I like a certain type of cinematic and literary hero. Some women are attracted to the safe, well-toned arms of romance novel protagonists, with their windswept hair, chiseled cheekbones, and flawless pectorals. Some women like the dashing gentlemen of fake-Regency romances, who are always described as “rakes,” but are really just terribly misunderstood. Some women like nerdy, sweet guys who cry over commercials with kittens in between moments of hacking the Westborough Baptist Church’s website.
I’m not one of those women. I’m an idiot.
I’m the one rooting for that smart-mouthed, anti-establishment, slightly misogynistic cowboy carrying the gun, way too much attitude, a checkered past and a big ol’ moral compass. The one who’s offending all the good girls in town, making the whores vacillate between fury and longing, and punching the bad guy in the face despite the fact that they’re both carrying guns.
It’s probable that I watched too many Westerns as a kid.
Now, this doesn’t mean I can’t appreciate the nice guys (I’m living with one, after all, though he also has a damn fine set of guns… I mean biceps, and could almost certainly kill someone with his bare hands. He’s also very, very laconic. Like, very. As in doesn’t talk. Perhaps I’m no longer helping my point here). Nice guys are wonderful in real life. But in a fictional world, I most appreciate the deeply flawed, somewhat angry, rebellious gun-slinger with a great brain for plots but no sense of how to talk to a pretty girl when he loves her. In other words, I’m a fool.
It’s important to note that not all of these guys sling guns. In fact, lots of them don’t. But I’m absolutely convinced, for instance, that if one were to transport the elegant Mr. Rochester from Victorian England to the Old West, he’d be able to shoot the whiskers off a cat at a hundred paces without breaking a sweat. Because he’s so damned capable at every other thing, that’s why. And North and South’s Mr. Thornton? Forget about it: he’s so obviously not above packin’ heat.
So yes, often these are metaphorical guns.
Normally, I don’t feel compelled to justify my romantic yearnings for the cowboys of classic literature. Many, many a girl has fallen for the difficult hero with a past. Perhaps all the girls have, from the enduring popularity of some of these literary and cinematic louts-turned-lovers. Lately, however, I’ve been reveling in a new-found iconic hero love, and it’s got me thinking: what is it with me and this particular type of bad boy? I mean, I’m not drooling over James Dean in Rebel without a Cause. I have no thing for men in black leather jackets and fast cars, or the smooth-talking assassins of modern films. I can’t sit through fifteen minutes of a Bond movie without wanting to hurt someone, even a Daniel Craig Bond movie. But show me Hugh Jackman all sweaty and sporting a pair of serious mutton chops and some adamantium finger pokers and I’m as glittery-eyed as Spongebob getting a promotion from Mr. Crabs.
My latest obsession should have started years ago, because my friends have been badgering me to watch this particular show since it aired in 2002. I have, for no other reason than sheer personal cussedness, avoided doing so. The fastest way to get me to not do something is to recommend that I do it (it’s much better to patiently pat me until I believe I’ve thought it up myself and that I’m a GENIUS!). But then a few weeks ago, I was surfing the internet and stumbled on a funny little film containing a surprise cameo by a certain handsome actor at the end. This actor was someone I had seen in only one movie, years ago, but I had never forgotten his rakish charm. “Oh what the heck,” I blithely thought. “Nathan Fillion’s pretty adorable. I should finally watch Firefly.” Famous freaking last words, my friends. About thirty seconds in, I was done for. Captain Mal had me: hook, line, and browncoated sinker.
For those who haven’t yet drunk the Firefly Kool-Aid, it’s a space western. There’s a crew of lovable misfits sportin’ somewhere-around-Missouri-accents, totin’ six-gun shooters (that uh… make a swooshing high-tech sound unnecessarily whenever someone cocks them), and fightin’ against every durn thing that comes along, be it big government or crazed zombie space rapists. All of this put together by the guy who made Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and more recently, The Avengers and Much Ado about Nothing. And yes, it stars Nathan Fillion. So in other words, this show has it all. Of course, the fine folks over at Fox Broadcasting wisely cancelled it after less than one season. Fans threw fits, the interweb was summoned, Comic Cons around the country were stormed, and eventually a movie was made, called Serenity. It’s pretty good, though not quite as good as the show.
