This week, we’re returning to the subject of Nerd Role Models, where we examine some of the most popular characters in pop-culture and what you can learn from them. After last week’s discussion about reclaiming what it means to be a man from the restrictions of toxic masculinity, it’s time to look at a movie that gives not just one but multiple examples of how to be a better man. And that movie is Pacific Rim.
One of the glories of Pacific Rim is that – like the oceans – it contains hidden depths. On the surface, it’s very much a big swinging dick movie about the joys of brawny alpha males using giant robots to punch monsters in the dick with cargo ships while BadAss McCoolName delivers the latest in a long line of writers’ attempts to write their own version of Shakespeare’s St. Crispin’s Day speech. But mostly giant robots beating on monsters.
But when you look even a little deeper, it’s almost gleefully subversive of action movie tropes. It’s the woman of color who gets the full Campbellian journey rather than Johnny Action Hero and the hot-shot maverick pilot who doesn’t play by the rules… doesn’t exist, actually. In fact, Pacific Rim is one of the best examples of what non-toxic masculinity looks like.
The Value of Positive Masculinity
Something that makes Pacific Rim an interesting is how much care and attention it takes in portraying the male characters. It would be very easy to let Raleigh, for example, be yet another fly-by-the-seat-of-his-pants pilot stereotype or a conflicted-bad-ass and let him be the unquestioned hero of the piece. After all, Charlie Hunnam may well have been grown from the DNA of dozens of other jacked pretty-boy leading men…
But instead, he’s a complex and nuanced character who manages to be unquestionably masculine without falling into the cliches of what makes a “real” man. In fact, there’re multiple forms of positive masculinity, all of whom are vital to the plot of the movie and the success of the mission. While Raleigh is the more easily relatable character – what with getting the most screen-time and all – he’s just one example. While we do enjoy watching him beat the shit out of giant monsters, his being Billy BadAss With A Heart of Gold isn’t held up as the sole ideal. Stacker Pentacost, for example, embodies a leader and a father and someone who is able to cycle between them with relative ease. Newton Geizler1 may not be hopping into mech suits to throw down with Knifehead and Leatherback, but his being a scientist doesn’t restrict him to the role of emasculated intellectual or clueless dweeb. His brains, intuition and dogged determination are all absolutely as important to saving the day as Raleigh and Mako’s skills as pilots.
Now let’s examine some specific examples of positive masculine behavior…
It’s About Respect
When talking about Pacific Rim, it’s impossible to not talk about Mako Mori. Much has already been made about how significant of a character she is – a female protagonist who is not only fully developed as a character but who isn’t the main character’s girlfriend or love-interest and is their equal without going the other way and making her completely flawless.
But what’s significant to me – and what makes ties this into modeling a positive masculinity – is how the others treat her.
When Raleigh meets Mako, it’s pretty obvious that she’s a fan. She’s been studying him and has, if not a full crush, then at least a fascination that isn’t just about his skill as a Jaeger pilot. She may be professional and driven, but that doesn’t mean that she doesn’t get the occasional happy-twinge when she manages to catch him with his shirt off…
I bring this up because it would be very easy for Raleigh to mentally file this star-struck young woman away as a potential hook-up, or bridge-bunny – someone who’s lesser than he is. But from the moment he meets her, it’s clear that he respects her; she has a purpose at the Shatterdome and she wouldn’t be there if she weren’t very good at what she does. His immediate assumption is that she can’t just be an aide-de-camp to Stacker Pentacost, but rather a pilot like himself. In fact, he’s pretty damned impressed to find out that she’s quite possibly a better Jaeger pilot than he is; don’t forget, his only qualification to be a Jaeger pilot was that he and his brother could drift. When she criticizes his performance and straight-up tells him that she doesn’t think he’s right for the mission, he takes it in stride. Yeah, he doesn’t exactly agree with her, but he doesn’t also immediately minimize her. He doesn’t denigrate her or lash out, just explains his experiences and owns the fact that he fucked up in Alaska. He has a problem with her comments about his fighting during the testing, but he’s not only willing to to see whether she can back up what she has to say, but he respects her enough to take her seriously from the start of the match.
And when she proves that she can walk the walk as well as being drift compatible? He’s the first person to insist that she needs to be given her shot and encourages her to push against what he sees as Pentacost’s unfair limitations on someone who is clearly a much-needed asset as a pilot. He treats her as an equal, who’s only drawback (such as it is) is a lack of experience. And despite even a disastrous first synch test, he stands up for her as the only pilot he trusts to let into his head. When he challenges Marshall Pentacost, it’s not because she can’t stand up for herself, it’s that she won’t… so he’ll make sure he has her back and goes so far as to confront his superior officer over her.
Stacker Pentacost, on the other hand, is emotionally conflicted over her. On the one hand, he’s promised to protect her. On the other: he recognizes her potential and her skill and wants to give her the opportunity that she so clearly deserves. He knows she has the skill but he still can’t quite bring himself to let go. But when push comes to shove, he knows damned good and well that Mako is exactly what they need and in the end, that respect for her wins out. He respects her enough to quit trying to protect her and lets her protect herself.
