Tag Archives: women in media

How Smiling Became A Feminist Issue (For Terrible Reasons)

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What would you think of someone who randomly walked up to you, sensed you looked sad, and suggested something that is scientifically proven to make you feel better? The person doesn’t force it on you. They don’t offer their advice to be smug or facetious. They just see a fellow human in distress and offer to help. By nearly every measure, the person is being a compassionate, decent human being.

Now, having contemplated that scenario, what would you think of a man who walked up to a woman and asked her to smile? While some might not see that as too big a deal, it has become a serious issue in recent years. It may not be the most absurd since it doesn’t involve Wonder Woman’s armpit hair, but it’s still up there.

The scenario I just described is something that, from a purely superficial level, may not seem controversial. Telling someone to smile, regardless of whether they’re a man or a woman, is not just an empty platitude. There is real, legitimate science behind it.

Research has shown that the mere act of smiling has many health benefits, such as improving mood, relieving stress, and strengthening immune function. To some extent, it helps rewire our brain in a way that directly combats depression, anxiety, and all sorts of ailments. It might be the easiest thing anyone can do to feel better. If it were a drug, it would be hailed as a medical breakthrough.

Why then has smiling become such a point of contention? While linking it to sexism is full of many absurdities, there are legitimate grievances that helped make this an issue. I know I’m going to upset people when I talk about this, but I believe it’s worth talking discussing, if only to preserve the benefits of smiling.

From the perspective of those protesting being told to smile, many of which identify as feminists or left-leaning, the issue isn’t about those aforementioned benefits. It’s about people telling them to be happy in a world where they don’t feel like equals. Considering how unequal things were for women throughout history, that’s an understandable sentiment.

Plenty of inequality lingers.

The situation for these women didn’t involve kind strangers walking up to them when they were sad and telling them to smile. It likely involved bosses, spouses, teachers, and various authority figures telling them to smile because frowning wasn’t lady-like. Even if you don’t consider yourself a feminist, it’s easy to see why that would seem condescending.

In some situations, it was even worse. In service jobs, which are often dominated by women, telling them to smile is like asking them to act as a billboard for an organization. They’re treated as a pretty face rather than a person. It’s the male equivalent of being treated as a cog in an assembly line.

That sort of treatment is dehumanizing and people, regardless of gender, resent that and for good reason. In that context, telling a woman to smile is no different than telling her to just shut up and accept everything the way it is, no matter how much she resents it. While that’s rarely the intent, that’s the interpretation.

Most reasonable people can and do acknowledge the sentiments that women feel in those situations. Nobody likes being told to just smile and accept your misery. However, the issue descends into absurdity when telling someone to smile is famed as a byproduct of sexism. It effectively politicizes the very concept of smiling.

As a result, it fosters this idea that a woman cannot smile and be feminist. It’s an idea that has become more mainstream in recent years. To see how, just Google “modern feminist” and look at the images that come up. Very few of the faces that come up are smiling. There’s no Rosie the Riveter. There’s only angry, outraged women yelling to the point where it’s a common meme.

This isn’t just an issue with respect to the popular perception of feminists. When it comes to faces, there’s a great deal of intrinsic biology and neuroscience at work. Seeing an angry face triggers a very different reaction compared to seeing a smiling face. Some of that reaction transcends even extends to other species.

There are also significant differences in how people react to smiling men compared to smiling women. The extent to which that difference is biological is not clear, but unlike many other behavioral traits, smiling is directly tied to many psychological and physiological forces. Tying smiling to ongoing debates about gender is one nobody can win. Like it or not, you can’t debate around biology.

Then, there’s the other side of the gender equation, specifically the one regarding the male perspective. While this perspective is less obvious, it does add some other complexities that often fall through the cracks during these arguments. This is where I can offer some perspective, as a man, because I can attest to this impact.

Whatever you think about the nature of masculinity, it’s a well-documented fact that male brains are wired differently compared to female brains. One of those differences stems from how we react to women in distress. Whether they’re angry or sad, seeing it can trigger that protective instinct that men often feel around women.

I can attest that this instinct is real. A few years back, I was walking down the boardwalk at a beach. It was a loud, rowdy place in the middle of summer so there was plenty of noise. Then, out of nowhere, I heard this woman scream. Almost immediately, I turned towards it and I wasn’t the only one. Several other men, as well as a few women, took notice as well.

The woman had badly hurt herself on her bicycle. I’d rather not describe the injury so I’ll just say she couldn’t stand on her left leg. Thankfully, she was with a couple of friends and they immediately aided her. However, her cries caught the attention of plenty of men, most of them total strangers.

While some with more cynical attitudes may think of that reaction as white knighting, I can assure you it’s a real phenomenon. Men sensing a woman in distress evokes a reaction that stems directly from our natural inclination to form social bonds and protect others. Since women are the ones who bear the babies, we tend to give them extra scrutiny.

That’s not to say that a man telling a woman to smile is always an altruistic act. It doesn’t overlook the situations in which someone uses that rhetoric to denigrate women and make light of the issues they face. However, if the simple act of smiling becomes part of the line that divides feminists from misogynists, then the entire debate surrounding gender becomes obscure.

Telling a woman to smile is not the same as telling her to get back in the kitchen. In addition, making outrage the face of female empowerment won’t help in addressing legitimate issues. It’ll just frame every discussion as something hostile and unreasonable. No matter how legitimate the issues are, it’s difficult to have a meaningful discussion in that situation.

Objectively speaking, smiling is good for you, regardless of gender. It’s something I encourage everyone to do when they’re feeling upset, depressed, or angry. It’s a small gesture and one that doesn’t solve problem, in and of itself.

