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You know this movie: The conflicted hero consumed with rage, constantly battling the temptation to give into his darkest instincts; a community that expects him to conform to its standards, which he finds unfair and unnecessary. To stave off these pressures, he attempts to exert control over everything and everyone in his life. He becomes his own worst enemy.
Also, his entire life began as someone’s hand-drawn illustration.
If the thematic arc I’ve described sounds familiar, that’s because a surfeit of animated children’s films in the last year and beyond — from the How to Train Your Dragon trilogy to newly minted Oscar winner Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse — have centered around dynamic male characters learning, through difficult trials, to understand the power they wield, and thus the importance of wielding it with wisdom and clarity. Of course, this is one of the oldest plots in the hero’s cycle. (King Arthur, anyone?)
But recently, cartoon feature after cartoon feature has used this monomythic journey to openly and deliberately critique gender norms, and in doing so, gut toxic masculinity right through its tarry black heart.
To be clear, masculinity is a wonderful thing (and men are not monolith). What defines “toxic” masculinity, however, is the pervasive idea that manliness can only be signaled through narrow means: status, brute force, aggression and virility (traits that aren’t inherently evil but require balance). By these norms, emotion, vulnerability and compassion are seen as weaknesses. This restrictive code of manhood may be self-destructive, as boys and men who are taught to subscribe to a singular vision of machismo often end up repressing their feelings to maintain a facade of strength and imperviousness. This can be as simple as a little boy refusing to see a movie like Frozen because it’s “girly” or as complex as a grown man resorting to systemic abuse or violence to claim power. (Since we’re essentializing gender here, yes, femmes can exhibit stereotypical poisonous behavior, too — films like Mean Girls and My Best Friend’s Wedding have called us out for engaging in stealth emotional terrorism.)
How to Train Your Dragon 3: The Hidden World debuted at number 1 this past weekend, earning $58 million dollars at the box office. The trilogy chronicles the evolution of Hiccup, a skinny, gentle Viking whose people see him as worthless until he uses his empathy and ingenuity to broker peace between their village and their dragon enemies. In each of the films he further develops as a sagacious ruler, bringing new definitions of what it means to be chieftain to a culture that values traditional masculinity. Men learning to become leaders is a pretty standard character arc, but several animated pictures within the last year have pushed this transformation, directly challenging and rejecting our particular modern-day paradigms for toxic masculinity.
As I sat in the movie theater watching The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, I felt deja vu wash over me witnessing doughy, kind-hearted Lego figurine Emmet (Chris Pratt) struggle with hardened Rex Dangervest (also Pratt), a time-warped version of himself who desiccated into a chiseled and self-centered rake following tragedy (an amusing nod to Pratt’s own brand transformation from nice guy everyman to action maverick). Emmet befriends Rex, spending the film absorbing his new bro’s tough-guy persona hoping to impress fierce Cool Girl Lucy (Elizabeth Banks). Soon, he learns the ultra-feminine “aliens” attacking his community were friendly all along and that the real enemy is Rex’s ruthless narcissism. But wait, hadn’t I just watched a post-modern animated flick where the lovable hero realizes he was the abusive villain all along?
Yes! Ralph Breaks the Internet, the delightful sequel to 2012’s Wreck-It-Ralph, finds gentle-giant video game character Ralph (John C. Reilly) becoming entangled in his own wrath and insecurities at the prospect of his BFF Vanellope (Sarah Silverman) transferring out of their arcade system to join a challenging new web game (the equivalent of your best friend moving away to college while you get left behind in your hometown). The more the squeaky little race car driver dreams about mature car-thieving game Slaughter Race, the more fearful Ralph tries to take control over the situation, scheming to trick and manipulate Vanellope to force her to stay with him forever. The internal monsters he faces become externalized when a virus clones his flaws and these clingy and possessive mini-Ralphs form a Goliath that threatens to destroy the entire Internet. Only when he confesses his true feelings and accepts his friend’s need to grow do his (literal) demons relent.
These post-modern and zeitgeisty films aren’t exactly subtle in their lessons, but each refreshingly revisits how our culture interprets “good guys” versus “bad guys.” And they’re far from the only films released within the last year to question the false equivalence between personal strength and bullish behavior. In Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (which shares a screenwriting team with two of the Lego films), teenage Miles Morales not only learns what it means to be Spider-Man, but what it means to be a man at all. He must contend with a self-interested and self-pitying mentor in Peter B. Parker, a sulky Spider-Man with Peter Pan Syndrome and commitment issues. Miles also has to meet his police officer father’s expectations while reconciling his love and admiration for a violent uncle who isn’t the man he appears to be. And he must battle a criminal facing his own toxic masculinity, Kingpin, a vicious mob boss who literally tears reality apart because he can’t accept the accidental deaths of his wife and son (a far cry from the usual McGuffin of, say, world domination).
Spider-Verse and Ralph‘s fellow Oscar nominees The Incredibles 2 and Mirai each question gender roles in the home. In the sequel to 2004’s Pixar classic, Mr. Incredible becomes a stay-at-home-dad when his wife, Elastigirl, goes back to work as a superhero, offsetting tropes about buffoonish dads who play Mr. Mom and harried supermoms who try to be valedictorian of the office and at home. GKIDS’ fantasy Japanese anime Mirai centers on a family in crisis when a new baby daughter enters the home and threatens their stability — at least, in the mind of four-year-old hero, Kun, who has trouble accepting his new sister. Kun, like any small child, whines and lashes out at his parents. But his parents’ own struggle with domestic responsibility adds a fascinating layer to the story, his mother pushing his father on why he didn’t help out more when Kun was born and why other people give him extra credit for doing the tasks she’s expected to do by default. (Even snarky The Lego Batman Movie finds brooding Batman confronting his traumas in order to become a father figure to young Robin.)
Why this genre and why now? Combating versions of toxic masculinity has always been part of the Disney playbook, Pinocchio being the OG blockhead who must develop the interpersonal skills to become a real boy. Remember Pleasure Island, that hilariously terrifying fantasy land where little boys – and only little boys! — smoke, drink, start their own fight clubs and then transmogrify into donkeys to get human trafficked to work in salt mines? Or how about arrogant, swaggering Simba shrugging off his responsibilities as king until he finds the inner mojo to defeat his tyrannical uncle Scar? Even DreamWorks’ grouchy Shrek had to drop the ‘tude and let the love in.
But as our political climate shifts, so do the values we want to instill in our children. There’s no question the adults behind these films, like the rest of us, simultaneously experience a world where #MeToo has revolutionized the way survivors discuss abuse and also where masses of voters across the globe have turned to strongmen leaders for direction. Children’s film producers have baked social-emotional development into their story arcs for decades. But this recent crop shows that the swiftly shifting tectonic plates of how our society interprets gender has galvanized a fierce response from the folks in charge of entertaining our kids. In the meantime, I’m going to figure out how to infiltrate Pleasure Island.
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