It’s Not About Fighting. It’s Not About Not Fighting. It’s About When and Why To Fight.
One of the hallmarks of toxic masculinity is conflict. Being a “real man” is having the biggest, swinging dick and making sure everyone knows it, one way or another. Manhood becomes something that needs to be defended, because it’s inherently hierarchical. If you’re not the alpha, you’re the beta. The alpha fucks and the beta gets fucked over. It turns masculinity into a performance where displays of dominance count more than competence and people who buckle under the pressure are simply too weak… too femme-y. Too much of a pussy.
Raleigh Becket is, at first glance, an almost prototypical version of The Cowboy Ace. He’s unorthodox but dammit he gets results. He’s Maverick. He’s Starbuck2. He’s John Spartan, Detectives Lowrey and Burnett. He will disregard a direct order from his CO because he knows better. In the beginning he’s a grinning, cocky puppy, full of piss and vinegar and boyish bravado. He believes that he (and his brother Yancy) are immortal ass-kicking rock-stars. A mission is just a quick trip out to drop the smack down on a kaiju and it’s back to the Shatterdome for beers and congratulatory hand-jobs.
Of course, when it’s time to make the hard call – let ten people die in order to save millions – Raleigh refuses. As far as he’s concerned, he’s better positioned to override his commanding officer and divert from the mission… and he pays for it. By ignoring their CO, Raleigh and Yancy end up in deeper water where the kaiju have the advantage. As a result: his brother is brutally killed by a kaiju and Gipsy Danger is taken completely out of action… and as best as we can tell, without even managing to save the ship.
Five years later however: Raleigh’s matured. He’s grown up. He’s more restrained… and, more importantly, he understands that masculinity and “being a man” is not about fighting or not fighting; it’s about knowing when to fight and why. When Raleigh confronts Marshall Pentacost over allowing Mako to be his co-pilot, he’s blatantly insubordinate to his superior officer. And to be fair: he’s right; Mako should be his co-pilot and Pentacost is holding her back out of sentimentality rather than for a legitimate reason. But it’s not his call to make. Marshall Pentacost is the leader of a military organization and Raleigh is seriously out of line; you do not speak back to your commanding officer like that, and you certainly don’t lay hands on him. And when Pentacost demands it, Raleigh backs the hell down.
This is not the time to fight and not the way to do so. Part of being a grown-ass man is picking your battles and recognizing that some fights will not end well no matter how firmly you believe you’re correct.
Now, contrast this with Chuck Hansen. Chuck – another hot-head hot-shot full of cum and swagger – continually tries to provoke Raleigh into taking a swing at him, from the moment they meet. He needs to prove himself against “Pentacost’s golden boy” and can’t stop trying to rub Raleigh’s face in his mistakes. But Raleigh has made his peace with his past; he’s accepted it. He’s not going to throw down with a fellow pilot over something as petty as a dick measuring contest. In fact, Raleigh has to hold Mako back when Chuck starts mouthing off. He’s already trying to convince Pentacost not to bench her for the fiasco with their first synch test; the last thing she needs is to get in trouble for fighting with one of the other pilots.
But when Chuck turns and insults Mako… well shit son, you just done fucked up.
As far as Raleigh’s concerned, he’s earned getting his ration of shit. He blames himself, not just for the death of his brother Yancy, but for Mako not being prepared for the intensity of the drift. For Chuck to drag Mako – an innocent – into this… that’s too far and it’s time to throw down.
What makes this significant is that Raleigh doesn’t deck Chuck because Mako needs a big strapping man to be defend her honor, he’s doing it to keep Mako from getting in trouble. Mako doesn’t deserve the insults and vitriol that Chuck throws her way, but she also doesn’t need to make her case any more difficult. Raleigh, on the other hand, is more than willing to take the risk, because that’s part of who he is.
Raleigh isn’t a brawler who likes to think with his fists. He isn’t interested in proving who’s got the bigger dick. He couldn’t care less about who’s top dog at the Shatterdome; if Chuck wants to strut around with his chest puffed out like the cock of the walk, then more power to him. He doesn’t have anything to prove. He’s not a Jaeger pilot because he loves the thrill or because he needs to prove he’s the best or because he just loves fighting. He’s there to protect the people he cares about. He’ll fight – whether literally or figuratively – when it’s the right time and in the right way.
It’s about Compassion
One of the most important aspects of positive masculinity is in how you relate to others, about being willing to not just open up but to connect with other people. To not just rise above your own pain but to use it in ways that help others.
A constant trope in action movies is motivating the hero through the loss of someone they care about. That pain is what pushes them, what drives them to get revenge. It’s what makes them special; it becomes the focus of their life and spurs them forward.
