I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but 2018 has been A YEAR for women’s voices. In activism, in politics, in media, in pop culture, we’ve seen a flood of women seizing podiums, stepping into their power, reclaiming their time. Some of these women have been funny. Many have been witches. Too many, as #MeToo has laid bare, have been survivors of violence forced to claw open old scars just to be heard. Most have embraced the power of their own fury. All of them—all of them—we have been hungry for.
Now, I want to talk about the men.
Not all men (but not #NotAllMen). I mean the men, young and old, who have something to offer the cultural conversation beyond the limited and limiting frog-and-snail-and-puppy-dog-tail tough guy hero (and/or bully) posturing of patriarchy’s favorite version of masculinity. I mean the soft men. I mean the gender non-conforming men. I mean the men who care, deeply and with an investment of critical thought, about the women in their lives. I mean the men who care just as deeply and complexly about their male friends. I mean the men who are trying to get it right, and failing, and still coming back to try again.
I mean, in short, the men who pop culture hadn’t had much use for before this most recent rising tide of creatively powerful female fury came along and gave them all a lift. Those men? Television in 2018 has, in one form or another, been absolutely full of them.
As a big, bold nota bene before I start giving these New Men of 2018 the rave reviews you’re anticipating: I don’t mean for any of this to be taken as a declaration that gender representation on television has achieved any sort of ideal, or that the men in this category are without flaw, or that writers holding their fictional men to even the most basic of human standards deserve trophies. What I do believe is that television, like all art, impacts the lives of people in the culture that produces it, and that men, like women, are trapped by the performances of gender in the patriarchal culture that visual storytelling as we recognize it came of age in. Any step, no matter how preliminary, that television is willing to take to give men better and less toxic ways to be in the world deserves, if not our celebration, than at least our attention.
With that, here is a brief list of the men on television in 2018 who we’ve rarely, if ever, seen before:
Examples: Justin Baldoni from Man Enough, Jon-Criss from The Bisexual, Rogelio from Jane the Virgin, David from Travelers, Jake and Terry from Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Prototype: Sam and Dean from Supernatural
The field for this category is so (relatively) rich, and so many of the men within it so (relatively) firmly installed in our cultural consciousness, that it might be easy to forget the kind of stigma that faces men as in-tune with their emotions as Rogelio de la Vega (Jaime Camil) and Terry Giffords (Terry Crews) and Sam (Jared Padalecki) and Dean (Jensen Ackles) Winchester are. But then you watch the interaction between thirtysomethings Leila (Desiree Akhavan) and Gabe (Brian Gleeson) in the final few minutes of Akhavan’s new cringe comedy, The Bisexual, and the desperate need for the strength found in the softness of fictional men like Sam and Dean and of real men like Justin Baldoni is rendered crystal clear:
Gabe: I’m so fucking exhausted.
Leila: You should cry. It always makes me feel a lot better when I cry.
Gabe: I don’t cry.
Leila: You cried when Offred was stuck in that car in Handmaid’s Tale.
Gabe: Well, that’s different.
Leila: How is that different?
Gabe: When it’s real life, it’s like emotional constipation.
Leila: Yeah, I don’t have that problem.
Gabe: [long pause] Jon-Criss was so soft with you. Put his head in your lap in front of everyone like it was nothing.
Gabe: I could never put my head in a girl’s lap.
Leila: Why not?
Gabe: Because it’s It looks ridiculous.
Leila: Put your head in my lap.
Leila: Do it. I’m a girl you’re not trying to fuck. There’s no one here. So it’s OK if you look stupid. Put your fucking head in my lap.
I don’t care how many of the soft men on this list have been around for years—we need them all, more, everywhere. I mean, give me Travelers’ breathtakingly compassionate David Mailer (Patrick Gilmore), so heartsick over the well-being of the homeless and vulnerable in his city that he’ll literally give away the bike he’s riding on to make sure they have a way to get through their day, and give me his combat-trained, time-traveling doctor girlfriend, and give me their comfort with one another’s modes of being in the world, give me all that, one million times over, before you give me another man anxious about living up to the standards of tough guy masculinity. Give me a soft-dancing Jon-Criss (John Dagleish), invested in and not intimidated by his partner’s unique sexual needs, and a Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg), invested in and not scared off by his partner’s career ambitions. Give me all of them, and get us all—men included!—a better definition of what being a man means.
