“What Kind of Man Are You?” Our Favorite Depictions of Masculinity in Pop Culture (#WhatsGoodMan Episode 2)

“A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”
-Margaret Atwood

This is our second episode, and probably my personal favorite from the whole season. Find the full list of season one topics/titles here.

If you like it, please subscribe (on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, all the usual platforms). If you really like it, please feel free to leave a review, and spread the word- share a favorite quote, or ask a question, or just share the link; we’ll be using the hashtag #WhatsGoodMan on Twitter and IG.

Also, THANK YOU to everyone who came to our very first live episode recording at the University of MN. The conversation was absolutely fantastic, and I can’t wait for everyone else to be able to hear it too. Double thanks to everyone who tuned into the first episode, subscribed, and shared it.

Here’s the full transcript of episode two:

“What’s Good, Man?” Episode Two: What Kind of Man Are You?

OR: Choose your blessing: our favorite and least favorite pop cultural depictions of masculinity

tony: What happens after the dragon is dead? After the rushing wind of its wings has stilled, after its blood has cooled and dried on the cobblestones of that once great castle’s courtyard. What happens after you’ve trained your whole life not just for war, but for a single war, a sharpened sword, an armored fist, one single, noble purpose? What happens after the princess is rescued? The prophecy fulfilled? When every road leads nowhere but home? What happens after the story is over, the credits roll, and you realize you’re not even 30? What does Prince Charming look like at home? Are there enough pages left to tell of his life as a loving husband, a nurturing father, a kind ruler? Or is he destined to be an empty presence in the castle, a relic staring absent-mindedly through stained glass, imagining the enemy at the gates? What happens after there are no more enemies at the gates? What happens after the prince becomes a king? What happens after “happily ever after?”

Kyle: Welcome to “What’s Good, Man,” an ongoing, open conversation about men, masculinity and culture.

tony: We are your hosts. I’m Tony the Scribe, a writer, rapper and activist in Minneapolis, MN.

Kyle: And I’m Kyle Tran Myhre, also known as Guante; I’m also a writer, rapper and activist in Minneapolis, MN. We start every episode with three notes. First, this show is about masculinity, but it’s for anyone interested in that topic: cis men, trans men, people who don’t identify as men but have some kind of relationship with masculinity, and beyond.

tony: Second, this show exists because we listened to people, especially women, in our lives who told us that men need to speak up more about these issues, especially with other men. But we also know that “men speaking up more” isn’t always the answer. So we’re going to try and strike a balance, and be intentional about what stories are ours to tell, what topics we want to address, and how we want to address them.

Kyle: Finally, we’re not experts. We’re just rappers. We both have experience as organizers and educators around these issues, but we don’t have all the answers. We’re here to work through this stuff with you. Because we still have a long way to go. So let’s get into it. What’s good, man?

tony: I think in light of the theme of this show, why don’t we talk a little bit about the most recent depiction of masculinity you’ve seen, and what do you think was strong and weak about that depiction of masculinity? Just to switch it up.

Kyle: So a few that come to mind that we could talk about for a long time. But I want to land on a different one. One of them is watching like cooking shows on Netflix and seeing how chefs have been positioned as masculine archetypes and how that’s shifted over the past few years. That’s an interesting thing to me. I finally started watching Evangelion; I watched the whole series. I’d never seen it before. But, you know, there’s a lot going on in that show related to gender

tony: Gendo is the worst dad. He’s such a bad dad.

Kyle: Yeah; there’s a lot. But the thing that I want to land on, the most recent thing, is that I rewatched the last Avengers movie, End Game. And this has been written about a million times, but Thor-I think the way they handled Thor is so bad. And it could have been so great. The idea that he’s suffering; he has PTSD. And he’s trying to work through that. He doesn’t have a good support system… but he just becomes, like, a fat joke through the whole movie and which is also, you know, fat phobic and all that. But there’s so much they could have done with him, that I think maybe they pointed towards doing, but just didn’t really stick the landing. And that was disappointing because I think his character arc could’ve been really, really interesting.

tony: Yeah. I initially really loved the depiction of Thor, in End Game. Like, when I first saw it, I was like super jazzed about it because I was like, wow, that’s actually really cool, because he’s always been such an invulnerable, masculine character. And then I think in Infinity War, they did a good job with being like, no, this dude has lost everything; he is grieving. He has these deep feelings of depression and despair and all of these things. And I think it was cool to see that actualized in End Game. But yeah, a lot of folks around me have pointed out just how jokey they make the fat stuff and how jokey they make the alcoholism. And I definitely think that it fails to deal with that in an honest, deep way. Which incidentally, is also kind of what I hate about Iron Man 3 because it starts out with Tony being super in the throes of PTSD and having a hard time. And then in the third act of the movie, they just do away with that premise entirely. He basically like “mans up.” He mans up and all of a sudden everything is totally cool and he doesn’t have PTSD anymore.

Kyle: So is that yours, or do you have a different one?

tony: Me and my partner are actually re-watching Buffy. Well, she is re-watching Buffy; I’ve never seen Buffy before. Which, let me tell you, for listeners who have never watched Buffy: the first season: not that good. The second season is great so far. But there are sort of two, I mean, I guess three men who are important in the first season of Buffy, but two that are like relatable and young. And it’s Angel and Xander. And both of them are totally infuriating to me for different reasons.

Like Angel has this bad boy thing going for him where he just shows up to give cryptic warnings and then totally disappears, and isn’t communicative or transparent with anybody about what’s actually going on. And that’s infuriating. Then I think Xander also is infuriating, mostly because I think, to me he feels like a slightly but not that much worse version of who I was at 15 where he’s just like totally head over heels for his best friend and is doing a really horrible job, like making that her problem, you know, instead of just like being chill and cool with his homegirl, who he really cares about. So, yeah, those are those are my current depictions of masculinity. I actually kind of like Giles. Giles is like the third one.