At first glance, Raleigh looks like he will be another example of this trope. When we meet him, we watch him lose his brother in one of the most nightmarish ways possible. Watching his brother die would be bad enough, but Yancy and Raleigh were still connected by the Drift. He was literally in his brother’s head as he was torn apart by a monster out of nightmares. Raleigh got to experience every moment of terror and agony he felt, and then feel his brother’s death like it was his own. His brother’s death is literally and figuratively etched into his being; not just his soul but his body.
So far, so standard action hero motivation. But it’s what Raleigh does with that pain that’s significant.
During their synch test together, Raleigh has a flashback to his brother’s death, which makes Mako lose control and get lost in her own memories. Much like Raleigh, she’s lost everyone in a nightmarish kaiju attack when she was a child. Reliving that memory causes her to panic and lash out – very nearly obliterating everyone she cares about like an angel without a sense of mercy thanks to the neural link with the Jaeger. Her freak-out during the test not only sidelines her but seemingly ends any hope Raleigh had of being a Jaeger pilot again. But rather than getting upset or yelling at her… he sits down with her and opens up about his fear.
Instead of using his pain as a way to push himself to fight more, he uses it as a way to connect with Mako and help her cope with her pain. He’s been through the same trauma that she has – literally (he was in her head in the Drift) and figuratively (through the loss of Yancy). He knows just how hard it can be. And it’s in opening up to her that he teaches and inspires her to push past her fear and pain and learn to harness it instead of letting herself be ruled by it.
Stacker Pentacost – the man with ice water in his veins, the man who stared into the pit of hell and made it blink – is equally moved by compassion. Despite his marble-hard exterior, he’s a man with a deep and abiding sense of love and compassion at his core. The day he met Mako was a day of unimaginable pain. He – like Raleigh – felt his partner get ripped to shreds. His body is broken, seared with lethal doses of radiation. His soul is in tatters. But there’s a little girl who needs a father. A protector. And on the worst day of his life, in the middle of a hellish landscape, he takes her in and gives her a new family. And more than just being a father, he becomes her mentor. Her teacher. He doesn’t just give her a family but a life and a purpose and the skills to carry that purpose out. He is able to rise above the worst pain of his life and open himself up to someone who desperately needs him.
It’s About Not Giving Up, Despite The Odds
So after all that talk about Raleigh, Stacker and Mako, let’s talk about Newt Geiszler. He’s not a traditional hero. He’s not a tall, strapping hunk o’ man, not an ace pilot or a bad-ass motherfucker. He’s twitchy and hyper. He’s not as leading-man handsome like Raleigh, nor does he have Hunnam’s rather astounding build. But he’s attractive and interesting in his own rockstar-scientist way… and he’s easily as manly as the others.
Newt, as someone who’s trying to understand the kaiju instead of just killing them, is fighting an uphill battle. He gets no respect from his fellow scientists. Marshall Pentacost seems to see him less as an asset and more of an eccentric necessity – not what they need but what they have with their limited resources. But Newt doesn’t fold under the pressure. He doesn’t let the scorn get to him or the fact that nobody in authority gives any credence to his theories. Instead, he does something that’s equal-parts fool-hardy and insanely dangerous: he Macguyver’s his own neural link and attempts to Drift with a kaiju brain. Keep in mind that this is after being told that the process would likely lobotomize him; if one person trying to link with a human-created Jaeger caused aneurysms, what would trying to drift with an alien intelligence do?
But… he pulls it off. It nearly kills him in the process, but it worked. And his reward: to go try to negotiate with one of the most dangerous gangsters in Hong Kong for black-market kaiju parts… and in the process, ends up at ground zero of a kaiju attack. It’s a scene that gets played for laughs – Charlie Day is clearly mugging it for the camera – but consider how you would react when there’s a good reason to believe there’s a giant monster looking for you, personally. And upon surviving the attack, he proceeds to attempt the same drift again. From the moment we meet him, he’s doing things that sensible people would be justified in avoiding. But he does them anyway. He’s risking his sanity and soul, but it’s something that needs to be done in order to save the human race.
And Newt is hardly alone. Chuck may be a brash hot-head, but he’s not above putting his own ass on the line when push comes to shove; he and his father face down a rampaging kaiju with nothing but a pair of flare guns in order to try to save lives in Hong Kong. Raleigh – even after having experienced his brother’s death – still managed to defeat the kaiju they were sent to stop. And of course, Stacker Pentacost… well…
It doesn’t matter whether that tenacity, that drive to hold on, pushes you through cinematic triumphs or smaller, less noticeable ones. After Raleigh lost Gipsy Danger and his brother, he kept at it. He worked to build the Life Wall around Alaksa. He may no longer have been engaging kaiju in hand-to-hand, but he was still driven to protect people as best he could, in any way he could.
And that little gesture makes him more of a man, more of a role model for positive masculinity, than any number of kaiju kills.
- You may notice I leave out Dr. Gottleib… this isn’t because he’s not any less masculine but simply because he doesn’t get the same level of attention and development as the others [↩]
- One of the things that made the Battlestar Galactica reboot interesting is that they made Starbuck a woman but kept all of the masculine-coded traits and behaviors… [↩]