There has been a noticeable shift in our male characters recently. Obviously, the change hasn't reached every piece of media, but popular fiction and audiences alike seem to be gravitating toward a different kind of male hero than they used to. And I have been watching this change eagerly.
A certain type of male character has permeated nearly every piece of popular fiction in recent decades, one the admirable Lindsay Ellis branded the "Lovable Misogynist" in a 2015 IFC article on the subject. This type of man hates and/or objectifies women casually, either to appear cool or as a wink and a nudge to the men in the audience to appear relatable to them. He sexualizes the women in his world constantly, is either awkward and pining in order to empathize with his intended audience or portrayed as desirable and suave as these men would like to see themselves, and is often rewarded with a woman who has, somehow, fallen for him by the end.
I want to narrow that definition for the sake of this article, though, to a specific brand of Lovable Misogynist: The Sexist Jerk with a Heart of Gold of the mid-late 2000s. This man definitely existed before that timeframe, but he was everywhere from 2004 to 2009. He is a sarcastic, aloof, usually scruffy womanizer whose humor mostly derives from jokes made at the expense of others. But don't worry if he puts you off, because underneath it all, he's sad, so it's okay. His history is just so tragic, don't you feel for him? Don't you see that underneath all that roughage, he has a reason?
This type of man so, so easily scams his way into becoming a fan favorite every time and is, without a doubt, my least favorite type of character. Think Dean Winchester in Supernatural (2005), Sawyer from Lost (2004), or Tony Stark in Iron Man (2008). These men who thrive on sarcasm and sex to hide whatever tortured past they believe justifies them acting like this. This trope is so prevalent, it even pops up in places you would never expect it. James Kirk does a complete 180 from his original characterization in the Star Trek reboot of 2009 to fit this model, disrespecting women and throwing insults left and right. Leo Valdez in the 2009 Rick Riordan series Heroes of Olympus is downright mean to people who are supposed to be his friends and chases every girl who enters his line of vision, but he's secretly sad, so we should think he's funny and somehow deserving of a girlfriend in the end. This trope is literally everywhere.
And you can just feel the writers asking you to love these men not in spite of these traits, but because of them. You should think it's cool when Tony Stark zooms in on pictures of Natasha in lingerie in Iron Man 2. It's charming when Dean Winchester puts down Ruby or Bella or any other woman who dares to match him in Supernatural. They are who men should want to be, who women should want to be with.
Those two men, specifically, are why I'm choosing to focus on the 2000s, though. Having been a fan of shows like Supernatural and still being trapped in Marvel's clutches, I have had the privilege of watching their fanbases fall completely out of love with this type of character and watched the writers of these men attempting to grapple with the fact that from that messy break up rose an entirely different type of man: the Soft Hero.
Unlike Nice Guy characters who are often the Lovable Misogynist in disguise, the Soft Hero is actually a nice guy. He is gentle, kind-hearted, compassionate, and genuinely funny. He is often in the company of women and respects them deeply, never making a single objectifying comment or questioning her abilities as a woman. If he has a tragic backstory, it is used to actually develop his character rather than as an excuse for his behavior. He is a type of hero fanboys historically brush off in favor of their macho counterparts (ex: Luke Skywalker vs Han Solo), but one that is sorely needed.
And, luckily, he finds himself the male lead in more and more films nowadays. Finn in the Star Wars sequel trilogy (2015-present), Raleigh Becket in Pacific Rim (2013), Thor in Thor: Ragnarok (2017), Steve Trevor in Wonder Woman (2017), and, as Ellis points out in her article, Max in the Mad Max reboot (2015). This type of man is seeping his way into the pop culture zeitgeist, and I welcome him with open arms. In fact, many fans have. The entire Marvel fandom refocused on Thor when Ragnarok came out and has been slowly leaving Tony Stark in the dust (especially after Civil War). New characters that manage to maintain the Lovable Misogynist trope in 2018, like Mon-El in Supergirl or every role Chris Pratt has landed since Parks and Rec ended, have been exposed as tired and boring in comparison.
The issue with this for male writers, though, is not only that they have to actually confront this trope. It is also that Tony Stark and Dean Winchester still exist. Supernatural is still going strong fourteen seasons in and Tony Stark continues to be a centerpiece for Marvel. And the best part is you can see them floundering, trying to combat the draining audience interest in heroes like this. So, how do you address a flaw so great in a changing pop culture landscape?
It would make sense to use this as a chance to introduce character development. Let your characters learn and grow, not only to save them from this slow death but to make the men who idolize them recognize the faults in them. In the case of Supernatural, though, the writers have been trying to simply ignore that founding aspect of its characters. Dean is still an incessant flirt, but somewhere around season 7, he stops insulting women while he does it. He is still sarcastic and snarky, but more and more hints at his softer side have flooded his character over the years until the snark became a thin mask over a gentler character. But this was never actual character development, it was the writers shying away from the part of Dean that was so wrapped up in suave misogyny so that they wouldn't have to face it.
Marvel, on the other hand, is a little more complicated. Some of the change in Tony Stark over the years comes from actual character development. He has been genuinely shaped by his experiences to the point where he is a completely different person than he was in the first Iron Man. He appreciates the women in his life far more than he did in his early movies, though that's not an issue that is ever specifically addressed in the films so I don't know that I'd count it as a part of his character development. And yet, Marvel continues to put him on the wrong side of things. He creates Ultron in Age of Ultron. In Civil War, he brings a literal child into battle, attacks Bucky fully knowing that Bucky had no control over the deaths of his parents, and fights to put the Avengers in the government's control. In Spider-Man: Homecoming, he tries to keep Peter from doing exactly what Tony brought him into the superhero world to do. It's almost like they know they need to either bring him down for his faults or raise him up above them, and are stuck between the two. These male writers quite literally do not know how to go about engaging with this character trope now that his time has passed.
The Lovable Misogynist is dying. It's a slow death, for sure, but he is on his way out. What will rise to take his place is yet to be seen, since the Soft Hero doesn't exactly have solid footing just yet, but we can only hope this recent development forces writers to take a more critical eye to the men they populate their fictional worlds with. Or at least put an end to Supernatural.