Queer, fat, and non-white TV enjoyers are used to getting attached to side characters. The almost-too-obvious reason for this is that the side characters are the ones who look like them; when a show includes a queer character, or a fat character, or a character of color, it puts them at the edge of the frame, in the C-story.
But there’s another brand of character that those excluded from the mainstream—mostly queer women and transmasc people—have been latching onto for as long as it’s existed. Despite the fact that he’s usually in the spotlight, and looks like every other main character out there, overlooked and underrepresented fans flock to him like moths to a sickly-pale porch light: the downtrodden, hunched-over, kicked-puppy boy.
Succession’s Greg Hirsch stumbles over every word, asking for permission to blackmail his boss. Breaking Bad’s Jesse Pinkman curls up on his childhood bed after a bout of meth-induced paranoia sends him running home to mom and dad. Spencer Reid lays in a hospital bed on Criminal Minds, and Peter Parker’s voice cracks every other word in the latest Spider-Man trilogy. He’s the man you think of when you hear the phrase “go, white boy, go.”
Something about this particular brand of leading (white) man is appealing to a marginalized, usually-female audience. It’s not just his non-threatening exterior, or the refreshing break he provides from hypermasculine Chris Hemsworth types. It’s hard to pinpoint—a man either has it or he doesn’t. Which is why I know Robert Pattinson’s portrayal of Bruce Wayne in the latest Batman installment has it, hands down.
I watched The Batman two nights in a row, my roommate using his Christmas haul of AMC gift cards to buy us tickets. We leaned into each other, fighting to hear each other over the noise of the gunshots and the rumble of Bruce Wayne’s motorcycle:
“He looks like a puppy who got left in a box in the rain.”
“He looks like he’s on his way to tell Alfred he threw up.”
“He’s my poor little meow-meow.”
While scrolling through Letterboxd afterward, it became clear we weren’t the only ones making comments like that in the theater:
“...When he finally emerges from the cave to talk to Alfred and gets disturbed by the natural sunlight and has to put on sunglasses I wanted to get up and cheer. Yeah that’s right put on those sunglasses you little freak.”
Matt Reeves’ take on Gotham’s gothest hero feels like Citizen Kane for an era defined by superhero movies. It’s long, it’s brooding, it’s black pavement and yellow streetlights. It paints you a portrait of a Batman retreating inward, losing himself a little more to the persona with every passing day. It’s also a portrait of the city that made him this way.
Batman is everything we expect a leading man to be: stalking out of the shadows in a suit that bulks him out, ready to bring vengeance upon anyone disturbing the order of his beloved city. He’s rich, beats up bad guys, and cares for others, but not so much that he loses his loner mystique. He wants to change his surroundings for the better.
The second he takes the suit off, though, he becomes Bruce Wayne. And Bruce Wayne is someone distinctly at odds with the sweeping, noir-style epic in which he’s starring. He listens to Nirvana while slumped over his computer, replaying a sound byte of his crush speaking over and over. He’s got smudged eyeliner and early-aughts Panic! at the Disco bangs and every piece of clothing he wears seems too big for him. “You’re not my dad,” he says to Alfred, drowning in a black t-shirt.
He’s pathetic. And I love him. Everybody loves him.
I should say there’s a big difference between a man like Bruce and, say, Scott Pilgrim. Sheepishness is often weaponized by male characters and the men who write them. It’s a nonthreatening quality performed to distract from the truth that they are, in fact, a threat—a wolf in thrifted clothing. It’s willful ignorance and self-victimization. But in pathetic men there’s a lack of intention, an earnestness that shines through in the way they bow their heads and trip over their shoelaces. These men don’t stumble over their words because they want to trick you into thinking they’ve unlearned the language of toxic masculinity; they stumble because they never spoke the language all that well to begin with.
That incompetence isn’t always seen as endearing by the characters and their peers. In fact, it’s almost always something they must overcome. They need advice from capital-M Men on how to talk to girls. On Succession, Greg borrows style, words, and strategy from the powerful (and blatantly misogynistic) Waystar men around him. The less pathetic they become, the more successful they are at achieving their goals. And maybe this is part of why they’re so enticing; characters like Bruce assure us that hypermasculinity is a learned trait, not an innate one, and thus it is possible to unlearn.
Here’s the big appeal, though: those of us who are stuck on the business end of the weapon that is cis/white patriarchy are naturally going to be drawn to the characters who experience a similar kind of oppression. But in a world where the only characters who are ever developed to their full potential are white men, we must take what we can get. What we can get is the narrow niche of fictional white men who have the structures of patriarchy used against them, rather than to their benefit.
It’s no coincidence that almost all the characters I’ve listed come attached to another man, one who moves more freely through the world of masculinity. Jesse Pinkman is beat down time and time again by Walter White. Greg Hirsch sits squarely under Tom Wambsgans’ thumb. The guy closest to Bruce Wayne may be the nonthreatening Alfred, but by the very nature of his superhero status, he comes with an arch-nemesis: Falcone, the crime lord, equally comfortable schmoozing with other men and conducting ruthless sting operations. The appeal of this sad little man is less his pathetic-ness, and more the way that this pathetic-ness can and will be exploited by the other men around him. It’s a shallow approximation of the patriarchal pressures that their fans face. But like I said, we take what we can get.
As the demographic makeup of casts and writers’ rooms starts to (gradually) expand, though, so too do the character archetypes we see on screen. Both Villanelle and Eve get their dejected-puppy moments on Killing Eve. The most recent iteration of the pathetic man is Blackbeard on Our Flag Means Death—an openly queer Māori pirate played by Taika Waititi. Slowly but surely, the schadenfreude-fueled self-recognition we’ve been feeling toward these characters is becoming a genuine solidarity; commentary on oppression that doesn’t shy away from showing those most affected. We are approaching a point, I think, where we will no longer have to perform the labor of molding stories not written for us into something relatable. Where fringe representation will find its way closer to the norm.
In the meantime, we can gaze for three uninterrupted hours at the eyeshadow-stained face of Robert Pattinson. And I can’t complain too much about that.