Representation is weird, readers. Since some people that enjoy a level of privilege also contend with marginalization, it’s difficult to say where we need to get better in our media. Despite men enjoying incredible amounts of privilege, we still have the task of dismantling toxic masculinity. While we are slowly but surely destroying the “no homo, bro” narrative of friendship, I would like to see more well formed male friendships in media that actually explore friendship and aren’t just used as passive plot traits.
“But, Dom,” you’re probably thinking, “there are tons of stories about men and their friendships!” To that, I’d reply with a heavy “meh”. In most of the stories I see, male friendship tends to only be implied or told to us, rather than shown. For me, and some other viewers, we have to wonder what keeps these characters as friends throughout so much and if they are even friends in the first place. The Marvel Cinematic Universe, culminating in Captain America: Civil War, actually shows both good and bad examples of how to build and portray male friendships. Beginning in the first Captain America, the friendship between Steve and Bucky is clearly shown. For instance, Bucky comes to rescue Steve when he gets in fights, and Bucky tries to get Steve a date and reassures him that he can still do his part in the war without fighting. Steve and Bucky grew up together and always had each other’s backs to the point that Steve goes behind Nazi lines to get Bucky in defiance of direct orders. So by the time we see Bucky return, we can understand why Steve is so broken up, and why he is willing to go to such great lengths to protect him.
Contrast this with Steve’s fight(s) with Tony. Near the end of Civil War, Steve tells Tony, “but he [Bucky] is my friend,” to which Tony replies, “So was I.” But, other than the movie calling for it, those two don’t have much of a believable friendship. This moment is supposed to be an emotional gut punch for the audience. But after the hype from the movie dies down, you’re left wondering: when were Iron Man and Captain America ever friends in the movies? Based on what we see, their morals are in stark contrast. They both have different ideas on how teams should be run and their views on the world couldn’t be more different. As foils to each other, they’re amazing characters, but you hardly see them interact any friendlier than office coworkers. It seems like the closest Steve and Tony ever got to being friends was in the first Avengers when the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier was under attack, and they both nodded that it was time to work together. Despite this, we’re supposed to feel that it’s killing Tony on the inside to have to fight Steve. It makes the movie’s ending feel somewhat forced. We got that feeling when Steve fought Bucky in The Winter Soldier, but not so much here.
Another good example of a male friendship is Adventure Time with Finn and Jake, in that we see them constantly in each other’s company, we see their childhood, and we see them fight through ups and downs. When they have fights or betray each others’ trust, we see how much it hurts them, and we know why: their trust is established through dramatic events as well as fun ones. Jake shows support and guidance when Finn tries to go on dates and was there to comfort him when he lost his arm. Finn helped Jake with taking care of his children while they were still toddlers. Additionally, we see them comfort each other after traumatic experiences. In summary, we see their friendship rather than hear about it.
This is ultimately better than the “assumed friendship” style in media as well. I love the Sonic the Hedgehog franchise, but the main canon doesn’t do anything to explain why most of the characters are friends, specifically Sonic and Tails. We’re shown that they are loyal to each other, and by virtue of seeing them in many games, we can now say that they have a strong bond, rather than take the games’ word for it. But again, we don’t know why they’re close or what forged their bond in the first place to the point where they would go on a dangerous quest together. While this gap is less noticeable now, it does ultimately make the canon a little weaker.
Not only does this lack of well-formed male friendships hurt stories, I think it ultimately hurts the people it represents. As I stated at the top, there is a problem in our culture with toxic masculinity, and as with many things, art and life imitate and influence each other. When we have male friendships which only portray the most surface level hallmarks of a bond, it seems like that’s the most we can achieve, or that that’s all that we should expect. This eliminates expression, compassion, and closeness—traits that are very important to me. It hurts to feel like the only way men should interact is through sarcastic quips and jabs, rather than being close, like with Steve and Bucky or Finn and Jake.
Overall, I just want to see actual male relationships portrayed in media, rather than just husks of them. Again, this will create better stories, and possibly, better culture. Creators are constantly getting more skillful at telling better stories, and it is my hope that they create more visible and compassionate friendships.
Hear more from BrothaDom on Character Reveal, the podcast he cohosts with Lady Saika!