The Fictional Male Character: Holding Onto Old Stereotypes & Creating New Ones

My Dear Readers,

     There is a thin line between fact and fiction. Fiction is the ability to live life in an imagined world, making it up or changing it to suit the observer.  Fact is the reality of how we live our lives. Television, combined with the human need to not only be close to pain, but to make sense out of life, has succeeded in making the line between fiction and fact thinner.

     I recently had the pleasure of watching the première of a new television series, Murder In The First.  It is a crime drama that takes place in San Francisco involving two police detectives.  In this episode, Inspector Terry English, an African American played by Taye Diggs, is grasping the reality that his wife has stage 4 pancreatic cancer that has invaded her liver and kidneys.

     When his wife is sent home to live out her remaining days, Detective English, unable to stay at home with her, remains at work working to solve a complicated murder case. In one dramatic scene, he tells his female partner, Inspector Hildy Mulligan (played by Kathleen Robertson) the following:

      “I can’t go home and watch her die.  I can’t and won’t do that.”

     This is soon followed by another dramatic scene in which Detective English loses his composure and self-control while interrogating a suspect, resulting in physically assaulting the suspect.   Despite this horrible situation—the pending loss of his wife, the lapse with the suspect—he is backed by a compassionate and enduring cast of fellow officers who do what they can to support their colleague in his most difficult time. 

     The episode concludes with Inspector English at another murder scene, receiving a call on his cell phone that his wife passed away.  As the camera comes in for the close up, you can see the pain and anguish in his facial expression.  Inspector English was true to his word as he followed through on what he said to partner,

      “I can’t go home and watch her die.  I can’t and won’t do that.”

     He did not go home.  She was alone without him when she died.  She died alone.

     We, the audience, are left with a mixture of feelings.  There may be anger that he let her die alone.  There also may be pity or compassion for him and his inability to come to terms with her death and his living on without her.   We are left in awe and looking forward to next week’s episode.

     That was fiction.  It was a story developed by scriptwriters sharing ideas on how the character should look and feel, and how to draw the audience into this emotional turmoil.  As the episode concludes, we know one thing to be true…it’s a fictional story with actors.  No one really died.  It is all make believe.  As the audience, we “feel” for and “connect” with the character of Inspector English, and feel grateful that he has the support that he has, but still, what was explained in the episode was fiction.  However as an individual member of the audience, I am left feeling empty, disappointed. 

     Why? A wonderful opportunity was missed.  Here is the storyline of a African American man, who is about to lose his beloved spouse after a courageous battle fighting cancer.  And yet, the story focuses on his emotional conflicts about and his inability “to watch her die”, leading him to allow his wife to die alone. What? 

     There was an opportunity here to drop the racial stereotypes forced upon African American males.  Instead the script focuses on casting him as a warm, compassionate loving spouse, who is at times a conflicted and emotionally distant, reserved (cold) person who can suddenly explode in fury upon a helpless derelict (being played by a white actor) being held in police custody. 

     Here was an opportunity to move beyond the stereotypes of the conflicted stoic angry black man.  Yet the scriptwriters stay within the perceived stereotypes.  Why?  If the lead actor had been Caucasian, no doubt the script would had:

  • Focused on the actor being with his spouse as she took her last breath.

  • Focused on the calmness and control of the lead actor and not allow him to go savagely violent on a helpless person under police custody.

  • Focused less on tension derived from interactions based on race and more on interactions based on human want and need, such as grief and loss, compassion and nurturing.

     Another opportunity lost.  We really can’t blame the scriptwriters.  In fact, we can’t do without them.  They are only giving us what the viewing audiences want. This is a glimpse of the new and improved version of today’s “acceptable” black man, who is:

  • one who is professional, speaks well and with warmth,

  • but is emotionally conflicted, detached at times, incapable of responding to his own emotions, and

  • capable of exploding at a moment’s notice in savage, violent fury.

     The modern scriptwriters have updated today’s stereotype of the African-American man.  Gone are leading roles depicting black men as flashy, pathologically sexual, uneducated, and drug addicted.  Now they have been replaced by black men who although not flashy, are well educated, professional, and while less focused on the “sexual tension”, there remains the possibility of the character’s temper flaring.  

     This was no simple task for the scriptwriters.  They had to balance the need to have characters that are familiar and understandable by their audience with being sensitive enough to avoid an accusation from the African-American community that the depiction is demeaning.

     So, a makeover was required.  Like the recent updates to comic book characters such as the X-Men and Iron Man, the  scriptwriters have been successful in updating the image of the African-American man, who is now more sophisticated than his earlier stereotyped predecessor.

      Despite this modern improvement, however, the old stereotypes are still visible.  He is still unable to articulate what’s really going on inside him.  As in the old stereotype, the modern black male characters remain psychologically wounded and conflicted when responding to his emotions.  This is an Angry Black man, out of Control (ABC).   

     Instead of being revolted by his fury and uncontrollable wrath in dealing with the suspect, the viewing audience is encouraged to cast their pity upon him due to the loss of his spouse, a loss that he is apparently incapable of shouldering.

     Fictional story with fictional characters; another opportunity missed. The savagery of his anger and his emotional detachment is accepted because it fulfills the stereotype of what is expected from black men.  No doubt that the series will play upon the shame and guilt and the ensuing psychological damage that Inspector English will carry throughout the series for his decision to work versus being there as his wife takes her last breath.

     And yet, there are real black men in the world today that are being ignored (or dismissed).   Men who sit with their spouses, holding their hands, cleaning their bodies and feeding them as they wait for that moment of that last breath.

     That was my story.  My wife Linda, who passed away peacefully at home last year, did not die alone.  In fact, she was true to herself– always thoughtful, waited for me so I could get home and be with her as she went to be with our heavenly Father.

     I have no doubt that there are many Black men in this world who are just like me, loving spouses who until death greets us as well, will have the knowledge and memories of being there, for her final breath.  My Linda and many loving spouses like her did not die alone.

     As I stated earlier, there are many men of diverse ethnic backgrounds who have similar stories to share, but these stories will never be told.  Why? One reason could be the fact that it contradicts the accepted and familiar stereotypes that are necessary to maintain the interest of the viewing audience.

Concluding Words

     So who is to blame here?  The scriptwriters? The media?  Society?  “White folks” would be an easy target—after all, they are the viewing audience, right?  Nope, sorry. To do so would be giving “black folks” a free pass.   The reality is that black people also buy into those old stereotypes and continue to buy into the stereotypes that are being developed today.

     Instead of focusing on blame, let’s focus on responsibility.  Let us focus on the healthy relationships that we want to develop among ourselves.  If the scriptwriters are focusing on what they perceive as be the “needs” of the viewing audience, then it is up to all of us to work at letting go of the stereotypes, focusing on the “real and fact” instead “fantasy and fiction.”

     Of course, this is no light or easy task, and yet it can be the first step of the Journey of Self Discovery.   It can be in that journey, we find out who we really are and what we can truly be.  Truth being, it may not be accomplished in my lifetime however we can chose to “focus on the journey, not the destination.”

 Until the next crossroads…the journey continues.

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