Does cinema push positive male role models out of the picture?


British MP Nick Fletcher says girl-power film and TV reboots leave men and boys with no one to look up to, but over overlooks the realities of mainstream cinema.

Recasting cultural icons like James Bond and Dr Who as women contributes to young men turning to crime because they lack positive male role models – so says a British politician.

Speaking in a debate about International Men’s Day 2021, Conservative MP Nick Fletcher said that unemployment, crime, homelessness and suicide disproportionately affects men. But, he argued, society and the media ignores men’s struggles to single them out as as either villains or the butt of the joke.

The inequalities are real (see the full debate here). However, Fletcher went on to suggest that levelling up minorities was at the cost of men. He said:

“Everywhere, not least within the cultural sphere, there seems to be a call from a tiny yet very vocal minority that every male character or good role model must have a female replacement.”

And, he argued, replacing male icons like James Bond with women comes at a cost:

“In recent years, we have seen Dr Who, the Ghostbusters, Luke Skywalker and The Equalizer all replaced by women, and men are left with the Krays and Tommy Shelby. Is it any wonder that so many young men are committing crimes?”

It’s damning stuff. But it’s not reflective of the cinema and TV most of us have access to.

Does cinema lack positive male role models?

The top 20 highest grossing films at the British box office in 2020 reveal a different kind of inequality.

  1. 1917
  2. Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker
  3. Sonic the Hedgehog
  4. Little Women
  5. Tenet
  6. Dolittle
  7. Bad Boys for Life
  8. Jumanji: The Next Level
  9. The Gentlemen
  10. Parasite
  11. Birds of Prey
  12. Jojo Rabbit
  13. Frozen 2
  14. Onward
  15. Emma.
  16. The Invisible Man
  17. The Personal History of David Copperfield
  18. Spies in Disguise
  19. After We Collided
  20. Cats

Of the top 20, almost half (nine) feature a male protagonist. Equally significantly, the remainder are as likely to have mixed or ensemble casts than a female lead character.

Going by their plot summaries, the films which are about men are largely heroic – they overcome difficulty or dark forces to triumph.

Of course, the bigger picture includes what happens off-screen. Apart from a handful of exceptions, all the credited directors and writers are male.

Girl-power reboots and levelling up

The ‘cultural cancellation’ of male characters is controversial, but there are a couple of caveats to Fletcher’s selections.

The Ghostbusters reboot came out in 2016, with no equivalent in the top 20 films last year. The Equalizer as portrayed by Queen Latifah is a TV series rather than a cinema release. Denzel Washington played the character on the big screen in, essentially, a ‘reboot’ (Edward Woodward was Robert McCall in 1980s TV series).

And, at the time of publication, there’s no clue who the next James Bond will be, never mind what genitals they’ll have.

Female replacements are rare. Of course they are: women are still less visible in cinema and storytelling across the board (see the box office example above).

Male characters get the lion’s share of coverage and in largely positive roles. There’s also often greater scope: for instance, flawed fathers are still heroic, such as in Greenland and The Tomorrow War.

A bigger problem is the rigidity of on-screen storytelling regardless of gender. Men may be flawed, but they’re still expected to be heroic. This heroism can make them expendable: see Prometheus or, say, Armageddon. And there’s relatively little emotional range or exploration of mental health beyond extremes (see Joker).

The diversification of modern cinema is driven both by commodification and well meaning optimism: either way, it’s socially useful. But to say it’s at the cost of male role models on- and behind the screen doesn’t (yet) ring true. More to the point, neither does it change the way men are written into the movies – sometimes in equally dubious ways.

For films relevant to this discussion, see the tags /fathers and /masculinity.

Box office films correct at the time of first publication.

Picture credit: Ameer Basheer