I’m rewatching “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” from the beginning because A has never seen it. I notice new things every time I watch.
There’s a lot that doesn’t hold up, especially in the first couple of seasons. The fashion looks woefully out of date. The technology is laughably old. Dialogue about technology is stilted (and hysterical. “If the apocalypse comes, beep me.”) The special effects are silly and sometimes take you out of the action. There are also a lot of weird one-off episodes that have a few good lines but are overall pretty strange: “Teacher’s Pet”, “The Pack”, etc.
But for all of that, there is a lot that still resonates. A young woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders, misunderstood by her parents, and trying to fulfill a calling she doesn’t really understand. The stress of unrequited love, of finding yourself, of figuring out who you are meant to be in the world.
And then there’s the stuff I didn’t notice before: how entitled Zander is. How much of the “nice guy” who believes he’s being “friend zoned” he is. How messed up that is. How much of the masculinity throughout the entire series is really toxic. How even in a show that was touted as “feminist” and “empowering to women” there are still so many awful dudes. And yet, the way these men walk through life is considered “normal” or maybe even “above average.” We hold such low standards for men. We think that them being even the littlest bit sensitive means that they have avoided the toxicity of masculinity. When they still behave with the same mentality as every other man. They still demand emotional labor of their partners, they still leave everything around the house left undone, they still bottle up their emotions. They still get bent out of shape if they are bested in strength or skill by a woman. They still act as if the world revolves around them.
I want pop culture that holds men to a higher standard. No. More than that. I want pop culture that gives men the example of a higher standard without playing that example up for laughs (like so many sensitive men are. Who are also still problematic.)
Where are the men who, without being asked, spilt the household chores? Take care of their kids? Tend to the emotional labor of their spouse and the household? Where are the men who, without being told, know how and when to check in? Who disagree and fight with maturity and emotional intelligence? Who are willing to admit when they get it wrong? Who pursue their partners wholeness and fulfillment without being threatened? Who care about their partners sexual pleasure and work to fulfill it? Like, really, actually care about it and really actually work to fulfill it?
Where are the men who don’t make jokes at the expense of women? Who don’t engage in “boys will be boys” behavior? Who don’t move through the world feeling entitled to everything and everyone around them? Who don’t take up space in awful ways? Because even the men who are sensitive or mature still act like white, straight, cisgender men. They still talk more than they listen. They still take up a massive amount of space in every room and in every conversation. They still expect other people to do emotional labor for them.
And I wonder if part of the problem is there is no example for them. There is no one that people can point to to say, “Hey, be like that person.”
And maybe this is part of what art can do for us: give us examples to emulate. Give us a picture of what a new masculinity could be like.
Do I know amazing men? Absolutely. But they are the quiet ones, ones who aren’t well known. So they can’t quite be held up as examples because not enough people can watch their lives closely enough to emulate them.
So maybe we need more fictional men to emulate because our current models still aren’t cutting it (or are actively harmful).