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How to Be a Guy: My Pop Culture Role Models

As I figured out my own masculinity, I turned—where else?—to comic books and TV shows for inspiration

I figured out that I was trans because of a television show.

Let me go back a step: in 2014, I wrote and self-published an essay called “I See Your Value Now: Asperger’s and the Art of Allegory.” It was the first really personal piece I’d put online: a long exploration of the process and self-inventory that had led to my placement on the Autism spectrum.

After years of avoiding personal essays, “I See Your Value Now” felt like diving head-first off a cliff. And in the first few weeks after pressing “publish,” I broke all of my own rules and vanity-searched a lot: for my name, for the title, for excerpts. So I knew: People were talking; people were linking.

And some of them seemed to think that I was a man.

In 2014, I still self-identified as female. All the same, being read as male online was not a new experience: When I published “I See Your Value Now,” I was a staff writer at Wired.com, where commenters and respondents regularly assumed I was a male writer (despite the clearly feminine byline). The same thing had happened when I had been an editor at a comics publisher. It happened when a Twitter account I created went viral. It happened so regularly, in fact, that I used it as a means of budgeting for a steady supply of top-shelf Scotch: I tucked away a dollar every time someone assumed I was male in response to a piece where my byline was clearly visible, and five every time someone misattributed my work to a specific male writer.

But this was different. This wasn’t just an article with a clear byline; it was a deeply personal essay. I wasn’t writing about comics or science fiction or the space program — subjects that tended to be associated with a male audience. I was writing about me. The implicit erasure — of my personal identity, and of women in my fields — that had been frustrating before suddenly became deeply jarring.

I started to dissect the essay, trying to trace back the breadcrumb trail that had led readers to assume I must be male. Was it the tone? Even in personal work, my written voice tends to be academic, and I’ve worked hard to learn to write with authority, to strip away qualifiers.

Or maybe it was the content. I was writing about my experience locating myself on the Autism Spectrum, a landscape in which women tend to be critically under-diagnosed and invisible (not so different, then, from science writing or comics publishing). I had framed the essay around my identification with Abed Nadir, a heavily Autistic-coded character from the sitcom Community, and written extensively about other fictional characters in whom I’d seen myself reflected.

When I picked back through, I realized that all of those characters had been male.

Why? I wrote off internalized misogyny pretty quickly: I’d spent years writing about and championing representation of women in popular media, and many of my favorite characters were and are female — just not the ones I tended to see myself in.

The characters I’d written about had something else in common as well: like Abed Nadir, they were all coded, to at least some extent, as Autistic. That, I suspected, was the key: underrepresentation in art echoing underrepresentation in life. There were no women on my list because the traits I looked for in my paper mirrors — emotional detachment, social awkwardness, granular obsession — are seen as unmarketable and unsympathetic in female characters.

I started working on a follow-up essay, about gender and Autistic coding in fiction. I asked around in the Autistic community: Where were the female characters?

Leverage, people told me, again and again. Watch Leverage.

Leverage (TV series) – Wikipedia

I watched Leverage. And there, suddenly, was a character who was everything I had been looking for: a woman coded as Autistic whose spectrum traits worked to her advantage. Whose lack of emotional intuition wasn’t the result of abuse or trauma, but as much a part of her as her eyes or hair. Who got to play the stilted savant, who got a genuine character arc without being fixed or loved whole. She had every one of the traits I’d been so grateful to have found in the male characters I identified with.

I loved Parker. I recognized her as important, as revolutionary. I was elated to find her. But there was something missing. I could look at her and see a thousand tiny tics and details of my life and personality. But I didn’t see myself.

What was the difference? I took inventory again. What did the other characters have that Parker didn’t? It wasn’t medium, or role; not ethnicity or hair color or eye color. Was it masculinity? Would I have clicked better with Parker if she’d been less femme? I tried to imagine it. Still nothing.

If not masculinity, what about maleness?

The click was almost audible.

I rely heavily on fiction as a means of parsing my experiences and identity. In “I See Your Value Now,” I wrote, “I like fiction, because fiction makes sense in ways that the real world doesn’t. Because in fiction, I have as much — more, often — interpretive resources as anyone else; because we’re all working from the same basic data set.”

My sense of who I am is to some extent a composite sketch, assembled from glimpses in paper and celluloid mirrors: comics, movies, novels, television.

So it’s probably no surprise that I turned to the same places when I started thinking about how to be a guy.

The characters on my list of role models aren’t the same ones who showed up in that essay. Those were reflections; these are more aspirational. They’re the guys I want to be — or be like — distilled and simplified in ways that are impossible in real life (but still make a damn handy reference guide).

Ben Wyatt (‘Parks & Recreation’)

Yes, I am aware that Ron Swanson is the pop-culture go-to for how to be a guy. No, I don’t care. That dude is a terrible role model. He may be fun to watch on a sitcom, but Swanson is also everything toxic about American masculinity.

My guy on Parks & Rec is and always will be Ben Wyatt: human disaster; Boy Mayor of Icetown; prince of spreadsheets; persistently uncool and unflaggingly intense; buttoned-down and precise; and hopelessly in love with Leslie Knope; who will explain exactly why you are wrong — even if he doesn’t have time — because it’ll bug him if he doesn’t.

Ben Wyatt was the first guy I looked at and saw not only a lot of myself, but also of the man I wanted to grow into.

Foggy Nelson (‘Daredevil’)

Let me start this one by confessing that the Daredevil character I actually identify with is Matt Murdock. But Foggy is the guy I want to be: stubborn, compassionate, genuine, and smart as hell.

Speed Racer (‘Speed Racer’)

Yes, really. Don’t judge me. Speed Racer is awesome, and over the last few years, he’s become something of an icon for me. He cares deeply about stuff, he loves his family, he’s incredibly sincere, and he’s got great hair and a totally sweet ride. What more do you want?

Captain Holt (‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’)

A lot of the guys on my list are subversive in some way or another. Captain Ray Holt is subversive in his approach to subversion. He’s a gay, black NYPD captain, which makes him the kind of figure who ends up being touted as inspirational mostly for standing up to prejudice and beating the odds. I love Holt because of his staunch refusal to be defined or pigeonholed by expectations or stereotypes.

Greg Universe (‘Steven Universe’)

On first glance, Greg Universe is the kind of character who exists to be the butt of jokes: a washed-up almost-was rock star with a perpetual t-shirt tan, a gloriously unruly mane of hair, and a custom-painted van. But watch a few episodes of Steven Universe, and you’ll see a dude whose defining feature is unflagging patience and compassion in the face of tragedy, disaster, and the general roller coaster of co-parenting a half-alien kid with a trio of immortal incarnated gems. Greg may not be a rock star or a leading man, but he redefines success in really humane terms.

Bernie Rhodenbarr (the Bernie Rhodenbarr books)

There’s nothing I like more than guys who refuse to play by genre rules. Take Bernie Rhodenbarr — a cat burglar who ducks the typical mystery-hero machismo and misogyny in favor of wry humor, a used book shop, and one of the best cross-gender platonic friendships in the field. We should all handle being framed repeatedly for murder with such equanimity and panache.