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torchwood, psych, castle, and modern male sexuality

Posted by pocochina on June 6, 2010

Female sexuality on TV, for its myriad problems, has come a long way, baby – male sexuality not so much.  Sex as violence on one end of the patriarchal spectrum, sex as degradation on the other, are still an inherent part of male sexuality in popular culture, and in particular male sexual attraction to women.

But writers are starting to challenge this by coming up with sexy, likable male characters whose sexuality (regardless of orientation), while an important part of their characters, is not predatory, degrading, or possessive.  The existence of such positive male characters is a sea change in the depiction in modern male sexuality.  This isn’t shallow fanservice.  Okay, maybe a little, but it’s not just that.  It is no less than a mass-market blow against the primacy of rape culture.  I’m interested in male characters who exhibit a playful, non-predatory male sexuality.  The best examples of this are Castle from Castle, Sean from Psych, and of course Captain Jack of Torchwood.

Compare these characters with the norm – superficially-likable male Casanovas who are generally in favor of women’s equality and also genuinely in favor of getting s much ass as possible, by any means showable in prime time.  For all Neil Patrick Harris’ lovable doofiness, HiMYM insidiously employs this to a remarkable degree.  Barney’s playful air with his friends disappears when the chance for sex is in the equation.  His sexuality is deeply performative – it’s as important for him to be seen as womanizing as to actually be sexually active – part and parcel of the vindictive, hypercaptitalist persona carefully crafted over his granola woobie self.  Worse, his stream of boasts include jokes about emotional manipulation (women don’t want sex as such, but we’re dumb enough to believe that some dude in a dive bar really is deeply concerned we’ve sustained physical trauma after our falls from heaven!) and getting women drunk in order to “lower their inhibitions.”  Women as objects, as a crucial and particularly delightful part of the work of a created, lucrative, unquestionably masculine persona, which only explicitly desexualized friends get to peer behind – the only difference between Barney Stinson and Don Draper is generation and genre.  Neither is a pro-equality representation of healthy male sexuality.

Like our two bad-old-days protagonist exemplars, these three newer men are unquestionably masculine – they are detectives and, in Captain Jack’s case, above even military rank.  They fit the visuals of the alpha male to a tee:  Castle and Jack are huge, and all three men are exceptionally handsome.  And all are voraciously and unapologetically sexual.  So they’re perfectly poised to turn traditional masculine sexuality on its ear with the precise removal of expected male supremacy.

Critically, these male characters enjoy both relationships and casual sex.  Though none of these shows are shows about relationships, the characters’ varied romantic lives are a part of the show.  Male characters generally get to be either alpha male players or beta male serial monogamists.  For all three of these characters, though, we see both relationships and clearly-consensual casual sex.  Note that Shawn is younger than Castle and – spoiler alert! – considerably younger than Captain Jack, so we’re witnessing the character maturing, and his ability to sustain respectful relationships as part of that.

It’s also worth noting that Castle is probably the best dad on television right now, and Jack fulfills the “dad” role to Torchwood.  The “patriarch” belongs in “patriarchy” for a reason – fatherhood is historically connoted with sexual control over mother and daughters.  We get to see not just men, but father figures, seeing sexuality as something to be enjoyed and not controlled.  Jack is in charge of his team, but respects their individual choices.  The few times Castle tries to play the patriarch, mostly with Alexis’s boyfriends, he fails miserably and is mercilessly lampooned.

And yet parental issues are a huge part of what makes all these characters interesting – on a meta-level, they’re all leaving the old man behind.  Castle doesn’t know his father and doesn’t seem to have ever missed him – he’s the true modern man, unbridled by manhoods past.  His ethical sluttitude comes from his mother.  It’s a fairly unsubtle statement that women, when heard on our merits, have a valuable philosophical contribution to the construction of sexuality.  Sean’s rebellion against his father, though probably inevitable given the characters’ back story, is intensified by Shawn taking his mother’s “side” in the divorce.  Henry, though seen in real time as an endearing retiree, is in flashbacks revealed to be the prototypical post-Cold War era father – job taking precedence over familial obligations and spilling in to create controlling emotional issues when he is home.  Jack’s father is a mysterious figure, lost in both past and future, and we witness Jack learning to let him go.