Examples: Emery from Fresh Off the Boat, Cyrus and Jonah from Andi Mack, Ruby and Jamal from On My Block
Prototype: Corey Matthews (Ben Savage) and Shawn Hunter (Rider Strong) from Boy Meets World
I separated the boys out from the men here mostly because I think the stories that belong to emotionally vulnerable boys genuinely differ from those that belong to vulnerable men, but also because I had just so many examples of powerfully soft male characters on my list that I couldn’t reasonably fit them all into one category.
Emery Huang (Forrest Wheeler), the middle brother on Fresh Off the Boat, is the confidently soft boy most people will be familiar with, but while his cheerfully empathetic brand of kindness has been softening the razor edges so many of the other characters give that show’s comedy, it’s Disney Channel and Netflix that made the biggest soft teen boy splashes in the teen genre’s pond this past year. On Netflix, the inner L.A.-set On My Block saw Ruby (Jason Genao) and Jamal (Brett Gray) flout “hood” conventions, friending up with girls (and Ruby’s abuela), and calling each other late at night to talk about their feelings.
On Disney’s Andi Mack, meanwhile, Cyrus (Joshua Rush) and Jonah (Asher Angel) have not only become close friends who are chill about hugging each other in public (yes, the bars are low, but try to remember just a few Disney generations back and consider whether male friendship outside of Boy Meets World could have accomplished even that much). Each ones is also going through the kind of gauntlet that boys aren’t given much latitude for, on television or in real life—Cyrus as a gay teen (the network’s first) only slowly coming out to the people in his life, and Jonah as a golden boy who starts suffering anxiety-induced panic attacks, for which the network produced a PSA featuring Angel and the actor who plays Andi’s Cool Rockstar Dad. This latter angle may seem corny, but when Jonah got his first panic attack after seeing Andi (Peyton Elizabeth Lee) with another boy, my viewing notes came out, “Jonah is benevolent misogyny embodied, literally he is having a panic attack because ONE person didn’t like him.” Not one shred of compassion, not one single allowance for a young teen boy to have emotions in a way I wasn’t comfortable with. I am mortified that this was my reaction. I am grateful that Andi Mack, and all its soft boys (and men—the dads are so good!) exist.
Examples: Peter Kavinsky from To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, Harvey Kinkle (and Nicholas Scratch) from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Prototypes: Caleb Rivers (Tyler Blackburn) from Pretty Little Liars, Oz (Seth Green) from Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The internet discourse isn’t settled as to whether it’s Harvey Kinkle (Ross Lynch) or Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo) who is the ultimate “wholesome” boyfriend, but just about everyone with a heart that’s been battered by aloof duds or worse, in media or IRL, agrees that the two of them have leapt into the wholesome boyfriend chasm we hadn’t fully recognized was empty until they showed up to fill it.
“Peter Kavinsky is beloved because, unlike his predecessors, he is not actively a bad person, and that is still new and exciting in the world of teen movies,” critic Constance Grady wrote for Vox in August. “He is most celebrated for reliably doing small things, for showing up, for exuding a sense of honest wholesomeness.”
As anyone who reads English can plainly understand, being “not actively a bad person” (read: perpetrator of sexual assault) and “reliably doing small things” is almost literally nothing, and yet, we spent all of October watching a self-described teen drunk and alleged teen perpetrator of sexual assault get elevated to the highest court in the land, and much of November watching the press roll in for a wizard movie starring a man whose legal victories count among them his ex-wife withdrawing her plausible charges of domestic abuse. Drake, meanwhile, has apparently recently settled his “beef” with Chris Brown, despite the latter being Chris Brown. “Reliably doing small things” is, it turns out, not nothing, and for Peter Kavinsky and Harvey Kinkle to be making inroads in the culture for boyfriends to just be like that—that, too, is not nothing.
Examples: Pray Tell from Pose, Pree and Gared from Killjoys, Cyrus from Andi Mack, Cousin Ambrose from Chilling Adventures of Sabrina
Prototype: Felix (Jordan Gavaris) from Orphan Black
The profile of gay characters has been rising for a while, but 2018 turned up as a particularly rich year, in terms of the sheer variety and saturation of queer men shooting through their respective series as heroes in their own right. FX’s Pose introduced Billy Porter’s Pray Tell, a flamboyantly queer, HIV-positive man who isn’t condemned or punished by the narrative for being either of those things. Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina introduced Cousin Ambrose (Chance Perdomo), an acidly elegant queer warlock whose confidence in his own sexuality wasn’t placed in tension with heteronormative anxieties, but rather by the universal anxiety of what it feels like to date any person after having been “off the market” (so to magically speak) for years and/or decades. Disney, obviously, introduced Cyrus to the world in 2017, but it wasn’t until the show came back this summer that it had him come out to Andi. (It went great, obviously, and then they immediately went back to talking about fortune tellers.)