And he’s like the dude who’s like researching all these monsters and giving them information about vampires. And I think he actually does a pretty good job of like being communicative and transparent and like also helping in material ways that actually matter.

Kyle: Yeah. Giles has been around the block.

tony: Yeah. Be more like Giles.

Kyle: This is a great introduction to what this episode is about. We’re talking about favorite and least favorite depictions of masculinity in pop culture.

And that’s important for a couple of reasons, that we’re going to get to. But I think, you know, for so many of us, whether we grew up with like a father in the household or not, we’re taught all these lessons about “what it means to be a man” from movies and TV and music. And it’s this constant thing, this background radiation, telling us some very specific stories and presenting us with some very specific ways in which it is, quote unquote, “appropriate” to express masculinity. And I think what’s really interesting about having this conversation in 2019 is that for a lot of listeners, some of this is really obvious. In the past 10 years, we’ve grown up knowing that the John Waynes of the world, and the Rambos of the world, and the whole 80s action hero with rippling muscles and who always like shoots first, never ask questions-that’s bullshit.

tony: Oh yeah. Oh, absolutely. Especially in Aliens, where Sigourney Weaver has the right answers all the time and nobody ever listens to her.

Kyle: Look, we’re at a point where a lot of men can acknowledge that that stereotype, that archetype, is just ridiculous. But there’s also some more insidious stuff. And so to get into that conversation, we’re gonna start with a video game reference. I know some of y’all are super excited and some of y’all are not, but it’s about Skyrim.

tony: They’re like skiiiiiip; next episode.

Kyle: I mean, Skyrim was one of the biggest and most popular video games of all time. And I want to say something really specific about Skyrim. But I also HAVE to ask: do you remember your Skyrim character, or have you had multiple?

tony: I don’t exactly. I’m pretty sure I was an Elvish stealthy boy, you know; I’m the type of dude who in any role playing game I’m ever playing, I’m going to play the same set of tactics because it’s how I live my actual life; which is like, I’m a try to be stealthy and then snipe with spells from a distance. You know…

Kyle: That’s how you live your actual life?

tony: Yeah, absolutely. Dude, have you met me?

Kyle: My character was; well, see if you can put the puzzle together: a white-haired redguard woman with a focus on ice and lightning spells.

tony: I got nothing.

Kyle: It’s Storm from the X-men.

tony: Ah, Ororo.

Kyle: …Which just made the game more fun for me, for whatever reason. And actually, I don’t want to spend too much on a tangent here, but there’s something really interesting about how when I was a teenager, right, playing, you know, the first Mass Effect, or the first round of games where you could create your own character, I’d always make characters who look like me. Because I felt like that was the fun way to play. You put yourself in that kind of power fantasy. You get to experience the things that are happening, and that made sense to me.

And as I got older, and like not for any particular reason, but I stopped doing that. I always play games now as a woman, usually as a woman of color. And, again, that isn’t for any, like, you know, “give me ally cookies cause I’m so progressive” reason, because no one watches me play video games. I don’t talk about it with anyone except like, right here in this moment.

tony: All of Twitter is watching you play video games. Kyle has been setting up all of his game playing habits for the last five years just so he can get ally cookies in this exact moment.

Kyle: Yeah, just so I can brag about how progressive I am. But I think that there is something that will relate to the rest of our conversation about being able to see heroism, and see a hero, in someone who doesn’t look like you, especially when you look like me, as a, you know, more-or-less white, straight, cis guy-to be able to understand heroism in other like figures. I think there’s something just healthy about that. And it’s also made the games more interesting to some extent too, since no one wants to see the big burly white dude, you know, with a 5 o’clock shadow anymore.

tony: Yeah, totally. I think that’s really interesting and cool. Most of my video game characters tend to be self-inserts, mostly because I don’t really care what’s going on with how the character looks as much as I care about the story or the way that I’m interacting with the other people around me. But with my D&D characters (I play a lot of Dungeons and Dragons) and my D&D characters tend to be like, mad different people depending on the circumstance.

So my last three D&D characters; the first one is like, a Marxist monk who is like an asshole Leninist who runs around telling everybody to overthrow the nobles all the time and is really unlikable. And he’s just the most undiplomatic dude in the history of undiplomatic dudes. And then the next person that I played was a woman Dwarf named Brunhilde. And she was just super, super smart, super, super curious, like to a fault, like, could not ever stop talking because she’s always like trying to ask questions and learn more about the world she was in. That was really fun to play too. And then my most recent one is Alorr, who is like an Elvish fighter. She’s like a warrior monk. And she’s all about sort of trying to push herself to be the best fighter she can be and learn about the world through combat. So she’s really fun to play too. I don’t know. They’re all different.

Kyle: Can we do a future episode on depictions of masculinity and gender within role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons? That could be so great.

tony: Yeah, that would be super interesting.

Kyle: So anyways, back to Skyrim. If you’ve never played the game before, one of the very first things that happens in Skyrim is that your character comes across the Guardian Stones. It’s like a shrine made up of three stone pillars, and each pillar represents a different fantasy archetype. There’s the warrior, the thief, and the mage. Then you get to touch one of them. You choose a blessing from one of the three stones, and that informs how you play the game. You get extra bonuses if you’re like a big, tough hand-to-hand fighter and you touch the warrior stone. If you’re a sneaky, agile rogue, you touch the thief stone. Or if you’re this devastating spell caster, you touch the mage stone.

A lot of single player fantasy role playing games use some version of this formula. The idea being that it gives you, the player, the freedom to approach game situations from multiple angles.