But none of that matters. What matters is Captain Malcolm Reynolds, aka Mal, who won my pitter-pattery little fangirl heart with his big blue-ish eyes and tendency to shoot things that want to injure his crew. Sometimes he’s mean, sometimes he’s wise, but he’s always capable. Or almost always. You see, there’s the ravishing whore-with-a-heart-of-gold whom he loves, but he can’t be with, because he’s an idiot about women. Though she’s a high-class call girl with a government license who takes her job very seriously and insists on being respected, he has a tendency to punch guys who start to insult her, then finish those insults privately himself. Yet at the same time, of all the men she’s with, he’s the only one who genuinely cares about her without having slept with her. He’s just not very good at, well, articulating his affection in any way, shape or form. Classic cowboy hero.
He’s strong, yet vulnerable; smart, yet foolish. In short, he’s human. Oh, I love him so!
I should probably note right now that Mal, Rochester and the others are just the tip of the iceberg. I have crushed so hard on so many of these guys. Just to name a few more: Charlie Marlow in Heart of Darkness, Robert Jordan of For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hawkeye Pierce on M*A*S*H* (who may have been my first serious crush). I’d even put Mr. Spock in this category (not Kirk), for his coolly logical demeanor hiding his devastating loyalty and total inability to talk to girls. Does a Vulcan shoulder-pinch count as a concealed weapon?
But that still leaves the question: why do I love this trope so dang much? These aren’t always “nice” guys. They’re “big damn heroes” (to quote Firefly), and big damn heroes bring anger, stubbornness and a tendency toward commitment issues. There must be something in there to like, though, right?
I think so. Complex, flawed heroes are morally conflicted (I know, we’re supposed to be talking about selling points here). But morally conflicted is good, in a sense, because it means our hero has something to learn. Marlow, for instance, starts out Heart of Darkness ambivalent about slavery and colonialism, content simply to do his job and sail his little boat up the Congo. But he soon grows disgusted by the horrific acts of depravity he sees the so-called “civilized” men around him engaged in, and comes away aware, for the first time in his life, that all human beings carry the seed of darkness without their souls. Morally conflicted heroes are more likely to be concerned about justice, and to examine their own morality. They end up developing a bedrock set of values to save them in a shifting world. I think of my only squeaky-clean all-American hero: Superman (oh hush, only the Christopher Reeve version. I’m not that geeky. And yes, he fits the bill. Superman is way more complex than most folks give him credit for being). Giving up his powers to be with Lois teaches Clark something fundamental about his own moral code – and about the relative disappointment of sex vs. the ability to fly. He knows, by the end of Superman 2, that he has to save the world, even if the world isn’t quite ready to be saved, and even if this means never having sex again (until he goes bad, you understand). This set of values generally sets the hero up against his society, which sometimes makes his actions look bad on the surface, even when they’re rooted in philosophical good.
That means socially rebellious heroes have to think independently. They can’t be corporate drones. One of my modern favorites is Peter, the main character in Office Space. Without his rebellious need to find a place for himself in a world of soulless cubicle-clones, the movie wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t be able to vicariously kill with a baseball bat every single laser printer I’ve ever tried to use. Trust me, it would be a real loss for humanity if I hadn’t seen that movie. A man who is willing to think independently also has to be willing to be wrong, which is a trait I love in a hero (and in myself). If Mr. Darcy hadn’t been willing to admit his own error in judging Lizzie so harshly, Pride and Prejudice would be a story about an old maid who ended up living with her friend Charlotte as a companion, trudging over to Rosings while slowly poisoning Mr. Collins with arsenic in his porridge. Of course, that rebellious streak means our hero is also more likely to value that same quality in a woman, even if he won’t admit it. Gun-totin’ cowboy heroes don’t fall in love with sissy girls who are afraid to break a nail out in the Outback. Crocodile Dundee loves Sue because, in that moment when the mugger in the subway steps up to keep her from reaching her man, she isn’t afraid to just knee him in the groin and keep moving. I can’t tell you what an impression that made on me as a twelve year-old girl. Linda Kozlowski, I love you still!
