Tag Archives: strong male characters

Profiles In Noble Masculinity: Robocop

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Even in an era where masculinity has gained way too many negative connotations, there’s plenty of room for men who distinguish themselves in respectable, honorable ways. There are countless male characters in popular culture who attempt to set themselves apart. Sometimes, it brings out the worst in men. Sometimes, it brings out the best.

I’ve made a concerted effort to focus on the best aspects of masculinity. To date, I’ve profiled two characters, Joel from “The Last of Us” and Hank Hill from “King of the Hill.” I’ve cited both characters as examples of noble masculinity. It manifests in different forms, but it helps bring a unique strength to their characters.

They have a wide range of traits, some of which aren’t distinctly masculine. When those manly characteristics do emerge, though, they don’t just reveal the greater subtleties in who they are. They demonstrate just how powerful masculinity can be when it’s channeled. In that spirit, I’d like to highlight another character who channels that kind of masculinity in a way that’s compelling, memorable, and full of memorable one-liners.

That character’s name is Alex J. Murphy of the Detroit Police Department, but most know him as Robocop. He’s not just a cop who got caught up in a greedy corporation’s agenda. He’s not just a man in a machine carrying out the duties of a cop. When you take in the entirety of Robocop’s story, including the Jesus connotations, you find a character whose masculinity shines even in the R-rated violence that is Detroit.

Now, before I go any further, I want to establish that the version of “Robocop” I’m citing here is the original 1987 version played by Peter Weller. This profile will not draw from the 2014 “Robocop” played by Joel Kinnaman. I’m not saying that version of the character is without merit. I enjoyed that movie. However, it did not come close to demonstrating the level of noble masculinity that the original conveyed.

On the surface, the original “Robocop” wasn’t that groundbreaking for its time. Stories about urban decay and dystopian cities were already popular thanks to movies like “The Terminator” and “Blade Runner.” In terms of substance, though, “Robocop” achieved something profound in terms of crafting a memorable male character.

The core of Alex Murphy’s character, even before he became Robocop, is that he’s a good, honorable man in a city that doesn’t have many of them. This version of Detroit, which is sadly very similar to the real-world version, is full of deviant criminals and corrupt business types. The very company that creates Robocop, Omni Consumer Products, is full of ruthless individuals who see crime only as a hindrance to profits.

A man like Alex Murphy is a precious rarity in that world. As such, it doesn’t take long for it to get snuffed out. On Murphy’s first day on the job, he’s callously killed by a gang of sociopath criminals led by Clarence Boddicker. All that innate nobility and idealism Murphy had was literally shot to death within the first twenty minutes of the movie.

However, that was not the end of Alex Murphy’s story. It was only the beginning. When he’s turned into Robocop by OCP, who see him only as a means to further their business plan, the extent of the noble masculinity he portrays only grows. The fact it does so while he cleans up Detroit’s rampant crime is a nice bonus as well.

From the moment he awakens as Robocop, we see what looks to be only a shell of a man. In fact, OCP goes out of their way to remove as much of the man as possible, not bothering to salvage his hand or anything below the neck. The only part of Alex Murphy they keep is his brain and part of his face.

It’s a total deconstruction of a man, ripping away the very flesh that makes him masculine and yes, that includes his genitals. To OCP, he’s a machine who just happens to run on human parts. They try to filter out the humanity in hopes of creating an obedient commodity that they can then mass produce, market, and utilize for profit.

It’s dehumanization to an extreme, more so than what characters like Wolverine endured. For a brief while, it looks like OCP succeeds. Initially, Robocop carries himself like a machine, confronting Detroit’s worst criminals with an efficiency that wasn’t possible as Alex Murphy. He could’ve become a perfect example of reducing all men to machines, devoid of emotion and focused only on a task at hand.

Then, the story takes a more human turn and Robocop suddenly becomes more man than machine. Despite everything OCP took from him, including his body and his free will, Alex Murphy still emerged. Even after everything that made him a man was deconstructed, literally in some cases, he fought to regain control.

In the process, we get to see Robocop learn about the man he used to be. We see glimpses of his life as a father and a husband. We find out just how good a man he was to his wife and his son. It contrasts heavily to the ruthless criminals and callous business people that affect much of the story. That’s critical in terms of establishing Robocop as someone who conveys a heroic brand of masculinity.