The enemy warlord is sitting on his throne. Do you barge in wearing your heavy plate armor, swinging your giant two-handed Warhammer? Or do you sneak along the walls like tony, sticking to the shadows, waiting for the perfect moment to shoot your poison arrow? Or do you focus all your mental energy to summon a mighty lightning bolt that will deal direct damage to the boss plus area-of-effect damage to his henchmen? It’s about choices. Kind of.

I mean, the identity that you choose gives you freedom and flexibility to a point… but at the end of the day, you’re still going to kill that warlord, collect the money, and move on to the next adventure. Whether the weapon is brute force, cunning, or focus-the effect of that weapon is always control, dominance, and power.

And there are definitely all kinds of games that try to subvert that. But we’re talking about the archetype here, the majority of games that project that choice onto us. And so, you know, it makes sense in a video game. But there’s something about that framework that is just fascinating to me that I can’t get over, something that I think speaks directly to this idea of archetypes of masculinity that so many of us grow up bombarded by.

I mean, if you look at the biggest pop culture examples, it’s this never-ending procession of strong warriors, wisecracking rogues and all-knowing patriarchs. It’s Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Obi-Wan Kenobi. It’s Captain America, Tony Stark, and Nick Fury. It’s Wolverine, Gambit, and Professor X. It even works for trios of villains: Darth Vader, Boba Fett, and the Emperor. And when you start to notice this pattern-the warrior, the rogue, the patriarch-you see it everywhere. King Arthur, Robin Hood, and Merlin. Achilles, Odysseus, and Agamemnon. All these heroes, all these men fitting so neatly into these boxes.

And of course, you could say “what about Batman. Batman is stealthy AND strong.” And yeah, there’s Batman, there’s James Bondl; they can fit into more than one box… but they always fit. Margaret Atwood, in The Handmaid’s Tale, wrote: “A rat in a maze is free to go anywhere, as long as it stays inside the maze.”

tony: Poetry snaps!

Kyle: Yeah, that’s a quote. And that’s what I’m trying to get out of this whole Skyrim story. When we talk about pop cultural depictions of masculinity, especially today in 2019, where it’s not just the big, strong, stoic guy archetype-there are a diversity of types now, of different approaches to expressing manhood. But when we strip away the *superficial* differences, so many male heroes, whether or not they’re the traditional giant muscle obvious stereotype guy, they’re still about control, dominance and power. John Wick loves his dog and wears really nice suits, but he’s still a violent power fantasy. Dude from Breaking Bad is a complex and tragic character… AND he’s a violent power fantasy. It’s less acceptable today, I think, for action movie heroes to be as explicitly sexist and homophobic as they were in like, the 80s. But they’re still almost always men, almost always powerful, asserting their unstoppable will on everyone around them, almost always winning no matter what.

tony: And even when they are women, you know, or aliens or whatever, they still fulfill those archetypes in a lot of very important ways. And like, put a specific lens on like, “there’s only one way to be powerful or to be successful.”

Kyle: Or to solve problems, yeah. And I’m not saying that power fantasies are bad, either. Right, I think sometimes they can be entertaining, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. But some of them can also be healthy. I think about one of my favorite poets, Ed Bok Lee, and he has a poem called Ode to Bruce Lee, which is about what Bruce Lee meant to young Asian-American and Asian kids growing up in the 70s, and what it meant to have an archetype like that. That’s a power fantasy, and I think that can be really healthy. Marjorie Liu has a piece up on LitHub about John Wick that breaks down John Wick as a character, which I think gives him more complexity than what I just said a second ago. But that’s also really, really interesting. I’d recommend it.

But I’m saying, however, that these power fantasies present an extremely narrow range of what masculinity can look like. You can be a man without constantly needing to be in control. You can be a man without power, or you can define power in a new or different or more interesting way. So with all that stuff in mind, let’s talk about some of our favorite examples of masculinity and pop culture. Are there any particular characters or character types that come to mind?

tony: So, yeah, I mean, before we get into that, I want to talk about clerics. Because as you’re talking about all this stuff around the fighter, the thief and the mage, the thing that I think is missing, especially from Skyrim, is the cleric. And so, again, this is sort of deep roleplaying theory. But if you go to team-based games, if you go to a traditional Dungeons and Dragons party, you’re gonna have a fighter. You’re gonna have a thief. You’re going to have a wizard. And you’re going to have a cleric. And what a cleric’s job is, is to support the rest of the party. It’s to cast healing spells, and cast spells that make OTHER people more powerful. Or cast spells that make it harder for the bad guys to do what they’re doing. So that the party can get done what they need to get done. And clerics are interesting because they’re never as like, sexy or easy to play in many ways as, like, a fighter.

If you’re if you’re a fighter, your answer to a problem is to run at it with a sword. If you’re a wizard, your answer is to cast a lightning bolt at it. If you’re a rogue, your answer is to sneak around and try to stab in the back.

But clerics (and this might be going even too deep) but… wizards have very specific spells that they have to choose. Clerics can cast any spell as long as they think ahead of time about what spells that they want to have available in a particular situation. So clerics are this really important ingredient to a party, and especially in the low levels of Dungeons and Dragons, you cannot do anything without a cleric in your party. It is very hard to survive without somebody who’s there supporting you. And it’s interesting that we don’t let that exist as much in pop culture as a space.

I think one of the reasons that happens is because it is more necessarily communal than the other types of roles. You can be a lone wolf warrior. You can be a lone wolf wizard, or a lone wolf thief, or whatever. But like, if you are a cleric, you’re never going to be able to handle a situation super effectively by yourself. You have to have a team that you’re there with and you’re supporting and you make everybody else work better. But like, you need to have those folks there to be able to do the work.