However, it can help your in many ways, especially if you’re hoping to connect with others in a way that ensures they’ll listen. There are many issues surrounding men, women, and gender that are worth discussing. Making the act of smiling a rallying cry for gender conflicts will only ensure that nobody succeeds in the long run.

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Filed under gender issues, human nature, Marriage and Relationships, men's issues, outrage culture, political correctness, psychology, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues

Scrutinizing (And Questioning) The Gender Wage Gap

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There are some assumed truths that we, as a society, don’t question as much as we should. In the era of fake news, alternative facts, and conspiracy theorists who act like living internet memes, it’s hard to know what’s true anymore. Even when things are proven definitively false, people still cling to them. Why else would creationism still exist?

However, there are a few over-arching assumptions that I feel deserve more than just skepticism. There are some common talking points that have significant flaws solely because of their implications. You don’t even need to compile statistics or conduct extensive research. Just asking questions that build directly from the logic are sufficient to expose underlying flaws.

One talking point that keeps coming up in the world of gender politics is the gender wage gap. It’s been an issue for years, but keeps coming up in everywhere from Hollywood to tech companies. Even though I’ve talked about gender politics many times before, I’ve avoided this particular issue because everyone can find numbers to throw at it to support their position. As a result, there’s not much to write about.

That’s why I’m not going to try and debate it with economic studies or statistics. There are plenty of other people far smarter and more qualified to do that sort of thing. Instead, I want to scrutinize this common and contentious issue in a few simple ways that I hope demonstrate why it’s such a flawed issue to begin with. I believe this can be accomplished by asking just a few simple questions.


If Women Are Always Paid Less, Then Why Would A Company Hire Men?

I’m not an economist, a financial specialist, or a business expert, but I understand logistics as well as most people. Last I checked, a good business seeks to maximize profits and minimize costs. That’s the hard of nearly every challenge for every business, whether they’re selling widgets or time shares.

With that in mind, why would any business hire men if they can save money by hiring women? If women are every bit as capable, as many in the halls of gender politics argue, then there’s no reason for them to favor men. If the gender wage gap is true, then any business that hires men is intentionally throwing money away.

I get that the economics of wages, combined with the complexities of gender dynamics, create all sorts of confounding factors. That doesn’t change the math or the incentives surrounding profit. The basics of the wage gap imply that there’s a system in place that allows companies to pay women less for the same work, but they’re not taking advantage of it.

That just doesn’t make sense and I rarely hear those who bemoan the pay gap address this. I feel like since most people don’t understand business or economics, it’s easy to ignore and people just take the path of least resistance.


What Exactly Constitutes Equal Work?

This might be entirely subjective in most cases, but the idea of “equal pay for equal work” is becoming a bigger and bigger part of this issue. I hear politicians, pundits, and protesters using this phrase in any number of speeches in debates. However, they never go into detail.

Equal pay is one thing, but equal work is something else entirely. Human beings are not machines. Even if two people have the exact same skill level, they’re not always going to produce the same product with their work. That’s just not physically possible for non-cyborg humans.

I don’t doubt that a woman can be just as good as a man in many tasks, from typing up reports to carving furniture out of wood like Ron Swanson. Most of these skills are not physically impossible for able-bodied people, regardless of their genital configuration. Even if they’re capable, though, how do you decide that their work is equal?

Is it determined by how much time they put in? Is it determined by the volume of the work or the amount of money it generates? Most businesses use a mix of workers that have a wide variety of talents, skills, and abilities. Given those constraints, the whole idea of equal work seems to break down.

I’m not saying there aren’t cases where a woman is paid less for doing the same work as a male counterpart. That probably has happened before and will happen again. I just don’t see how that can be address beyond a case-by-case basis.


How Do You Enforce Perfectly Equitable Pay?

Beyond just determining what equal work is, there’s the whole concept of enforcing that equality. Passing laws is the most obvious possibility, but implementing those laws can be tricky. In the state of Georgia, there’s a weird law that prohibits people from living on a boat for more than 30 days. How do the authorities go about enforcing something like that?

Like I said before, businesses have all sorts of complex machinations. People have a variety of skills, roles, and duties. Not everyone works the same hours and not everyone will work with the same efficiency. Do they all still get paid the same? How would you even go about determining what constitutes fair pay in every instance?

It’s not just unfeasible. It’s physically impossible. There are so many subjective forces at work and everyone will argue that their work contributed more value than everyone else’s. They all can’t be right, but they all can be wrong and if everyone is wrong, then how can you know the truth? Even if the idea of equal pay seems good and just, it still breaks down when you try to apply logistics.


What Else Can People (Reasonably) Do?

In 1963, the Equal Pay Act was passed and signed into law by President Kennedy. This law stated outright that no employer could utilize sexist discriminatory practices when determining the wages of its employees. That law has been on the books ever since. It’s a federal law so it applies to every state and territory. It can be enforced by legal resources at every level of government.

Paying someone less because they’re a woman is already illegal and has been for decades. What else can people do? Like I said, enforcing a law is difficult, but the law is still there. However, in the same way that drug laws didn’t make illicit drugs go away, laws concerning equal pay don’t make the gaps go away.

Laws can only provide rules. They can only do so much to change society as it is. The pay gap has significantly narrowed, but it’s not perfect. Nothing ever is. Beyond abolishing wages for everyone, which may actually happen one day, what else can be done? I get that many favor hiring more women and minorities, but is that really reasonable for every business in every sector of the economy?


Again, I see the merit and the passion behind the idea. Someone getting paid less for their work just because of their gender is a gross injustice, but righting that wrong in such a complex world just isn’t that easy. Nothing ever is. I know these questions can’t be fully answered, but I hope that simply asking them offers a more complete perspective of the issue.

