Lately I feel like everyone is talking about masculinity and what it means to be a good dude. Last month, I was on a panel at the Pride on the Page book festival with Jacob Tobia (Sissy) who was saying that we’ve spent decades expanding gender roles for women in mainstream society—and women finally won the right to wear pants in the workplace (for now)—but meanwhile, too many guys men remain trapped, unable to express healthy emotions or process all of their trauma.
As someone who was so successful at being a man that I actually graduated, I want to help!
So it’s a really good thing that science fiction and fantasy offer us so many excellent examples of guys who are secure in their masculinity and ready to do the right thing, even when it’s tough.
Superman (DC Comics)
The best word I can think of to describe Superman is “nurturing.” There are so many images online of Supes hugging someone or offering comfort to someone in pain. The most powerful superhero is also the most tender and compassionate, to the point where his greatest superpower is the ability to take care of people in pain. My favorite onscreen Superman is now Tyler Hoechlin’s gentle, self-effacing dad from Superman & Lois, who wears his heart on his sleeve and is willing to open up about his feelings. Superman doesn’t just have super-hearing—he has super-listening.
Ballister Boldheart (Nimona)
Ballister starts out as an underdog—the first knight chosen from among the common folk—and then he loses everything after being framed for a terrible crime. You’d forgive him for turning bitter and closed off—but when he meets the shapeshifting Nimona, he’s still willing to see the good in her and to become her partner in crime. He keeps doing the right thing, even when he’s in pain, and forgives his boyfriend Ambrosius for some truly hurtful behavior (albeit in the line of duty). Sir Ballister is a mensch.
The Middleman (The Middleman)
At first blush, the titular hero of the criminally underrated superhero show appears to be just an uptight caricature of an Eisenhower-era square-jawed straight arrow. He drinks milk instead of anything with caffeine or alcohol, and delivers ridiculous lines with a deadpan delivery. But over the course of one brilliant season, the Middleman reveals layers of character, along with a keen sense of honor. One of my favorite episodes puts the Middleman in contrast with his predecessor, a toxic tool who gives really bad advice to the Middleman’s friend Wendy.
King T’Challa (Black Panther)
Just as Superman is absurdly powerful, T’Challa has it all: he’s not only one of the greatest superheroes in the Marvel Universe, he’s also king of one of the most advanced countries, Wakanda. He’s also suffered grievous loss, including the death of his father, King T’Chaka. But as played unforgettably by Chadwick Boseman, T’Challa is a wise leader, one who’s able to laugh at himself but also willing to listen to his council and do the right thing. Even when it costs him a lot, he upholds his code of honor. (And I highly recommend Christopher Priest’s formative run on Black Panther for more of T’Challa being a great ruler and a good man, though he’s willing to fight dirty when circumstances warrant.)
Captain Pike (Star Trek: Strange New Worlds)
Star Trek is full of men who uphold lofty principles while holding their heads high. But Christopher Pike is pretty much the platonic ideal of a good dad. He’s strong and resolute, but also generous and fair. He’s surrounded by people who are good at their jobs, and he doesn’t second-guess them or try to undermine them in any way—instead, he lifts them up and gives them more confidence. Confronted with a scary vision of his own future, he works through it by talking it through with the people he trusts. And he still manages to be a relaxed, reassuring presence. Plus he’s always cooking delicious food. Pike is exhibit A for being secure in your own masculinity.
Steven Universe (Steven Universe)
For most of the episodes of Steven Universe, Steven is a bundle of cheerfulness and friendliness, always willing to see the best in everyone—even if they’re trying to kill him. He finds a way to save the people he loves, sometimes against terrible odds, and he even helps the genocidal, imperialist diamonds to be better people. He’s happy to have a shield while letting his friend Connie wield the sword. But most of all, in the sequel show Steven Universe Future, he does the hard work of confronting his trauma, even if he struggles with admitting it at first.
Cheese (Reservation Dogs)
Reservation Dogs isn’t classified as a genre show, but it does feature a lot of magical realist elements. And Cheese is an incredible character, a turbo-nerd artist who usually gets the best lines of dialogue. In particular, though, I’m blown away by “Frankfurter Sandwich,” an episode in the final season where Cheese goes on a male-bonding trip with some older men and winds up leading them gently to confront their buried traumas. It’s one of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen.
Uncle Iroh (Avatar: The Last Airbender)
A former military leader, Uncle Iroh has settled into drinking tea and goofing off, and serves a gentle mentor to his hotheaded nephew Prince Zuko. He’s a huge part of the reason why Zuko becomes a better person over the course of ATLA. To be sure, Iroh did some terrible things when he was younger, but now he’s gotten over himself and just wants to hang out and make really good tea. (Note: I came up with Iroh thanks to this Reddit thread.)
Din Djarin (The Mandalorian)
Okay, sure: the Mandalorian works as a bounty hunter, and sometimes his job is a dirty one. But the thing I admire about Din Djarin is the fact that he has a code of honor that he sticks to—except that he’s willing to break it to save his adopted son, Grogu. Specifically, he takes off his helmet when there’s no other way to rescue Grogu, and he pays the price for it. The only reason that he adopts Grogu in the first place is because he decides there are lines he won’t cross, and selling a child to bad people is one of them. And he’s a really good dad! Plus when he gets the Darksaber, he doesn’t cling to it, but rather finds a way to give it to its rightful owner, Bo Katan.
Sunny (Into the Badlands)
In a post-apocalyptic world, five hundred years from now, Sunny is the right-hand man to the Baron Quinn, one of the warlords who dominate the Badlands. Sunny is constantly thrown into situations where he has divided loyalties, or where he has to choose between following orders and doing the right thing, and he usually finds a way to do the right thing. (Even though he’s done some pretty terrible things in the past.) When he takes M.K., an orphan with a mysterious power, under his wing, he does everything he can to teach and protect his new charge.
Henry Deacon (Eureka)
In a “town full of geniuses,” Henry Deacon might just be the smartest of them all—but when this underrated show begins, he’s working as a mechanic because he has ethical objections to the work that Global Dynamics is doing. Henry isn’t just the guy who steps in and fixes things when all the out-of-control science goes off the rails, he’s also the town’s moral center. (And eventually, he becomes its mayor.) Emmy-winning actor Joe Morton, who plays Henry, also plays a resourceful, kind alien refugee in the movie The Brother From Another Planet.
Frodo and Samwise (The Lord of the Rings)
In a world of warriors, wizards, and supernatural badasses, Frodo is just a humble regular dude, who takes on a burden that would crush almost anybody and carries it (almost) to the finish line, battling temptation the entire way. And Samwise is the steadfast friend without whom Frodo couldn’t possibly have made it.
This article was originally published at Happy Dancing, Charlie Jane Anders’ newsletter, available on Buttondown.
Charlie Jane Anders is the author of the young-adult trilogy Victories Greater Than Death, Dreams Bigger Than Heartbreak, and Promises Stronger Than Darkness, along with the short story collection Even Greater Mistakes. She’s also the author of Never Say You Can’t Survive (August 2021), a book about how to use creative writing to get through hard times. Her other books include The City in the Middle of the Night and All the Birds in the Sky. She co-created Escapade, a trans superhero, for Marvel Comics, and featured her in New Mutants Vol. 4 and the miniseries New Mutants: Lethal Legion. She reviews science fiction and fantasy books for The Washington Post. Her TED Talk, “Go Ahead, Dream About the Future” got 700,000 views in its first week. With Annalee Newitz, she co-hosts the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct.