TV has been making and breaking stereotypes for decades, especially in how it shows gender, sexuality, religion and society itself. It is inspired by everyday people like us, and we also end up being the inspired lot after.
Richly written characters make discernable traits relatable. Over the years, female characters have seen definite development; they’ve traversed admirable arcs, from being damsels in distress to being leaders, and everything flawed and relatable in-between. Male characters have still been feeding into stereotypes, both physical and emotional. They are either strong, intense, brooding, or practical, or funny and lost – all of them come with a limited range of emotions and go through even more constricted personal journeys.
Rare are the men who are vulnerable, real and comfortable in their sexuality. They are self-aware in a way that makes the concept of manliness and masculinity worth reconsidering.
Connell in ‘Normal People’
We frequently come across career-oriented, strong and practical men on-screen. But along comes Connell, played by Paul Mescal in the Irish show adapted from Sally Rooney’s eponymous book, who expresses his self-doubt and insecurities every chance he gets. He calculates his responses, usually lost on how he should act in the external world. We see contradictions in his actions, but we connect with his confusion of functioning in a society that at times is unsparing.
Connell proves that maturity isn’t without flaws, that love exists even with compromised self-compassion, and that beauty can be a by-product of being a misfit. What stands out is his unfiltered struggle with his mental health and him seeking care from a professional and a loved one. In one episode, we watch him try to make sense of his social identity with his therapist, finally breaking down, allowing himself to catch up with his emotional fatigue. We feel for him as he rummages through love and loss throughout the series. (Lionsgate Play)
Dhruv in ‘Little Things’
In the Indian context, gender stereotypes seem more watertight in the roles that men and women are expected to play in society, also affecting their relationships with one another. Dhruv, played by Dhruv Sehgal, inhabits that wonderfully mishmashed space of being an Indian man and a self-aware millennial partner. His fear when he wants to inform his partner that he quit his job as a Data Analyst, his inability to comprehend his mother’s growing old – all of it is relatable and valid.
We see Dhruv through phases of loneliness, and also as having an inferiority complex when Kavya, his partner played by Mithila Palkar, is doing better professionally. In this process we see him evolve as a person and partner. He is clearly an achiever but not without some internal struggles. When he makes questionable, yet satisfying professional choices, cooks pithla bhakri, a Maharashtrian dish for Kavya or resorts to food after a bad day, we connect with him even more. Dhruv accepts that he falters while dealing with changes, balancing a demanding job, and a long distance relationship, and it’s his willingness to listen and communicate that makes his journey worth investing in. (Netflix)
The Hot Priest in ‘Fleabag’
One of the most beloved men on T.V, the Hot Priest swears, breaks rules and is into G&Ts. One of the rare stereotype-breaking characters, his relationships with God, with religion, and with the people who visit his church and attend his sermons are all nuanced and full of heart. The Hot Priest is unabashed, honest and optimistic. Is a priest sworn to celibacy allowed to fall in love? What does that do to his relationship with his faith, with his convictions, the woman he falls for, and ultimately with himself?
Andrew Scott as the priest might at first glance seem like a conventional, flat male character, but it’s his beliefs, his ability to love, the spectrum of greys he’s willing to accommodate, that leave us spellbound in every scene. (Amazon Prime)
Karan in ‘Made In Heaven’
Karan (Arjun Mathur), is a homosexual man residing in Delhi. He is “manly”, even charming at times, breaking the stereotype of gay men as over-the-top and effiminate only, in popular Indian TV and film. However, Karan isn’t the perfect son, the perfect partner or even the perfect businessman. His demons, past and present, haunt him and make him a complex human being whose story we keep learning as the show progresses.
With every trauma, we see him emerge stronger and more resilient than before. His decisions aren’t ego-based, but usually survival-based. He is beyond the black-and-white of right and wrong which automatically makes his existence soothing, easy and even healthy to engage with. While he appears to be confident, unapologetic and comfortable with himself, we watch him break down in friend and business-partner Tara’s arms (Sobhita Dhulipala) after he gets sexually harassed and physically assaulted. He attends to his emotions, his thoughts and lets that inform his actions. (Amazon Prime)
Phil in ‘Modern Family’
Characters like Phil (Ty Burrell), stay with you, ensuring happiness every time you re-watch them. Phil cries easily, and sits with those who want to do the same. As a father, he is clearly more attached to his son but jumps at the chance of teaching his daughter cheerleading routines. He seeks validation but stands by his emotions, rightfully holding space for others. With men being portrayed as ones who roll up their sleeves and solve problems, Phil embraces his feminine side without the fear of losing his “masculinity”. (Hotstar)
Kanishka N. is a freelance writer based in Pune.