Standing O for Quirky Male Protagonists
My friend once told me I had an addiction to movies starring quirky teenage boys. I think we can agree that this isn’t something you think to say to someone... unless it happens to be true. In response to her observation, I pulled up my list of favorite movies. Top three? The Perks of being a Wallflower (2012), The Way Way Back (2013) and 20th Century Women (2016). Yes, believe it or not, this movie co-stars a quirky teenage boy.
L to R: The Perks of being a Wallflower, The Way Way Back, and 20th Century Women
This couldn’t be a coincidence, right? Clearly something about awkward teenage boys coping with the brutality of adolescence has really had an impact on me, and it’s not hard to figure out why. After all, minus the gender difference, I was one of them. In fact, I still am one of them. A lot of us are, not that we would admit it.
Let's be real — these are not the kind of protagonists people dream of becoming. In Perks, Charlie starts as a shy nobody with a not-so secret devotion to classic literature and writing. A boy who likes to write? That’s so feminine. In the beginning of the The Way Way Back, Duncan is an awkward kid who barely says two words to anyone who doesn’t instigate a conversation. An angsty, mute teen? Sounds boring. Throughout 20th Century Women, Jamie, a young, hopeless romantic, takes it upon himself to learn all about female sexuality after being provided feminist literature by his older female friend. A straight boy who’s a feminist? How dare he! Looking back on them now, all three of these characters share one thing in common: because they are sensitive boys going against "the norm", they are viewed in a distasteful way by many of their peers and family members.
However, because of their underdog status in the films, they ultimately become the people we root for. Maybe we don’t like how they start, but we always like how they end up. In a way, that’s life (or at least, Hollywood). Few of us like who we are at 13 or 15, but that sentiment changes with time and experience, whether we notice it or not. Movies condense this transformation into a few weeks, one summer, or one year, but the theme remains true regardless. Growing up is a lot about growing out of your first, awkward skin. Most of the time it’s implied you must get rid of that skin entirely.
But I don’t think that skin is something we should be ashamed or afraid to keep with us. We should not live in a world where boys like the ones above are ousted and mocked; we should live in a world where they are lifted up as valid people and and valid young men who are finding themselves. If that means writing, dancing, being a feminist, waving a pride flag, etc. then so be it. As members of society, we have the power to be allies of so many important causes. So why not be supportive of sensitive men, if we are rooting for them on the big screen already?
Maybe you disagree because you don’t enjoy these specific protagonists or movies, but it doesn’t change the fact that they all tell a universal story: the story of what it’s like not to belong, until the moment you finally do. Call me naive, but I dare to imagine that one day, like Charlie, we will all meet our Sam and Patrick, and like Duncan, we will become the beloved staff member at the Water Wizz water park, or like Jamie, we will say yes to being the good guy even if it means losing the girl. One day, we will assume the roles of the people we want to be, regardless of what society thinks. Unfortunately, outside of movies, "one day" often comes too late.
It’s clear from these movies that it’s not easy to grow up a “quirky teenage boy” in today’s world. Earlier I mentioned that in some ways (not all ways), I can relate to these boys, which is why I am speaking out in this topic. I, too, have labored over writing, mourned inconsequential losses, contemplated the end of my life, withdrawn from people for my own protection… and by doing so crafted periods of extreme loneliness. Though for me it almost seemed permissible, because I was a girl. Girls are allowed to be sensitive and emotional. But I can’t even imagine what young men must feel when they want similar, human things as me, yet are put at arms length of it for fear of looking girly, gay, or soft. Morally, we have an obligation to acknowledge these isolating stigmas.
And also the lack of action taken against them. I know we aren't scripted characters with uplifting stories, but that doesn't mean we aren't capable of incredible feats. Like Charlie, Duncan, and Jamie, we can find ourselves in this difficult world. But maybe it doesn't have to be so hard. We can start by breaking down the toxic pedestals of normativity and conformity around awkward adolescence and sensitive young men.
In the four years since I first watched Perks, two years since I watched The Way Way Back, and one day since I watched 20th Century Women, I have come to see that, like my fellow quirky male protagonists, I, too, want my sensitivity to be the thing I share with the world. My only hope is that one day more people, and more guys, can say the same.