Masculinity In Literature: An Evolution Keeping With Progression

Strong opinions foster opposition. Let’s take a look at the recently shared idea that masculinity is no longer what it should be in literature.

Book Culture Opinions
Men watching the sunset with three book covers

Kammie C. Rose recently wrote an article called, There’s No Such Thing As Good Masculine Male Characters In The Woke World Of Book Publishing where she criticizes today’s publishing companies for pumping out romance fiction that “emasculate or demonize the male characters.” Is she right, or is she severely overlooking key representations of masculinity? Let me put in my two cents.

Traditional Masculinity in Fiction

While it’s true that the outdated, uniform version of masculinity (you know, where the man is always the hero and somehow has no character flaws) has mostly gone to the wayside, there are still forms of traditional masculine values in our fiction. Authors are simply no longer interested in the glorified superheroes who have the personality of a brick wall.

Instead, male characters have evolved to express human emotion and save the day with realistic expectations. Here’s a list of novels in my library where the male protagonist is a “real man.”

House of Roots and Ruin by Erin A. Craig (Contains Spoilers)

Published in 2023, this novel is the second of the Sisters of the Salt series. Verity Thaumas, a young woman who can see ghosts, moves in with the Laurents, a family who has their own dark secrets. She falls in love with their only son, Alexander, who exemplifies traditional masculinity to the fullest.

House of Roots and Ruin by Erin A. Craig book cover

Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Alexander expresses knightly values: chivalry, leadership, and strength. He treats all female characters with kindness and respect, not just Verity. He physically and emotionally guides Verity through the mansion’s most dangerous passageways. He even defeats the enemy with his own bare hands.

If that’s not a traditional man, then please educate me. The uniqueness of Craig’s depiction of masculinity is that male characters do not have to subjugate themselves to one physical ideal where a man must be fully able-bodied with Greek-god proportions. She provides a hero who faces real-life challenges, such as physical disabilities.

Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi

In this 2017 fantasy novel, Taj, a sin-eater, faces extreme social rejection from the elites who use his power for their purification. After falling in love with a princess, he challenges the hierarchy head-on, having to protect his own people and his own Juliet.

Beasts Made of Night by Tochi Onyebuchi book cover

While Kammi C. Rose believes that all male characters today “mistreat other women” but not the female lead, or “the object of his lust,” Taj breaks her observed motif. While he still gives special treatment to the princess (like everyone does with their significant lover), he never shows signs of mistreating the other female characters in the novel.

Whether the women are warriors, mages, or simple bystanders, he continuously goes out of his way to protect women, as expected of the traditional male figure. He even kept his hands to himself at a brothel (woah). Furthermore, he’s able to do so without giving up his emotions. If you read closely, he even sheds a tear or two. Crazy, right?

The 100 by Kass Morgan

If you haven’t seen it, The CW produced a series based on Kass Morgan’s books. I highly recommend it. But for the article’s sake, I’ll stick with the 2013 books. In the literary series, one hundred imprisoned teenagers and children are sent from the spacecraft they grew up on to Earth, which has been dilapidated for 300 years after a nuclear war. These kids must adapt to their new climate and face whatever life is left on Earth.

Two male leads in the series, Wells and Bellamy, display their own form of masculinity. Wells takes the position as the leader of the hundred prisoners, bringing all the characters together as a community and settling any disputes along the way. Bellamy serves as a hunter and fighter, the most traditional image of a man you can possibly get.

The 100 by Kass Morgan book cover

While both have had to save the day numerous times, they each have their own character flaws. Wells lacks understanding concerning his peers as he grew up much more privileged than them. Bellamy struggles to work with others since he is deprived of a true parent figure, leaving him to fend for himself and his sister. Most of all, both have problems with letting go of their pasts.

Despite this, they are able to form a true brotherhood, a trope of masculinity throughout all of literary history, and construct healthy relationships with the women around them. Morgan did a great job of humanizing men without removing their traditional gender roles.

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han

The first of her trilogy also turned into a TV series, was published in 2009. Belly and her family spend every summer at the Fisher family beach house. One summer, she falls into a love triangle with the Fisher boys, who had thought of her as a little sister until now. Although I am team Jeremiah (don’t come for me), I will break down Conrad’s masculinity for the sake of my objective.

The Summer I Turned Pretty by Jenny Han book cover

Conrad, the oldest of the teenage group, takes on an almost fatherly role in the series. He takes it upon himself to protect his younger brother and friends, especially Belly, from the harsh reality of the world. He’s young, but he exudes a maturity that the others lack, which allows him to fall into a traditional leadership position.

Not to mention, he continuously steps in to help when Belly needs him most. It seems that chivalry is not dead. Who knew? Like every other human being on the planet, he has his own character flaws, such as running away from his emotions and refusing help from the people who love him, but that’s the point of a story, isn’t it? Nobody likes a perfect person because they are simply unrelatable.

These are only four of the examples I have in the room with me. Imagine how many more novels explore traditional tropes in untraditional plotlines. Masculinity isn’t dead; it has matured into a real human being.

On Kammie C. Rose’s “Demonification” of the Male Character

Rose claims that publishing companies are “demonizing” men by only putting them as characters who bully the “liberal woman,” pressuring them into forms of BDSM. Furthermore, she believes that women in fiction are forced to take agency in changing the bad boy.

As I look at it, these male characters, often seen in enemies-to-lovers fantasies, typically have good qualities masked by their gruff outer shell. I believe this motif calls out one major character flaw in all of us: we tend to assume the worst of people before truly understanding their full personality. This especially affects men.

Let’s use Rose’s example of Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James. She considers it as “nothing more than a collection of explicit sex scenes loosely strung together by thin plot lines” like most of today’s popular romance books. However, I want to analyze why sex plays such a huge role in not only the novel but also in Christian Grey’s fictional life.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James book cover

Whether you like the book or not, you can’t tell me it doesn’t bring up some thought-provoking real-life difficulties surrounding men. Grey was sexually abused as a child; consequently, this gave him a warped perception of what love should look like. Although BDSM is perfectly fine as long as it is practiced consensually and healthily, Grey is unable to differentiate control in the bedroom and control in his relationships.

Oftentimes, we get so caught up in the spiciness of our novels that we sometimes miss the hidden messages between the lines. I believe we are heading in the right direction concerning male literary characters. All sexual fantasies aside, men deserve to be seen as human just as much as anybody else, and our publishing houses are the ones who are making it happen.

Personally, I would have to disagree with Kammie C. Rose’s article. Masculinity isn’t a dying characterization. Many novels still represent traditional gender roles. The only difference between now and twenty years ago is that publishing houses give us more options on what type of men we want to read about.

Now that you’ve heard my side, what do you think about this topic? Is fictional masculinity dying? Are publishers too harsh on the portrayal of male characters? Lastly, are we objectifying men through smutty romances?

Curious about the opinion on female characters? Click here

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