The Media and Male Relationships: A Critical Look at Hannibal & X-Men
I finally saw X-Men: Days of Future Past the other day and as I was sitting in the theater I couldn’t help but notice the relational parallels that I see in other shows and movies. Specifically, the relationship portrayed between Erik and Charles on the screen strangely enough made me think about Hannibal and the relationship between Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter.
A weird comparison? Probably, but there is something to it. Both are instances where the male relationship is explored in a way that is both tasteful and emotional.
When it comes to Hannibal, show runner Bryan Fuller has said time and time again that there is a lot of subtext between the two main characters but they are both straight. Or, Will Graham is and Hannibal is straight-ish. The point is, both of them are not necessarily seeking out a romantic, physical relationship with one another. He’d made that very clear.
While I love to jump on the ship like everyone else, I also respect the artistic integrity Bryan Fuller and the writing team have toward the characters and toward ultimately not turning the show into an actual love fest.Yet their relationship still catches the eyes and hearts of viewers, even though it is decidedly non-sexual in most aspects. Why is that?
There is a fascination with the exploration of deep, emotional male relationships from the part of the audience. This is seen in X-Men as well, where Charles and Erik are very obviously close friends and deeply emotionally invested in one another, even if they aren’t always on the same side. We’ll also probably never see them kiss, or hold hands, or do anything that people do in actual romantic relationships, yet there is still something there that seems to transcend friendship.
Unfortunately, I also think the exploration of these deep male friendships can sometimes lead to the fetishization of homosexuality, in the sense that if they don’t get together in canon then their relationship is just a big tease.
Sometimes it appears that the audience wants it to be black and white: they either are in a romantic relationship or they aren’t. However, what both these pairings do is explore the shades of gray that come with deep, connected friendships. There is something beautiful in exploring the emotional relationship of two men without expecting them to get together and physically manifest it.
I think about my own friendships and how I can have close emotional ties to friends without feeling the desire to jump their bones, or otherwise have a romantic interest in them. Yet I think on television and movies it is easier to look at that kind of relationship between women without expecting them to end up in bed together.
With men, though, it seems far more difficult because we live in a society where men aren’t emotional creatures. If they show an emotional investment in someone then the obvious outcome is that they are going to want to engage in a physical relationship. Otherwise, they need to keep their emotions to themselves.
Hannibal and X-Men both blow this idea to smithereens and manage to reflect the deep emotional relationships men can have without it turning into sex.
If my point isn’t clear, let me say it this way: it is refreshing to see males in media having an emotional investment in someone without it being sexual. We don’t get enough of this in television and movies and it further perpetuates this idea that men can only have emotional investments in other people when it results in sex.
The typical male relationship portrayed on television and in movies is this overly masculine stereotype, where they are just ‘bros’ and they can care about each other but if they show it in any sort of meaningful way then they have to go ‘no das gay’ and make a joke out of it. Male emotions are mocked and ridiculed in a lot of media forms and it reduces them down to base sexual desires. Young men who watch will no doubt begin to internalize that.
Is it any wonder, then, that young men begin to believe that when they are nice to girls the outcome should be sex? Or that being emotional with another human being should eventually result in some sort of physical manifestation of that investment? This is exactly the issue that Arthur Chu touched on over at The Daily Beast. Media so often stereotypes males and minimizes their emotional relationships to the point that people watch it and begin to believe that is how it has to be.
X-Men and Hannibal say no to this idea. In the season finale of Hannibal, in a heart crushing scene, the title character guts the only person who has ever understood him and leaves him in a bloody heap on the floor.
Hannibal is an exaggerated yet beautiful example of a man who had an emotional investment in someone without expecting it to be sexual, or ‘romantic’ in the stereotypical sense. For all of his neuroses and terrible behaviors he was still a strong male lead who was capable of a deep emotional investment in another man without it eventually leading to sex. He is a study in masculinity, and yet he is also shown to be a deeply emotional creature and there is nothing wrong with him being emotionally invested.
In the same way, the relationship between Erik and Charles in X-Men is one wherein both men are emotionally invested in one another. The scene that sticks out to me is the one on the plane, when Charles is yelling at Erik about how the other man abandoned him in his moment of need and Erik snaps back.
The two fight and the viewer can definitely feel the tension, the pain, and the love these two men have for each other. We see another example of this in the future where an older Erik and Charles mourn the days they wasted fighting one another when they could have been working together.
Both relationships are embedded with a deep sense of emotionality, which is what I think makes them so appealing to the contemporary viewer. At least, that’s what made them emotionally appealing to me. There aren’t jokes about ‘no homo,’ there are not promises of an eventual sexual relationship, these two pairs just reflect the ultimate emotional relationship.
The dynamics in these relationships can be seen all throughout movies and media between women, but it is such a rare delight to see an emotional development between men that doesn’t stray into the physical.
Pretty much what I’m saying is: men can be emotional and it is refreshing to see it portrayed on television and in movies without connecting it directly to physical gratification.
One of my old professors told me that he was interested in the psychology of men. He has a particular interest in conducting group therapy with men. I thought this was an extremely weird specialty interest but now that I look back, I can understand why he’s so interested in it.
Men have been, for so long, portrayed miserably in the media. Society perpetuates this portrayal and tells men to shove their emotions down, to see any emotional investment as an invitation for sex, and to expect physical gratification in return for emotional energy spent on a relationship.
Take a look at any of the ‘guy comedies’ in the last ten years and you will see it. Go back and read the article I linked earlier from The Daily Beast and run through all of the examples he offers regarding men being nice to women and getting sex in return. I can watch a lot of movies with male friendships and they will reduce their relationship down to a joke. A man cries and he’s mocked for being too sensitive instead of being embraced and told that his feelings are valid.
Hannibal and X-Men have changed the dialogue, though. They’ve both called for a harder look at male relationships. Hannibal can show an invested emotional interest in Will without needing his emotions to be validated with sex, and Erik can still acknowledge that he and Charles have a special connection without making it a romantic relationships. These are the models we need in media because they explore male dynamics in a way that the mainstream does not.
Even shows like BBC’s Sherlock, who make attempts at exploring this dynamic, fail when they reduce Sherlock and Watson’s relationship to a series of gay jokes. Another historical literary pairing that offers the potential to explore an emotional male friendship is reduced down to a joke where John has to constantly exclaim that he isn’t gay just because he’s good friends with Sherlock and the rest of the world laughs and goes, “Sure you’re not!”
I really believe that these relationships are important to see and I’m so happy that Hannibal and X-Men both are getting the attention they are. Now, X-Men is far more subtle about it than Hannibal but I think it is necessary when it comes to trying to reach a broader audience. The more we can see emotional male friendships modeled on television and in movies, the better.
I give both teams of writers props for being willing to explore these dynamics without cheapening them. I especially commend Bryan Fuller for being so open about the exploration. He has no problem saying very clearly that Hannibal and Will are not sexually interested, but they are both very clearly emotionally invested. He’s doing something a lot of shows won’t do because it is complicated, it is messy, and it goes against the typical script.
The more we make it normal for men to be emotionally invested in things without giving them the expectation that emotionality equals sex, the better I think we will be as a society for it.