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In search of a new male hero archetype

Joevarian Hudiyana
Joevarian Hudiyana

PhD student at the University of Indonesia's School of Psychology

Jakarta  /  Thu, October 19, 2017  /  02:06 pm
In search of a new male hero archetype

What kind of image pops into your mind hearing the word 'hero'? Most likely, strong male figures with a muscular physique. (Shutterstock/File)

Why is it that, as a culture, we are more comfortable seeing two men holding guns than holding hands?” – Ernest Gaines

Try to recall the movies you’ve watched. In those movies, is it more frequent that you see men with weapons in their arms, punching, kicking, as well as killing other people compared to men who express their feelings, crying out their weaknesses and showing empathy to others?

The answer is rather obvious since the first type of male is the dominant male archetype.

An archetype is the prototypical image of certain figures popularized by our society. For instance, think about the word “hero.” What kind of image pops into your mind? Most probably, a strong male figure with a muscular physique. Superman, perhaps?

Since our childhood, we have been hardwired to think that the ideal male heroes are bold figures, such as James Bond, Indiana Jones, Hulk or Captain Kirk. All share similar traits: extremely masculine, possess no fear, never cries and has some prized muscled strength.

Conversely, a tender, affectionate, empathetic and compassionate male figure might strike you as the unpopular image of a man. More often, the latter figures were depicted in the media not as heroes, but as supporting characters with less significance than the main protagonists. Some examples include John Watson and Robin, sidekicks to cold, brainy Sherlock Holmes and the bold, fearless Batman, respectively.

Such dominant male hero archetypes can be dangerous to the self-image of men and for our society.

According to Hannah Arendt in The Banality of Evil, crimes and violence were not born out of the will of the perpetrators, rather because crime is considered as commonplace in society. When our society is more comfortable with men in a violent manner, we habituate men to behave that way. In other words, violence is not always rooted in malicious intent, but societal norms that say it is okay for men to be aggressive.

Is the strong warrior archetype still relevant?

The demand that men should be strong and aggressive was an evolutionary creation. There was a time when men were in charge of hunting food for their families, while women guarded the caves and their children. In this dichotomous division of responsibility, men must be the strong warrior or they might die.

But is such a narrative still relevant?

Certainly, today’s men do not have to kill or show aggression toward anyone to survive. While war arguably persists now, it is much rarer and is fought in a different way – a simple click of a button can be more deadly than hand-to-hand combat.

Another trait of the strong warrior archetype is never being afraid or sad. Without showing such emotions, these men are unable to seek help. It is common for men who express their weaknesses to be judged with derogatory remarks such as banci (effeminate) or bukan lelaki sejati (not a real man).

These expectations and judgments might cause men to bury their feelings. Unfortunately, some men channel these feelings through another, more destructive but acceptable form: violence. It is not rare for boys or men to verbally mock or bully each other rather than honestly show their feelings. Unsurprisingly, 94.5 percent of the Indonesian prison population is male, according to World Prison Brief. Unsurprisingly either, the suicide rate for men is much higher compared to women despite the former being less prevalent to depression.

Constructing the alternative

Since the strong warrior archetype is outdated, what kind of male archetype do we need in the current context?

The United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDG) made it clear that global equality is now more important than ever. Thus, we need men who possess the caring and empathic disposition to better understand societal problems such as poverty, oppression, discrimination and environmental damage. They need to understand that others are being treated miserably.

For that, men should develop what moral psychologist Carol Gilligan termed “caring ethics.” Men with caring ethics are sensitive toward others’ suffering and can exert empathy toward the injustices experienced by various groups.

To develop such an archetype might not be easy. Ever since childhood, men are exposed to a myriad of aggressive heroic figures in the media. From the Avengers and Superman to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and John Wick, men are dictated toward the strong warrior archetype. Consequently, it is difficult to seek the counter stereotypical male heroes.

That does not mean there are none. J.K. Rowling’s Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them provides a new kind of heroic figure in Newt Scamander. He is quite sensitive toward the sufferings of powerless animals, he exhibits unconditional affection toward others, his heart is gentle and kind and he has no interest in power or dominance; he only wants others to be happy.

Newt Scamander is not alone. Several overshadowed heroic figures have been depicted in our pop culture. Nobita from Doraemon portrays a meek, helpless and warm-hearted young boy who often tries his best to help people. Po from the Kung Fu Panda movies shows that it is okay for a main hero to be clumsy, fat and innocent while showing the virtues of kindness. There is also Semar, an ancient Javanese deity who is humorous, very humble and compassionate toward those who suffer.

These kinds of heroic figures are what our society should popularize. Boys will learn that to be a man does not mean being relentlessly strong and fierce. It is okay for boys to feel helpless, weak, or afraid at times. They will also learn that it is not okay to hurt others. Rather, they should care about others. These boys will grow into men who are not afraid to show love. They will help the world solve the current problems of inequality. (dev/kes)


Joevarian Hudiyana is a PhD student at the University of Indonesia's School of Psychology. He is also head of the research division at the Into the Light Indonesia. 

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