I’ve become aware of a book soon to be made available through Superversive Press called To Be Men: Stories Celebrating Masculinity. It’s an anthology and actually the sort of project I’d have loved to contribute to. The theme is based on a premise currently popular in speculative fiction and in certain social perspectives, that traditional masculinity is considered toxic or otherwise undesirable or harmful.
Actually, the issues are more complicated than they seem on the surface, but they are also very polarizing (like so many social issues are these days).
I came across the term Beta Male in relation to this, and depending on your perspective, it’s either highly denigrated or highly celebrated. If traditional masculinity is “toxic,” then “beta maleness” seems to be the goal in some circles.
In response to Disney’s current “take” on the “Star Wars” franchise, I’ve decided to “take back” Star Wars by re-watching the original trilogy (“Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi”). To me, those are the only three films that truly embrace “StarWars-ness”), even though “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” (the latter film I have yet to see) feature some of the original actors.
I’m imagining the book “To Be Men” has been written as a way to “take back” traditional maleness from the prevailing western cultural view.
Does it need taking back?
In my opinion, yes and here’s why.
There’s been a lot of talk about inequity along a variety of scales, be it gender, race, orientation, and what have you. I subscribe to a number of news and social media sources so I can consume as wide a range of opinions and viewpoints as possible. I’m not interested in just listening to my own voice.
What I’ve discovered is that efforts to promote equality and equal access aren’t producing that result. What seems to be happening is that the bias is merely being shifted rather than eliminated. In the current context, instead of opening up the world of speculative fiction to more than just (supposedly) white males, and to stories about more than just (supposedly) white male heroes, the emphasis has realigned toward acceptance of all other people as authors and characters except white males.
I don’t know how pervasive this is lacking first hand experience, but in seeking publications to which I can submit some of my short stories, I’ve noticed that many of these venues specifically request tales only from “marginalized populations” at the exclusion of anyone else (i.e. white males).
I can imagine that this is seen as a way to balance the scales and thus to promote equality, but the actual effect is simply to shift the balance from one side to the other, not eliminating inequity and enmity between different groups of people, but instead exacerbating it.
To me, inclusion is giving everybody equal access to the opportunity to submit stories and have them accepted for publication, including the aforementioned white males and everybody else.
Granted, publications can be themed. Not every magazine publishes every genre, so you’re unlikely to find a pure teen romance story in a science fiction and fantasy periodical. So it makes sense that you’d have anthologies that would be focused on “strong female characters,” the LGBTQ community, people of color, and so on.
Which brings us back to “To Be Men.” If you can have those other specialized periodicals and anthologies catering to specific groups, you can have one by and for traditional males (and it’s amazing how many women still seem to like and want to associate to traditional males – especially when there’s a spider to kill or a carpentry project to be performed around the house – that last bit is a joke).
I think an anthology like “To Be Men” is necessary to balance the scales in speculative fiction. Such a book doesn’t have to be interpreted as “anti-female” or “anti-feminist” anymore than a publication spotlighting feminist authors and themes necessarily has to be “anti-male” or “anti-masculinity” (although I can see how that perspective can occur from both sides of the fence).
Of course, there’s the argument that masculine heroes already exist in abundance and have since time immemorial. Let’s take superhero comic books and films as an example.
Traditionally, comic book superheroes have focused on the male hero or a group of male heroes with a single female member who is never the most powerful.
In the silver age DC comics, there’s something called “The Trinity” or the most popular trio of heroes. It’s Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. The original Justice League of America was an all male team except for Wonder Woman.
My favorite silver age Marvel comics are The Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, The X-Men, and the Avengers. All of those groups I’ve mentioned had all male members except for one woman.
Over time in comic books, that’s changed somewhat to reflect the larger social bias, but the superhero movies for the most part have not.
So far, the only single superhero movie to be headed by a woman is “Wonder Woman” (2017) starring Israeli actress Gal Gadot.
If you’re looking to balance the scales in the cinema, then you have a long way to go.
However, the film industry seems to be lagging behind the publishing industry, whether speculative fiction or comic books, which are bending over backward to be inclusive. That’s not a bad thing as far as it goes, but again, where’s the balance? The whole world isn’t filled with progressive good guys (good people) and conservative, white, male villains. Real life doesn’t work that way, but you can make fiction say anything you want.
In my opinion, equality is encouraging balance. In fact, in the 2005 film “Batman Begins,” Rachel Dawes (actress Katie Holmes) delivers the line:
“You’re not talking about justice. … Revenge is about you making yourself feel better.”
Twice in the same movie, Ras al Ghul (Liam Neeson) compared balance to justice. If you want equality and you believe it is an expression of justice, then ignoring balance or even deliberately creating imbalance is only promoting inequality in a different direction.
So by all means, create speculative fiction that celebrates women, LGBTQ heroes, heroic people of color, heroic Muslims, but at the same time, make room for heroic men, heroic Christians, Jews, and Hindus as well as Muslims. Try speaking to the widest possible audience so that more people can relate to your stories.
The more the entertainment industry (and I’m thinking especially television right now), tightens its focus and only allows a certain and highly specific narrative to be presented, the more people are going to disconnect from what they’re producing. There are TV shows I don’t watch anymore because they’ve become little more than mouths speaking only that narrative. In attempting to communicate the messages the creators believe are the most important, they are shutting the ears of the very people who they want to listen. In other words, they are only talking to themselves.
Inequality doesn’t broaden your audience base, it marginalizes them, and when that happens, they will either ignore you, or they’re push back, sometimes by creating books like “To Be Men.”
Even though there’s nowhere for me to publish it, I might try my hand at a “male-oriented” story or two, just for giggles.