Castle is an interesting example of this portrayal of male sexuality because his show is serious enough (as opposed to Psych) and set in our world (unlike Torchwood, where Gwen, apparently living in a gender-utopia pocket of the UK, blithely claims that “nobody cares” about consensual sex), we see the character grapple with the expectations placed on a middle-aged male player and with gender inequality in society at large.  From his very first appearance (“my safe word is ‘apple'” and let’s just all pretend I had to look up that quote, okay?) he’s portrayed fairly consistently as an open male submissive, which is pretty rare on mainstream television.  And Castle treats women and women’s sexuality with respect, and is no less respectful to the sex workers the show (somewhat gratuitously) throws at him from time to time.  That’s important not because sex workers deserve less respect but because (1) it’s virtually an anomaly on mainstream television and (2) without the “whore” part being bad, it’s tough to continue to oppress women with the virgin-whore dichotomy.  Castle seems to have fairly functional relationships with his ex-wives, rather than (as is par for the course on detective shows) making cracks about sympathizing with perpetrators who murder those aggravating women.  When he gets what other characters see as the chance to sleep with a much, much younger model, he brings her home….to visit with Alexis.  This is almost certainly an example of the character being politically ahead of some or most of the writers, given the one or two very unfortunate flubs in the show, but over two seasons it’s been a consistent enough part of the character to stand out in the world of male sexuality on television.

The most instructive example, because his sexuality is so prominent in his persona and because we have a useful counterpart to show authorial intent, is Captain Jack, and by implication also Captain John.  Hart is supposed to be what jack left behind, and, truly radically, pansexuality coexists with both John’s gleeful villainy and Jack’s swaggering heroism.  It’s not about orientation, which is portrayed as perfectly neutral.  When Jack left behind his marauding lifestyle, he shed that which was harmful and kept that which wasn’t – and he never even shows conflict about his sexuality.

[EDITED 9/2010 I know this post is three months old but I am finally watching DW and I am even more impressed with my own brilliance than usual which TRUST ME IS SAYING SOMETHING, I have to capture this thought for posterity.  When we meet Harkness in The Empty Child, he is a super-sleazy con man.  He doesn’t want to think of himself as hurting anyone, but he still robs and manipulates people, and tries not to think about how he is placing them in danger.  Compare this with his rakish encounter with Rose.  At first glance, it’s a seat-of-your-pants romantic first date, complete with champagne and a spectacular view, but the scene is also one of no-means-yesism and subtle coercion.  Rose is conflicted about her attraction to him, so she tries to extricate herself from the conversation, clearly but sweetly.  And every time, Jack finds a reason to keep her.  He tells himself she’s having a nice time, and ignores the way that’s only partially true.  He isolates and disorients her – I mean, who the fuck expects to be standing on thin air next to Big Ben?  He doesn’t seem like the kind of guy who would actually shove her off into the Thames, but, you know, guys like that never do.  She actually couldn’t see her own way to safety if she wanted to.  That’s coercion dolled up in a Big Romantic Gesture, but it’s still coercion.  As he’s sitting in the cockpit waiting for his bomb to explode, he reminisces fondly about dubious consent sex, making light of not exactly remembering what happened through an evening.  Then, a few episodes later, he actually goes ahead and gropes one of the robots who’s making him over.  But once he becomes a Hero by accepting that his actions have consequences, he never does this again.  AND THEN OH HI THERE JAMES MARSTERS.  JIC YOU MISSED IT.

To be clear, I’d be really surprised if this pattern was laid down from the beginning, as Harkness seems like the type of supporting character who is just too much fun to let go.  I do, however, think that this particular subtle coercion is just so in character with who Jack is at the moment, that the writers would not have even thought about including it.  It does seem evident, however, that once Davies set up the Torchwood world as a place to explore safe sexuality, a genuine hero like Captain Jack could not possibly continue to act this way.  In other words, in becoming self-aware, the character and his universe go from “no means no, if she says it loud enough and is sober and tiny and crying and you are a scary stranger in the bushes and blah blah blah” to yesyesohmygodyes means yes.” Positive depictions of sexuality require rigorous awareness of enthusiastic consent.]

