Dismantling Hollywood’s Myth of the Hapless Male

On the 19th of July, 2015, the Sunday Times culture magazine printed an article called ‘Armed And Dangerous,’ in which the writer, Mr. Bryan Appleyard, argued that our media has been inundated with stereotypical characters which he dubbed the ‘Fearsome Female’ and the ‘Hapless Male.’ I’ve already expressed my discontent with the Fearsome Female part of that dubious duo over here, so now let’s deconstruct her Hapless Male counterpart.

In my previous article, I spoke briefly about how Mr. Appleyard lulled me into a false sense of security by opening with some pretty legitimate points. He spoke about how men are often completely excluded from advertisements revolving around cleaning and child-rearing – and if they are included, it’s to demonstrate how ‘easy’ something is… “So easy, even a man can do it!” (Even though he wasn’t born with those genes which grant him a predisposition to housework, right ladies?) However, Mr. Appleyard doesn’t consider this depiction of men to be reasonable. In fact, Mr. Appleyard considers this to be the height of misandry.

Yes, ‘misandry.’

Homer Simpson - HeadStuff.org
Homer Simpson

Recently, Pierre Coffin – the director of Despicable Me, and creator of the Minions – was asked why none of his unholy yellow spawns of Satan are female. He replied that on “…seeing how dumb and stupid they often are, I just couldn’t imagine Minions being girls.” This plays into that boring trend that we’ve been seeing in movies and on television since the dawn of time – that the boy is always the lovable idiot whose wacky adventures form the plot, and the girl is the frustrated sensible one, who has to clean up his mess. Just look at Family Guy, or The Simpsons.  The married couple is always made up of the lazy, slapstick slob of a husband, and his exasperated, competent and inexplicably attractive (house) wife, who quietly cleans up after his crazy antics. And of course she does! Because as soon as she opens her mouth to suggest he might take on half the load, she’s labelled a nag – a characteristic that has even been assigned sound effects in our most popular cartoons. Just think of Marge’s frustrated grumble, or Lois’s high pitched, nasal ‘Pedah!’

The maxim “boys will be boys” has been drilled into our subconscious, and means that the characters who act wildly and get into any zany kinds of trouble are almost always men. When Mr. Appleyard cries misandry and argues about harmful stereotyping, he fails to realise that those wacky, funny simpleton characters are glorified. Yes, we laugh at them, but we love them too. Of the Hapless Male stereotype, he writes:

The most extreme expression of this were the three Hangover movies, in which alcoholic brotherhood, abject social failure, and suicidal irresponsibility were seen as primary sexual characteristics of the human male, who can only be saved from his impulsive wreck by the strict social necessities imposed by women.”

And who, may I ask, were the more entertaining and memorable characters in those films?

Alan - HeadStuff.org
Zach Galifianakis as ‘Alan’ in The Hangover

These stereotypes don’t teach the world that men and boys are stupid – they teach the world that they get to be stupid. Girls are told “that’s not very ladylike,” while rambunctious behaviour by boys is ignored, simply because “boys will be boys!” The stereotype enforces the idea that only men are impulsive, stupid and funny, while it’s a woman’s role – nay, responsibility – to keep them in line and to make sure they stay out of trouble. Typically, whenever these two character archetypes interact, the mature, intelligent, sensible girl is always there to ruin the crazy, lovable, inventive boy’s fun. Either that, or the harried housewife silently grows ulcers as she cleans up the aftermath of whatever wacky mess her husband got himself into this week.

Do you think women enjoy being portrayed as the killjoys, the sensible figures, the mother stand-ins who sit at home and anxiously watch the clock while their male counterparts are out having adventures? Films like The Hangover do not make me sit back, cross my arms and nod smugly. Films like The Hangover make me think “this reminds me of that time I drank that whole bottle of tea flavoured tequila with my friend at a house party and she blacked out in the middle of trying to steal a car from those people next door. I wish someone would make a movie like that.” Because, believe it or not, the capacity to be a total shit-show is not confined to any one gender. [pullquote]Believe it or not, the capacity to be a total shit-show is not confined to any one gender.[/pullquote]

Thankfully, the trend of having the female character wear the killjoy mantle is slowly changing, as movies like Pitch Perfect, Bridesmaids and The Heat are finally reflecting what most of the world has known for a very long time – women are bloody hilarious.

Mr. Appleyard has written an entire article arguing that Fearsome Female characters are showing up their Hapless Male counterparts, but fails to provide examples. At least, not as far as I can see. Katniss, Black Widow, Brienne… Where are their bumbling slobs? Are we to consider The Hunger Games’ Peeta to be a ‘hapless male?’ Why? Because he doesn’t grab Katniss’s bow and go charging off to save the day? Peeta is an incredibly positive male character who demonstrates that it’s not ‘weak’ to accede to a woman’s leadership skills, and that it’s okay for boys to like things like baking. Is Game Of Thrones’ Jaime Lannister meant to be Brienne’s hapless male? That is a laughable simplification of the depth and development of their characters. Then there are the male Avengers, whose existence alone should demonstrate that all men in film have not turned into Peter Griffin. But no, that’s still not enough for Mr. Appleyard.

Peter Griffin - HeadStuff.org
Peter Griffin

His article does actually touch on some serious subjects that are very real issues in our society. I’ve already mentioned the horrible tendency of advertising companies to assume that men are completely hapless when it comes to the ‘womanly’ task of child rearing and housework, and their portrayal of women as the patiently exasperated keepers of incompetent men. And although it’s not directly attributed to the problems described in this article, toxic masculinity is a huge source of stress and psychological damage for men of all ages.

However, while I understand Mr. Appleyard’s argument about his so-called Hapless Male character, I disagree completely with what he perceives to be its result. Men are not considered less competent in the workplace because they’re shown to be party animals in a film, but women are considered to be less suitable for political roles because crappy, narrow portrayal in films and television leads patriarchal society believe we are ‘too emotional.’ [pullquote]Men are not considered less competent in the workplace because they’re shown to be party animals in a film, but women are considered to be less suitable for political roles because films and television suggests we are ‘too emotional.’[/pullquote] Men are considered to be the funny, wacky, adventure-having gender, the successful company owners, the billionaires and wealthy entrepreneurs, because there are so many varied, well-written male characters leading a whole plethora of different types of films. If Mr. Appleyard finds the Hangover films distasteful, that’s fine. He can just go watch one of the other literal hundreds of male-centred movies out there. A whole generation, on the other hand, found the Hangover films to be hilarious adventures, to be watched over and over, and quoted endlessly.

And guess what? No girls allowed.


Images via glaad.org