Women, and people who belong to minority groups, feature increasingly in our mainstream culture in 2021.
Black people often appear as central players in fiction and in advertising. A recent telling of the story of Ann Boleyn featured a black actor in the title role. People with disabilities often appear on equal terms with able-bodied people in mainstream media. Quite a few TV series depict the central female ‘hero’ characters as lesbian. And there are many others examples of this kind of inclusion, which would have been considered unthinkable, even ten years ago. Indeed, one TV ad even goes so far as to depict a male black couple – presumably gay – in bed.
Despite all this, it is still a man’s world out there (and it is a straight, white man’s world too). But the inbuilt advantage that straight white men have enjoyed since people first walked the earth is under challenge.
It is easy to mock the – sometimes very self-conscious – efforts at inclusion. For some critics it is ‘woke’ and for others it is patronising. But most people understand that the intention is a good one – even if it is often clumsy.
However, for all the clear signs of progress, one area remains unreconstructed. There are no gay male action heroes in films. It is true that Rock Hudson was gay. But nobody he ever played was gay. Nobody ever played by Clint Eastwood was gay. Nobody ever played by Jason Statham is gay. In short, there are no gay action heroes.
Why is that? Why can action heroes not be gay?
The Simple Answer
The simple answer is that no one has yet worked out how to do it in a way that can be marketed. Action movies are commercial entities. They target mass audiences with attractive stereotypes, with whom – the film makers hope – the audience will become involved.
The majority of girls and women are straight – and when they watch action movies, they want to fancy male action heroes (like, say, Keanu Reeves). The majority of boys and men are straight too – and they want male action heroes that they can imitate, and identify with. Men want to be able to fight like Jason Statham and ‘Arnie’. They want to say cool things like ‘Hasta la vista, baby’. They want to be like the men who kiss the ‘Bond girls’.
Action movies sell aspirational fantasy. And that is the where the money is.
There can be a bit of nuance, of course. A male action hero might have a bit of crime in his past (so long as it’s not too unheroic). He can be a drinker, and he can be a bit rough. Comedy action heroes like Jack Sparrow can even wear eye liner – so long as we don’t have to see him putting it on. But he sure as hell can’t have a boyfriend.
Money talks. And in a situation where straight action heroes are so easy to sell, why would a film maker risk getting burned with a gay one?
The More Complex answer
Although there has been a good deal of social change, there is still ‘work to be done’.
Many straight men still regard gay men as only half a man – or as a man with something missing. This is especially true outside western cultures. And worse than that, some straight men still find gay men repulsive – even a threat.
It is within this reality that commercial film makers must work. They can overcome some of the gender stereotypes… There are lesbian and female bi-sexual action heroes (such as Lisbeth Salander) so long as they are sexually attractive to straight men. The porn industry’s vast lesbian output, we should remember, is almost all aimed at the straight male market.
Lesbians are also more viable than gay men as action heroes because women’s willingness to embrace lesbians in society is fairly high… Certainly, it seems to be far higher than the willingness of straight men to accept gay men.
The core of the problem
But at its core, the problem with the male action hero is that he is a fantasy figure – a person who could never exist in real life…
He is all-seeing and all-knowing in a way that no one ever can be in real life. He never runs away, but faces his adversaries, who are dumb enough to underestimate him. A hero never abandons the weak to save himself and, when there is doubt, he coolly makes the right call, amazing everyone.
At the end of the film, the hero saves ‘the girl’ – and sometimes the world too. So men want to be like him. But this is only true – for the great majority of men – so long as he’s not gay.