Amid the recent onslaught of mass shootings, financial market instability and attacks on our democracy, I have increasingly found myself retreating to the comfort of my television for an escape. As events have worsened, my show selection has circled the drain from “Normal People” and “Master of None” down to the depths of “Big Mouth” and “Glee” (say what you will, but Marley and Jake made season four watchable). However, things began looking up a couple of weeks ago, when I accidentally stumbled upon a work of genius that I never adequately appreciated in my youth: “Phineas and Ferb.”
I, like many others born between 1998 and 2002, saw the show’s campy first few episodes and quickly aged out of the target demographic, leaving it behind for teen shows like “iCarly” and “Victorious.” Sadly, that left me with a bad taste in my mouth, having viewed it as boring and formulaic. However, when I revisited the show as an adult, I finally saw its true vision.
Even though they get a lot of screen time, I saw that the titular Phineas and Ferb really aren’t the main characters. See, they are both too “good” in the boring Captain America sense, whereas both Candace and Dr. Doofenshmirtz provide the show with conflict, compromise, excitement, tragedy and — through their human flaws — relatability.
While I could go on for pages about the genius of Candace’s character, I will save that for a future column. Instead, I want to talk about Dr. Heinz Doofenshmirtz, a comically inept villain on first look. I mean, his corporation is literally called “Doofenshmirtz Evil Inc.,” so he has to be the bad guy, right?
Not necessarily. While he inexplicably wants to rule the Tri-State Area — despite never showing an inclination to run for public office — his only real goal is to make his daughter happy. I mean, it’s kind of incredible to have a character who spends his tragic childhood abandoned and isolated, yet when he becomes a parent himself, and despite a divorce, he is not only a caring father but a truly good man. He never kills and rarely seeks to harm anyone, besides Perry the Platypus, who, in all honesty, kind of has it coming. He shows no resentment toward his ex-wife. He even befriends his mortal enemy at the end of the series and begins fighting for the “good” guys.
Doofenshmirtz does this because he wears his heart on his sleeve and broadcasts his emotions, which is an almost-Herculean feat for such a fundamentally stunted man. He is precisely the kind of complex, flawed and three-dimensional character that our culture has come to appreciate in recent years. However, he subverts the antihero archetype by having a comedic moral gray area as opposed to the objective darkness embodied by Walter White of “Breaking Bad” and Rick Sanchez of “Rick and Morty,” two of the most ubiquitous fictional characters of the last decade.
In the #MeToo era, many have falsely claimed that men are under attack, but that isn’t really accurate. Instead, this era presents a unique opportunity for us to redefine manhood from the outdated toxic definition that uplifts the likes of Brett Kavanaugh, Harvey Weinstein and every Brad and Chad on Greek Row. It is a horrific culture that leads women to cover their drinks, never walk home alone and feel unsafe in their own communities. That kind of environment was created, cultivated and perpetuated by men, and we cannot allow the inherent sexism within that predatory culture to exist.
Instead, we need to replace our heroes with paragons of non-toxic masculinity like Anthony Mackie, Harry Styles and, yes, Heinz Doofenshmirtz who embrace their emotions and express their individuality, displaying courage in the face of potential societal backlash. These men inspire me to improve myself every day and to be an ally to the women and LGBTQ+ people who face unspeakable injustices.
Together, we as men can follow in their footsteps by being allies and extending a helping hand to get informed about what we can do. That yearning for understanding coupled with an embrace of facts that might be uncomfortable for us to face is exactly what a real man does. A real man fights for the downtrodden; he doesn’t trample. A real man expresses emotion; he doesn’t hide beneath alcohol and anger. A real man is proud of being a man, but he doesn’t demean those who aren’t.
Generation Z has the opportunity to walk away from toxic masculinity and embrace a gentler, friendlier and more Doofenshmirtz-ian form of manhood. That is our greatest challenge — and my most ardent hope.
Keith Johnstone can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.