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Heroes, Villains & Disposable Men (AKA 5 Reasons Male Characterisation Needs An Overhaul Too)


On Male Characterisation

It’s not fashionable or cool to talk about male characterisation … but then when Bang2write started, it wasn’t cool to talk female protagonists either. Look what’s happened since!!!

Critique of any kind is very important in challenging the status quo. However we are SO focused on female characters I fear we are in danger of two things …

i) Putting undue pressures and expectations on individual films, characters and their makers/writers

Commentators love to wax lyrical about supposed “empowerment”. Yet a single work cannot stand for ALL women or undo decades of BS. As I’m fond of saying, we need cumulative build up!


ii) Nothing happens in a vacuum: we need BOTH, not either/or!

This is not me saying “But what about the menz??” AS IF! However, I honestly don’t see how female characterisation can improve or even draw level without putting male characterisation under the microscope as well. If we don’t, we just end up treating the symptoms and not the root cause.

For me, it comes down to this: better characterisation across the board helps everyone!

Yet many writers and commentators will blithely tell me male characterisation is “fine”. NEWSFLASH: it’s not fine and for reasons just as complicated as female characterisation.

I could go on about this all day based on a lifetime of consuming media products and reading a gazillion produced and spec scripts. I’ve limited myself to just 5 points so I hope you’re happy! Here goes …

1) The notion of characterisation and “worth” is too narrowly defined via male characterisation

Okay, let’s get this out the way, which got posted on the Bang2writers Facebook page:


NEWSFLASH: Male Characterisation is idealised every bit as much as female characterisation!

Whether a tongue-in-cheek jibe or outraged anti-feminist “statement”, the image above does a pretty solid job. Many critiques simply do not take into account the difficult job of raising girls AND boys, especially in the digital age.

(Do note: I’m principally talking about parenting here and so-called “impressionable minds”. Top author Chuck Wendig does a much better job than I ever could on examining objectification and the privileges of what he calls “Heteronormative White Dudes”, which you can see here).

The argument for decades has been that young girls are being short-changed and even “assaulted” by a plethora of conflicting messages that denigrate their bodies and self-esteem. I know it had a massive effect on me growing up, even “before” the internet.

As a parent however, I find it simply nonsensical to suggest girls are the ONLY intended recipients and/or ones affected by this neverending deluge of shit.

Even if we accept the (frankly flawed) assumptions that boys are …

  • somehow more able to deal with these messages
  • or that there are “less” harmful messages for boys
  • or even that there are as many “positive” representations to counterbalance the negative ones

Then we’re STILL not figuring in personality, interpretation, lived experiences and/or worldview.

When I ask people about male characterisation and their favourites, many will say they love a particular superhero. It’s true that Ironman, Spiderman, Thor or Wolverine IS generally accepted as a “positive” representation of supposed “manliness” within the context of a *fun* story … but those characters STILL have the ability to make an individual boy feel like crap about his own body and affect his self-esteem. Why?

Because male characters, especially so-called Heroes and Superheroes, are too often idealised as tall, strong types. They rescue, they save the world. They’re often highly sexualised and/or desirable, always straight and nearly always white. They may be clever or they may be eccentric, funny or a bit vacant, but they are always exceptional. In. Every. Way.

Let me say that again: EXCEPTIONAL!!

And there’s simply too much exceptional male characterisation. We’re absolutely overloaded with them! Diversity is a huge issue, even BEFORE we look at the more complicated things like race and gender.

But as ALL parents know, young people are not simply passive creatures that suck up everything presented to them. If they did, educating and indeed just relating to them would be a whole lot easier!

So **obviously** it’s not a case of teens and children simply being swayed like lemmings in negative – or even positive – ways by the “big, bad media” either.

Whilst teens in particular can seem seemingly unbearably harsh (especially on their peers or elders), lots of young people are critical thinkers. Many are able to deconstruct media images in ways adults can only dream of, too. This generation is probably the most media literate yet. So I would never patronise teenagers and children by assuming they have no moral compass (or even common sense).

