The measure of a man

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Among the crushes of my preteen youth, among the posters of Bryan Adams and Michael J. Fox stuck up on the wall, there was Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 07/09/2013 (3259 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Among the crushes of my preteen youth, among the posters of Bryan Adams and Michael J. Fox stuck up on the wall, there was Captain Jean-Luc Picard.

Picard was a great captain. The best Star Trek captain, I’d argue, or at least the one I’d most want to follow. He seemed like someone you could trust.

In most pop-culture media, alpha males are swaddled in visual signifiers of virility and violence. They swagger, they swear, they have unfussy clots of hair stuck at cocky angles. They solve problems. They wear a stone-cold sneer to show their authority; if that doesn’t work, they carry guns to get the job done. When it’s over, there is always a woman who tumbles into their arms. It’s rarely clear why she loves him; just that she is a thing he’s won.

Melissa Martin and Sir Patrick Stewart

This is true in major action flicks, in TV cop dramas and in smart political thrillers. It’s also true with anti-heroes, although their stories tend to be drenched more in internal conflict, a push-and-pull between interdependent modern life and forceful dominance: Fight Club’s Tyler Durden, Breaking Bad’s Walter White.

Capt. Picard, though, he wasn’t like that. He was a small man, his head ringed by the last vestige of salt-and-pepper hair and lined with all the worries of the years. He quoted Shakespeare and drank tea — Earl Grey, hot — instead of beer. He turned to his advisers, often. He leaned heavily on Guinan, and rarely risked ship for ego. He took risks when urgency inspired, but his authority was drawn on compassion, wisdom and balanced reason.

Consider that one time, you know, the time when he begged Q to save the Enterprise from a Borg assault: Other men would rather have died than ask for help, the omnipotent being said. Heavy-handed writing, sure, but maybe there’s some truth to that.

“Make it so.”

— — —

There is a common rumbling in the grumblesphere that feminists don’t care about the struggles of men and boys, but that’s not true. The health of women and girls is inextricably intertwined with that of men, but more importantly, caring is simply the right thing to do. Case in point: Studies and statistics show that many men, especially young men, are showing now the cracks of social distress, especially when they see women having success.

Earlier this week, an American Psychological Association study found that men felt better about themselves after thinking about a time when their female partners failed; they also felt worse about themselves when their lovers did well. (Women in the study showed little such effect.)

The implications of this are troubling, not least because of how that can boil over, in some: with fists, with denigration, with control.

Maybe we’re not teaching our boys the right things, or at least not doing enough to counteract the cultural forces bent on teaching them the wrong things: that myth that masculinity should be defined by power-over, by taking without asking, by never backing down, never voicing doubt and most of all, never sharing power with those culture defines as less “manly.”

“We don’t raise our sons to be men,” former NFL quarterback turned advocate Don McPherson said once. “We raise them not to be women, or gay men.”

Think about that, for a time.

— — —

Jean-Luc Picard was a man, and actor Sir Patrick Stewart made that man, and so it was no surprise to me when Stewart began to speak openly about violence against women, a personal mission driven by memories of his own father’s brutality. When he speaks on it, he does so eloquently. “The people who could do most to improve the situation of so many women and children are in fact men,” he said at a fan convention in Texas earlier this year.

He was speaking to a survivor; he asked if she was OK. His voice trembled as he talked about choice. “It’s in our hands to stop violence against women,” he said, and in that moment you could see where character and man are the same. “Violence is never, ever a choice that a man should make.”

Last November, Stewart was the top guest at the Central Canada Comic Con at the convention centre: $100 a pop for a photo, it was, but in the quick accounting of my own childhood memories, it seemed worth it. So I joined the line to meet him, to pay my respects for the respect he has shown us.

Then all of a sudden I was in the little curtained room, and he was too, and celebrity sucked the air right out of my lungs. Still, in the second before the photo, I managed to croak out my gratitude for what he said. About women, about violence, about calling men to do better. “I did it for my mother,” he replied, leaning down to look me eye to eye. “Because she could not do it for herself.”

He gently put a hand on my shoulder, enough to make contact but not so much as to enforce it. We smiled for the camera, and waited for the flash.

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Melissa Martin

Melissa Martin
Reporter-at-large

Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.

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