Kyle: Wow. Not to get too far off the pop culture tip, but think about that in terms of organizing, and how often leadership is framed as “being the strongest warrior,” basically, as opposed to leadership being “How are you good at supporting other people’s stuff? How are you a healer within your organization, as opposed to the fighter?”

tony: Yeah, absolutely. And some of my friends who are really into healthy spiritual depictions of masculinity, I think, have those depictions of clerics. I mean, Christianity has a lot of baggage, but…
Kyle: So, like, Jesus?

tony: Yeah, but Jesus is, in many ways, the perfect cleric archetype. Right, he’s like a soft dude who kicks it with sex workers and, you know, held folks accountable, and kicked over tables in the temple and stuff like that. And he was super anti-empire, but was also this dude who was forever trying to support people around him, and make sure that he always had a squad, and that he was preparing them for leadership after he was gone, because he knew he wouldn’t be around forever either.

Kyle: Wow. That’s my next D&D character.

tony: Jesus?

Kyle: Yeah.

tony: So yeah, I think clerics are really important. And I think we should be thinking about them more. And actually, D&D has other good versions of masculinity. I think of Druids in D&D, which are a very nature focused class. They’re hermits a little bit. And so they’re a little bit like the Wizards, but they live in community with all of the creatures of the forest. And, you know, some of the earliest things that you get with them are animal partners who follow you around and kick it. And so there’s a kindness and a healthiness and a regeneration that is a necessary component of playing that character.

Kyle: Wow. Yeah. So, again, I really want to do that episode. I’m taking notes on some of this stuff right now because it’s fascinating. I’m not a big D&D person, but that’s super, super interesting

tony: We’re going to have a special D&D episode.

Kyle: So when we get to talking about pop culture examples of masculinity, there are a couple of deep dives that I think we can do, but there’s some that come to mind right away too. Like, for me, right away, I think about Frodo and Sam from the Lord of the Rings, and how they’re kind of a reverse power fantasy in that, yeah, they’re the heroes and they do heroic things, but they’re so powerless; they’re defined by their lack of power. They’re just two random dudes who are trying to do something good. And I think particularly in the context of a story that’s like this mythic exploration of Western European culture or whatever, I think it’s cool that it centers on these two very weak characters.

tony: And one of the things that’s really interesting about Lord of the Rings, in that sense, is they literally can’t get Bilbo onto the squad to go and try and liberate the Misty Mountains from Smaug until they lie about him being a thief. Bilbo’s a pretty chill dude. And he’s, you know, smart in a lot of ways. But he’s a support character, for sure. He is not a hero unto himself, but they have to literally lie to the Dwarves about him being this majorly important thief for him to even be allowed to go.

Kyle: Another example that comes to mind for me is Fury Road, one of my favorite movies. A lot of people love Mad Max Fury Road. But there’s something really interesting about Max in that movie in that, yeah, he’s still a gruff, tough, hero kind of guy. But I think that there’s a meta thing that goes on in that movie: he’s not really the main character. And I feel like, on some level, he KNOWS he’s not the main character. It’s like he helps out, and then he just goes away. And I think that’s cool. It centers the movie on Furiosa in a way that is necessary for that movie to work, I think. And so that’s, again, a meta thing. But I think it’s interesting to think about.

tony: Are they making another one of those joints? I remember they were talking about it.

Kyle: There are definitely rumors. You know, one with Max and one that focuses on Furiosa. I’ve heard rumors of two, but who knows?

tony: (rhythmically chanting “Charlize”)

Kyle: Can you talk at all about Undertale? I never finished it. I played a couple hours into it, and it was cool but I stopped.

tony: Yes. I love Undertale. Undertale is one of my favorite video games. For those of you who don’t know, it’s this RPG that starts out seeming just like a normal role-playing game, right? Like it’s like an Earthbound where you can fight your enemies. You can run away from fights. You can use items, like all of those kinds of things. But one of the interesting things about the game is you can actually beat the whole game without using violence against anyone. And for every single fight, there is a nonviolent solution to that fight. And I think that’s actually really important. And for me, it expanded my scope of what I even knew as possible in video games. It’s one of my favorite games and it’s one of the best constructed video games I’ve ever played. But it doesn’t require actually hurting anybody. And in some ways, the game penalizes you and makes you feel the actual consequences of using violence. So it’s not so much of a cavalier thing, right? It’s like you have to constantly be weighing the pluses and negatives of using violence to get ahead.

Kyle: Wow. Yeah. So a couple of other examples that come to mind for me… and this one, like, it’s real, it’s a real life example. But I think sometimes real life gets filtered through pop culture. Like when I was a teenager, I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X, right, which, again, is an autobiography, a real person, but it was also a book for me. And I think that was a big influence on my early formative years, understanding manhood, that balance of humility and confidence, a willingness to change and to grow and to be wrong and to fight back even when you don’t have control. I think other, you know, real-world examples, especially coming from a musician or a rapper background: stuff like Prince, right?

tony: Oh, yeah, totally.

Kyle: And even more recently, people like Andre 3000 and Saul Williams-when you figure out that you don’t have to present yourself a certain way; you don’t have to wear a certain kind of clothes to be treated as a sexy man or a quote unquote, “real man.” I think that that light bulb coming on about presentation and expression then filters into this deeper understanding of identity-that you don’t have to be a certain kind of guy, to be a guy. And again, those are real people, but again, kind of through a pop culture lens.

tony: Yeah, totally. I think another one that I think about is like Superman. Superman is super interesting because obviously, he’s a power fantasy. He’s the biggest power fantasy in the entirety of the universe. But also (and word to Chantz Erolin on this for for some deep conversations that we’ve had around this)… Clark is a good guy. He actually cares about people and listens to people and does the work-not only to beat the shit out of bad dudes, which he will do if he has to-but he is actually about helping people.

Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman (which is one of, I don’t know, maybe five Superman comics that have ever been made that I find legitimately compelling) has this scene where it shows a teenager standing on the roof of a building, and Superman swoops in. And he doesn’t catch the kid after he jumps, right, or punch him in the face and take him to the hospital, or any of that, right? He just lands and is like, “what’s going on?” You know, do you need help? Right. Is there any way I can help you? You know, whatever’s going on, I promise it can get better. And he gives him a hug. And I’m like, that’s dope.

Kyle: And like, Batman’s not going to do that.

tony: No, dude, no dude. Batman could never.


tony: This is tony the scribe. Yes, it is. Hey, thanks for joining us on this episode of What’s Good, Man? We had a great time talking about the future of masculinity at our live show at the University of Minnesota last week. Again, shout out to the Women’s cCenter, the Asian Pacific American Resource Center, the Aurora Center, the Martin Luther King Junior program and the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life for helping to put that together. Shout out all our guests, too. If you weren’t able to make that show, stick around on this podcast feed. We’re gonna edit it and throw it on here at some point. Please subscribe to the show and give us a good review if you haven’t gotten the chance yet. It helps us out a ton. Podcasts spread best via word of mouth. So please share the show with folks in person, or via social media, or in a dream telegram. If you share the show with one person, you’re doubling the number of people who listen to the show. I think that’s how the math works. Anyway, if you want to keep the conversation going on social media, you can use the hashtag #WhatsGoodMan to keep chatting. My Twitter is @tony_the_scribe and Kyle’s is @elguante. You can also find us on Instagram, Facebook and at www.wgmpod.com. Feel free to reach out if you want to say hi, offer topics or ideas, or book us for a live show. The poem we started the show off with today was by me and Guante. Our theme music is by daedae and letmode, and all the other music is by me. Let’s get back to it.

Kyle: So I want to do a deeper dive, but first, I have one more of these little examples: Captain America.

tony: Oh, yeah dog.

Kyle: Captain America is interesting because his power, literally, is that he’s the perfect man. He’s the height of physical perfection for a man. And I think the movies especially (I haven’t read all like the comics) do some interesting things with him in terms of how he embodies a healthy masculinity. Like, he’s very community-oriented. He supports his friend Bucky when Bucky is in a mental health crisis. He’s supportive when Bucky decides to go take some time, some self-care time, in a cryogenic chamber. He has healthy, platonic relationships with people of all genders, ages, races, and species. He avoids violence in general, but he will always stand up to bullies when he has to. He asks for help when he needs help. He takes advice. He listens. He writes things down-he’s got a little notebook with all the stuff he missed when he was on the ice or whatever. Like that’s, I think, a signal of something. He sacrifices himself. He tells the truth. He apologizes when he’s wrong. He’s emotionally secure. He lets women make the first move or like he has, I think, healthier relationship with women. He’s humble. He cares about his friends. Like, you know he can pick up the hammer in that one scene in the second Avengers. But he doesn’t want to hurt Thor’s feelings, he doesn’t want to make his friend insecure.

tony: And Thor is so insecure! He’s like, I got to help out my guy.

Kyle: You might be able to tell that I have a bullet point list here, because me and Uyenthi, my wife, have been thinking a lot about Captain America. He’s polite! When Groot says, “I am Groot.” He says “I am Steve Rogers.” Which is amazing. And again, on a meta level, he’s the symbol of a fading, toxic empire. But he’s trying he’s trying to do good. He’s trying to do the right thing.

tony: The other thing that I really love about him, especially in End Game, is when you first see him, like after the timeskip, there’s been this horrible cataclysm that’s happened to the whole universe. And everybody’s trying to pick up the pieces. And it’s like, what does a superhero do in those circumstances?

Kyle: Or, what does Hawkeye do? And then what does Captain America do? That’s fascinating.

tony: Yeah. Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Like, Hawkeye turns around after losing his family and starts murdering criminals all over the world. He’s like, this is what I’m going to be about. And Steve starts a support group. A multi-racial, multi gender support group for people to talk. And the first thing that you see him doing, the first person who talks in that circle is a gay dude, and he’s talking about, you know, being on a date with this other guy and about both of them grieving. And Steve is just like, yeah, man. That’s really hard. I’m glad you’re gonna keep trying to go through with it. You know, we all need to keep picking up the pieces. And I just think that vulnerability and sensitivity is so important, and is a thing that’s so lacking in a lot of depictions of these heroes. There’s almost this idea that you have to be emotionally stunted or incapable of having real conversations with folks in order to be strong and able to kick somebody’s ass, you know?

Kyle: Yeah. I mean, I think that movie is maybe still trying to have it both ways because he’s still a big badass dude who can punch monsters in the face. But there’s a subversion there-he does the other stuff too.

tony: But so are we, Kyle!

Kyle: Well yeah. So it might be a little bit of a deeper dive, but when I think about this whole question about favorite pop culture depictions of masculinity, immediately, what I think of is Avatar The Last Airbender, which I think is one of the greatest pieces of media and art ever created by human beings. And we can talk a lot about Avatar in general, but I think specifically looking at the main character, Aang, and then also looking at Zuko; they’re both super, super interesting characters and both do really interesting things with masculinity. I don’t know if you want to jump in with either of those?

tony: Yeah. I mean, I love Avatar. This is an Avatar fan podcast. Step out now if you’re not interested. But I think Zuko, for those who don’t know, (you should watch Avatar. Everybody should watch Avatar. It’s like the best animated show probably ever made)…

Kyle: I’d say second to Cowboy Bebop. But it’s really close.

tony: I don’t like Cowboy Bebop. But anyway… also the sequel, Korra, is really good. But Zuko is this dude who we pick up with when he’s maybe 16 at the beginning of the show. And he has been physically abused by his dad. His mom has been killed or disappeared, and he has defaulted towards trying to track down this mythic avatar person in order to basically kill him and bring him back to his father, who is the leader of the greatest imperialist country in the whole world.