The marked difference, sexually, between Jack and John, is a vicious element of exclusion and hierarchy.  (Hart’s blazing introduction includes him sending the un-beautifuls out of a bar and then unfavorably weighing the attractiveness of the team.  He will fuck a dog but disdains to look at a dark-haired person, which leads me to conclude that he has left the Time Agent lifestyle behind to become a producer on Chuck.)   Jack makes no such derogatory comments on appearance.  He enjoys sexuality itself, openly reveling in diversity.  If intentional (and if not then the author is dead! Fuck you, author!  Get your own LJ!), that’s no small comment on the poisoning of human sexual attraction by rigid and externally-imposed beauty standards.

The fluidity of sexuality is also important here.  Male sexual orientation in mass media is a victim of the sexual double standard – female sexuality can be fluid because women’s sexuality isn’t taken seriously anyway, while male heterosexuality is a keystone of popular culture and therefore is rarely questioned, particularly beyond the (rare) existence of unambiguously and exclusively gay male characters.  But these characters show that at least some writers no longer consider a vertical dyad of traditional heterosexuality, dominated by traditionally-masculine men, necessary to the expression of male sexuality.  The three men here don’t so much sit on the Kinsey scale as stumble goofily around different zones of it.  Castle so far has only expressed sexual attraction to women, but is unfazed by the epic Ryan/Esposito love affair the idea of homosexuality – his very hetero sexuality in no way keeps him from being an ally.  Shawn has, on numerous occasions, without fanfare (well, an unusually high level of fanfare) or discomfort, expressed attraction to other men.  And of course Captain Jack is famously bisexual, and seems to prefer men.  This is not just good for gay and bi male representation on television – though that is exceptionally important, don’t get me wrong – but also as an interrogation of the primacy of male-dominated heterosexuality as the only acceptable sexual social order.

I don’t want to underestimate the importance of the fact that these characters also represent hot sexual images aimed towards folks who are sexually attracted to men, the vast majority of whom will be women.  Acceptance of sex as something women desire, pursue, and enjoy both reflects and reinforces the growing understanding that sex is not something that happens to women, valueless to us except as a bargaining chip.  Taking our sexual selves seriously, even if it is something so small as a male character on television we can both desire and trust, means assigning social value to those sexual selves, and recognizing the violation thereof as an unacceptable act of violence.

Moreover, these are characters that dude-loving-women can desire without feeling shame, or fear that sexual desire on some level does require us to debase ourselves.  Attraction to men who respect female sexuality is in fact an affirmation of female sexuality not as a sign of acceptance of subjugation or self-loathing, but as something we are entitled to enjoy.  Women, as a whole, don’t actually love bad boys, necessarily – but all we’ve ever been offered are bad boys and nice boys who wish they were bad.  The breaking of the bad-boy myth is crucial to the breakage of victim-blaming in general, because society uses the bad-boy myth in order to excuse and victim-blame away relationship violence (when we do recognize it)  by saying that women, led astray by carnal desires and of course  bad feminine judgment, have only their own sexual desires to blame for abuse.  Smashing the bad boy myth is part of the dismantling of victim-blaming overall.  These characters are kind.  They respect female sexuality.  They are, without question, good guys on whom women can crush without shame or fear.

And showing these men as desirable – as a healthy and successful way to express male sexuality – shows a willingness to move away from “good guy” male sexuality as sleazy PUA crap, and “bad boys” as manipulative date rapists.  Seeing these characters on television provides positive role models for het-and-bi boys whose sexuality is being molded by the media.  The characters themselves challenge the presumed necessity of the sexually abusive hero.  And they reflect faith in a positive change in society – that the moral, sexual, and philosophical guardians of television presume that audiences as a whole will relate to and enjoy male characters who are not abusive towards women.  The paradigm is shifting, from the sexually domineering (if not outright rapist) male hero to the male hero who sees his sex partners as equals.

So I herein propose a new model of male sexuality on television!  One modeled after the unabashed bisexuality of Jack Harkness!  The non-sleazy slacker charm of Shawn Spencer!  The handsomeness of Rick Castle!  I do so hate that these are stand-out characters for me – they should be par for the course, and the Barney Stinsons and Don Drapers of the world should be the rare villain who makes our hair stand on end.

Okay.  And sometimes it is about the fanservice.  Knock yourselves out.

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2 Responses to “torchwood, psych, castle, and modern male sexuality”

  1. renniejoy said

    Wow, this may explain why I love Shawn and Castle as much as I do (dude-loving woman that I am)!

    Thank you for laying that out so beautifully.

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