But it’s not difficult to see why so many parents worry so much about this issue. Decades of research has proven that a neverending deluge of crappy media imagery DOES have an effect on young peoples’ sense of self-esteem. All of us may  internalise harmful messages. These messages may include “you must be thin to be loved” or “physical strength = worthiness”. As nasty Goebels said, “Tell a lie often enough and people will believe it”!


2) Male characters in antagonist or secondary role functions are too often simply evil, weak and/or two-dimensional

Character role function is an important part of any story. If a character does not have a specific job to do, then that character is surplus to requirements and must be cut. Not hard to grasp.

What becomes problematic then is when the SAME *types* of characters perform those role functions, over and over. And just like My 5 Top Female Stereotypes, there are male stereotypes that make me gnash my teeth too. These are especially obvious in antagonist and secondary roles, such as …

  1. Comic Book Villain. Comic Book Villain is “larger than life” and not in a good way. He monologues his motives; molests the heroine while she is tied up; plus he is usually very flamboyant, laughing evilly A LOT.
  2. Psycho Villain. This guy’s plan/mission has no sense whatsoever, but don’t worry about it. He’s DANGEROUS, innit.
  3. Bad Husband/Father. BHF may be weak and quiet, hardly playing any part in the story; or he may be abusive, beating his children and wife. When he’s not doing that, he’s passed out drunk.
  4. Bad Teacher/Lecturer. So our hero has a male teacher or lecturer who didn’t do all the training in order to help educate young people, but to humiliate them. And he’s never been discovered or Ofstedded? Riiiight.
  5. Cop By The Book. Don’t you just hate it when you’re a protagonist in a movie and have some kind of mission and then you run into one of these guys?

That’s just the start. I could be here all day, seriously.

Fact is, whether male or female, adult or child? There ARE stock characters that writers need to get rid of, STAT!!!


3) Lesser secondary & peripheral male characters are too often “disposable”

Our tolerance for violence, gore and mayhem has increased over the years. Current movies may attract 12A or PG13 ratings that would have garnered 15s or even 18s/Rs a couple of decades ago.

Interestingly, our tolerance for seeing “real” people die has not. As a result, the people put in the story simply to die in various colourful ways, are often NOT a cross-section of society. Instead, they are most often white males of between 25 and 40 years old. This is in contrast to old men, black/Asian men or women and children of ANY age.

Not noticed? Check out pretty much any disaster movie of the last twenty years or so!

As volcanos spew lava all over the place, or hurricanes and earthquakes sweep through towns or alien lasers blast everything in their path, generally speaking it will be white men of 25-40 years who are “disposable” like this, put in the story simply to DIE.

I find this really intriguing, what is behind it? Perhaps it’s just a case of there being more white stunt actors of this age group going for auditions.

If it’s not, what’s the movie industry saying here, if anything? The cynical might say that it’s because of institutional racism, but I wonder the opposite … ie. killing off swathes of people from different ethnic minorities could be seen as “racist”, so Hollywood is practicing “safe politics” and killing off the non-marginalised only, consciously or subconsciously?

Note the “disposable” male character is subtly different to the Expendable Hero, a well-liked character who sacrifices himself for his friends in the plot.

This is never more noticeable than in the Action/Adventure and Horror genres: famous examples of Expendable Heroes include Eddie in JURASSIC PARK: THE LOST WORLD; Carlos in RESIDENT EVIL: EXTINCTION and probably most of the men in the entire ALIEN franchise.

I would wager the Expendable Hero is a largely positive representation. The audience is literally HOWLING at his demise (and wish he *could* have survived). He may even be their favourite character.

In comparison, the disposable male is forgettable. He is just yet another number in the body count. This may occur EVEN IF he had a name and history. This in turn underscores the notion that we can just throw men into the jaws of the beast or the horrors of war because there’s “plenty more where that came from”.


4) Male characters too often depend on female characters to change them and/or appeal to their better nature

Perhaps most striking, or maybe noticeable on a daily basis: regardless of what role a male character performs, whether as part of the main cast or not, is the idea male characters are apparently completely incapable of emotional literacy.

