What a kid’s movie has to say about “real” men

I have two young kids, and a house full of LEGO, so a natural movie for us to see together this summer was The Lego Movie 2. (We have now seen it at least three times.)

I often appreciate well-done kids’ movies for the layer of nuance that parents can find underneath the silliness. While Lego Movie 2 may not have reached the pantheon of Pixar movies, I loved the messages that were underlying the plot – in part because I hope they’ll stick with my kids as they grow up.

You see, I’m raising two boys. In an interesting time, when there are lots of competing messages out there about how they should be, what’s cool, what’s “appropriate” for boys, and what “real” men look like and do. While girls have encountered negative messaging forever, it feels like there has been a shift more recently toward a more inclusive way of being a girl – smart, strong, silly, and sweet.

For boys, what I’m noticing is that there aren’t a lot of spaces where they can see role models who are in touch with their emotions, who aren’t just putting up a tough front, who are willing to go out on a limb to declare what they love to do if it’s outside the norm. 

Emmet, one of the main characters, is one of those role models. He is motivated to help others, and be kind to people. He is honest about not feeling as confident in his skills and abilities to build things (what everyone does in that world). Even in the midst of a stressful, negative-leaning world, he just wants to create a place of joy and awesomeness, and help people work together. 

When we look at how men are supposed to be, Emmet is extremely unusual. Men are expected to look out for #1, to get ahead, no matter who they have to step on. Men have to cover up what they’re not good at, and can’t be vulnerable about what’s hard for them. Men have to overcome obstacles and focus on results, success, achievement.

And in fact, in the beginning of the movie, Emmet gets a bunch of crap for who he is, for his authentic way of showing up in the world. And after enough of that relentless criticism and feedback, Emmet questions his gifts and himself, and starts to toughen up, thanks to the role model he’s inspired by, Rex Dangervest – who lives up to all the things I described in the last paragraph.

I often find my male clients are in this space – having sublimated their true gifts, leadership style, or desires for their career, and gone along with whatever the world told them they were supposed to do, or how they were supposed to be. (This happens for many of my female clients too – the ones who’ve had to put on “masculine” traits to succeed.)

After a decade or two of trying to meet those societal expectations, these men are tired. Tired of showing up with a mask on every day. Tired of doing work they don’t really care about. Tired of playing the game, engaging in politics and tearing others down just to succeed.

When ultimately, what they really want is to feel excited to show up to work every day. Or to spend more time with their families, tapping into their loving and silly sides a whole lot more.

Though my clients typically show up wanting to figure out what their new career path should be, we have to start from a deeper place.

The journey starts with understanding what matters most to them. What their priorities in life are right now, and what might need to shift to focus on those things. What they get excited about, and what they bring to the table. What kind of culture supports the gifts they have to offer.

Then, we can work through a process to find them the place where they can shine without a mask on, where they can make time for what matters most.

In the Lego Movie 2, Emmet goes on a journey, too. He tries to hide who he really is, and to be as tough as others want him to be. He tries to prove himself as a “real” man. But in the process, he alienates those he cares about most. And (spoiler alert), ultimately, he finds a different kind of strength within himself – the belief that he already was a real man, and that his kind of leadership is needed in the world.

My goal is for each of my clients to reach that strong sense of knowing who they are and what they have to offer. And that in the coming decades there will be even more Emmet-like role models (especially in real life) for all the kids like mine who are watching closely to see if their gifts will be fully appreciated.

What do you think?

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