A couple of years ago I wrote an analysis of the Lion king from a perspective of masculinity. This is a typical Disney movie where young Simba, son of the lion king Mufasa, ends up defeating his uncle and his father’s murderer Scar and fulfilling his destiny of becoming the king, and thus the circle of life continues. Nothing challenging here, as we seldom see in the streamlined Disney movies. No hyena, snake or, heavens forbid, lioness becoming the ruler of the land. No, there is a natural order that should not be questioned.
If we want something animated for the younger audience that aims outside the conventions Dreamworks does a much better job with titles such as:
Shrek – parodies of traditional tales and mocking Hollywood’s beauty ideals,
Spirit: Stallion of the Cimarron – an untamable horse teams up with an equally untamable boy,
Madagascar – some animals from a New York zoo escaping into the wild jungle (it even contains a parody of the Lion king),
Monsters vs Aliens – where the outsiders, the monsters which includes a giant woman, team up to battle aliens.
But here I’d like to focus on the more recent How to train your dragon (2010) that features Hiccup, who just as Simba happens to be the son of the reigning leader, in this case the chief Viking Stoik. But there ends the similarities, Hiccup happens to be a real disappointment to his father, he is weak, hapless and far, far from doing what really defines being a true Viking – to kill a dragon.
From a gender perspective Hiccup seems to be struggling with fulfilling the traditional male gender role, as it is typically described and here illustrated by his father Stoick and by his friends who all try hard to be fearless badass Vikings. And his father very explicitly expresses his discontent with Hiccup who is not even allowed to go out and help during the dragon attacks.
Despite Hiccup’s debility he sneaks out to kill a dragon using his ingenuity instead of muscles. He wants to prove himself a worthy Viking and he want to impress on Astrid, who he has a crush on. Against all odds Hiccup manages to shoot down and capture a dragon in the forest, a Night Fury which is the deadliest type of them all. But when he is about to slay it he changes his mind and instead releases it. It looks as if his courage fails him, at least that is what he tells himself. Or is it for some other reason? Nevertheless, he seems to have lost his opportunity of becoming a man, at least according to the descriptions of masculinity above.
But if this macho and alpha-male ideal would be the only characteristic and possible way to define a man throughout history we would still be Vikings. Somehow we left the Viking-age, became devoted Christian traditionalists, after that rational scientific modernists and even postmodernists before feminism started to analyzing and question the gender roles and masculinity. But as Hiccup is about to demonstrate, the male gender role can be far more diverse than the macho image of chief Stoick.
The release of the Night Fury could be the result of a lack of courage, but might as well be a sign of intuition or compassion. And from that Hiccup slowly builds a relation with Toothless, as he names the dragon. But this relation is of course just as forbidden as the romance between Romeo and Juliet.
“Everything we learned about dragons is wrong!”
Simba had his friends, the lioness Nala, and his mentor Rafiki, to help him getting back on the right track, but Hiccup has no one except for Toothless and the track is leading towards challenging the core of the Viking culture, that dragons are the enemy and should be killed no matter what.
Hiccup, who seemed to lack courage, proves to have many qualities that helps him in his development. He is very responsive to Toothless’ signals, which is fundamental when gaining the trust and working with animals, he is resourceful and inventive, he understands the point of learning by reading, and he is really courageous as it will show. He gradually builds up a relation with the Night Fury on equal terms without trying to dominate the dragon. It shows that they are equally dependent on each other and with a harness and extra half tail Hiccup attempts to fly Toothless, which is of course as stupid and dangerous as it sounds.
It is sometimes said that nature experiments mostly with men. Men have a larger genetic variation, at least in terms of variation in IQ, men are more risk taking, more competitive and so forth. That’s an important reason to why you find most brilliant minds and idiot savants as well as most fools and idiots among men, the richest and the poorest, most leaders and most criminals, most celebrated and most outcasts. From a functional perspective the gender roles arose as a consequence of the rationality in keeping women safe and sacrificing men. When it comes to reproduction and ensuring the survival of the culture, vaginas are invaluable and penises expendable, although that principle now has played out its role.
This is us men. We might sometimes appear as stubborn, but we can be just as devoted, passionate or even obsessed if we get a really good idea into our heads. We take risks and sometimes crash and burn to earn our Darwin awards. But when we happen to succeed we can transform cultures and we can change the world. And besides, it’s in the intersection between maximum challenge, skill and devotion you find flow.
An example that resembles Hiccup’s adventures, and that can be placed at about the same time in history but thousands of kilometers south, is the deed of Abbas Ibn Firnas (810-887 A.D.), Muslim inventor, poet, musician, scientist and engineer from Córdoba in today’s Spain. When the Vikings were busy plundering and exploring the North, the scientific leading edge were to be found within the Islamic part of the world. Abbas Ibn Firnas made it to the books as the first aviator when he cast himself from an eminence, flew a considerable distance with wings made of bamboo and silk and landed heavily on his back which caused a severe injury (as Toothless, he lacked a functioning tail). But just imagine the inspirational level of the crowd when watching this polymath dare his life trying to fly with his own construction. This is how you do real engineering!
Back to Hiccup. Despite all odds a romance builds up between Hiccup and Astrid, but what does she see in him and what can he offer this fierce and brutal Viking girl? If bare skill, genius or devotion would suffice to attract a woman every gamer and nerd would easily get laid. No, Hiccup captures Astrid’s heart by showing her the true meaning of freedom and beauty, by showing her heaven and letting her touch the sky (after she have apologized to Toothless for being rude).
But there still remains several challenges for Hiccup and Toothless in order for him to gain the acceptance of his father and the tribe, and to permanently change the relationship between Vikings and dragons. It will take a mutual enemy and threat for them to team up and Hiccup will have to kill his first dragon.
As this is a movie, a tale, we can project any meaning onto it as we wish. We could also see this as a story of man’s relation to nature. Nature as something that is to be conquered and controlled, as something that we can have a relation with and work with, or as something that we are…?! The question is if we need a mutual enemy (aliens?) in order to team up or if we can find our way by ourselves.
Besides what has already been mentioned, there are several aspects that I think makes this a great movie. For instance the music by John Powel and the portraying of Toothless and the interplay with Hiccup (I’m a former dog trainer and I had a black German shepherd that somewhat resembled Toothless). So if you have or know any kids you should definitely rent it and see it together. And if you don’t have any, rent it anyway and take The Expendables II at the same time so there is no doubt that you are a real man!
With Van Damme, Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Bruce Willis, Jason Statham, Dolph, Jet Li and Chuck Norris, you can always learn something about masculinity. The macho kick-ass part as well as the part of being expendable…