A lot is made in feminist critique of the notion female characters are simply *there* as an emotional facilitator for men and rightly so.

As a female member of the audience myself, it becomes especially wearing to see female characters used as a crutch in this way.  They exist to “break open” those mythical “man feelings” that apparently are SO DIFFICULT for them to get in touch with. At best it’s dull and at worst, stereotypical. Le Yawn.

But let’s flip the script (we can do that, we are writers after all)

Yes, it’s offensive to make female characters accessories to male stories … but isn’t it just as insulting that male characters are so emotionally illiterate they need their feelings  shown to them by women oh so much wiser than them?

No? Well, whatever we wimminz think, it hardly helps build great male characterisation. And not only that, it perpetuates unhelpful stereotypes and potentially even damages real-life relationships:

“He doesn’t get it, he’s just a man.”

Ever said THAT, ladies? Because I have heard this from women my whole life.

How about this: ever felt disgusted or even just a teensy bit uncomfortable when you see a man cry, even for a good reason?

Ever imagine YOU’RE the only one who can “rescue” or even NOTICE a situation that involves matters of the heart?

As noted on point 1, we’re ALL products of our environment. If little girls “can’t see it, they can’t be it” is the classic battle cry. But equally, see something TOO MUCH and you may start believing in it, too.

So if men are NOT supposed to be …

  • emotional beings
  • if men are not ever supposed to cry or be thought of as “weak”
  • if women believe they are the only ones “capable” of saving marriages or relationships
  • Then what are we ALL going to get? Another neverending river of shit, basically.

Yes, yes of course people are capable of independent thought. None of us accept everything thrown at us passively.

But we may and frequently DO internalise harmful messages that affect our SELF ESTEEM, male or female … and when those damaged psyches come together? BOOM! As demonstrated in the amazing BLUE VALENTINE …


What’s particularly refreshing about the characterisation of Dean and Cindy in this movie is one thing …

They’re BOTH RIGHT and they’re BOTH WRONG

Yes, Dean is a bit of a waster … but yes, Cindy is a martyr.

Equally, Dean’s behaviour in the story is at times foul, but then so is Cindy’s.

Neither comes out of the situation smelling of roses. Bit like most of us in relationship breakdowns, then (that do not involve blame-worthy behaviour like abuse, naturally).

My point: a lesser writer than Cianfrance would have made the breakdown of the relationship in BLUE VALENTINE one of their faults for a specific reason … an infidelity, perhaps.

An even worse writer than that? Would have made one of the two RIGHT for feeling the way s/he does … and in the spec pile (and much produced content), 9/10 that character would be the FEMALE in that relationship.

Because, y’know: MEN SUCK at the emotional stuff! (Sigh).

Look, I get it, okay …

Traditionally, men are “supposed” to not like or be able to “do” the mushy stuff and some men in real life even go so far as to hide behind society’s assumption on this, because it’s just “easier” that way. But then again, so do a lot of women. I recall, back when I was very young and immature, assuming lesbians must have GREAT relationships as a matter of course, ‘cos they both “get it” on an emotional level, by virtue of both being female (bless). Then I started to actually meet and know lesbian couples … and discovered that actually, most of them had exactly the same problems as male/female couples! (Well, durr: we’re all HUMAN).

So to round off this section …

Complaining about female characters being the facilitator of the male characters’ emotions is not going to cut it if you want anything to actually change.

Critique needs to go beyond such two-dimensional approaches ITSELF. We need to appreciate that EVERYONE is being short-changed here! As noted in point 1, a glut of something is just as problematic as a dearth!

As I’m always fond of saying: we need BALANCE.


5) The audience is asked to invest in The Great White Hope too often … as well as the fact he is a man

If there’s one thing that drives me batshit crazy about male characterisation, it’s the notion of The Great White Hope.

You know the one: The Chosen One Who Will Save Us All *for some reason*. He’s nearly always a white male protagonist. He’s also most often aged between about 10 and 40.

The Great White Hope appears to be a problem particularly in the Science Fiction genre. Not noticed?

I haven’t seen ENDER’S GAME yet … but it would seem only white boys get into the space academy (if any of the pics I’ve seen so far are to believed!).