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Filed under gender issues, men's issues, outrage culture, political correctness, sex in society, sexuality, women's issues

Kamala Khan Vs. America Chavez: How To Succeed (And Fail) With Female Superheroes

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It shouldn’t be that difficult or controversial to create compelling female superheroes. In a perfect world, it would be no different than creating quality male heroes. As long as they’re compelling, enjoyable, and foster great stories, that should be enough.

Sadly, we don’t live in a perfect world. You could even argue it has become even worse in recent years for female superheroes because they’ve become entwined with identity politics. It’s no longer sufficient for a female hero to just be likable and interesting. They have to take part in the never-ending whining contest that dominates outrage culture.

As a lifelong fan of superhero comics, this really frustrates me. I get that comics, like any medium, often reflect the issues of the time. That’s not new and comics have taken positions in those issues. Iconic stories have been crafted around them. The current situation with female superheroes, however, is less a reflection of the times and more a liability.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to single out two female superheroes, Kamala “Ms. Marvel” Khan and America “Miss America” Chavez. Both characters were created within the past 10 years. They’ve also been cited as prominent figures in the recent push for diversity within comics that has caused a lot of uproar or all the wrong reasons.

What sets them apart is that one character, Kamala Khan, has become a success story by most measures. Since her debut issue in February 2014, she has become popular and beloved. She has received and won numerous accolades and her graphic novels have made it onto the New York Times Best Sellers list. I consider myself a fan of hers. She’s one of my favorite female heroes.

On the other end of that spectrum is America Chavez. She debuted in 2011 and went onto have her own ongoing series. Unlike Kamala, though, her series received no accolades, sold poorly, and did nothing to endear her to fans of superhero comics. She has had opportunities to establish herself as a quality female hero. With few exceptions, she has failed at every turn.

These two characters represent a stark dichotomy in the current world of female superheroes. One provides a template for success. The other is a cautionary tale of how not to create a compelling female superhero in the current climate. It’s pretty striking how two characters created within a similar cultural environment can go in such wildly different directions. However, that difference also carries with it plenty of lessons.

To be fair to the medium I love, creating female superheroes today is very different compared to past decades. If Wonder Woman, Storm, Carol Danvers, or Supergirl were created today, they wouldn’t have the same impact. They came out at different times and under different circumstances. Those circumstances played a key role in how they became iconic.

Great female superheroes, and quality female characters in general, have traits that allow them to resonate in any era. However, the timing and influences have to be right for them to carve a place in popular culture. Kamala Khan and America Chavez dealt with similar circumstances when they debuted. That makes them a good case study in how female superheroes can succeed and fail.


Why Kamala Khan Succeeded

I still remember the day I read Ms. Marvel #1. I hadn’t been planning to buy it. I remember clearly that it was a light week, in terms of comics. I happened to have a few extra bucks to spend. I had heard that there was going to be a new Ms. Marvel. Having been a fan of Carol Danvers, I decided to check it out.

I’m glad I did because that one fateful issue made me a Kamala Kahn fan for years to come. The story it told struck all the right chords. It presented a character who felt real, genuine, and relatable. The fact that she was a girl, a Muslim, and the daughter of Pakistani immigrants was secondary. She still felt like a character that I could be friends with if she were real.

The reasons why Kamala was so endearing had little to do with how many diversity points she scored and everything to do with how the writer, G. Willow Wilson, went about developing her. She spent almost the entire first issue just revealing who Kamala was and what sort of life she had. We learn about her family, her friends, her hopes, her dreams, and even her favorite hobbies.

She quickly becomes more than just another teenage character. She’s a self-professed fangirl who writes fan fiction, plays MMO games, and loves gyros. Wilson approached developing Kamala the same way Stan Lee approached developing Peter Parker. She developed the personality before turning them into a superhero.

When Kamala finally does get her powers, Wilson establishes a solid reason for why she’s a hero. Just getting powers isn’t enough. Unlike Peter Parker, however, she doesn’t need a loved one to die. Being a fan of superheroes and having decent parents puts her in a position to make that choice without anyone dying. That, alone, makes her worthy of admiration.

From that point forward, it’s easy to root for Kamala. She carries herself as someone you want to root for. She personifies how fans of superhero comics are inspired by their heroes. Her having a chance to be a hero like the ones she idolizes isn’t just endearing. It’s special. That’s why she succeeds and why it’s very likely we’ll see her enter the Marvel Cinematic Universe at some point.


Why America Chavez Failed

Take everything I just said about why Kamala Khan works and why she’s so lovable. Then, reverse it completely. That’s basically who America Chavez is and why she’s more a joke than a success.

On paper, America has a lot going for her. She’s not just another generic female hero. She’s Latina, she’s a lesbian, and she comes from a very different world, literally and figuratively. In terms of diversity points, she checks as many boxes as Kamala. She has her own unique style and she even uses a familiar moniker that has been successfully used by others.

Beyond those traits, however, there’s nothing about her character or her story that will get superhero fans cheering. She’s not relatable like Peter Parker or Kamala Khan. She’s from a place called Utopian Parallel, which is exactly as boring as it sounds. Her world was threatened with destruction, but her parents sacrificed themselves to save it. They’re the only respectable heroes in her story.

America, for reasons that are poorly told and poorly developed, decides to prove that she’s as good a hero as her parents. Her world is a utopia. It doesn’t need her. As a result, she just looks for a world that needs heroes and happens to choose one that has a massive glut of them. Already, her judgment is questionable.

If you’re expecting me to explain the depths of why she’s a hero and how she distinguishes herself, I’m sorry to disappoint. That’s the extent of her heroic journey. She doesn’t answer the hero’s call as much as she looks for an excuse. She doesn’t work her way into the world of heroism. She just throws herself into it and skips the part that makes it a meaningful story.

