Emo Boys Up: Pete Davidson, Batman, the Sandman, and the Rise of Sad Boy Culture
It’s Sad Boy season. From the latest Batman to the new Netflix series, The Sandman, there’s a lugubrious trend emerging amongst leading men: they’re all so sad.
The troubled hero is an established trope. Tortured and tragic, how can anyone ever get through to him? This is the central question of many, many films in the lexicon. And, of course, these compellingly complex heroes are generally white men. I’ll wager it won’t be long before they’re crowned Twitter’s White Boy of the Month. Think Eddie Munson in Stranger Things: Volume 4. Think my dear sweet chef Carmy in The Bear. Think my even dearer, my even sweeter brooding boy Timmy as Paul in Dune.
And now, think of The Sandman, too.
The Sandman | Official Trailer | Netflix youtu.be
The list is endless. So many men to feel sorry for, so little time. It’s the fuel of Hollywood — that thing the immortal Virginia Woolf described as “male egotism and their need for help and sympathy.”
While this trope is hardly new, Hollywood goes through phases. You know, to convince us we’re not just watching the same tortured “man pain” plot over and over. James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, was the embryonic iteration that begat a generation of leather-jacket-wearing, disaffected leading men. Then came the obligatory military types you see in Top Gun or whatever. Or you can point to that phase of rugged, tattooed misfits with good hearts, like Ryan Gosling in Drive or Place Beyond the Pines.
The rise of the emo leading man is populating screens and streaming services. GQ described Morpheus in the new Netflix show, The Sandman, as the exemplar of this archetype, saying: “Not since Edward Cullen stalked Bella to the sounds of Paramore in Twilight has a leading man been so emo. That is, except for Robert Pattinson’s other turn as an exorbitantly wealthy man with an aversion to sunlight: Bruce Wayne.”
They also identify leading men like Succession’s self-pitying fuckboy Kendall Roy and even Ken in the upcoming Barbie (apparently he’s “going through some stuff”) as part of the pattern. But what makes this emo-hero so seductive? Probably because we’re all a little emo now, too.
Look at award show nominees and winners over the past few years. You’ll find that everything we love is sad. Olivia Rodrigo’s heart-wrenching break-up album SOUR is the sound of a generation. Taylor Swift returned to her tender, melancholy crooners about yearning for an escape. And every best picture seems to be a slow, mournful drama. We’re sad! We are sooo sad!
And who can blame us? The pandemic, the climate crisis, the political climate, the general bad vibes. We all feel bad, and we’ve seriously normalized it all. So Hollywood is putting in its two cents.
According to GQ, this is specifically a Gen Z affliction: “We’re no longer looking for idols to lift our spirits. Instead, we want them to hold our hand and make sense of what we’re going through. Life is shit, the world is on fire. The emo leading man exemplifies the value in a good old-fashioned wallow.”
Yet, while female sadness is patronized, male sadness is valorized. Listen, I do it too. A man? With feelings? He must be complex — usually, he’s just an emotionally manipulative cancer … I never learn. What else could explain the reign of Pete Davidson, MGK, and Travis Barker? And why else would they keep putting Jared Leto in movies?
There’s nothing to do but embrace the vibe shift. If you can’t beat them, get in your feelings and join them. Fellas, paint your nails black. Experiment with eyeliner. Grow your hair out over your eyes. Cover up the windows to your soul. Emo Boys are up.