Conflicting Masculinities and Science Fiction
Expanding the Possibilities of Manhood: Competing Masculinities in The Expanse
Originally produced by the SyFy channel but picked up in its second season by Amazon Prime Video, The Expanse is a hard SF TV show. It is based on a series of books by James S.A. Corey and Ty Franck, and imagines a possible future of space exploitation that contrasts with the utopian leanings of a softer SF show like Star Trek. As a hard SF narrative, the show is presented as realistically as possible with the only novum—that part of a SF story that departs from current history—being the colonization of the entire solar system and extraction of its resources for Earth and Mars. This is made possible via a super-efficient spaceship thrust technology discovered by accident. The contract the genre of hard SF makes with its audience requires that any future technology presented be based on real science and engineering as we know it presently. For example, the show has no artificial gravity or faster-than-light travel. This mode of realism changes when scientists discover an extra-solar substance on Saturn’s moon, Phoebe, which they dub the “protomolecule.” The protomolecule seems capable of defying the known laws of physics and becoming anything, hijacking organic material like human bodies in the process. This toxic molecule is not the only danger in the show; rather, its danger primarily lies in the ambitions of men who want to use it in their own personal quests to consolidate power over the solar system.
The Expanse follow a primary storyline of a ship crew working around the asteroid belt and outer planets who find themselves caught up in a clandestine struggle for control over the protomolecule. This is supplemented by an intrigue-based plot concerning the solar politics of the Earth’s governing body, The United Nations, and the Martian governing council, factions always on the brink of war. The asteroid belt and outer planets become a contested space in this struggle, which can be usefully seen as an analogue of Afghanistan, casting the Belters as third-world workers and victims used by both major powers, who label the Belter liberation army, the Outer Planet Alliance (OPA), a terrorist organization. These liberationists do indeed resort to guerilla and terrorist tactics, as these are their only available strategies of resistance without a fleet of warships of their own.  The show is explicitly about power.
All of this political violence, both state-sanctioned and otherwise, is examined in the show through a network of competing masculinities, with some being shown as “healthier” than others. This ordering of gender performance does not “exalt one conception of masculinity above others” but rather devalues other masculinities as not suitable for “real men” (Griffin 377). Ultimately, the space of this show’s narrative is dominated by military masculinity, a form of manhood usually centered around the warrior archetype, but often in the practice of state violence depicted as a peacekeeper who only uses force when necessary to be a “helpful hero” (Wegner 8). This military masculinity is shown to be necessary for the governance of the system, much like the ways that “political elites wield military gendered ideal types to justify the use of violence internationally” in the real world (Wegner 6). The Expanse foregrounds this model of manhood, problematizing it while simultaneously showing its utility to those in power. The show troubles and questions what acts are morally justified by “helpful heroes.”
This article examines two of the characters’ performances in the show as case studies problematizing masculine hegemony: James Holden (Steven Strait) and Amos Burton (Wes Chatham). The show continually reminds viewers how vulnerable all of the people are, both physically, due to the dangers of vacuum and high-gravity maneuvers through a war zone, and emotionally, via caring about the welfare of others.
Helpful Heroes and Hegemony
The concept of hegemonic masculinity describes the historically situated naturalization of patriarchal power, a system that dominates women and those masculine models that do not fit the currently accepted model through “subordination, complicity [with the hegemonic ideal] and marginalization” (Griffin 379). Nicole Wegner argues that the trope of the helpful hero, the current hegemonic model of military masculinity, obfuscates the use of violence by employing signs of helpfulness (7). This model lives in an “ongoing social construction of masculinity in the military that defines the ‘ideal soldier,’ an archetype that reflects the perceived gendered identity of the nation/state” (Wegner 7). Thus, this masculine ideal is established as hegemonic for a nation. The ideal soldier has varied over time and place, but always takes the role of performing state violence and making it lawful. “Characteristics of strength, toughness, rationality, and aggression have been historically associated with militarized masculinity” (Wegner 8). Thus, thinking of a soldier as a “peacekeeper” is problematic in this regard because it is contradictory. The helpful hero archetype not only obscures the negative aspects of violence; it makes the application of force for power seem good for those it is being used against, and as a hegemonic ideal it defines a “real” man.