It certainly doesn’t help that she’s grossly overpowered in a way that makes every battle feel boring. Unlike other powerful characters, including Superman or Captain Marvel, there’s no real intrigue to her abilities. Whereas Kamala Khan and Peter Parker struggle, seeing their powers as burdens at times, America Chavez rarely strains herself. When she does, it feels forced and contrived.

On top of all that, America never comes off as a likable person. In nearly every scene she’s in, she carries herself with an in-your-face, screw-you, I’m-better-than-everyone attitude that isn’t the least bit endearing. She basically tries too hard to be a badass female hero, but forgets the part where heroes are actually supposed to be admirable.

It’s not enough to just punch a Nazi, which she does at one point. Being a hero means embodying ideals that go beyond gender politics. America Chavez’s story is so contrived, at times, that it feels like the most shameless kind of pandering. It’s why those who bemoan Marvel’s diversity push often cite America Chavez as the personification of everything wrong with that effort. Sadly, she gives them plenty to work with.


Lessons For The Future

I have high hopes for Ms. Marvel. I even hope that, at some point, America Chavez becomes a solid character. There’s plenty of room for new characters that resonate with everyone, regardless of gender, race, creed, ethnicity, or sexual orientation. It doesn’t have to come at the cost of established characters, either. Heroes can be anyone. That’s what makes them icons.

Now, I understand that there are plenty of people out there who don’t like Kamala. I don’t deny that she has her flaws and she’s had some pretty unflattering moments. I also understand that America Chavez has her share of fans who think I’m not being fair to her. I don’t claim that my take on her is definitive.

I singled these two characters out because I believe they embody the struggle facing female superheroes in the existing cultural climate. Like any creative endeavor, there is a right and wrong way to go about it. Kamala Khan and America Chavez provide important lessons on what to do and what to avoid. They include, but aren’t restricted to, the following.

Lesson #1: Build the character before the hero

Lesson #2: Appeal to everyone and not just a select few

Lesson #3: Make their struggle feel real and genuine

Lesson #4: Give the character a distinct and endearing voice

Lesson #5: Don’t just rely on punching Nazis

There are many other lessons to be learned from characters like Kamala Khan and America Chavez. Some of those lessons have to be learned the hard way, but they’re worth learning. More quality female superheroes can only help the genre, as a whole. Superheroes, by definition, are supposed to inspire others to be better. That inspiration need not be restricted to gender, race, or any other distinction.

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Filed under censorship, Comic Books, Jack Fisher, Superheroes, gender issues, media issues, political correctness, sex in media, superhero comics, superhero movies, women's issues

Profiles In Noble Masculinity: Hank Hill

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When it comes to paragons of masculinity, the standards tend to skew towards characters who crank the testosterone levels up to the maximum and even go a little bit beyond. From mythical figures like Hercules to modern icons like James Bond, it often seems as though that a truly masculine man has to exceed some lofty standards.

While there’s certainly a place for that kind of masculinity, I don’t think that has to be the only criteria. I believe there’s room for a more subtle, yet equally strong manifestation of manliness. They don’t have to be the kind of men who sweat raw testosterone and shave with shards of broken glass. They can be their own man and still embody respectable masculinity.

I chose Joel from “The Last Of Us” for my first profile in noble masculinity primarily because his example was not very subtle. He embodied the masculine values of strength, survival, fatherhood, and compassion in ways that are easy to highlight within a larger narrative. It didn’t take much work to make my case for Joel’s noble traits.

For my next profile, though, I’ve chosen a character who presents a tougher challenge. He comes from a narrative that’s very different from Joel’s. Instead of a post-apocalyptic world where everything comes back to survival, his is a more contemporary story from the far less dire setting of suburban Texas.

His name is Hank Hill. He sells propane and propane accessories. He’s a proud American, a hard worker, a die-hard football fan, and the star of “King of the Hill.” In the pantheon of modern-era animation, it’s a show that doesn’t usually rank near the top for most people, but the fact it lasted 13 years proves it did something right and Hank his is one of those things.

I consider him another example of noble masculinity. He’s one that differs considerably from Joel in “The Last Of Us,” but I consider him an example none-the-less. Over the course of 258 episodes and 13 seasons, Hank establishes himself as one of those rare characters who manages to be compelling and respectable without being too flawed.

He’s not a bumbling dad, nor is he self-absorbed narcissist always looking to get ahead. Hank Hill, at is core, is blue collar family man who loves his job, loves his wife, and tries to make the most of his situation. He’s not a whiner. When he sees a problem, he tries to fix it. When he makes a mistake, he owns up to it, even if he stumbles along the way.

He tries to do all of this while surrounded by characters who have a wide range of issues, flaws, and eccentricities. One of his neighbors is a self-loathing loser obsessed with his wife. Another is a chain-smoking paranoid idiot who doesn’t know his wife cheats on him. The other is Boomhaur. Actually, Boomhaur is awesome.

Beyond his idiot friends, Hank also deals with a know-it-all wife with an inflated ego, a lazy son who goes out of his way to under-achieve, a bimbo niece who attracts all the wrong people, and an eccentric, misogynistic father who hates his guts. The fact that Hank manages to maintain such a calm, collected demeanor most of the time is a testament to his strength.

That strength, however, isn’t exactly obvious if you just look at his persona on paper. In fact, if you just skim the basics, Hank doesn’t come off as a very interesting character, let alone one who fits the criteria for noble masculinity. He’s conservative, he’s frugal, he doesn’t exude charisma, and he’s a staunch defender of law, order, and the status quo.

