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The Horny Hero in American Film

It’s time for Hollywood to champion better male heroes.

(By Ovidiu Hrubaru/Shutterstock)

There is a fairly typical formula for the Hollywood male hero. He should be strong, handsome, and courageous, with a devil-may-care desire for the dangerous. He should be intelligent and tough — like Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan, a Ph.D. and former marine officer, or the Eton-educated, intelligence officer James Bond. He should be street-start, with a limitless capacity for quotable one-liners, like Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry or “Popeye” Doyle in The French Connection. And, to top it off, he should be capable of enjoying sexual dalliances with any woman he fancies.

In the James Bond series, the classy British spy seems ever-ready to engage not just with every henchman, but every attractive woman he encounters. Of course, since he’s Bond, he rarely seems to suffer much in terms of consequences for these fleeting fancies. Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises falls for the seductive Miranda Tate, who is really the daughter of Batman’s old nemesis, Ra’s al Ghul. And the new Jack Ryan, played by The Office’s John Krasinski, hops into bed with his former boss’s daughter after their first date. 

There are many things about cinematic heroes that require audiences to restrain their impulses for incredulity—that they seem impervious to thousands of bullets flying their way, that they always have one last trick up their sleeve to save their skin and win the day. Yet surely another, less discussed trait is their curious inability to exhibit control over their libidos—and how few consequences there are for womanizing ways. Male protagonists often change women as easily as they do pressed suits, but rarely seem to pay the price for their reckless liaisons.

Such behavior seems discongrous with the other qualities of the archetypal male hero. Tough men, unlike many of those around them, are not susceptible to every passing sensual diversion. Sure, many of them can hold their drink, but this is typically an extension of their stoic ethos. These are guys who, when required, can go a day without sitting down to eat a full meal. They are strong, and often lean. They possess a robust conscience, and an unswerving, sometimes unparalleled moral compass. They, unlike both inside and outside the system, maintain a vision of goodness and truth, and what is necessary in order to preserve and/or secure them.

To flirt with sexual dalliances, whatever modern cinema and television seek to portray, is a departure from an otherwise rigid code. A man able to say no to a bribe, or a profitable proposition to make an extra buck in an illegal venture, should be able to say “no” to some random fling. A man able to demonstrate an almost ascetic form of life should be able to exhibit a bit more self-mastery. Especially when such sexual encounters create such massive vulnerabilities, besides the obvious: being naked with a stranger and having one’s back turned to the door. There’s also, of course, risk of impregnating that stranger, acquiring an STD from that stranger, or simply developing an emotional/sensual attachment and dependency on that stranger. Imagine Indiana Jones declining an adventure because of a date night or a booty call.

Moreover, when male protagonists do refuse sexual advances, they can be some of the most powerful, character-exemplifying moments in the storyline. Stuntman Cliff Booth in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is one such stoic hero. Booth, played by Brad Pitt, is a simple, old-fashioned American tough-guy. He is a doggedly loyal friend to his employer, aging TV actor Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), driving him around town and fixing stuff at Dalton’s home. He lives simply, like a hermit, with his pit-bull, Brandy. He is a war veteran and capable of kicking Bruce Lee’s ass in a fight in a Hollywood parking lot — an event precipitated by Booth laughing at Lee’s claim to be able to defeat Cassius Clay (aka Mohammad Ali). Yet he also possesses sexual restraint. 

While driving around Los Angeles, Booth notices an attractive, young hitchhiker. They flirt from a distance, and after driving by her several times, he picks her up. She quickly and aggressively makes a move on him. When he asks her age and discovers she’s underage, he shrugs her off and takes her home to an old ranch once used for Westerns in which he served as a stuntman, now serving as home for Charles Manson’s bizarre cult. Booth makes a point of pushing through a number of bleary-eyed hippies to check in on his old, blind, half-senile friend who owns the place. He wants to make sure the hippies aren’t taking advantage of him. In effect, his masculine stoicism enables him to avoid foolish romantic entanglements and protect his friends.

Similarly, in the 2007 film Into the Wild, when Christopher McCandless (Emile Hirsch) rejects sex from Tracy Tatro (Kristen Stewart), it seems to further solidify his ascetic, otherworldly passion to pursue purity and peace in nature. McCandless redirects the conversation away from sex, and persuades Tatro to sing a duet at the small, Southwest commune where they meet. Then he skips town for new horizons to realize his personal vision.

One would also think in this #MeToo era that viewers, and certainly female viewers, would welcome men who could, well, keep it in their pants. Would not more self-disciplined men in cinema and television teach the kinds of lessons America is eager for young men to know — namely, that their libidos must be tempered and oriented properly, rather than at every sexual encounter that presents itself? As I’ve argued elsewhere, what men see with their eyes influences what they do with the rest of their bodies.

Moreover, if the better angels of our nature are correct that there are higher order goods above sensual gratification — friendship, courage, emotional/spiritual peace, and justice among them — we need more stories that tell it like it really is. Those who allow dangerous sexual liaisons into their lives soon realize it is impossible to keep them from bleeding into everything else. Just ask David Petraeus, Anthony Weiner, Tiger Woods, or Mark Sanford. The road back to respectability after such behavior comes to light can be long and arduous one. 

Witnessing male heroes exercise sexual restraint is moving and instructive in ways sorely needed when authentic manliness can be derided as “toxic masculinity,” and men are derisively ridiculed by liberal media. Male characters who control their lower-order passions, interestingly, addresses those in search of true masculinity and those repelled by its “toxic” manifestations. Don’t women want men who are capable of self-possession? It’s time for Hollywood to champion better male heroes for our culture. If they’re interested, I can provide a list.

Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.

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