Hegemony itself is a complex topic. Raymond Williams observes that it “supposes the existence of something which is truly total, which is not merely secondary or superstructural […] but which is lived at such a depth, which saturates the society to such an extent […] that it corresponds to the reality of social experience” (1428). Hegemonic masculinity, first suggested by R.W. Connell almost 40 year ago, not only posits what a “real man” looks like, but also, crucially, naturalizes patriarchal power (Griffin 379). Challenging hegemony challenges social reality as such, but only within the “communication communities” that circulate the hegemonic discourse, the habitus of a certain milieu, like the military (Griffin 385). This is how hegemonic masculinity varies by class, race, region, and sexuality. It defines a set of structured dispositions available to certain privileged men, and, due to the vicissitudes and contradictions of actual existence, meeting its standards is impossible for most others (Griffin 393).
Since before SF was what we would call “science fiction,” beginning with Lost World novels in the 19th-century as documented by John Rieder in Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction (2008), it has been a masculine melodrama. This melodrama often occurs in a military context, to the point that we now have a sub-genre of “military sf.” As the last century progressed and feminism made strides—especially during the 1970s with its wave of feminist science fiction—more SF work was published by women about women, but also crucially about men.  Even though at first glance it appears to be just a spectacular CGI-infused SF show that celebrates the manhood on display, The Expanse enters the discussion of manhood initiated by feminist authors such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Marge Piercy in the last century and works against the naturalization of patriarchal dominance by making it strange and obvious.
James Holden, the Quixotic Hero
We first see James Holden (Steven Strait) in the nude, displaying a muscular, largely hairless torso. Concurrent dialogue with his girlfriend establishes him as a sensitive company man who refuses leadership because he does not want the responsibility. We later learn he is an ex-navy officer who had moral apprehensions about his job in the military, setting him up in opposition to military masculinity, and his later alliance with the Belters positions his individual manhood as being subordinate to the military of Mars and Earth. He cannot help responding when he hears the recorded voice of Julie Mao in a distress beacon, and this need to respond to another in need leads to the destruction of his ship, the Canterbury, and all of his coworkers except those with him on the rescue mission. These survivors become his new family, placing him in the role of reluctant captain/patriarch.
As a helpful hero, Holden contrasts with the warrior masculinity of other soldiers and characters in the show. At first, he just wants revenge for his lost shipmates, but soon he is trying to save every human being alive against the threat of the protomolecule. In the seventh episode of season one, we meet his mother and learn that he was raised on a commune, composed of the genetic mix of all the adults there. He is not the typical son. His birth was a ploy to help them save their land, and he left because he failed to be their savior, but he never leaves behind the urge to save others. He was raised to speak truth to power and say “no” when morality dictates, and he acts as a moral center for the show’s narrative. This impulse, however, rests on his entitlement as helpful hero and white Earth man.
Holden is narratively linked to Don Quixote through the naming of their ship, the Rocinante (Quixote’s horse), and his need to fight giants and take on lost causes. He is challenged in this role by Amos in episode seven as they repair the ship. In contrast to Holden, Amos is pragmatic about death and violence, only resorting to it to protect himself or others, but willing to use lethal force when necessary. He calls their predicament “the churn,” a time “when the rules of the game change.” This could be taken as a reference to gender politics in our current society. The discourse over pronouns, the inclusion of non-binary genders, and media attention to “toxic masculinity” are a few examples of this. Much of the ire that the debate over gender engenders in our society comes from how queering gender challenges the old rules. When Holden asks him what the game is, he simply replies, “The only game, survival.” Holden later tells Naomi, “Whatever leash you had him on, get him back on it,” as if his “toxic masculinity” needs to be contained. Naomi, who usually functions as a figurehead for stating important truths in the show, reminds him that Amos is not her dog.