Hank isn’t the kind of man who willingly goes on adventures, acts on an impulse, or seeks to radically change the world around him. He actually likes his world, for the most part, and actively defends it from those who try to upset it. This has led to more than a few conflicts throughout the show, but Hank’s ability to resolve those conflicts reveals that there’s much more to his character.

It’s in those efforts where Hank’s nobility, as both a man and a character, really shows. While he is a staunch traditionalist who goes to church, votes Republican, and is extremely uncomfortable with sex, he’s also remarkably tolerant of those who don’t share his views.

Throughout the show, he encounters people who are overtly promiscuous, exceedingly liberal, and don’t care much for football. At no point, though, does he try to change those people or convince them that they’re flawed. Sure, he’ll threaten to kick an ass every now and then, but he usually reserves that recourse for those who most deserve it.

When he’s not kicking asses that deserve to be kicked, Hank is also demonstrates an ability to reserve judgment and not make anything too personal. Throughout the show, he’s encountered crazy right-wing religious types, flamboyant homosexuals, and unapologetic womanizers. By nearly every measure, he deals with them in a way that’s respectable and fair for the most part.

For the most part, indeed.

Hank doesn’t condone or condemn their behavior. He’s more concerned with the consequences they have on others. In his view as a freedom-loving American, what people choose to do is their business, provided they understand and accept responsibility for the consequences.

Throughout the course of the show, he’ll point out or remind others of those consequences. He’ll even help some confront it. However, he doesn’t make it personal. He doesn’t whine about it. He doesn’t try to get everyone to embrace his way of doing things. Hank basically lets other people be free and live their lives.

It’s not the same as slaying giant monsters or rescuing princesses from towers, but it’s noble in its own right. In the context of masculinity, Hank Hill’s ability to remain strong, stern, and confident in the face of so much chaos from so many characters, each with plenty of quirks and eccentricities, is a testament to the kind of man he is.

He’s a man who takes pride in his work, leads by example, and tries to be the voice of reason in a world full of unreasonable people. He’s willing to be brave and bold when he has to be. He’s also willing to take responsibility when others won’t or refuse to. As a man, he’s someone who earns the respect of others and does plenty to maintain it.

That’s not to say that Hank is without his flaws. Sometimes, he is traditional to the point of being petty. In one episode, the entire plot was driven by his dismay at another family sitting in his non-assigned seat at church. He can also be controlling, especially with how he raises his son, Bobby.

On more than one occasion, he’s been an obstacle for Bobby’s endeavors. His famous refrain, “That boy ain’t right,” is often said in the context of him wanting to guide Bobby down a certain path. Most of the time, though, he does so in a way that’s appropriate for a caring father. Other times, though, he gives the impression that he wants Bobby to be just like him.

Even with these flaws, Hank Hill still commands and earns respect. As a man, a father, and an American, he checks most of the boxes in terms of noble masculinity. He’s strong, responsible, hard-working, and accepting of other peoples’ strengths and flaws. He’s a man worthy of admiration and the fact he knows propane is a nice bonus.

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Profiles In Noble Masculinity: Joel From “The Last Of Us”

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For the past few years, it has become a popular pasttime to label certain elements of popular culture as toxic or “problematic.” Take any character, song, plot, role, or trope from any brand of media. Apply an excessive amount of scrutiny, distorting it as much as necessary along the way. In the end, some people will find a way to make it offensive.

It’s through that process that shows like “Seinfeld” can be called racist. Movies like “Crocodile Dundee” can be called culturally insensitive. Movies like “Big” can be called creepy. Even classic video games like “Mario” and “Zelda” can be considered sexist. Scrutinize it enough and everything becomes racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and culturally insensitive.

I find that whole process to be an exercise in trolling that does more to spark outrage than it does meaningful discussion. It’s the same process that created the idea of “toxic masculinity,” a concept I’ve gone out of my way to deconstruct on more than one occasion.

I don’t want to bemoan all the flaws and frustrations that occur when regressive attitudes mix with regressive agendas. There’s enough debate, discussion, and outright shouting going on in that field as it stands. Instead, I want to shift the tone of the conversation by going to the opposite end of the spectrum.

By that, I mean I’m going to do the opposite of highlighting something that some may find “problematic.” Instead, I’m going to cite something that I think is inherently positive from which we can learn. In fact, I’m going to try and coin a new phrase that’s more uplifting than some of the other buzzwords used by the regressive crowd.

I call it “noble masculinity.” It’s the idea that there are noble, admirable traits in male characters that are worth celebrating in the context of a larger story. Having talked so much about toxic masculinity and why I think it’s such a flawed concept, I feel it’s only fitting that I attempt to counter it with something more positive.

I know it’s popular to criticize and complain about male behaviors these days and, as a man, I don’t deny that we can do some foolish things. However, men are also capable of incredible acts of virtue. Those traits deserve more attention, if only to remind everyone that men can be more than outrage fodder.

There are a lot fictional male characters from movies, TV shows, video games, and comics that I could cite who embody positive masculine traits. Characters like Superman, John McClane, and even James Bond come to mind, although I’m sure there are some who would disagree with the last one.

However, in this initial exercise of exploring noble masculinity, I want to cite a lesser-known male character from popular, critically acclaimed video game that some have called the most riveting, emotionally resonant story-driven epic of the console generation. That game is called “The Last of Us” and the source of the noble masculinity comes from Joel, the grizzled, yet vulnerable male protagonist of the story.

For those who haven’t played “The Last of Us” or just don’t play video games in general, Joel may initially come off as a mix of old cowboy tropes and John McClane rip-offs. However, by following his story, he reveals a level of depth that includes instances of noble masculinity that men and women alike can appreciate.

