Big Hero 6 and the Deconstruction of Toxic Masculinity

“Toxic masculinity is one of the ways in which Patriarchy is harmful to men. It is the socially-constructed attitudes that describe the masculine gender role as violent, unemotional, sexually aggressive, and so forth.”

Big Hero 6 is my fave film of all time. I have no qualms saying that. And one of the many reasons why it is so dear to my heart is because of the way it portrays (and deconstructs) toxic masculinity.

When the film begins, Hiro is shown to be a conning bot fighter, enjoying destroying things and earning money through dubious means. He fights against Yama, who is very aggressive, mean, rude, and has no qualms on letting a fourteen year old get beaten up. Hiro is saved by Tadashi, who is seen as pure, noble, good, and more androgynous than masculine. Tadashi is seen as very important to Hiro’s life, and he’s gentle, kind, caring, friendly, and wants the best out of others, and isn’t aggressive or violent in any way. He is the one who leads Hiro away from bot fighting to the San Fransokyo Institute of Technology, where he meets Honey Lemon and Gogo, two women excelling in traditionally male-dominated fields, and Wasabi and Fred. Wasabi breaks away from the stereotype of being the angry, aggressive, brute black man, and Fred, while a little aloof, is very sweet, encouraging others (despite their race and gender) to get into comics and wants to help out however we can.

It’s there that Hiro also is first acquainted with Baymax, who, despite being male coded, is the complete opposite of a traditional man. He is completely nonviolent, only fighting to defend others, puts other needs over himself, is taken seriously as a nurse, and is extremely loving. Hiro is impressed, but not totally taken in by the robot yet. He is more enthralled with Professor Callaghan, who further encourages him to come to the school.

Hiro eventually does get accepted, but tragedy strikes. Without Tadashi, Hiro’s wellbeing takes a turn for the worse. He doesn’t eat or get enough sunshine or leave his room, but most of all, he doesn’t seek help or allow his friends or his aunt (who’s a single woman and a successful business woman who still takes the time to reach out to Hiro and deal with her grief in her own way). It’s pretty common for men (both fictional men and real men) to not seek help when it’s needed and try to deal with it in their own way; Hiro was at first going to give up going to the school and go back to bot fighting. When Baymax reactivates, Hiro tries to push him away, but they’re brought together in pursuit of a microbot. After a long day of dangerous events, Hiro eventually lets Baymax close to him. They hug it out.

However, Hiro isn’t quite alright just yet. He decides to pursue revenge. He upgrades Baymax and almost takes out his healthcare chip to make him a complete fighter, but stops when he thinks that maybe this isn’t what Tadashi wanted. He becomes overconfident in Baymax’s abilities, thinking the robot can handle the villain on his own (he can’t) and at first refuses further help from his friends.

Later, after nearly dying, Hiro does let his friends in. He decides that they should all be superheroes. It’s when he tests out Baymax’s new armour that he really and truly lets Baymax in and realizes how much the robot can help him and how special he is.

When they confront the villain, Hiro is shocked to learn that it’s Professor Callaghan who is responsible for Tadashi’s death (going as far as to claim that Tadashi’s death was his own mistake) and nearly responsible for their own deaths. He decides to have Callaghan killed, but fails.

Enraged, Hiro leaves his friends behind, tries to have a stiff upper lip, and is ready to remove Baymax’s healthcare chip for good, but is stopped. After Baymax gently tells Hiro that this isn’t what Tadashi wanted, Hiro finally breaks down. That is when he is shown Tadashi again, and how he would not have wanted needless violence and revenge. Hiro internalizes this message, apologies, takes responsibility for his actions, and allows his friends back in his life, while also learning it is okay to cry.

This is really important because it’s common to tell boys that, to be ‘men’, they can’t cry, they have to deal with their problems on their own, and acting aggressively is encouraged. Hiro learns that none of that is true. He learns that he needs to use his abilities for good, not to enact revenge, but to protect and help others, the way his brother would’ve wanted. He learns to properly express himself when he’s sad, to let others comfort him, and to let others in his life. He also learns to deal with his enemies in a nonviolent way, and even goes as far as to help others who are complete strangers to him (but are related to the enemy) because it’s the right thing to do (but not by himself).

This is further contrasted with Professor Callaghan, another man dealing with grief, but unlike Hiro, completely refuses to get help for it or let out his anger and sadness (though he displays anger more than sadness; we never see him really cry or look upset, just bitter) in a healthy way. He hurts others, destroys property, and spreads terror in the name of avenging his daughter (who he either genuinely loved or only cared about how much she meant to him)…only to realize that it was all wrong, when his daughter turns out to be alive (he could have used the portal and the microbots to retrieve her first; he just assumed she was dead and the best course of action was to kill Krei), and is sent to jail. He seems to realize the gravity of this situation. If he had not acted so recklessly and aggressively, none of the damage he caused would have happened, and now he has to pay for it.

This movie is very important for many reasons, but this is one of them. It takes what it means to be a traditional manly, macho man and the tropes on how real men seek revenge and don’t cry and totally deconstructs it. (The fact that Hiro is a young boy of colour and Callaghan is an older white man adds a lot of dimension to it as well.) If you are someone who takes care of boys, I strongly recommend you show this movie to them. It could probably give them some much needed help in how to healthily deal with their emotions and relationships with others.

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Author: Laura Alexander

My name is Laura, I use they/them pronouns, and I'm a college student with Asperger's currently enrolled at the Social Service Worker Program at Sheridan College. I have a passion for film and animation, social issues, and helping others, all of which will be featured on The Flying Red Robot blog. Please read the about page before commenting or following. "Big Hero 6" is my favourite movie.