In thinking about how we can promote positive, healthy masculinity, if we don’t want to raise sons who think that all art/film/literature began in the 21st century it’s worth thinking about what classics exist that already promote positive (masculine) identity. Brit Marling’s recent critique of film tropes and Ross Douthat’s piece from last year in the New York Times both make important points that contemporary society is often too quick to ignore older thinkers (and Victorian literature), but I don’t believe that any of his models of behavior (romantic, gentleman, and stoic) are as applicable to 21st-century manhood as that presented by the 1955 film “The Court Jester.”
“The Court Jester” was my favorite film as a child; in elementary school I watched it more times than I can recall, and to this day I can recite most of the lines. It first drew me in with its comedy and entertainment, but I have come to further appreciate its rare representation of a gentle, courageous hero who respects women while also embracing a values system predicated on physical courage. The hero, Hubert Hawkins, is a carnival entertainer who has joined a band of rebels fighting a murderous king in medieval England. He winds up infiltrating the castle disguised as a visiting jester on a mission to protect the infant rightful heir to the throne, while facing enchantments, swordfights, and the amorous attentions of the princess along the way.
Below are nine reasons why I believe “The Court Jester” presents an exceptional model of healthy masculinity in its protagonist, Hubert Hawkins.
- Hawkins serves a cause. Most “traditional” models of masculinity involve actively striving to achieve a meaningful goal. Hubert Hawkins is no exception to this; in the opening scene, we learn that he has joined an outlaw band, wishes to fight, and is helping in any way that he can to serve the group’s mission of overthrowing the tyrant. He has a sense of purpose and a goal that underlie and elevate all of the mishaps that follow.
- He is willing to serve under a woman. Many men are uncomfortable earning less than women or taking orders from a woman, partly because there were fewer female leaders in positons of authority in their formative years. Jean, the love interest in “The Court Jester” is also Hawkins’ superior in their band of rebels, and he consistently addresses her as “Captain” or “Sir.” He respects her, and his attraction to her does not diminish his respect for her competence or authority.
- Captain Jean is strong and competent. Jean describes being taught to fight by her father in a private dialogue with Hawkins. While Hawkins is not immune to the optics of traditional gender roles (when he’s asked to bring out the royal baby to see the new recruits, he complains that he thinks that kind of job might be better done by a woman), he is willing to play his part. She’s the one who knocks out Giacomo, the real jester.
- Captain Jean is not invincible. She recognizes the physical/sexual threat posed to her by the king, and outsmarts him, rather than physically dominating him.
- Hawkins likes women. This may seem obvious, but oftentimes (even in “progressive” settings) sensitive, thoughtful, romantic men are presumed to be gay or jokes are made about their ambiguous sexuality. In a rare treat, Hawkins’ straightness is never questioned, even as a joke (unlike, for example, Friar Tuck’s line “Feigeles?” in Robin Hood: Men in Tights). When he sees Jean dressed “as a woman,” he is speechless, and his lack of combative training/muscularity is never interpreted as homosexuality. For young straight men, this is crucial; one need not be homophobic to not wish to be mis-identified as homosexual. If they believe that the only way to advertise heterosexual interest and availability is to behave boorishly, they will feel even more torn between their desire to behave well and their desire to be desirable.
- He is good with the baby. Though he’s concerned about being seen in public as “the guy holding the baby,” he sings it a lullaby during a storm and is clearly good with the child. Jean affirmatively reassures him that despite his concerns about stereotypical gender roles, “kindness and gentleness can make a man, a very rare man.” In order for men to share in child-rearing, they have to believe that it’s something desirable and that they are as “naturally good at” as women.
- He is not presumptuous. In a leaky-roofed hut, Jean has to ask him to lie down next to her, and when she tells him to raise his arm (so they can lie more comfortably side-by-side) he lifts the wrong one. It’s a quick gag, but his obtuseness reflects a care bordering on absolute aversion to taking advantage of the situation as an excuse to get close to her, nor does she interpret his lack of sexual initiative as lack of interest in her.
- He is talented. An admirable role model has to have some sort of skill or excellence, and Hawkins is able to pose as the official court jester Giacomo successfully because he is a great entertainer. His facility with languages, singing, and doing impressions endear him to the king, make him attractive to the princess, and, of course, entertain us as the audience. This is also critical to the plausibility of his attractiveness; no teenager reasonably believes that he can be purely mediocre and still get the girl of his dreams.
- Hawkins is brave. In multiple instances, Hawkins fights against a more skilled opponent, knowing that it is likely that he will be killed. He is not a competent fighter and he knows it, but he stands and fights anyway when he needs to. Courage need not be a solely masculine virtue, but it is hard to imagine an appealing, robust definition of healthy masculinity that does not require courage.
- He winds up with Jean. In the end, despite having muddled his way through most of the film, he winds up with Jean, having triumphed and restored the infant to the throne. It’s silly and light-hearted, but important in that his various humiliations do not disqualify him from her affection.
If we are to raise men who respect women, care for children, and serve others, these traits cannot be presented as the realm of boring adulthood. Seeing strong women represented is important, but so is seeing gentle men, and if strong women are only portrayed as being attracted to even stronger men, then romance becomes an arms race in which a young man may fear that women’s gains have made it even harder for him to be desirable. Throwing out all art that is not explicitly egalitarian would impoverish our culture and diminish our perspective; similarly, promoting a worldview that equates achievement with conquest rather than cultivation will have a negative impact on all of us.
Thankfully, “The Court Jester” already exists to present a model of masculinity that is gentle and courageous, respectful and loving, skillful but not arrogant. One can hope that similarly well-rounded portrayals will become as popular (especially for kids) as the brave, strong, and capable young women who now dominate Disney films.