Kyle: And I think it’s worth noting, in the beginning of the series, we meet him just as a villain. We don’t know his history. He’s just “the bad guy.”

tony: Yeah. Yeah. He’s like a bad guy. He is like this hardcore military dude who hates the main characters for really no reason at all. Other than that he’s the bad guy. And I think over the course of the whole show, you start to realize more why he is the bad guy. And what things have happened in his life for him to turn from being like, an actually pretty sweet kid, right into this horrible guy. But then I think as that keeps happening, because he has some great people around him, he also starts to realize that he’s more like the people that he’s chasing and fighting than he is like his father, or that he is like the fire nation empire. And his uncle Iroh is a major part of that. And I also really love about Zuko that his journey is not straightforward. It’s not like he just like figures it out at one point and is like, oh, my God, I’ve been doing so much evil. I need to turn my life around. He decides to be a good guy and then goes back and is like, actually, that’s too hard. I’m gonna keep being this bad guy. And then he eventually comes around and goes to the main characters and is like, hey, I’ve decided to be a good guy now and I want to help you. And they’re like, we do not believe you! You know, why on earth would we trust you or believe you? And then he ends up working really hard, actually, to earn their trust, without asking that much of them, and becomes a really important member of the team.

Kyle: And when we talk about like accountability… in so many stories, when the villain is redeemed, there’s no real meat to the story. It’s like “I was bad. And then I figured it out and I’m good.” But like you said, with Zuko, it’s this long, drawn out process that involves real concrete work. He has to prove himself in a physical way.

tony: Yeah. Whereas with Darth Vader, it’s like, oh, so you throw one emperor into a blast furnace or whatever and all of a sudden it doesn’t matter that you killed billions of people? Darth Vader is cancelled.

Kyle: Yeah, Darth Vader is problematic. Anyway, Zuko’s arc is so fascinating to me because, again, it’s not just that he had a eureka moment and he’s a good dude now. It’s about him figuring out how to accept help and support from other people, that interpersonal connection that he doesn’t have in the beginning. In the beginning, he’s just like, I’m the prince. Everyone do what I say. And that, decentralization of power is super interesting in that he becomes more himself, he becomes more a full human being. When he gives up some of his power, he becomes part of a collective as opposed to just one super powerful individual.

tony: Absolutely. And he gets better at his martial arts, too, which is super fascinating. And as a martial artist, you really do get a lot better. You can’t be a super stiff, strong martial artist. There are a billion dudes and women out there who are super buff, strong, and lift weights all the time and shit and can’t do martial arts. Because they’re not flexible, and they’re not able to be soft in different moments.

Kyle: Again, we’re not going to talk through the whole plot of the show, but if you’ve never seen the cartoon, it’s like three seasons. It’s really amazing. Not the movie, by the way.

So we talked about Zuko’s arc as a character, but I think one thing that they do really well on just a pop cultural level is that it builds and builds and builds. And there’s no one eureka moment, but there is a climax of the arc. And I think it’s the moment where his uncle presents him the question, he just straight up says: “what kind of person do you want to be?” You have to choose. And it’s done so well. And his uncle is also a really interesting character who kind of mirrors him in some ways.

tony: Yeah, Iroh’s cool. And then there’s Aang. Right. And Aang is also such an amazing character. And he’s a man in his own right. A little one.

Kyle: Well let’s sit with that for a second. Aang is the hero of the show. He’s the protagonist. But he’s a little kid. Like, all the other characters are older than him.

tony: He’s like 12.

Kyle: And I think that’s also really fascinating. The idea of having heroes and role models who are either little kids or like, much older, like Uncle Iroh. And we’re going to keep coming back to Iroh, I think. But most heroes in movies are like between 25 and like 40, right? And so to find heroism in these younger and older role models I think can also be really healthy. Anyways, yeah, he’s a little kid. He goofs around. He has fun, like he’s not a super serious, big, strong dude.

tony: No, not at all. And he is respectful of everybody. He’s very spiritually grounded himself. And that leads to him being like, he can be really goofy, but he also knows when it’s time to be serious. And when it’s time to, like, shut up and listen to other people and learn from other people about their experiences.

Kyle: He’s a cleric.

tony: Yeah, he is a cleric, I mean, literally: he’s literally a monk. Yeah. And he is very clear that he can’t do any of these things alone. And when he strays from that; there are a couple times where he like goes off and tries to do the whole thing by himself, and very quickly realizes that that’s not going to work, and that that’s not a healthy response. Man, Aang is so good. And I think another piece is that he’s capable of great violence, but he actually doesn’t like that about himself.

Kyle: The thing that the animators and the writers of the show did so well is that… so you know, again, yeah, he’s very powerful. He has control of all the four elements. That’s like, the thing that’s happening. But he can also go into this special super powerful mode where his eyes go white and he starts to glow; he becomes this incredibly, incredibly powerful thing. And the show always communicates that in a way that is not fun, in a way that is kind of scary.

tony: And traumatic for him.

Kyle: And makes this beautiful little kid become this monster. And in any other show, again, that would be a violent power fantasy. Like, you have the power to defeat your enemies and do whatever you want. But in this show, they make it kind of explicitly scary and bad.

tony: Yeah. When he comes out of it, a lot of the time he’s exhausted and traumatized and like, sometimes crying. He has like nightmares all through the second season about the way that the first season ends. There’s a point in the show where he realizes that he’s gonna have to, like, confront the main antagonist, the fire lord, and potentially kill him. And he, like, really freaks out about it. There’s a whole series of episodes where he’s having nightmares about the idea of that confrontation and about the necessity of violence that might happen. And then even in the end, he still avoids violence in a couple really key situations where any other medium like this would require him to use violence. And the show is like, no, there’s another way. And he chooses that way.

