The Sword And The Distaff

In my last post, I was talking about The Hunger Games, which got me thinking about the role of Peeta within the action, and the strange feminisation that afflicts male love interests in female-led action movies.

Of course, male love interests in anything other than a rom-com are a rarity, simply because female leads are so rare, so our scientific sample will be rather small. I’d love to be able to throw in some male-on-male relationships in action movies as a control group, but since gay lead characters are only ”allowed” in movies about how traumatic it is to be gay (and there’s a whole other blog post in that!), I guess we’ll have to do without…

So, let’s start by defining the trope, with Peeta in The Hunger Games. In what ways does he falls into traditional ”feminine” behaviour patterns?

First off, he’s largely powerless.  He’s forced to compete in the Games, whereas Katniss volunteers – to save her sister, yes, but that makes her sacrifice more heroic, not less. He’s an underdog, jeered at by other competitors in training. Unlike Katniss, he has no special skills or training, just his brute strength (which, strangely, is rarely utilised during the action). Katniss has to push him to show his strength and stop the others viewing him as a victim.  We could make a good case for him having longterm low self-esteem (flashbacks suggest he’s bullied and dominated by his mother).

He’s emotionally vulnerable.  He makes a public declaration of love for Katniss which she doesn’t explicitly return, traditionally the role of the female character – think ”I love you,”   ”I know,”  in  The Empire Strikes Back…

Once they’re in the game arena, Peeta accepts protection from a group of stronger, better trained (and mostly male) competitors, under the leadership of the Nemesis, Cato, a traditional alpha male.  The price for this seems to be agreeing to betray Katniss, though he makes efforts to steer them away from her, and gets them to wait her out rather than attacking at once, which ultimately enables her to escape.

Finally Katniss finds him, wounded and using his artistic skills to hide (a passive strategy, and the fact that he learned his skills decorating cakes only reinforces the feminine role he’s being pushed into). It’s down to her to nurse him, risk her life for the the medicine he needs, and ultimately save him from the (ultimately rather tragic) alpha male Cato.

Underworld, another female-led action movie, follows similar strategies, making its werewolf love interest entirely dependent on its female vampire protagonist for protection, exposition, and moral direction.  The Terminator begins with Sarah Connor dependant upon Kyle Reese for survival and emotional support, but as Sarah grows into her role as mother-protector, and particularly once Reese is wounded, he effectively loses his power to highlight the fact that she is gaining hers.  Perfectly acceptable dramatic strategy, particularly if you look at them as Hero and Mentor as well as Hero and Attractor, but still interesting in the context of male love interests.

So what’s going on here?  Why is what Peeta is doing reading as ‘female’ behaviour?

Isn’t it actually unintended social conditioning?  We’ve all watched so many films over the years where women have needed nurturing, rescue, moral guidance and affirmation from a strong male hero that we’ve come to associate that social role entirely with women. So when we see a male character expressing vulnerability and need to a protective, dominant female character, we find ourselves surprised at their ”feminine” behaviour.

What can we do about this?  Should we feel compelled do anything about this? After all, the action movie is all about risk, gains and losses. Someone needs to be in danger, someone needs to rescue. Someone has to express weakness so that someone else can express strength, right?

Fine. But can’t we share the burden more equally between the genders?  In the end, isn’t it a question of making both your hero and your attractor well-rounded characters who both contribute in different but equal ways?

There are films that do rather better at depicting a female hero and a male love interest as equals. Haywire, for example. The first time we see the love interest, before we’re even aware of their relationship, Gina Caruso is kicking seven bells out of him, but he fights back competently, and once we’re into the flashbacks, it becomes clear that he’s a valuable operative with the capacity to make his own decisions (even if he is a little easily led).  So it’s perfectly possible to create a male love interest who’s the equal of a female action hero –  and indeed, a female love interest who’s the equal of your male action hero!

Go ye and do likewise!

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