An independent and powerful woman, obviously, requires a powerfully manly man. And I will not deny that I like me some manly men. This means, I find, that I have to swallow a bit of chauvinism to go with the smell of cordite and inexpensive beer. There’s a certain lack of sensitivity that accompanies all that raging testosterone. Men who find powerful women exciting generally find them frightening, as well (everything that really, really excites us should probably worry us). They’re going to cover that fear with a bit of masculine stupidity and the occasional lame insult, but that’s okay: I know this game. Five minutes later, those same guys have turned around to do something gallant and courageous, often when no one needs them to. My beloved Captain Mal steps in to defend our heroine’s honor when another man implies she’s a whore, but then insults her by calling her one as soon as she tries to help him. When he realizes he’s hurt her feelings (again), he very nearly admits he loves her, until she backs away (again). This dance is what makes their relationship exciting. If he started treated her like a lady all the time, there’d be no show (Moonlighting, anyone?). In Heart of Darkness, Marlow believes that women live in a special world of their own and need to be protected from the evils of the world, yet when he travels to that evil place himself, he finds the women there already know the secret of “the horror.” In fact, they know it better than anyone. That this revelation ends the novel should tell us all something about how deeply it moves him. I love a man with something to learn about women: not too smooth, but also not a total dolt. Romance is easy, but love is hard, and a man I can love in spite of his faults gives me hope that the characters can weather the figurative marital storms to come.
The truth is that complexity allows for growth, and growth allows for love. I find most romances too bland, too lacking in nuance and danger to be exciting. Where’s the thrill in perfection? We all know those women who are unwilling to compromise, who expect men to be perfect all the time. They’re our single friends on Facebook, still complaining at forty-five years-old that no man truly understands them… but the truth is, they’re waiting for someone so safe as to carry no risks at all. And risk is what spices things up (I would like to categorically state that by “risk,” I do not mean fear. There’s no place for fear in love).
Too often, romance novel heroes are painted as ridiculously perfect and just chronically misunderstood. If only we women could see how perfect these guys are… but alas, we’re too silly to see it. Women… so clueless! At the behest of a friend, I recently read a book I can only describe as Chick Lit Extraordinaire, where the hero was gorgeous, thoughtful, romantic, kind, super-fit, very tall, rebellious (in a rides-an-expensively-cool-motorcycle kind of not-really-rebellious way), prone to volunteering at the local elementary school… and, to top it off, a billionaire. Yes, a billionaire. What prevents our heroine from loving such a perfect catch? Well, nothing, really. But since it’s a novel, something had to be wrong with him. So here it is: he fails to mention to her that he’s a billionaire, and she’s SO MAD about it. At this point in the book, I turned to my partner and said: “Honey, if all these years you’ve been hiding the fact that you’re a billionaire from me because you’re afraid I’ll be angry about it, I just want you to know that it’s okay, I can take it.” He was confused, and did not confess. But seriously, what’s the worst thing about that guy in 50 Shades of Grey, besides the fact that he’s horrifically poorly written? That he likes kinky sex and is… gasp… good at it? OH NO! How stupid of me not to recognize that the handsome billionaire who likes a light spanking is a bad catch! I’m so dumb! I almost didn’t notice how insulting this whole concept really is!
Give me the complex, difficult, hard-headed, mistake-makin’, insult-hurlin’, deeply afraid, insanely brave, head-over-heels-in-love men of the stories I’ve just covered. Forget the poor, pathetic billionaire. I’ll take the scruffy guy on the broken-down cargo ship, thanks very much. He might not know where he’s going, and he probably isn’t a billionaire (except for Darcy. Maybe we should just leave him out of this?). But in between the insults, which I’ll return in equal measure because that’s what a smart, powerful heroine does, he’s going to dazzle me with his sense of purpose, his need for justice, and his loyalty to those he loves. Oh, and his ability to shoot the whiskers off a cat.
Note: no cats were harmed in the writing of this blog entry. Are you kidding? Have you seen my cat?