Kyle: Yeah. So we could talk about Avatar a lot. And there are other characters we could even talk about. There’s just so much to analyze.

tony: Katara, the biggest badass ever!

Kyle: But I think, you know, maybe just stepping back from this conversation and looking at the whole of it, there’s a question about, you know, why does this matter? Because I don’t think this conversation is as simple as like, you know, “boys who don’t have dads need role models from the TV” or like we need to learn how to be men by watching movies. That’s a weird oversimplification that happens sometimes. But I’m really interested in this idea of storytelling and imagination, and visioning what a healthy masculinity can look like. And yeah, we’re gonna do a whole episode on that, specifically, later. But I think this pop culture storytelling stuff kind of creates a foundation for that. You know, to return to the Margaret Atwood quote: we’re not just expanding the maze, but we’re trying to get out of the maze.

tony: Yeah. And stories are so important for that. A friend of mine asked me, like, why these stories are even important, why it matters that we need like, idols of masculinity or archetypes of masculinity to look up to. And for me, it’s like: you can’t get out of the maze without a map. Or you can. But it’s a lot more exhausting and difficult. When we have folks that we can look up to or that we can understand how they have triumphed through adversity, then we can maybe be that ourselves. Like, how much easier is it for like me and my dude friends to talk about mistakes that we’ve made, and ways that we’re trying to be better people, because we have seen Avatar. We can talk about Zuko, you know, like those are actually conversations that I have had with some of my guys.

Kyle: It reminds me of how in the last episode we quoted bell hooks and bell hooks’ writing on masculinity and feminism. But there’s another quote; I don’t have it in front of me, but I remember distinctly this quote: “how can you become what you cannot imagine?” And that’s in the context of men and healthier visions of masculinity. But that totally aligns perfectly with this conversation, and about expanding our imaginations through these pop cultural figures.

tony: Oh, yeah. Like, if all we see is Prince Charming, then all we’re gonna try to be is Prince Charming. And Prince Charmings, honestly are largely garbage. They largely have no sense of personality. They have no contributions to make other than their one singular violent contribution towards defeating the witch or the dragon or whatever. We need more room to breathe. We need more versions of these stories so that, like, kids can grow up and realize that there’s not just one way to be a man. That there are a lot of different options and ways to be out there that go way outside of even this fighter/thief/wizard triptych.

Kyle: And one of the thoughts I want to share about why this conversation matters is something a little bit different. I think it’s that there are more and more conversations being had in different spaces about toxic masculinity and like the ways that our conceptions of manhood can be harmful. And I think a lot of times those conversations are centered on symbols more than they are substance. The problem with men and manhood and masculinity isn’t sports and pickup trucks and going to the gym. It’s about power. It’s about proximity to power and a thirst for power that hurts us and all the people around us. I think part of the takeaway here is to do some deeper self-reflection, even for those of us who do NOT embody the super stereotypical masculine archetype. Are there still ways in which we’re holding up this power imbalance? You know, you could be this super soft, loving, emotional, feminist dude, but if you’re the CEO of like, a mercenary company or something? That’s not cool. It’s not just the symbols. It’s about the space we occupy in society.

tony: Well, and going back to the last episode, too. It’s also not about identifying as a feminist dude, who’s super soft and nice and whatever, and then turning around and being really, really horrible to women in super private circumstances,

Kyle: Which is totally a link to how this is bigger than pop culture and bigger than media. Men who think they’re not sexist because they don’t embody the most direct or obvious stereotypes of sexist men can be dangerous. There’s the whole thing about hipster sexism or sexism in the punk or hardcore scenes, sexism in social justice work and misogyny. And even, you know, in terms of identity, there are definitely gay men who are misogynists. There can be trans men who hold up, you know, this toxic masculinity stuff. There can be feminist men who are predators. And even aside from those really explicit examples, there are totally smart, thoughtful men who are also clinging to power with everything that they… or we… have. And I think the work of building a more thoughtful, fulfilling, responsible vision of masculinity can’t just be about rejecting the obvious signifiers. There has to be this deeper process of thinking critically about our relationships to power. And of course, that’s going to look different for different men who hold different identities in different spaces. But yeah. I think that main point about power, and how so many of these pop culture examples are power fantasies, but they’re also not just fantasies, right? Power is a real thing, and gender and gender identity impact our access to power…

tony: …and how we choose to use power when we have it. And I mean, power impacts the other too, like, we could do a whole episode on like “lean in” feminism, which we’re not gonna do because that’s not our space.

Kyle: Because that’s not our space to talk about, haha.

tony: Right. But go read bell hooks and you can read all about lean in feminism.

Kyle: So as we wrap this up, any things you’re still thinking about, you know, ideas for future episodes, things you’re still struggling with, grappling with or around any of these ideas? I’m thinking specifically as an artist. As someone who creates art, too, and doesn’t just ingest it. This is a question for both of us. Do we think about how this plays out in our own art, too.

tony: I mean, I think definitely. And I think that’s one microcosm of like why I try and play a variety of different D&D characters. Because D&D, to me, is like a way of practicing empathy in a lot of ways. That’s what role playing is, right?

So not that I’m ever going to be, you know, a half elf warrior, you know, who is a member of the (???) warrior monk sect. But there’s something there about trying to experience other things. And I think the same is true for longer term pieces of art. I try to write poems and songs from a variety of different perspectives. And when I fantasize about writing a novel someday, which will happen probably, I don’t know, 10 years after I start doing every other thing that I do, my main character is a woman, right? And has a very different set of experiences than I have.