Joel’s story is not built on prophecies, superhuman abilities, or dumb luck. As a character and a person, Joel is largely defined by a grit that’s uniquely masculine in many ways. At the beginning of the game, he’s not looking to become part of some larger struggle. He’s just a single dad, trying to make a living and provide for his daughter, Sarah. In world full of dim-witted father figures, it’s pretty refreshing.

Then, within the first 10 minutes of the game, Joel suffers the greatest loss any parent can endure. He tries to protect his daughter from first stages of a full-blown apocalypse, but ultimately fails. He ends up watching his daughter die in his arms. It’s a very emotional moment, one in which Joel’s pain is palpable.

That defining moment establishes Joel as a man who fights to protect those he loves, but is all too human and very much at the mercy of forces beyond his control. There’s only so much that he do when the world around him is falling apart. No amount of anger, lament, or sorrow can change that. He, as a man and a survivor of this apocalypse, has to find a way to cope.

While his coping skills aren’t perfect, as evidenced in many powerful scenes throughout the game, Joel’s grief helps drive him. It also lays the foundation for the emotional development he undergoes after he meets Ellie, his young female co-protagonist who becomes a critical part of the gameplay and the story.

I could probably write another article about Ellie and why she’s one of the most compelling female characters in modern video games, but in the context of noble masculinity, she’s very much a catalyst for Joel’s emotional journey. Her own story is remarkable, but her influence on Joel is where she really shines.

It’s not a case of a knight rescuing a princess or a female character trying too hard to be an equal to her male compatriots. In fact, Joel’s first impression of Ellie isn’t a good one. She comes off as an irritable brat with a bad attitude. Essentially, she’s the kind of immature teenager that guys like Joel go out of their way to avoid.

However, their stories soon become intertwined. They end up having to work together, rely on each other, and fight for one another in order to survive a post-apocalyptic world that has been destroyed by zombies, toxic fungus, and military-enforced curfews. Before long, they establish a bond that brings out the best and worst of both characters.

For Joel, the best is reflected in those same paternal instincts that caused him so much pain and sorrow at the beginning. He comes to see Ellie as a surrogate daughter, of sorts. At times, he resists that and even gets upset when the idea is thrown in his face. In the end, though, he doesn’t avoid it.

As a result, Joel’s story embodies more than the love a father has for his child. It also reveals how willing a man is to form a bond with a total stranger, who is not even that nice to him in the beginning, and tries to protect them with that same paternal dedication. It doesn’t happen all at once. He even resists it at times. He still embraces it and all the tribulations that come with it.

That, more than anything, is the most important element of noble masculinity that Joel embodies. He’s not Superman, nor does he pretend to be. He’s also very aware of his own shortcomings, saying at one point that he trusts others more than he trusts himself. Most men are reluctant to acknowledge such insecurity, let alone reveal it. Joel doesn’t hide from it. If anything, he channels it.

It’s something that resonates with Ellie too. Throughout the game, she has opportunities to cut ties with him and go along with someone who might be better-equipped to help her. However, she choses to stay with Joel. Just as he comes to see her as a daughter, she comes to see him as a father.

The fact that he and Ellie go through this journey in the midst of an ongoing apocalypse makes their bond that much more powerful. It also requires that Joel push himself harder and confront the limitations that kept him from saving his daughter. Being a father made for great sorrow in the past, but it also made him stronger and more determined in the future.

That’s not to say that Joel doesn’t have his low points. There are moments where Joel does not come off as noble. Some even argue that his decisions towards the end of the game undermines his nobility. I would argue that it actually reinforces it.

When the world is already in the middle of an apocalypse and people are willing to sacrifice innocence for what they think is the greater good, then that’s when traits of noble masculinity become most critical. That’s when a father’s willingness to protect his child should be at its strongest.

That dedication still comes at a price. With a sequel in “The Last Of Us Part II” already in the works, it’s likely that Joel will continue to pay a price for his choices, however noble they might be. The fact that he still makes those choices and is willing to accept the risks reflects the challenges and strength that come with masculine drive.

Joel is probably not the greatest example of noble masculinity in all of fiction, but I would argue that his is the most relatable. He’s not perfect, nor does he pretend to be. He doesn’t have any capabilities that are impossible for other men to achieve. He’s a man who was utterly destroyed when he lost his daughter, but didn’t run from the chance to be a father again and to a total stranger, no less.

Flaws and shortcomings aside, I still contend that the noble masculinity that Joel shows throughout “The Last of Us” are far greater than any of the “toxic” traits that others may cite. In playing the game, it’s hard not to empathize with him or his journey, especially if you’re a parent. In appreciating his strengths, though, it shows that there is room for a brand of masculinity that anyone of any gender can admire.

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Tomb Raider Review: A Moderate Leap, But Major Progress

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Earlier this year, I expressed a sincere hope that the new “Tomb Raider” movie would finally do something that no other video game movie had managed to do. I hoped that it would be to video game movies what the original “X-men” was to modern superhero movies. I’d even hoped that Lara Croft could be to video game characters what “Wonder Woman” was to female superheroes.

That last one might have been hoping for too much, but I don’t think I’m alone in wanting to see Hollywood get at least one movie based on a video game really right. Between the lackluster “Resident Evil” movies and the god-awful “Super Mario Bros,” the genre is overdue for a hit.

I get that there are challenges associated with making a movie out of a video game. However, Lara Croft and “Tomb Raider” is in a better position than most. It’s a franchise that has an iconic character who has built a strong fanbase over the course of two decades. The fact that she’s a strong, sexy female character at a time when the appetite for such characters is greater than ever works even more to her benefit.

