|Seeing a neuro-atypical hero who resembles yourself is jarring.
Seeing one that defies toxic masculine stereotypes is thrilling,
bad probably for business. People prefer reductive stereotypes.
Throughout my life I’ve been kindly described by friends and family as ‘marching to the beat of a different drummer’. In less supportive circumstances I’ve met people who take an immediate and intense dislike to that difference. When I was younger this often involved a gathering of like minded people and me getting a beating. It persists into adulthood and frustrates many of my attempts at socializing.
As an adolescent I tried to harness the anger I was feeling in those beatings and express it physically but just couldn’t. The thought of hurting someone else while I was in a rage was something I couldn’t bring myself to do. I recall several instances when a part of me was impassionately observing my assailants. The look of sheer, savage joy on their faces was utterly foreign to me; it’s something I couldn’t begin to emulate. Knowing that this kind of viciousness is pretty common in human beings is one of the reasons I’m so cautious with them. I’ve yet, at nearly fifty years old, laid knuckles on anyone else in anger, it just isn’t in me though I’ve often wished it were – it would make being male much easier. I suspect my gender dysphoria is at least in part due to this sense of alienation with what most consider to be appropriate male behaviour.
Being the bottom feeder it is, media is only happy to capitalize on this base, stereotypically reductive male behaviour. Unless your hero is an aggressive sociopath he isn’t a real man. You’d be hard pressed to find any male hero that isn’t written into this bizarre little box and then used as a dimensionless plot device to drive adrenaline fueled violence. For men looking for another way of being male that isn’t founded on this mythology, there isn’t much out there. For a neuro-atypical male the opportunity to see heroes that in any way reflect my experience is pretty much a zero game, I never see anyone like myself on film.
Last weekend we went to see Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald, the latest Harry Potter film. I’d almost been talked out of seeing it by CBC’s movie critic Eli Glasner, who seemed to dislike every aspect of the film, but especially the main character, Newt Scamander, who he described as awkward and unlikeable. I don’t disagree with Glasner’s analysis of the plot, I think JK(Rowling – the author) tried to fit too much into one film and it gets a bit jumbled (I’d love to see an edited version that cleans up the plot), but when it comes to Eddie Redmayne’s character Newt I was annoyed at Glasner’s neurotypically prejudiced response to his complex, non-typical heroism. Fortunately, I’m not the only one:
(at 9:12 on): “Newt exhibits the characteristics of someone on the autism spectrum. He’s awkward in social settings. He doesn’t like being touched. He feels intense empathy for others but has trouble connecting to people and making friends… careful viewers will notice his aversion to direct eye contact…. Newt’s social anxieties are not framed in the stereotypical ways we’ve come to expect from Hollywood.”
That description of what ASD can feel like certainly resonates with me. What a stark difference it is to every other male hero you see in film. Newt’s neuro-atypicality allows JK to avoid the toxic masculine stereo-trap while also presenting a viable alternative hero. Many examples are shown in the video above of the kind of sociopathic, violent movie hero we show our boys in film. The majority pick this up quickly and then weaponize it socially as shown in Ontario’s recent boys’ private school scandal or pretty much any sports locker room. Fantastic Beasts has managed to side step the stereotypically male hero, but avoidance may also be its downfall.
I’m glad we didn’t let Glasner talk us out of seeing Fantastic Beasts. His dislike of the main character is in tune with criticism found all over especially North American reviews and another reminder of how hard it is to find a male movie hero who isn’t toxically reductive.
Fantastic Beasts goes well beyond toxic masculinity by actually showing us a nuanced, non-stereotypical ASD hero, which is quite frankly astonishing, and perhaps unique. The instinctive dislike of him by most people (as evidenced in pretty much every movie review you’ll read) reflects my own experience and will be why the franchise fails. It will become yet another reminder to those on the ASD spectrum, or any male that doesn’t want to put on the toxic masculinity society expects of them,of just how peripheral they are. Reductive toxic male stereotypes are the only ones that sell.
We’re surrounded by toxic masculine heroes that trivialize what being male could mean to all men while at the same time encouraging gender driven violence. Fantastic Beasts’ ASD hero sidesteps this trap and breaks these conventions. It’s a shame that it won’t sell to the North American public because it doesn’t pander to their prejudices. Fortunately, it’s doing better on the rest of the planet.