In addition to performing the helpful hero role, Holden performs “other guy” masculinity. The other guy is the hegemonic masculine model for a liberal discourse community. Derrick Burrill notes that “hegemonic masculinity” is a negotiation between “power and powerlessness” in the gender order (32). In this power game, the “other guy” maintains power through being helpful and available. Burrill explains, “Other guys are always trying to be real. Real with their feelings, real with their actions” (37). They are “keenly aware of their relationship to power edifices large and complex, including how they remain interwoven with ideologies of traditional masculinity” (Burrill 38). The other guy is at-odds with warrior “alpha males” as well as father figures, vying for hegemonic status instead (Burrill 38). But he is also “at-odds with his own at-odds-ness even though his anxieties and desires are still front and center” (Burrill 92). He is an ironic answer to patriarchal power. Holden gets by with help from his friends and is not afraid to ask for help, but he is always calling the shots. In episode six of the second season, he says, “We’re all in this together, otherwise we’re all lost.” This solidarity is something that Amos values in him and which Amos tries to emulate.
Holden and another character, Miller, compete when they first meet because Holden’s idealism clashes with Miller’s cynicism, and they argue the merits of justice versus revenge. As the second season begins, we see Holden helping Naomi fix things. He keeps trying to fix things in a larger metaphorical sense throughout the narrative. He also has moments of rage, like in episode three of the second season when he nearly kills Miller, whose life is only saved when Amos is physically restrained. He often, instead of fixing things, makes them worse. Amos, on the other hand, tries to fix himself. In this regard, Amos concerns himself with becoming more fully human by becoming more humane while Holden acts as savior in an inhumane world.
Amos Burton, the Recovering Sociopath
Violence permeates Amos’s performance of manhood, as this was his learned survival practice. He displays his large, muscular, tattooed arms most of the time, as a warning and threat, but does not go around trying to dominate people. We first meet him as the sidekick of ship engineer Naomi Nagata (Dominique Tipper). As they fight for their survival in the show’s second episode after their ship is destroyed and they must salvage another, he follows her orders. He later follows Holden’s directives as well. We soon learn that he has poor impulse control and has difficulty making moral choices, relying on Naomi and others to do this for him. He is aware of his sociopathic tendencies and looks at her with affection, which is unlike how he gazes at others, sizing them up as possible threats. After she loses his confidence by lying to him, he finds similar solace in his friend “Peaches” (aka Clarissa Mao, played by Nadine Nicole). Fred Johnson (Chad L. Coleman) calls him “quick to trigger, slow on the uptake” like he is only a brute. But the more we learn about him, the more complex Amos becomes.
He was not born this way. In episode six, we learn that he is a former prostitute, a position he describes as an “honest living, more honest than most.” His mother was similarly employed, and he grew up on the streets of Baltimore, which is even worse off in the future than it is currently. This is where he learned to wear his character’s metaphorical armor, as both his “hard” body and rigid personality, for protection and in order to fight and kill to survive. Amos also helps Naomi fix things, even volunteering to repair the ship in the second episode of season two when it places his life in danger, but his relationship with her demonstrates his goal of fixing himself with her help. He wants to be a “good man.” In season five, episode two, we see a flashback to his childhood and his first mentor, a woman named Lydia (Stacey Roca), explaining, “When someone hurts you, it is easy to hurt them back. It takes strength to not.” She leads him in his process of trying to be a better person by caring about and for others, and the episode demonstrates this effect by showing him risk his life to save Lydia’s widower from being thrown out of his home, someone Amos never met before.
While the crew are recovering on Tycho station, he sees a doctor about magnetic treatment that might reverse his sociopathy, but finds that it only works the other way, making scientists sociopaths so they act as better scientists. The process is irreversible. Amos is able to use this to his advantage when he interrogates one of these altered scientists, identifying with his instrumental reasoning and lack of empathy or remorse. He explains to another character, Alex, in episode six of season two that “there’s only three kinds of people: bad people, those you follow, those you protect” but his attempts to make moral choices on his own indicates that he wants to be a fourth kind, someone who protects those who need it, like Holden.
The rhetoric of disease and health employed in discourses of toxic masculinity posits manhood as an illness men have, positioning them as victims contaminated by testosterone rather than moral agents (Waling 368). “Masculinity is reified as the cause rather than the product of social relations,” obfuscating and naturalizing it (Waling 368). It also tends to reduce intersectional differences down to an essential masculinity practiced by all. It also disregards masculine behaviors that are helpful, like the times when it is necessary to put emotions aside to act in dire situations. It erases the historical causes of masculine crisis while also allowing men to blame their behavior on an abstract cause. Such rhetoric still devalues women. If being vulnerable and emotional are considered “healthy” then men could be encouraged to be more feminine, valuing femininity as a social good, rather than enclosing these traits as masculine.