Kyle: Yeah. I think the way that this manifests in my own stuff… And this is, you know, this is me working through it, but if you’re an artist out there and you’re thinking about some of these issues, too, or even not an artist, you’re just a communicator: One thing that I find really valuable about being a poet, and I think an artist in general, but especially a poet, is that you don’t have to have all the answers. You can stand up on a stage and share a poem that is just you grappling with an idea, asking questions. I think that’s really important and really valuable. At the same time, living in the world in which we live right now. I sometimes feel this need to be a little more didactic, a little more propagandistic, to say look, I have the attention of a thousand people right now, I’m going to say something and I’m not going to just grapple with my insecurities. And I don’t think that’s an either/or. I don’t think it’s a binary there. There are ways to do both. But it’s a tension that I feel sometimes which relates to this idea of pop cultural depictions of masculinity being very much about power and control. How much power and control do we have from the stage? How can we use that power in healthy ways? Or how can we dilute that power, and share that power? Or do something more interesting with it.

tony: And I gravitate towards sharing a lot of my insecurities on stage and in media and stuff like that. And I think it’s a both/and. Because yes, it’s important that you use the power of your platform to do stuff. But that’s one of the things we see with a bunch of creators all the time is that they don’t do that work in public and then they fuck up really bad. And they aren’t willing to talk about the deeper sides of what’s going on. And like, the sharing of insecurities can also create a different kind of space for folks than just a super didactic focus on, you know, “here’s why you should care about rape culture,” stuff like that. I’ve seen a lot of artists, especially male artists, but women too, where folks get really caught up in being like, oh, no, I am the most important vehicle for this message. And this message is the most important thing. And then start to question anybody who critiques them or talks back to them or like anything like that about their work. And I think that’s dangerous, too. So, yeah, I don’t know. I think it’s a process of learning and trying and experimenting and fucking up and trying to just keep learning, as a communicator. And I’d just like, on a super personal level: I’m really grateful to all of these creators for creating such interesting, compelling role models for us to be able to base that process off of.

Kyle: Definitely. That’s probably a great note to end it on.

tony: So much as we love hearing ourselves talk, while we were making this episode, we decided that from here on out we’re gonna end the episodes by getting someone else’s insight into the conversation we’ve just had. We’re gonna call it The Last Word. For this episode. We decided to connect with our friend Trungles, who’s known for his incredible illustration work as well as his fire hot-takes on gender, culture, and sexuality. Trungles is a comic book artist and illustrator working out of Minnesota. He received his BA from Hamline University in 2012, majoring in studio art with a concentration in oil painting, and minoring in art history. He has contributed work for Oni Press, Boom! Studios, Limerence Press, and Image Comics. He is particularly fond of fairy tales, kids’ cartoons, and rom-coms of all stripes. He’s got two books upcoming on Penguin Random House, as well as a Tarot Deck you can pre-order now. You can find him on Twitter at @Trungles. Trung: take it away. What’s the last word?

Trungles: Okay. I want to talk about one of my favorite movies, Porco Rosso. I really enjoy kind of the entire catalog of the Studio Ghibli films, but this one has sort of a special place in my heart in that it is sort of strange within the pantheon of Hayao Miyazaki movies because the protagonist is a male. I feel like a lot of what he’s known for, narratively speaking, is that he kind of employs stories about young women kind of making their way in the world, and people kind of regard his work as sort of feminist in that way. And I think that’s kind of a generous reading of his work. But I do really enjoy the flip side of it as well, which is kind of his takes on masculinity. The masculinity that I find in his work is so fascinating because it sort of flips the script on what we understand to be the defining features of masculinity and femininity. Within his movies, oftentimes, femininity is the practical kind of end of that binary spectrum, and masculinity is the one that kind of comes at things with this pomp and bravado. And so Porco Rosso is such a fun example of this. It kind of comes after Castle in the Sky, which was made in the late 80s I think, and Porco Rosso was released in the early 90s.

tony: I just watched Castle in the Sky for the first time!

Trungles: Oh, how did you find it?

tony: I found it good. I really, really loved it. It was sort of one of my favorite Ghibli films that I think I’ve seen, especially because of the way that it talks about sort of militarism and the way that people turn to violence to exist in the world. It was really good.

Trungles: That’s a really great take on it. And Porco Rosso is kind of similar in that way where it takes on militarism. The movie is about mercenaries, like Sky Pirates for hire. And it kind of… I have complicated feelings about the way that Japanese media has a relationship with World War 2 and this kind of like, nostalgia… well, in this case, it’s post-World War 1, right before World War 2. But it has sort of like this nostalgic take on this. But for the record, Porco Rosso is explicitly anti-fascist. But one thing that I loved about it is that all of the women characters are very practical, and they’re always the ones that are doing things and driving the plot forward. And masculinity is this thing that requires a lot of upkeep. It’s something that is very performative, and it’s something that you’d like put out in the world in order to get people to understand you a certain way. And a fantastic way that the movie does this is with The Sky Pirates, which were also kind of a present thing in Castle in the Sky. And so they kind of project this image of being sort of dastardly. And they’re trying really hard to be kind of intimidating, but they’re really not. And they’re just a bunch of kind of lazy softies who are trying to get around following the rules because they don’t like structure and they keep passing the buck. And the entire movie sort of revolves around the egos of these two sky pirates who are trying to essentially one up each other, kind of at the risk of everyone around them and sort of driven forward by the women who are like trying to get things done and trying to keep everybody safe and trying to keep everybody getting along within the backdrop of World War 1 and 2. So, yeah, that’s my take on Porco Rosso. It’s a great movie.

tony: Thanks for that insight into Ghibli. And we really appreciate you coming on the show and joining us to talk about pop culture masculinity.

Trungles: Thanks so much for having me.

tony: Thanks for listening to what’s good man today. And you can join us again two weeks from now for our next episode. Thanks.