While Lara Croft’s sex appeal has been controversial in recent years, she’s still a great character whose games already have a very cinematic feel. Having played her 2013 game multiple times, I can attest to the strength of that narrative. It has all the necessary elements that translate well to a movie.

This movie, being a franchise that has already attempted twice with Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s to mixed success, seems to make a better effort than most to succeed where so many have fail. This version of “Tomb Raider” works hard to tell a real, serious story on par with that of any other successful action franchise. It tries to do this while still incorporating elements of the game into the narrative.

It’s ambitious and sincere. It also helps that it cast Alicia Vikander, an Oscar-winning actress whose brilliance and sex appeal in “Ex Machina” made her well-suited to the role. Criticisms of her having the necessary boobs for the role aside, Ms. Vikander can act and be sexy in her own right. It’s only a matter of whether she can channel that talent into making “Tomb Raider” succeed where so many others have failed.

Well, having seen the movie on its opening weekend, I’d like to offer my assessment on this matter. While I’ll always be haunted, to some extent, by terrible video game movies like “Super Mario Bros,” I went in feel genuinely hopeful for this movie. I was also bracing myself, knowing as well as anyone the history of video game movies.

With that mentality going into the theater, I eagerly gave “Tomb Raider” and Alicia Vikander the benefit of the doubt. By the time I came out of the theater, I was able to come to a simple conclusion, albeit one with a few caveats.

Yes, this is a good movie, but it’s not a game-changer.

It’s true. “Tomb Raider” is an genuinely good video game movie. I honestly didn’t think I would ever be able to say that with a straight face in my lifetime, but I can and it’s worth saying again. This is a good movie.

By that, I mean the movie has a concise, well-crafted story from start to finish. The movie establishes who Lara Croft is, what she’s dealing with, and what kind of person she is. The plot isn’t too messy. The effects aren’t too cheesy. The acting is actually good and not just from Ms. Vikander. Everyone in this movie seems to make a real, honest effort.

Like the 2013 video game, the movie follows a young, inexperienced Lara Croft who has yet to become the sexy badass that went onto inspire so much lurid fan art. However, by the end of the movie, you can already see traces of that sexy badass growing within her. As a character, she grows and evolves over the course of the movie. Watching her grow and seeing her struggle at times is genuinely compelling.

The story and the details surrounding it are tight and well-organized. At no point in the movie is there a scene that feels random, contrived, or forced. The events that unfold happen organically, from Lara getting arrested early in the movie to unlocking the secrets to an ancient tomb on the hidden island of Yamatai. Nothing ever just happens. There’s a rhyme and rhythm to the story.

It’s a story that is not bland or predictable, even to those who played the 2013 game multiple times, like I did. The movie downplays some of the more mystical elements of Lara Croft’s mythos, but still incorporates plenty of the over-the-top machinations that Tomb Raider and “Indiana Jones” fans alike can appreciate.

However, it’s that effort to make the movie feel less fanciful that, in my opinion, keeps it from being the kind of game-changing movie that “X-men” and “Wonder Woman” were. While “Tomb Raider” qualifies as a good movie, it doesn’t do enough to be a truly great movie.

This movie, in many respects, plays it safe. While it puts Lara through plenty of tough situations, things never get too dire for her. She’s allowed to suffer and endure wounds, but only to a point. Others, including her father as played by Dominic West, arguably endure a whole lot more.

Safe or not, it’s understandable that the movie wouldn’t try to do too much all at once. Movies that do that tend to get messy, as many recent Michael Bay films can attest. I think “Tomb Raider” did the right thing, playing it safe and keeping things simple. It left some of its potential on the table, but did plenty to leave much of that potential available for future sequels.

That’s somewhat of a gamble, though. Too many movies, these days, are made solely with sequels in mind and sometimes that assumes too much. Anyone who saw “Green Lantern” or “The Mummy” can attest to that. At least with “Tomb Raider,” the ending and the revelations it offers actually leave you feeling excited for a sequel.

That’s a gamble that may or may not pay off. I’m aware that this movie did not exactly set the box office on fire, especially in a market still dominated by “Black Panther.” However, it did manage to pull in some decent numbers overseas and that might give this movie the fuel it needs to become a full-fledged franchise.

Again, the movie does have flaws. If you go into “Tomb Raider” looking for reasons to hate it, you’ll find them. If you think Ms. Vikander wasn’t sexy enough, you’ll find points in the movie to vindicate that. Conversely, if you think Ms. Vikander was too sexy and her portrayal in this movie is contributing to sexism and the objectification of women, you’ll find instances of that too.

If, however, you go in hoping for a good, coherent movie that tells a compelling, dramatic story, you’ll find that “Tomb Raider” delivers. In fact, I would argue that it delivers in ways no video game movie has ever managed before. It doesn’t do quite enough to be a new “Wonder Woman,” but it achieves far more than any previous video game movie has ever dared.

If I were to score this movie, I would give it a solid 8 out of 10 or a 7.5 out of 10 at the lowest. “Tomb Raider” has an opportunity to redefine a maligned movie genre and it succeeds. With other movies like “Rampage” coming out this year, the situation is ripe for a new generation of video game movies that aren’t terrible.

Whether your a fan of the games, a fan of action movies, or just looking for a great female character played by someone other than Gal Gadot and Scarlett Johansson, “Tomb Raider” will give you plenty to enjoy. It may still be a while before we can relegate movies like “Super Mario Bros” to the same dusty bin as “Batman and Robin,” but “Tomb Raider” offers a critical first step.

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A Better Way To Promote Diversity

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How do you encourage meaningful change in media, culture, and social attitudes? That’s a reasonable and relevant question to ask these days. It seems everyone is either trying to push for greater diversity or whining about the lack thereof. More often than not, however, those efforts aren’t mutually exclusive.