From the outside perspective of the audience, Alex Murphy’s home life seems mundane and even a little corny. However, when put into the context of a crime-ridden urban dystopia, it becomes instrumental in elevating Robocop’s sense of duty. They make his prime directives more than just base programming. By adding Murphy’s humanity into the mix, they gain greater meaning.

It’s an inherently masculine trait, protecting those who cannot otherwise protect themselves. Murphy already embodied that trait because he was a cop and a family man. However, he could only accomplish so much on his own, as his fatal encounter with Boddicker proved.

By becoming Robocop, that role is elevated because technically speaking, he’s better equipped than any man has ever been. He’s got a human mind, but he has a robot body, complete with bullet-proof skin and the ability to shoot with inhuman accuracy. Instead of stripping him of his masculinity and his humanity, becoming a robot actually enhanced it.

That, more than anything, is what elevates Robocop’s noble masculinity to another level. An act that should’ve utterly dehumanized him ended up making his humanity even stronger. It had to be in order to overcome OCP’s control and uncover the plot to exploit him as just another product. The fact that OCP tries and fails in the sequel to recreate him further reinforces just how unique Robocop is.

Through that journey from utter masculine deconstruction to total reaffirmation of his identity, the line between Robocop and Alex Murphy blurs. The line between carrying out noble acts and following basic programming blurs as well. In the end, Robocop isn’t just a machine following a program. He’s a man inside a machine, doing the same job he did as a man, but with much better weapons and more memorable catch phrases.

Robocop” is hailed as a classic for many reasons. Robocop, as a character, continues to be an icon, despite sub-par sequels and a failed reboot. I think a big part of that appeal comes directly from how the first movie managed to portray the best traits of masculinity within a setting where the worst often thrived.

Even in a contemporary context, beyond the current state of Detroit, Robocop conveys a powerful message that men and women alike can appreciate. You can put a good man in the worst situation, destroying and deconstructing him at every level. That same man will find a way to re-emerge and do what needs to be done.

It’s a testament to the strength of manhood and our willingness to protect innocents in an unjust world. Robocop combines the spirit of a man with the power of a machine. One need not subvert the other. In fact, one can supplement the other and, dead or alive, the criminal element of any gender doesn’t stand a chance.

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My Frustrations And Fondness With Bumbling Dad Tropes

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We know them, love them, laugh at them, and cringe at them every now and then. They entertain us. They educate us. They amuse us in any number of ways, both with real-life antics and those only possible through animation. They are the clumsy, bumbling, oafish father figures of popular culture. Compared to many other tropes, they make up a sizable chunk of the overall comedy footprint in our media landscape.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I don’t write that with disdain or dismay. In fact, I’m quite fond of the bumbling father figures that make up a sizable chunk of sitcoms, animated shows, and movies. I grew up on a steady diet of “The Simpson,” “Family Guy,” and “Married With Children.” Characters like Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, and Al Bundy have had a profound impact on my world and not just in terms of laughter.

As I get older, though, I find myself scrutinizing the dynamics of these faltering father figures more and more. I also find myself paying more attention to the context and circumstances surrounding them, especially as our media and culture evolves in accord with changing trends, some less positive than others.

Maybe it’s because I’m an adult now. Maybe it’s because, as both an adult and a man, I have too much experience with the larger complexities of the world. I can still laugh every time Homer does something foolish or Peter does something stupid. However, a part of me can’t help but contemplate the larger implications of bumbling dads.

Some of it has to do with double standards, which I’ve talked about many times before. Some of it deals with the struggles/inexperience in developing complex fatherly characters who aren’t blatant rip-offs of Superman, John McClane, Jack Baur, or Ward Cleaver. Most of it simply reflects a sentiment that I find frustrating at times.

Think, for a moment, about the dumbest, most hilariously idiotic antics in a show featuring bumbling dads. “The Simpson,” alone, should give plenty of content to draw from. With those antics in mind, contemplate what those antics say about the bumbling dad as a character and what it says about male characters, as a whole.

Whether he’s Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin, or a guy you know in real life who once threw up in a kiddie pool after doing shots of habenero sauce on a dare, the themes are fairly consistent. At the heart of every conflict in the story is a selfish, moronic, thick-headed guy who, if he didn’t have his wife and kids, would’ve been dead by now.

