I’m writing a male character. And not any character: it’s the co-protagonist for my first feature film. I want him to be a gentle guy, one who listens. But still hot. And I’ve started to wonder, how have we constructed the role of the hero? And, what’s more, on what kind of male character do we project our desire?
Lists of the sexiest film characters always include the likes of James Bond, Christian Gray, Indiana Jones, Batman. All very superficial. My friends are turned on by Michael Fassbender’s character in Shame, a sex addict incapable of connecting on any profound level in relationships. Marta loves murderous mafiosos, like Michael Corleone in The Godfather. Carla, meanwhile, is infatuated with Mark Renton, the protagonist in Trainspotting. She’s into troubled addicts, apparently. The whole thing makes me nauseous. I propose: ‘Ryan Gosling in Blue Valentine? He looks after the main character, he goes down on her’, trying to make my case. But no, Maria prefers him in Drive: inaccessible and somewhat abusive.
The list goes on, and on, and on. Adam from Girls. Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Sullivan from Goodbye First Love. And yes, I like him too, but it’s that same archetype again: a man who disappears, who can't communicate, whose main trait is mystery. And yes, it’s nice when his and Camille’s bodies come together, but is it just because I've been taught to desire mystery? Have I been brought up, with image after image, to idealise and romanticise a relationship with a man who is never truly present? Who doesn’t listen? Who is ‘too busy’ to deal with the needs of those around him?
Because, if not, what else do all these men have in common? An inaccessible inner world, perhaps. A dark secret torturing them and separating them from society. They are attractive, strong, seductive and completely inscrutable. They aren’t there for women, or for any other character in the plot, because they clearly have more important things to be doing than taking care of others.
If the message we’re sending is that to be a desirable man you have to have secrets, be manipulative and never show a hint of vulnerability, it’s a pretty toxic one. It’s totally possible for men to be attentive, gentle AND sexy. We just need to retrain our way of seeing things. And this is the type of character I want to build, because these are the men I would like to inhabit the world. For this very reason, I have put together a list celebrating some of the hottest characters around, who happen to also be caring and loveable. For your enjoyment and for our collective well-being, here they are:
Néstor, the sensitive lout
The Innocence by Lucía Alemany introduces us to a male character who might stir up some prejudices at first. He’s a yob, forever doing lines and picking Lis up in his convertible. We fear the worst: he might be jealous, possessive or violent. And, in fact, he is all of these things. But when the protagonist finds herself in the middle of a serious conflict, Néstor is understanding and there for her. He supports her, he lets her decide. He wants to be by her side. He shows anger, he punches walls and the relationship clearly gets toxic at times, but he’s there when she needs him. And he’s capable of expressing sadness and vulnerability, of sinking into Lis’s arms and letting her comfort him.
Brady, the caring cowboy
A young man patting a horse’s neck gently and tenderly: this is the first image gifted to us by Chloé Zhao’s The Rider. Surrounded by toxic masculinity, rodeos and horse auctions, Brady chooses to care. He looks after his younger sister and a friend who is recovering from an accident. And, of course, he looks after the horses. He tames them through empathy, listening to them, earning their trust. When he rides, he melts into one with the animal, he moves his body to the rhythm of its gallop and looks over its ears, so that they see the same thing and he can put himself in the horse’s place.
Kevin, caresses in the moonlight
We meet Kevin, who stirs up a timid kind of desire, through the protagonist of Moonlight, by Barry Jenkins. The character is played by three different actors of different ages, but that doesn't stop us falling in love with him in his teenage years then itching to be reunited with him in adulthood. We see a simple man who knows what he wants and spends his days cooking and serving in a restaurant. He is an attentive character with an almost mystical facet that makes him want to give out love and caresses, to offer only good things to the other person. Whether on the moonlit sand or in the privacy of the bedroom, Kevin shows his love with his hands.
Adrien, good enough to eat
In Raw by Julia Ducournau, Justine has a roommate, Adrien, who tells her he’s gay at the outset. He doesn’t desire the protagonist because he isn’t attracted to women, so we as viewers don’t sexualise her either. Not her body, not her clothes, not her attitude. But Justine does look at Adrien, and we look at him with her: his bare torso as he plays football, his lips, his taut muscles, his flesh. She does look at him, and I mention this because women who look have always been chastised. She does desire him: she wants to take a bite out of him, and so do we.
The priest in Fleabag, for the love of God
The second series of Fleabag focuses on the blossoming relationship between the main character and a priest. The conflict is obvious and simple: they have chosen different channels for expressing their love and desire. The problems don’t arise from the way they relate to each other. They don’t treat each other badly: quite the contrary. They look after and love each other in a very real, pure way, so much so that they find it impossible to stay apart. Our blood starts pumping faster every time they meet and we, along with the main character, are captivated by this man who listens to her and sees her and is the only person who realises that she sometimes escapes to another plane of reality. That’s how attentive he is. God only knows that a love this healthy is sacred.