For my money, though, the most zippily satisfying development this year was on Syfy’s Killjoys, as the dazzlingly (and often bedazzled) gay bartender friend of the main trio, Pree (Thom Allison), stepped up to a more regular position, came out as a retired warlord, and started a committed relationship with hot, kind, lunkish Gared (Gavin Fox). Killjoys is a SPACE ROMP about SPACE BOUNTY HUNTERS who have spent the better part of the last two seasons hunting SENTIENT GREEN GOO. And it has a Pree! And a Gared! And their sexy rescue/fight scenes are as sexily compelling and as central to the story as any between any of the straight couples’ are. Thanks, 2018.
Examples: Luca from grown-ish, Marco from Star vs. the Forces of Evil, Rogelio from Jane the Virgin
Prototype: Schmidt from New Girl
Luca Hall (Luka Sabbat) was introduced to us by Zoey (Yara Shahidi) in grown-ish as someone who could rock the same dress as her, only better, which makes sense considering that grown-ish is the Gen Z-est of Gen Z shows and that Sabbat is, in real life, a young, fluidly creative fashion icon from the generation that is just generally pushing personal style in a more gender-neutral, “everyone can be comfy in a drapey dress” direction. But we can’t forget that before Luca, there was the inimitable fashion queen, Rogelio de la Vega (Jaime Camil), on Jane the Virgin, and even Marco Diaz’s Princess Turdina alter-ego on Star vs. the Forces of Evil (taken seriously, despite the potty humor name). This is a train that isn’t stopping!
Examples: Joe from You, Lucas from Impulse
Prototypes: Spike from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Logan Echolls from Veronica Mars
This final category might seem like a downer, after all those salutes to good dude characters doing good, detoxifying dude things, but if patriarchy’s hold on culture has been one long snakebite, we have only barely begun to suck out the poison.
We need, then, to see the poison.
We have already diveddeep here at Paste about just what it is about Penn Badgley’s dangerously charming delusional killer on Lifetime’s You that makes him such a fascinating addition to the television space in the wake of #MeToo, but it is worth repeating: Most of what men are trained from birth by society and media alike to do to pursue a woman is one hair’s breadth away from dangerous stalking, and more often than any of us ever want to believe, the sense of entitlement to women’s time and bodies that comes with that training leads to violence. Rarely have we been given the chance to live with that toxicity in the protracted, intimate way that You shoves down our throats. It is bracing, and hard, and welcome. Good riddance to bad trash, but only if we can see that trash for what it is.
YouTube’s Impulse also features #MeToo-inflected sexual violence, and a protracted, intimate look at the boy responsible for said violence, but the most novel, most compelling male character involved in this plot isn’t the boy, Clay (Tanner Stine), who initially did Henry (Maddie Hasson) violence, but rather his older brother, Lucas (Craig Arnold). Lucas spends the whole first season doing just truly terrible things—he kidnaps Henry in his trunk, and also murders an Amish teen—but, remarkably, he comes out the other end one of the most sympathetic characters, all because the series takes pains to make clear how thoroughly and consistently life under patriarchy—both in general, and then specifically the patriarchal dictatorship of his small-town drug lord thug of a father—has failed him. Once the nature of Clay’s attack on Henry is made even a tiny bit clear to him, he immediately believes her, recoiling at the violence he had done in blind faith to both his father’s orders, and to what social pressure demanded of him, after his brother was hurt. This is a man who has done real harm, but who didn’t have to end up where he did—if only the world wasn’t the sort where girls’ bodies were considered there for the taking, or where men were expected to build up a capacity for violence just to be a man. That so few people have access to this show, locked as it is behind YouTube’s paywall, is the only disappointment of an otherwise staggering performance. Thank goodness a second season is on its way.
In the end, to all you TV men of 2018 I’d never seen before—welcome. I hope you’ll stay a while. There’s a lot of gender-based poison in our storytelling still to draw out.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic whose writing has appeared on Forever Young Adult, Screener, and Birth.Movies.Death. She’ll go ten rounds fighting for teens and intelligently executed genre fare to be taken seriously by pop culture. She can be found @AlexisKG.