Boys and girls both benefit greatly from positive role models and will seek out role models in the people around them, including fictional characters. Media's profound effect on people, especially children and teens, means that those who produce it have to be conscious of what messages they're sending.
Two of the best examples of the positive effects media can have on its audience are "Voltron" and "Steven Universe."
Ironically, these are two of the most controversial fandoms, which does obscure the message the shows are trying to get across. This is why I'm writing this article, to combat the negativity.
Let's start with "Voltron: Legendary Defender." It has no shortage of awesome girls, like Pidge and Allura, but it is geared toward boys and the majority of the main characters are male.
Shiro, Keith, Lance, and Hunk are all main characters and all paladins of Voltron, and all are positive role models.
They are seen as heroes, guardians, and soldiers by both the other characters and the fans of the show. All three of these roles also align with the concept of "being a man."
Traditionally, men were the first to head into battle (mostly because if the women died in battle society would collapse but I digress) and thus became known as leaders.
And yet, they don't all fit the traditional definition of a "real man." For a long time, a "real man" was someone who was assertive and quick to violence, hid perceived weaknesses, and rejected femininity.
There's Shiro, who's a battle-hardened soldier, who seems the most traditionally masculine. However, he encourages others to work through their issues rather than "toughen up." He puts others before himself and doesn't bottle up his problems.
Keith may not seem like a very good role model at first, being rebellious and impulsive much like the traditional "real man," but eventually he becomes a capable leader. He and the audience learn that being a leader isn't just about making quick decisions. It's about listening to those around you and bringing out the best in others.
This is achieved through empathy, which is often seen as feminine.
Lance is the class clown of the group but uses humor and bravado to hide his insecurities. Throughout the show he grows more confident in his abilities and opens up more to the other Paladins. The lesson that he and the audience learns is that there is no such thing as a useless person.
Hunk embraces a lot of traditionally feminine activities, most notably cooking, but he also has an aptitude for engineering and programming.
He has high empathy and isn't afraid to show his emotion. He also actively tries to understand new cultures by learning their languages and customs. His inclusion on the team teaches the lesson that having feminine interests or traits doesn't make one less of a man.
However, he starts the series as a bit of a wimp.
Throughout the series he grows by learning that courage doesn't mean the absence of fear but the willingness to do what is right no matter how scary it is. By learning the more traditionally masculine trait of willingness to fight, he becomes stronger as a person.
Like Voltron, "Steven Universe" has a varied cast of great role models. Though it has a male lead, most of the main characters are female. And, like Voltron, they show that there are many ways to be a girl.
Garnet is the leader of the Crystal Gems. She is cool-headed and often mysterious, sometimes awkward, but almost always someone the Crystal Gems can turn to when things get tough.
She manages to do this because she is the embodiment of the love of two Gems, Ruby and Sapphire, who work as one unit despite their polar opposite personalities.
Ruby is angry and impulsive, while Sapphire is logical and methodical. Garnet even calls herself a conversation. Her strength comes from being so in tune with both sides of herself, and this sets the tone for the whole series.
Amethyst is, at first glance, a slob. She eats a lot, mostly prefers to lounge around, and is brutally blunt. This casual demeanor hides insecurity about her small stature: she stayed in the ground too long and is much shorter than amethysts should be.
As the show progresses, she and the audience learn that what makes you different is what makes you special, and that's where true strength comes from. Though she enjoys traditionally masculine things like wrestling and eating a lot, she cares deeply for her friends and isn't afraid to show it.
Pearl… is an interesting character but not what I would call a role model. Steven's human friend Connie, however, is one. Though she's a kid, she's willing to fight with the Crystal Gems so that she can be on equal footing with Steven.
She's not content to be the damsel in distress. But more than that, she understands the importance of connection and companionship.
Rose Quartz is Steven's mom and the spiritual heart of the Crystal Gems. When she was alive, she was characterized by her intense adoration for all the living things on Earth and how she took in defective Gems without discrimination. She embodies femininity, and she is also a warrior who wields a giant sword and shield to protect those she loves.
What all these characters have in common is that they're not perfect. They mess up, but then they try to set things right. And they show that being a man or being a woman means different things to different people.
The best way to be a man or woman is to be one's best self and to lift up others, not to try to follow arbitrary stereotypes like "women are the emotional ones" or "men solve problems through fighting." And that's what a good role model can teach children.