Even if nobody has a definitive answer to the question of how, that hasn’t stopped many from trying. There have been major diversity pushes in every form of media from video games to comics to movies to TV shows. Not all of them have been successful. In some cases, they backfired horribly and cost people money.

I don’t want to belabor the specifics of those failures, but I do think it’s worth pointing out that they also have the effect of angering and/or insulting the audience. For franchises that have a huge fan base, that can be pretty detrimental. Some franchises never recover.

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It certainly doesn’t help that there are those who push for diversity for all the wrong reasons. There’s a very vocal contingent of critics/professional trolls who go out of their way to bemoan the lack of diversity in a certain piece of media. Whether it’s a video game having too many people of the same race or a lack of strong female characters, these people will whine about it as loud as the internet will allow.

For the most part, I don’t think anyone should give much attention to such whining. We’ve all dealt with whiny children at some point in our lives. Most people learn, often the hard way, that arguing with them rarely works out. Most people just give up to stop the whining. I’ve pointed out before why this can lead to bigger problems down the line.

It quickly becomes a brutal cycle. The more attention you give to these whiny children, the more incentive they have to whine so they can get what they want. The same applies to these “critics” who keep whining about diversity. It’s not enough for them that “Black Panther” is doing so well with a diverse cast. Some will still whine that it had no LGBT characters.

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It’s inescapable. You simply cannot win against a whiny child. No matter how much you go out of your way for them, they’ll find another reason to whine and so long as they keep getting their way, they’ll keep doing it. In the long run, though, that’s still a terrible way to promote diversity.

Ideally, producers of media will pursue diversity because they want to appeal to a broader audience. They want to make money and money doesn’t care about race, religion, or genital configuration. However, when critics/trolls rely on whining to get their way, then those efforts become less about diversity and more about stopping the whining.

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I believe there is a better way to promote diversity and it does not involve any whining. It doesn’t require some radical rethinking of how we go about producing, consume, or discussing media. It doesn’t even require some major protest, a new law, or diversity quotas. It’s just a simple change in approach that anyone can do for free and without that much effort.

That change can be summed up in two words: positive reinforcement. If you’ve taken a basic psychology class at any point in your education, you already know what this means. Even if you haven’t taken any classes and just deal with a lot of annoying people/children/whiners, you probably know the idea.

Rather than complaining about what is so bad about something, positive reinforcements involve focusing on the good. Rather than whine about what isn’t there, you celebrate what is there. Most importantly, though, you turn that outrage once reserved for those bad things into apathy. Most forms of media can survive outrage. They cannot survive apathy.

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To illustrate this approach, consider the following scenario that tends to play out whenever someone criticizes a movie, TV show, video game, etc. for a lack of diversity.

“Just look at this terrible affront to women, minorities, and LGBTQ people! It’s so racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic! It sends a terrible message and appeals to an audience that wants to cling to their regressive attitudes. It’s perpetuating a destructive, unhealthy mindset that directly impacts our culture. This affront should be censored, changed, or condemned endlessly until the world changes!”

Chances are, you’ve heard something like this over the past few years. Sometimes it involves a female character that doesn’t check the right boxes. Sometimes it involves a story that tries to check too many boxes. In any case, the whiners I mentioned earlier will find a reason to get upset about it. Moreover, they’ll demand some sort of change, coupled with condemnation over anyone who disagrees.

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That’s not going to promote diversity. If anything, that’s going to give people one too many reasons to resent pushes for diversity. Some media companies are already learning that the hard way, with Marvel being the most recent example. Ideally, you want someone to promote diversity because they want to and not because they’re afraid of a backlash.

With that in mind, here’s a second scenario that shows how positive reinforcement can further that effort.

“That thing some claim is racist/sexist/homophobic/transphobic? I don’t really care for that. Let me tell you about this other thing that I just think is amazing! I love it. It’s so much fun and it sends such a good message to men, women, and minorities of all kinds. I want more of this. I’m willing to pay for more of this. Please make more of this!”

It may come off as some peppy kid who is way too excited about something. Then again, wouldn’t you rather be around that kid instead of the one that whines to get what they want? When someone is happy and excited about something, it’s kind of infectious. It makes us want to share in that feeling.

Throw money into the mix and suddenly, the same producers that make all the media that regressive types whine about actually have a good incentive to promote diversity beyond just placating whiners. Instead of just avoiding controversy, they actually want to do diversity and do it right.

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The key is focusing on instances where it is done right. They are there. There have been plenty of examples of the media actually getting diversity right. They just don’t make the news because outrage is louder and garners more attention. Even so, excitement and praise can be just as loud.

Instead of complaining about Rey being a Mary Sue in “Star Wars,” focus on how great Princess Leia was in the first trilogy or how great Ahsoka Tano is in “Star Wars: Clone Wars.”

Instead of complaining about Lara Croft being too sexy, focus on how great Samus Aran is in the Metriod games.

Instead of complaining about the lack of diversity on shows like “Seinfeld,” focus on how great the minority characters are in shows like “Fresh Off The Boat” or “House.”

It may not sound as vocal or satisfying as venting outrage about a flaw, but it sends the kind of message that others are more likely to want to get behind. Whereas positive feelings can have many benefits to yourself and those around you, venting outrage can be very unhealthy.

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In the long run, getting others to want to promote diversity is the best way to further it. Whining about it isn’t going to accomplish that. It’s just going to make others want to stop the whining. That may work for kids, but not functioning adults.

Movie producers, TV executives, comic book writers, and video game programmers alike are all still human at the end of the day. Human beings respond positively to positive feelings. Channel those feelings into promoting diversity and you won’t just get more of it. You’ll get people who are actually excited about producing it.

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