The bumbling dad isn’t just the catalyst for most of the conflicts in the show. He basically embodies the inherent ineptitude of men, as a whole. Whereas strong, independent women are celebrated as a trope of their own, the bumbling dad acts as a case study as to why men can’t function on their own. Unless they have a woman and a family to restrain them, they’ll collapse under the weight of their own stupidity.

It doesn’t just reflect poorly on male characters. It sends a pretty frustrating message to female characters as well, saying that women basically have to act as referees on top of being spouses and mothers. Their role, in the context of the bumbling dad trope, is to either clean up the mess or reign the man in before he does some serious damage.

In a sense, the bumbling dad is the catalyst for the nagging woman, a character not nearly as hilarious that can be every bit as frustrating. One causes all the chaos and problems in a story. The other whines about it and tries to limit the damage, often while failing to teach the bumbling dad any meaningful lessons that’ll help him be less bumbling.

Granted, there are some exceptions to that dynamic. Compared to Marge Simpson and Lois Griffin, Peggy Bundy from “Married With Childrencompletely subverts this trope. Then again, that whole show went out of its way to undermine every standard sitcom trope that ever existed. As I noted before, it’s the kind of show that could never be made today.

Those exceptions aside, the bumbling dad represents another point of frustration that has more to do with the implications of character development, as a whole. It’s a frustration that even plays out in other forms of media that don’t involve idiot married men who only still have their limbs because their wives won’t let them near fireworks.

When you take a step back and look at the kinds of roles bumbling dads have in so many narratives, you notice a number of recurring themes that don’t just reflect poorly on them as men and fathers. They also help enable a lot of the themes that reflect poorly on certain female characters as well.

Essentially, the bumbling dad is allowed to be an idiot with flaws, ineptitude, and shortcomings of all kinds. It’s okay that he make a fool of himself, getting hurt and causing all sorts of damage with his antics. When Al Bundy and his idiot male friends keep falling off a roof, it’s funny and entertaining. If a female character did that, though, that just wouldn’t have the same impact.

Even in shows like “Married With Children,” the female characters were never allowed to fall off a roof, get hurt, or get into fights of any kind. Even when they’re not nagging or trying to be the voice of reason, the female characters are treated as more fragile, needing to fill a more specific role rather than explore the vast array of buffoonery that their male counterparts get to experience.

A female character can’t be bumbling, idiotic, or self-destructive. That would imply she has too many flaws. Even in the days before the recent push for more female representation, that was considered taboo.

A female character can’t be the catalyst for a problem either, unless it involves the moral crusades of Lisa Simpson. The idea of a female character causing anywhere near the problems as a man would just trigger too much outrage for daring to hint that women can be as flawed as men. That last sentence was sarcasm, by the way.

This, essentially, is the driving force behind the frustration. The bumbling dad trope basically gives the impression that men are the only ones who can be foolish, self-destructive, unreasonable, and unlikable. Women can occasionally do those things, but never to the point of the bumbling dad.

In terms of character development, that’s limiting to characters of any gender. It means all the conflict, plot twists, and memorable story elements have to come from the male characters. All the female characters ever do is react, recover, or rebuild from the male character’s antics.

The bumbling dad basically sets up the expectations alongside the comedy. We expect them to do something stupid. We expect them to make a fool of themselves, get hurt, and not think things through. We also expect the women to basically bring them back in line again because without them, they just couldn’t function.

Beyond the expectations, the bumbling dad is basically the crash test dummy for all the chaos within a plot. They’re the ones that get hurt. They bear the brunt end of the physical comedy, be it a slap in the face or constantly falling down a cliff. The idea of women getting hurt just as much, even in an era where the push for tough female characters has never been greater, still doesn’t sit right with audiences.

That says as much about lingering gender norms as it does about bumbling dads, as a whole. Beyond just relegating the comedy and the personal journey to a particular male character, it gives the impression that women aren’t capable of doing foolish things. Anyone with a stable internet connection knows that’s just not true.

Again, this is not to say the bumbling dad trope is inherently “toxic.” I’ve already made clear how much I despise that terminology. There will always be a place for bumbling dads and the comedy they inspire. There’s also plenty of room for non-male, non-dad characters to be foolish as well. When it comes to gender, age, race, and sexual orientation, stupidity is the ultimate egalitarian.

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