When I was a teen I was kinda annoyed that all the male characters being sold to me seemed to have no direction in life. Don’t get me wrong, women get a raw deal in movie roles, but this trend of the “directionless male slacker” never really sat right with me, mostly because I knew exactly what I wanted to do (write books) but faced various challenges to other social milestones that other men my age seem to reach so easily (love, sex, a job, a sense of community) so any attempt at writing something aimed at somebody my age was forever tainted by this lens rather than the “this is no ordinary love story” twee indie romantic comedy lens which bothered me because not only did a lot of these stories like Juno and (500) Days Of Summer assume I’d dated at least one woman by the point I’d reached the protagonist’s age, but that I’d be completed by this wacky woman who is market tested to appeal to men in ways I barely understand, namely because as an Aspie/high functioning autistic there are differing degrees of manchild I’m dealing with of the developmentally delayed kind as opposed to the 30-40 year old Peter Pan dreamed up by LA screenwriters living a world away from my own situation both in location and emotion. Like if I told somebody “I love MILFy, maternal women cause they’re fun to cuddle and really sweet.” you’d either write me off as a perv objectifying women or you’d, as a woman, be offended that I’m into maternal gals when you’re wanting to take your life in a much less motherhood oriented direction. Of course if you ask a non-Aspie guy what he likes and he says he’s into MILFy chicks, the subtext of a need for comfort and nurture is usually gone and you’d write them off as a perv. Most of the time.
So imagine my surprise when I read a lot of YA novels aimed at a dude/teenage girl YA audience and from Looking For Alaska to The Perks Of Being A Wallflower, I was saddened that these books weren’t about people like me, and I don’t mean that in the way the Girls writers mean about white people in New York, I mean “Do these protagonists who are male have any real identity beyond quirky hobbies and the quirky women they date? What art do they wish to create? What inspires them? Have any of these men spent nights awake in bed, alone, with AKIRA or Heavy Traffic on replay on their computer monitor as they return to the classics of not just literature, but comics or animation or TV or cinema for comfort? Are any of these men disabled? What if they’re like me, but they’re not white, yet I still relate to them?”
Then I read The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao and found my answer. The problem wasn’t that the character’s race or gender made me care more or less about the story, it’s that a lot of these twee indie love stories the late 2000s tried to sell me on had no real grit to make the battles these men faced matter. Oscar Wao felt like a real person living in a time when nerds were a new idea and Hollywood had barely begun to sell out our imaginations for cheap cash ins. I could feel his pain when he described the sci fi leftovers of the library as his only comfort. These were not pandering references, they felt like this weird docudrama about the sort of person born in the wrong era, before he’d be loved for who he is. In comparison stories like (500) Days Of Summer, Looking For Alaska and The Perks Of Being A Wallflower felt like Buzzfeed fantasies of what being a young dude finding meaning in a turbulent era was, no real insight, just… Platitudes of what being a dateless dude with a clear goal beyond getting laid faces would be like if I was not born with autism and not socially isolated and not born in a country far away from New York City. Fucking Disney movies respected my intelligence and dignity more than these pandering ass stories, Disney panders, yeah, but they do it in this way you’re happy to buy into because it’s a bright and colourful cartoon world you know is fake but you wish was real. It’s like why Star Trek TOS is so brilliant, they created an empire out of styrofoam and tin foil, because it was all they had. And they made you believe it. I feel rather conflicted about stories aimed at 20 something dudes. I’m scared to admit that I don’t relate to Annie Hall nearly as much as I did the first time I saw Heavy Traffic, the tale of a lonely cartoonist that creates in his bedroom for lack of a better world. I’m sorry, Woody Allen, I need to get older for you to sell me on the idea your life is hard. I still can’t relate to (500) Days Of Summer the way AKIRA rocked my world, because it wasn’t just a story about motorbikes and psychic children. It showed me a side of men where they were emotionally vulnerable at times of crisis, in ways they’re afraid to let you see. I want good stories, not just a self insert fantasy. I want to come away from a story with another wrench in my toolbox to face life with.