The inspiration for this blog is unusual but I ask you to bear with me. I was binging season six of Voltron: Legendary Defender, as one does, and they were on an episode where two of the main protagonists, Kieth and Shiro, were fighting each other after the latter turned. The relationship between the two characters had long been established as close and had led many fans to ship them, or want them in a relationship. Despite being a series with a great story line and animation, Voltron is notorious for that.
However this episode effectively killed off any hopes of making that fan fiction official when Kieth verbally urges Shiro to stop fighting by referring to him as his brother, but then says something else. He tells Shiro that he loves him, as he was the only person who had never given up on Kieth, even since he was a child.
While many fans were upset about having their hopes dashed, I think they missed out on something that was as equally important as having an openly, gay relationship on the show. That two men could express love towards each other that was non-sexual or romantic, but brotherly.
The traditional, male-male relationship outside of family, has always been stoic and rooted in camaraderie and brotherhood. The HBO World War Two drama, Band of Brothers perfectly and literally plays off this. Other examples of this relationship type include Clint Eastwood’s classic western movie characters, action heroes played by Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Vin Diesel, and even to some degree, John Wick.
They are defined by simmering machismo. Not always blatant and aggressive, but gave just enough hints of it beneath the surface. Calm, stoic demeanor with explosive action was their trademark and the only emotions they showed were strength oriented. Nothing that could be interpreted as weak, vulnerable, or feminine. If a situation arose where it did called for that softer side, it was either quickly locked down or shown privately with children or perhaps at times, women.
Softer emotions were not for male-male bonding and especially telling each other they loved each other, even as brothers. Because even if done in a non-sexual manner, that kind of vulnerable display feels extremely uncomfortable, practically alien. And it can be considered so alien that the only conclusion it leads the viewer to is that the men are gay.
The irony is that now this uncomfortable sensation also exists in the opposite context. With same sex relationships not as unfamiliar as they use to be, it has come to be expected that men expressing love to each other want to be together and is much less awkward than say, two men expressing love and NOT be in a relationship.
The best example of this dichotomy is in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that came out in the 2000’s. In all three movies, you have these two types of relationships and their perceptions on full display. The classic, stoic bonding is portrayed by Aragorn’s relationship to Boromir, Legolas, and Gimili. The bonds between these guys is developed through combat, war, and sacrifice. Any vulnerability displayed is through needing to rely on each other, and battle has always been a traditionally, acceptable context of male bonding. That’s not to say that they are not legitimately vulnerable because they are, but its through a lens that we are familiar with as well.
In contrast however is the Frodo/Sam and Merry/Pippen relationship. Their bonds also have stresses and obstacles and are just as solid and legit, but there is less, traditional context involved that forms it. Rather most of their obstacles are relational than external. I think this leads to more intimate forms of bonding than shown with the rest of the fellowship. To many viewers, myself included, this softer context immediately brought up a gay context. To consider that the Hobbits’ bonds were as brothers bound together by different types of conflict was so unfamiliar that it was work on my part to keep that context in mind. And god forbid my insecurity would lead to me being a homophobe!
"There is nothing wrong with any of these types of relationships, yet no room is given to breathe to let the story play out as it is before one extreme or the other kicks in."
A large reason for this is the default setting of choosing one side or the other, that comes from our real-world social context. We live in a society where things have to be black or white. We don't allow room for spectrum or middle ground for fear of compromising. This absolute creates that zone of uncomfortable awkwardness when seeing something that does exist in that spectrum. A similar problem exists with the perception of male-female relationships and that there must always exist some sexual/romantic tension between two opposite gender characters who are close. Even something as small as how a touch is done can seem unusual. A quick hug or fest bump can be interpreted as too insecure or reserved, while a soft placement of a hand on top of another or on the arm or shoulder can be taken as gay gesture.
There is nothing wrong with any of these types of relationships, yet no room is given to breathe to let the story play out as it is before one extreme or the other kicks in.
Strong male figures are fine and I do not endorse any view that wants to completely eliminate that image from the media. However men also need to be seen being able to express the other sides of the human dynamic as well because that is reality. We feel other feelings besides authoritative and aggressive tendencies. There is already evidence that higher suicide rates among men than women, and that men who hold back their feelings and vulnerabilities suffer from higher stress and health issues. That’s neither SJW propaganda or feminizing the gender as a whole.
I am not saying that Voltron’s portrayal of this middle ground was revolutionary in anyway, but rather is equally as important as if it had been a same sex relationship. There has to be room for a middle ground for men to express love that doesn't exist in extremes of an combat or a romantic framework. To do otherwise and continue this black and white contexts is merely exchange one box for another.
© 2018 Jamal Smith