining manhood purely in terms of biology produces exactly the culture we have today, which has become so obviously problematic that we’ve resorted to making goofy videos in a vain attempt to convince those we’ve reduced to being male to be something more like the men we won’t let them be.

That was a confusing sentence.  Let me put it another way.

Dear Society, you cannot salvage fatherhood because you have destroyed manhood.

I’m out of time, but let me say one small thing before I go.  I don’t mean manhood in terms of heavy drinking and shouting at sports, or any of those things that are stereotypically associated with “men being men.”  I mean something more like what was glimpsed in chivalry:  being unapologetically strong and bold, but using that strength and boldness self-sacrificially to serve, protect, uphold, and uplift.