When Ceres Station has a refugee crisis after the war begins on Ganymede, Alex is shown cheering up kids, but Amos just hands out rations, repeating “one each!” In an altercation, he meets a dirty refugee boy that reminds him of himself as a child; the scene is shown in slow motion with music rising above the sound effects. He looks around and we see POV shots of the rest of the crew smiling and laughing. He walks away not smiling at all. Later, he tells the sociopathic scientist that the “boy looked at me like I was a monster.” The scientist tells him, “Love gets in the way of progress,” but the look in Amos’s eyes indicates that he needs love like every human and has no wish to be a monster. The scientist tells him, “You want to be that real boy again,” but Amos says he cauterized that part of himself after the world broke him. He has no idea how many people he has killed to stay alive, but he explains to Miller in episode ten of season two, “I’m not a homicidal maniac.” He simply believes that “some people deserve to be punished” if they dominate others.
Season three shows Amos trying to be better without Naomi’s help. He works with a botanist who has joined the crew, learning gardening and nurturing nature. The botanist becomes his new best friend. In the second episode of the season, he risks his life to save him and encourages him to keep searching for his lost daughter. This search for the girl is a major plot line in the season, and Amos becomes invested in it because there is a parallel drawn between her and him. She is being held by another sociopathic scientist who is developing a human hybrid with the protomolecule as a tool of war. Amos wants to save her from being changed into a dangerous weapon, the way his childhood already did to him.
This personal odyssey changes him, allowing him to adopt more healthy behavior, but he does not accomplish this through self-control. He accomplishes this goal via help from others like Naomi, the botanist, and Peaches. Through his gradual transformation over the course of several seasons, the show demonstrates how a man performing warrior masculinity can become something else by confronting his behavior, owning its consequences, and seeking help. That being said, the show struggles to pass Burrill’s masculine “Bechdel Test,” which borrows from Bechdel’s model for testing the feminist message of a film. Burrill’s masculine “Bechdel Test,” by contrast, posits that a film cannot be considered feminist in its depiction of men if it does not meet these criteria:
- It must have at least one positive male role
- That communicates without ever resorting to violence
- In a way that promotes gender and sexual parity. (145)
The only characters who meet this are ancillary men who either die, like Avasarala’s husband, or disappear from the show after the story arc of their crisis of fatherhood ends, like the botanist and a Belter father in season four. Amos tries to be better, and the show demonstrates his struggle to do this, which is a step in the right direction as it problematizes hegemonic masculinities and the gender order they maintain. In contrast to Holden as an ideal masculinity, Amos displays the nuance of what it might mean to confront masculine performance as a personal and political problem instead of as an answer to humanity’s problems.
 See Elizabeth Pearson’s article, “Extremism and Toxic Masculinity: The Man Question Re-posed” in International Affairs 95:6 (2019) pp. 1251-1270 for more on this subject as it regards manhood.
 See Alternative Masculinities in Feminist Speculative Fiction: A New Man (2021), by Michael Pitts for details.
Burrill, Derek. The Other Guy: Media Masculinity Within the Margins. Peter Lang, 2014.
The Expanse. Amazon Prime, 2015-2021.
Griffin, Ben. “Hegemonic Masculinity as a Historical Problem.” Gender and History, vol. 30, no. 2, July 2018, pp. 377-400.
Rieder, John. Colonialism and the Emergence of Science Fiction. Wesleyan UP, 2008.
Waling, Andrea. “Problematizing ‘Toxic’ and ‘Healthy’ Masculinity for Addressing Gender Inequalities.” Australian Feminist Studies, vol. 34, no. 101, 2019, pp. 362-375.
Wegner, Nicole. “Helpful Heroes and the Political Utility of Militarized Masculinities.” International Feminist Journal of Politics,vol. 23, no. 1, 2021, pp. 5-26.
Williams, Raymond. “Base and Superstructure in Marxist Cultural Theory.” The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism Second Edition,edited by Vincent B. Leitch, WW Norton & Co., 2010, pp. 1423-1436.