Youngsters are growing up with a much broader concept of masculinity and even Hollywood is catching up, says Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff
Not all superheroes wear capes. But if they come in many guises, what they tend to have in common is a desire to save the world. And thats what makes the new Spider-Man movie so interesting: here is a superhero who would rather do almost anything else. He has the godlike powers, the suit, the crowds gasping in adoration. He has a monster to fight and (this being a Marvel movie) a standing invitation to join the Avengers, and turn the gig into a full-time job.
But what he really wants is to have a life instead. The teenage Peter Parker just wants to hang out in Europe on a school trip, spend time with the girl he awkwardly admires from afar, and be a normal guy doing normal stuff rather than carrying the world on his shoulders.
If this Spider-Man were a politician he would be Ruth Davidson, deciding not to run for the Tory leadership because she didnt want to leave Scotland and has just had a baby. He is the Prince William of superheroes, visibly conflicted about the prospect of becoming king. Welcome to Work-Life Balance Man, who isnt sure he wants to make it to the top of the Avengers pantheon if that means theres no time left for anything else; a hero for burnt-out millennials everywhere. You could easily imagine him being the first Marvel hero to take a hefty chunk of paternity leave.
There have always been reluctant heroes in popular culture, figures embodying the doubts and insecurities of teenage boys fumbling awkwardly towards manhood. But theres something especially compelling about this beta-male vision of heroism in an era of wildly overconfident toxic alphas, which has left us suspicious of anyone seeking power for its own sake. And whats really fascinating, speaking as someone forced by parenthood to sit through more Avengers films than I ever thought possible, is that boys absolutely lap it up.
Some adult fans have reacted aggressively to the more self-consciously woke bits of the Avengers franchise, questioning whether attempts to generate more diverse heroes would be somehow emasculating for boys in search of role models. But the gaggles of small boys Ive shepherded to the cinema couldnt care less if Captain Marvel is a girl now, so long as there are still explosions and gadgets and mortal threats to life on Earth as we know it.
The all-female Ghostbusters was as popular in our house as the all-male one I grew up with, because it turns out the draw was always the ghosts, and the football-crazed sons of friends have been as caught up in the frenzy surrounding the Womens World Cup as they were in the mens.
For these are boys who have grown up with a much broader concept of masculinity, a world where dads on the school run and Prince Harry talking openly about his mental health are simply part of the furniture. My sons tweenage peer group is currently obsessed with both Netflixs Stranger Things whose central characters are a girl with astonishing supernatural powers and a bunch of dorky high-school boys and the American police comedy Brooklyn Nine-Nine, whose wisecracking central character, Jake Peralta, is undeniably laddish but self-deprecating with it. It is a running joke that Peraltas police detective girlfriend is smarter than him, but when she gets promoted above him thats all absolutely fine; his ultimate boss meanwhile is gay, and the most overtly macho, muscle-bound officer on the squad turns out to be a soppily doting father to small daughters.
When a character in Spider-Man remarks of the angst-ridden Peter Parker that uneasy lies the head that wears the crown, teenage boys are probably less likely to think of Shakespeare than the Stormzy track Crown, on which he sings about the pressures of being a role model and the toll it takes on his personal life. I know my only mother wants her son back too, is an unexpected line from the man who just stormed Glastonbury. And the following morning Stormzy shared a text from his mum calling him her hero.
How much of this consciously sinks in for boys is hard to say, for we tend to wildly overestimate the importance of cultural icons in shaping public opinion while underestimating the power of the backlash. This weeks British Social Attitudes Survey, noting an unexpected though small rise in the number of people believing gay sex to be wrong, is a salutary reminder that the tide of social liberalism can fall as well as rise.
But the same survey also found a creeping shift in attitudes to mens role in working life, suggesting that there are good reasons for Theresa May wanting to extend paternity leave to a period of 12 weeks as part of the last-minute legacy she is trying to stitch together. Over a third of Britons now think paid parental leave should be split equally between mothers and fathers, up from just over a fifth in 2012.
When asked how families should organise their working lives, the majority still think a mother should work less than a father, or even not work at all; but 9% now think the answer is for both to work part-time. We are inching closer to a Swedish-style half and half culture of parenthood, where its assumed that men need to do their bit and adjust their careers accordingly even if, so far, behaviour lags a long way behind what people tell researchers. The idea of what it means to be a man, to shoulder the burden, to be respected and loved is changing, and unashamedly for the better. All Hollywood is doing is running to keep up.
Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist
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