Also: check out this list of DVD pics. Generally speaking, you’re more likely to see a MONSTER, ROBOT or SHADOW before you see a woman on a SF DVD cover or poster.

But just as importantly, you’re more likely to see ALL of the above before you see someone from a different ethnic minority. Pretty sobering stuff.

But how to tackle this?

Well, unlike the plethora of conversation dedicated to female representation in film of all genres, there is somewhat of a reticence to tackle diversity at all by writers and filmmakers. It’s worth remembering many people of colour say it “shouldn’t matter” what race a character is, too. There are NO easy answers.

But here’s why it matters: that list of DVD covers again.

Where’s the diversity? Something needs to be done to PROVIDE it! Hoping for the best casting-wise is NOT working out for whatever reason.

I think I can safely say the majority of us want better representation for people of ethnic minorities of either gender on screen (and those who don’t, can frankly jump their intolerant arses off a cliff).

So is it really such a hardship to stipulate race in a screenplay? After all, if we choose GENDER without thought for the story (and why shouldn’t we … no one with half a brain is going to insist female protagonists must do “FEMALE THINGS ONLY”), then why not race?

For me, it really comes down to this, from the superb Sally Abbott:



Look at your male characterisation …. Hell, look at ALL your characters in your story. Now think about your MOTIVES for writing them the way they are. Is there anything you can change, twist or borrow so they’re not “the usual”?

Bet you can.

Good Luck with your own male characterisation!

Did you know … B2W’s book, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays is TEN YEARS OLD in 2023!

To commemorate this occasion, I have revisited book and updated it for its anniversary.

I’ve added a whopping extra 100 pages!! This includes new case studies, plus information on television pilots as well as movie screenplays. Here’s the blurb:

Writing and Selling Thriller Screenplays has the lowdown on how to get your thriller feature script on to the page, and how to get it in front of producers and investors.

“First published in 2013, this new edition offers an all-new resources section and a host of new case studies that map the considerable changes of the past decade.

With marketplace disruptors such as Netflix and the first phases of The Marvel Cinematic Universe leaving their mark, new opportunities have been created for screenwriters and filmmakers who are keen to get their stories in front of industry professionals.

This time around, Lucy V Hay doesn’t just guide you through the writing of movies, but spec TV pilots too. Putting iconic, mixed-genre projects under the microscope – such as Stranger Things (horror thriller), Brooklyn 99 (comedy thriller) and Lost (sci fi thriller) – she considers what writers can learn from these shows.

She also argues that the lone protagonist in a thriller has had its day and looks at how the genre is moving into a space beyond ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Case studies to support this include The Hunger Games, Captain Marvel, Iron Man and many more.

Finally, the book considers how the screenplay might be sold to investors, exploring high concept ideas, pitching, packaging and the realities of film finance – all updated for the 2020s – and lays out alternative routes to sales and production, including transmedia such as novels and adaptation, and immersive storytelling online.” BUY IT HERE.

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2 thoughts on “Heroes, Villains & Disposable Men (AKA 5 Reasons Male Characterisation Needs An Overhaul Too)”

  1. Sincere thanks for writing this article!

    Not specifically because it discusses the gender I belong to, but because it takes an interesting, fair and equitable look at societal injustices that I would be reluctant to discuss due to the shape of my genitals.

    I love that gender equality is catching up (albeit far too slowly), and I love the wonderful things the feminists of the internet have united in standing up for, but I think there are a lot of one-way streets. Women are oppressed way harder than men, but we’re treated terribly by the media in a whole lot of similar ways that it’s become a real taboo to discuss, so it’s nice to see the other lane opened up once in a while.

    1. You’re welcome, I feel exactly the same: it frustrates me to see ANY kind of dismissal of people’s very relevant concerns. I am the mother of a son and I know I worry about how patriarchy affects him just as much as my daughters. Media images can be totally toxic and hegemonic and aren’t good for ANY of us. Fail one gender, we fail them both as far as I’m concerned so as you say it works both ways and we can have some really useful, relevant discussions 🙂

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