Fantasy and historical fiction resonate with male audiences because they feature brave, selfless leaders who inspire those in their charge to great heights of glory for noble causes that matter. There is a reason why stories like The Lord of the Rings, Braveheart, Gladiator, The Odyssey, The Iliad, Master and Commander, Captain Blood, action fare like Commando and Rambo, and even superhero stuff are so popular with men: they fill a need for adventure, bravery, and purpose in a gray, boring world of efficiency, production deadlines, and self-serving leaders who openly despise those beneath them.
These two features of the modern world—a lack of purpose and a lack of leadership—go hand-in-hand. First, the modern world is boring. A man is born, spends their entire youth in school following the rules laid down for him, goes to a university that trains them to be a cog in the machine, enters the workforce for 40 or 50 years, and then dies.
And what is this man working for? What are they hoping to attain? A house of their own? A little land? A family? This stuff can be achieved, but it’s difficult because everything has a high cost. Bills, mortgages, loans, debt, interest, and of course taxes. A man in the 21st century is just as much a slave as the peasant who had to work the land. However, instead of a feudal lord who at least offers to physically protect the land and those in it from invading barbarians in exchange for a share of a man’s crops, a man today toils at gunpoint for a regime populated by people who hate him and invite the barbarians in to settle next door.
Economic Man is a wreck, less-free than his ancestors.
“Look how much better our material circumstances are!” one might say. I agree that this is a good thing, to a point. Indoor plumbing, modern sanitation practices, and a good chunk of modern medicine are the things that I, personally, would have difficulty living without. I can take or leave the rest of it.
Herein underscores the crux of the problem with the boring nature of modernity. Yes, there is a lot of economic activity. Too much, perhaps. We feel chained to our jobs, especially those of us in the rapidly-expanding service economy. I refuse to call it the “knowledge” economy because very little of the information that passes through our channels of communication approaches the level of knowledge. We can only mention the word “wisdom” to lament its absence.
The end result of this economic activity is materialism, the substitute of stuff for actual meaning. One can have a giant house (financed by debt), an education from a top-tier university (financed by debt), a shiny new car or two, a boat, a vacation home (again, all financed by debt) and still be miserable. Maybe a wife and kids are in the picture. But even though having a family helps add meaning to life, if a man has no spiritual purpose and is relying on the accumulation of physical goods to fill that hole, they’re destined for unhappiness.
Our leaders (more on them later) have fooled us into thinking economic well-being in the form of the GDP is the equivalent of happiness, of the good life, of thumos, flourishing. A few generations have shown us that this is a hollow substitute for actual spirituality. In what used to be called Christendom, this had been found through the worship of Jesus Christ the Son of God. As recently as your great-grandparents generation, men thought they were fighting for the glory of the Lord. They might not have had as much stuff as we do, and what they had was not as advanced, but they were arguably more fulfilled.
Life can be harder yet still filled with more meaning. Ease and comfort is not an essential component of happiness and contentedness.
Those days are gone. So enter escapism. As it has been said elsewhere, there are no dragons anymore, but man still has the need to slay them.
This brings us to our leaders. Why do characters like Aragorn, Maximus, Odysseus, the doomed Hector, and even Captain America strike such a nerve with men? There are two main reasons: first, they have earned their positions through competency, and second they actually care about their people. Much like great military leaders of the past like Napoleon Bonaparte, Alexander the Great, Julius Caesar Genghis Khan, George Patton, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, and George Washington, these fictional men are able to inspire because they lead by example.
A modern man stuck in the boring, gray world of the post-industrial economy looks around and sees boring, gray leaders, men and women with no actual accomplishments save for going to the right schools and coming from the right families with the right connections, ruling over them. Utterly incompetent morons hold the power of life and death over a man, and they are there because they have convinced fifty-percent-plus-one of the population to vote for them.
Further, a man understands deep down that voting merely provides a patina of credibility and approval to what the ruling class was going to do anyway.
What we have is a noble class minus the actual nobility and everything that word entails. There is no sense of duty on the part of these leaders, no love of their people. Oftentimes, our leaders are not even of the same people. They are there to enrich themselves, the big money interests who helped them get to their position, and a small slice of their constituency. There is no servant-leadership in these United States, only self-serving leadership.
Is it any wonder why what are derisively called “guy” books or movies stubbornly remain so damn popular?
The recent glee, some ironic and some regrettably serious, to Afghanistan’s Taliban driving the United States out of their country after a twenty-year occupation, provides a similar example of this phenomenon. Nobody serious in the United States would rather live in Afghanistan under the Taliban; our regime is horrible and destructive, but it beats the alternative. This is not to say that the United States are the good guys in this situation either. There are no good guys. But a man suffering in the stultifying confines of American society can’t help but look and see these virile, adventurous men with their guns and cool uniforms storming into Kabul to drive out a technologically superior foe, the world’s sole superpower, and not feel their blood start to surge with the thrill of excitement.
Who are the leaders in America worth fighting and dying for? What are the causes worthy of your life?
An American Christian has a heavenly leader worth fighting and dying for. But we still spend the first part of our lives here on Earth in the material world. We need an earthly purpose combined with our spiritual one.
Here is another wrinkle: men interact with each other through hierarchies. Men judge the status of other men they meet, gauge it against their own, and fall in line accordingly. All hierarchies need leaders at the top, they need lieutenants loyal to the leader, and they need men who will do as they are told in exchange for respect of their competency.
Hierarchies are inevitable. It would just be nice to have leaders at the top who actually belong there.